In the 1980s classic Ghostbusters, Ray Parker Jr’s theme music gave rise to an enduring catchcry: Who you gonna call? It must be reassuring for the members of the Health Services Union to know, during this time of despair and desperation, they can call on the union’s ombudsman to sort out the mess. Not all trade unions have ombudsmen at their disposal, independent figures of integrity who can arbitrate disputes and guard against the improper use of members’ funds. But clearly, the HSU is one of the lucky ones.
When its boss, Michael Williamson, was thinking about the appointment of an ombudsman, he must have been humming to himself:
When there’s something weird
And it don’t look good
Who you gonna call?
The answer was Leo McLeay. That’s right, buried in the squalid intrigue of the HSU scandal is the little-known fact that Leo, the renowned trick cyclist and doyen of the NSW Right, was installed as the union’s ombudsman. So when there’s something strange in Sussex Street, who you gonna call? Leaping Leo, of course.
This says more about the management of the HSU than any number of audit reports and police investigations. Williamson saw the union as a personal fiefdom, so much so that he could make one of his close friends and factional allies its ombudsman. In another act of family preferment, he also gave Leo’s son, Mark, a job at the HSU. They ain’t afraid of no nepotism.
One of the mesmerising characters in The Latham Diaries was the Catman, Craig Emerson. Emmo is now Labor’s most diligent defender of Julia Gillard’s leadership, offering his Richard Burton-style presence to any media outlet which will have him. Like Craig Thomson, however, he is delusional about the HSU.
Emerson’s mantra has been that Thommo is ‘entitled to the presumption of innocence’ against claims of misusing HSU funds to pay for prostitutes. The Catman must have believed the ‘magic bullet’ defence: that someone stole Thomson’s credit card, driver’s licence and mobile phone, rang a Sydney bordello, put its services on the card, offered the licence as proof of identity and then returned the stolen goods to their owner.
Now, thankfully, this silly charade can end. The Fair Work Australia report confirms Thomson’s wholesale rorting of HSU entitlements, including the payment of prostitutes. Emerson, Gillard and the other Labor apologists for this scandal should now apologise where it matters most: to the members of the HSU, the hospital staff and aged care workers who have had to endure the Thomson nightmare.
The corruption of the HSU is a landmark moment in Australian labour relations. In the past, activities of this kind have been associated with left-wing ratbags like the Painters and Dockers and BLF. This is the first time the corruption of right-wing unions, the so-called ‘sensible ones’, has been publicly exposed. Other investigations are likely to follow. After all, Thomson was not the only right-wing union official with an open-ended credit card.
Some Left academics have had trouble comprehending the seriousness of the scandal. Writing on 3 May, the Monash lecturer Nick Dyrenfurth revealed himself to be oxymoronic, claiming in the space of two sentences that:
A knee-jerk severing of (Labor’s) union ties would be an act of folly. The ALP’s historic partnership with unions has long proved problematic.
If the relationship is so problematic then why persevere with it, especially given the damning HSU revelations? Dyrenfurth remains unconcerned by the antics of Williamson and Thomson, rationalising the role of union bosses
as ‘organisational muscle’. This is a long-running problem with the Left: putting dogma (the sacred cow of Labor-affiliated unions) ahead of practical outcomes (the damage being caused by trade union corruption).
The main function of unions within the ALP is to provide numbers and resources to factional groupings. In their role as factional powerbrokers, Williamson and Thomson became supremely arrogant, assuming the funds contributed by HSU members were actually theirs. In this and many other cases, Labor factionalism has been poisonous for the union movement — proof of why it should disaffiliate from the ALP. Union officials could then pioneer a new work agenda: concentrating on the needs of their members instead of spending most of their time on factional power-plays inside the Labor party.
So too, Labor cannot prosper electorally, matching the aspirations of Australia’s vast, upwardly mobile middle class, while it remains shackled to union officials doubling as factional bosses. For evidence, look no further than Dyrenfurth’s words:
In 1948, 65 per cent of a largely blue-collar workforce was unionised. Today, that figure is less than 20 per cent. Affiliated unions still supply much of Labor’s financial support, and wield 50 per cent of conference floor votes, yet largely hail from an ever-dwindling ‘old economy’. Thus unionist influence over Labor has appeared ever more incongruous.
For two decades I have been arguing with the Left about excessive union influence. Why couldn’t they have wheeled out Dyrenfurth earlier? He has made the case for
me — the Monash gift that keeps on giving.