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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 8040


Senator RONALDSON (Victoria) (19:01): I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

Senators will be aware that I have previously raised the AEC's investigation into Craig Thomson, the Health Services Union and Coastal Voice. As tempting as it, I will temper my comments about the AEC's handling of the Coastal Voice matter mainly out of long-held respect for the officer involved. The AEC failed in the first step of determining whether Coastal Voice was in fact an associated entity when it concluded that Coastal Voice no longer existed. Paul Pirani, the AEC's chief legal officer, as good as acknowledged that the AEC's investigation of Coastal Voice was error ridden in Senate estimates on 18 October this year when I spoke to him. This is on page 18 of the Hansardfor that day:

Senator RONALDSON: I presume you are now happy to admit that you were wrong in relation to your previous comments about Coastal Voice: that it no longer existed and other comments such as the fact that it was merely a business name.

Mr Pirani : I accept that I was incorrect in relation to saying that it wasn't an entity. I accept that the evidence from New South Wales Fair Trading, in relation to its registration under their legislation, establishes that it is an entity.

Missing that Coastal Voice still existed was not the AEC's only error in this investigation. Other points they missed were that each founding member of Coastal Voice was also a member of the Labor Party, that Coastal Voice had a website with its domain registered at the Health Services Union, that Coastal Voice and its publications were selectively critical of the Howard government and that Coastal Voice received all of its funding, every single dollar, from the HSU. This was confirmed by Criselee Stevens to an investigation by Fair Trading New South Wales, uncovered by the Hon. Peter Phelps in the New South Wales budget estimates. I will come back to that if I get a chance.

Coastal Voice still exists but is clearly now defunct and will be wound up by Fair Trading New South Wales by the end of the month. It has no assets and no bank accounts. It never had a bank account. Why would it need it when it had Craig Thomson with his never-ending money tree growing out of the back of the HSU's national office? It was a money tree that was watered by the membership subscriptions of some of the hardest working and most valuable but low-income workers in this country—people who clean hospitals for a living. The Prime Minister took her share when federal Labor accepted a $79,000 in-kind donation from the HSU. This donation enabled the Prime Minister to run a national campaign at plush, refurbished offices in central Sydney.

Former Labor Party national president Michael Williamson, labelled 'Mr Millions' by the Sydney Morning Herald, also took his share. He, together with Craig Thomson, allegedly accepted a secret commission in the form of a credit card from a company which produced the HSU's newsletters. These allegations are currently being investigated by the New South Wales Police Force while Victoria Police are investigating Craig Thomson's alleged misuse of his union credit card. Fair Work is also looking into Mr Thomson's exploitation of the HSU money tree and is due to finish its investigation by the end of this year.

In these circumstances, if discrepancies of several million dollars appeared on the HSU's financial returns, then there is clearly an obligation on the AEC to investigate. In the HSU's 2009-10 return, this was exactly what happened. On 19 October 2010, HSU East lodged an associated entity disclosure return with the AEC for the financial year 2009-10. The return disclosed that HSU East had received no income for that financial year, had outgoings of $22,000 and debts of $17 million. Then in three separate amendments submitted by HSU East between 30 August 2011 and 1 September 2011 HSU amended these figures. Outgoings went from $22,000 to $16 million and then finally settled at $25 million. Incomings went from nil to $18 million and then to $25 million. While in the returns HSU East had particularised how it calculated its debts of $17 million as incomings of $25 million, no explanation was provided in the returns as to how the HSU had calculated its payments of $25 million for the financial year of 2009-10.

It is now incumbent upon the AEC, in my view, to use its powers to compel the HSU to provide evidence which substantiates where it actually spent that $25 million in 2010. This is a reasonable request. We are not talking small figures. We know already that members of the HSU are trying to get their subscriptions refunded, and I now urge the AEC to conduct a full audit. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.