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A tale of greed, intrigue and back-stabbing - Brad Norrington on writing about the HSU scandal -

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ELEANOR HALL: It was a tale of greed, intrigue and backstabbing that almost brought down a Labor government.

Now an exploration of the multi-million dollar fraud by several leaders of the Health Services Union exposes the staggering extent of the misuse of union dues paid by some of the country's poorest workers - and the deceit by one central character who claimed to be a corruption whistleblower.

"Planet Jackson: Power Greed and Unions" focuses on Kathy Jackson, whose testimony against former union boss Michael Williamson saw him sentenced to seven and a half years jail. She also claimed to be responsible for leaking documents that led to the findings against former Labor MP, Craig Thompson.

Then she faced her own fraud trial.

The News Limited journalist and author of Planet Jackson, Brad Norrrington, joined me earlier to discuss his book.

Brad Norrington thanks for coming into the studio.

BRAD NORRINGTON: Thanks Eleanor.

ELEANOR HALL: The public court cases into these three HSU (Health Services Union) leaders reveal that they misappropriated millions of dollars from the Health Services Union. But you suggest that's only a fraction of the actual amount.

How much money do you estimate was spent on activities unrelated to helping health workers who were paying for the services of this union?

BRAD NORRINGTON: Eleanor, I think ultimately it's intangible. It's such a vast amount of money. In the case for instance of the person for whom Kathy Jackson was given credit, rightly so, for exposing corruption - that's Michael Williamson - I think a clue is that the police initially charged him with 50 counts of fraud.

And, as a plea bargain type deal, he pleaded guilty to four, and in dollar terms that amounted to a million dollars.

The police admitted that that was a fraction of the total.

ELEANOR HALL: Well, he paid back quite a lot to the union didn't he?

BRAD NORRINGTON: Well, yes and no. He made a settlement with the union agreeing that he owed the union $5 million. That included, by the way vast pay rises he handed himself. His salary was $500,000, plus about an extra $200,000 in board seats.

And how perverse is that? Representing the lowest paid workers in Australia; cleaners, orderlies, clerks in hospitals.

But the thing is he declared himself bankrupt, and so not a cent of that money will be paid back.

ELEANOR HALL: It's interesting too because what we're talking about here with these millions of dollars is misappropriated funds, but through your book you also talk about money that was essentially wasted on things like court cases.

There's one instance where Kathy Jackson's husband begins a series of court cases and I think you suggest it's around half a million dollars of union money that's spent on these court cases.

BRAD NORRINGTON: It's quite incredible when you think of the vast amounts of money that were used to basically pursue internal, often petty, squabbles within the Health Services Union.

And this all relates to, you know, the central characters of the story; Kathy Jackson, her former husband Jeff Jackson, her then ally Michael Williamson, and you'll remember the further character in this story is Craig Thompson, who wouldn't have been so important in the story except for the fact that his one vote ended up propping up the Gillard government.

Yes, I detail that between $300,000 and $500,000 was used at one point in actually trying to gain control of a moderately sized branch of the Victorian Health Services Union. And the broader background to that is that it was all about a ploy to build numbers in Health Services Union that could be delivered to the right wing of the Labor Party.

And at that point they were all very chummy with Bill Shorten, who was the head of another union, and it was a part of a wider power play to gain control in the Victorian ALP (Australian Labor Party).

ELEANOR HALL: Well looking specifically at Kathy Jackson, who of course has painted herself as the whistleblower who exposed much of this corruption, how much of her claim to be acting in the interests of union members turns out to be true?

BRAD NORRINGTON: Possibly nothing. Possibly nothing at all. And it's very sad actually because as I detail in the book, she really blew the whistle on Michael Williamson's corruption very late in the piece as a cover for her own corruption.

She did it really as part of an evolving to mount a backdoor takeover of the union. There is evidence that she did it to move on Michael Williamson before he moved on her, which wouldn't be surprising given the sort of ruthless nature of politics within that organisation.

ELEANOR HALL: And also she claimed to be the whistleblower in the case of the former HSU leader and former Labor MP Craig Thompson.

BRAD NORRINGTON: Yes.

ELEANOR HALL: You found that she wasn't?

BRAD NORRINGTON: She wasn't at all. She claimed credit for it because it establishes her credentials as a whistleblower early on. It, if you like, helped construct the myth that she was a corruption crusader from the start. In fact, she wasn't.

She cooperated with Williamson around the time the Thompson allegations were first revealed to bury those allegations by doing two key things.

She backed Michael Williamson in the union to halt an exit audit, and secondly she backed Michael Williamson to try to retrospectively approve all of Craig Thompson's expenses. Not some of them. All of them.

Now those two moves failed, but that just shows you, you know, the efforts to stifle any kind of internal scrutiny and accountability in the union.

They wanted to bury the allegations against Thompson, and she only later in 2011 reported Thompson to the police, and claimed credit for it, but in fact she was only acting on behalf of the national executive which took a unanimous vote. Within days of that, she turned on Williamson too.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, you write that Michael Williamson enjoyed being treated like a god. What did you conclude about Kathy Jackson? I mean, what motivated her? Was she the same?

BRAD NORRINGTON: Well, we can say at this point that she stole $1.4 million. That's indisputable because there is a Federal Court decision against her. She's still free of course. There is a major police investigation underway.

She has always been a wild person. I think the best way to put it is that people like Kathy Jackson, Michael Williamson and others have used their association with Health Services Union to feather their own nests, to pursue their own interests.

They've put themselves at so many times first, ahead of the low paid workers they have represented.

ELEANOR HALL: Did you find any redeeming qualities in any of these players?

BRAD NORRINGTON: Oh look, superficially some of them are very charming people. One might often say that about con people. They can be very persuasive. And I first met Kathy Jackson for instance in the late ‘90s, and she has a very engaging personality.

ELEANOR HALL: But in terms of real character, you don't really see anything redeeming in any of them?

BRAD NORRINGTON: No, and I suppose as an author that's where you know you don't want to take yourself too much on the dark side.

ELEANOR HALL: The Craig Thompson case of course plagued the Gillard government. To what extent is this story, do you think, still likely to damage the Labor Party?

BRAD NORRINGTON: The Labor party I think has moved on. Naturally the Labor Party would want to put this in the past, wouldn't they? And the Health Services Union has been punished in the sense that it was really shunned. It was expelled from the ACTU.

The difficulty for the Labor Party is that the culture of this story runs deep, and it runs right into the heart of the Labor Party as it stands now. Kathy Jackson and Bill Shorten were very close friends. They dealt in the money and power and social scene. It was very intoxicating.

I don't think that you would see the kind of corruption we have seen in Health Services Union in other unions, but the fact is that some of the key players that we see in politics now; Bill Shorten, David Feeney and others, are and have been immersed in that heavy politicking numbers game, money, advancing your career, using your base as a stepping stone to get where you want.

And I think the Labor Party has to think very carefully about where it goes, and what sort of association it wants to have with the trade union movement.

ELEANOR HALL: You call your book "a morality tale of modern politics". What would you like our politicians to learn? What is the moral of your story?

BRAD NORRINGTON: Serve the people. And that might sound idealistic, but we've just had an election. Look at the result. Obviously people very much are dissatisfied.

People have lost trust in many ways, and so I think there is some value to a book like this, putting it all out there that actually you can, people in those positions should look at their behaviour and they should realise that they are there to serve their members. And in the case of our politicians, they're not there to just feather their own nests.

ELEANOR HALL: Brad Norrington thanks so much for coming in.

That’s Brad Norrington talking to me about his book "Planet Jackson: Power, Greed and Unions" which has just been released. And if you’re keen to hear more about this at times bizarre saga, you can listen to Brad Norrington’s full interview on our website later today.