21 May 2012

Under investigation

For five years now, the press gallery has flogged and flogged the idea that Craig Thomson is a sleazebag who misappropriated union funds, to the point where it really is the only way you can talk about him, or the position of the government generally. Events later today may give the press gallery permission to change the way it looks at and reports on the whole business of what Thomson with HSU resources, and what he may have said or done about those resources to various parties investigating him.

It is an indictment on the entire profession of journalism in this country that the story of the year was broken by a blogger named MadWixxy. To summarise:
  • Tony Abbott, when he was Workplace Relations Minister, appointed a guy called Michael Lawler to what is now Fair Work Australia (FWA), where he attained the position of Vice President (and because it isn't a merchant bank, the position of Vice President is actually a real position) ...
  • Lawler and Abbott get along well, even though ...
  • Lawler's partner is Kathy Jackson, head of the Health Services Union, who succeeded ...
  • Craig Thomson in her current role, where ...
  • Thomson's ally, and Jackson's ex-husband, was also accused (with seemingly solid proof) of having spent union money on what looks like highly self-indulgent expenses (prostitutes, meals etc.), but unlike Thomson he isn't an MP in a hung parliament so nothing has come of it ...
None of that makes Thomson more pure than the pure. It doesn't explain why Thomson may not have regarded FWA as the fair umpire it is meant to be under law (a law that he, as a legislator, helped shape and enact). Nor does it necessarily explain why Lawler's organisation took three years to investigate Jackson's union. It is, however, worth more investigation than it has received so far.

In 2009, Thomson sued Fairfax after it raised allegations about his behaviour with union money. Fairfax has since settled with Thomson, yet it has not shared with us the reasons why it did so. Thomson appears done for no matter what he does. He may as well tell the truth and let such legal action come what may, but he'll probably pull his punches and die wondering.

To get an idea of the conventional wisdom in the press gallery on this, you have to go straight to press gallery drone and Fairfax company-man Phillip Coorey:
In April 2009, Thomson's aspirations went pear-shaped when the Herald received a leak and published the allegations of credit card misuse, cash withdrawals and the use of union funds for electoral purposes.
It's amazing that no reporter who covers industrial issues would have a look into the HSU. That leak could have been an opportunity to explore the whole Jackson-Lawler-Abbott nexus, but they squibbed it.
If Kevin Rudd had inquired about the suitability of preselecting Thomson for the 2010 election, he was assured by the NSW Right there was nothing to be worried about.
If Coorey's experience in the press gallery was worth more than it is, he would have realised that this was the very period when the NSW Labor Right were plotting to get rid of him. As if they would give up one of their own to that prick!
Thomson was preselected again and on February 17, 2010, the local paper, the Central Coast Express Advocate, ran a piece clearing him of all allegations.

The week before, the Australian Electoral Commission had cleared him of breaching the Electoral Act for not disclosing as donations the union money used to fund his campaign. It made the same finding again last week.

... The article concluded, without attribution, with two stunningly incorrect statements.

"Fair Work Australia, which was investigating the union's claim that Mr Thomson misused union money, has also said he was no longer under investigation."

And: "The union branch which made the initial allegations has gone into administration and a new executive has been appointed."
Do I have to do the investigation myself?

The first statement is attributed. It attributes to FWA the fact that he was not under investigation. Who knows what was going on inside FWA at the time? As with the NSW Police declining to investigate the HSU, then launching a highly publicised raid on their offices, it's clear that there is more to the question of an FWA investigation than Coorey will allow.

As to the second: the HSUeast branch, which is the focus of all the attention on this matter, was formed in 2010 from a combination of the union's NSW branch and the Victoria No. 1 branch. So, at the time Thomson gave his interview, he was right in making that statement.

Time for Thomson to ring his lawyers back and pump some more money out of Fairfax.
On August 21, 2010, in defiance of a national trend against Labor, Thomson romped home in Dobell with a swing towards him.

Even though Labor was reduced to minority government, the opposition was still not interested in Thomson. By the end of 2010 and into early 2011, as uncomfortable details were beginning to emerge from the defamation hearing, Tony Abbott was fixated on the carbon tax.

The Liberal frontbencher and Victorian senator Michael Ronaldson pushed the issue and he ramped it up a year ago when Thomson dropped the action against Fairfax.
First of all, Thomson didn't drop the action against Fairfax; they settled, which means that both sides agreed to "drop" it for consideration between themselves and Thomson not revealed to us.

Second, Abbott should be called for playing a double game, attempting to take the high ground over this issue while shunting it off to his party's attack dog for the purposes of deniability.
By August last year, the shadow attorney-general, George Brandis, was warning colleagues to watch their public comments on the matter to avoid prejudicing any potential trial should action be launched.

That, too, is no longer a concern for the opposition. Brandis recently stated Thomson, who has been charged with nothing yet, had committed crimes.
They are that desperate, and they know the press won't call them on it.
He was thinking of contending, as he has in the past, that Kathy Jackson, who succeeded him as the Health Services Union national secretary, destroyed the paperwork that would have accounted for the expenditure by Thomson during his five years at the union's helm.

If he does raise this, Jackson will deny it as she has in the past.
She would say that, wouldn't she. The fact that she says it is the starting point for further investigation, not the end as Coorey would have it. The fact that the Coalition have become unhinged the closer they get to victory is worth examination, and may tell you what they'd be like if they actually got into office.
The opposition's position is already clear. It believes the civil findings of Fair Work Australia are a sufficient basis to drum Thomson out of Parliament, either temporarily or for good, thus bringing the minority government to a premature end.

The independents are not so sure and the constitution most definitely is not.
We come back to the central political question of this Parliament, and again Coorey's judgment bears examination here: how is Abbott going in persuading the independents to get on side? He has no words, because there are no words.
More likely, there will be a censure against Thomson at most, a symbolic but ultimately benign gesture.

For the government, this saga, which could have been avoided years ago, will become a dull ache that will plague it until election day.
After more than fifty failures to suspend standing orders, at what point does that gesture lose its symbolism? At what point do you blame the media for not actively looking into this "saga" and just waiting for various interested parties to drop things into their laps?

Thomson may be able to shift the media narrative onto FWA and the Jackson-Lawler-Abbott thing, but even if you leave the gate open the sheep won't necessarily run out. There is no reason why they should continue to run a five year old story other than sloth and butt-covering on their part. It is possible that a thorough investigation of FWA will increase pressure on the legislation that made it possible: legislation that was the crowning achievement of the current Prime Minister before her ascent to that office, legislation that goes to the core of what this government, and Labor, are about (if they can be said to be about anything at all).

There is more to this story, and of course the fact that Peter Wicks is ahead of people who fancy themselves as professional journalists is cause for the entire profession to rethink the way it works. Wicks has broken the story, give him the Gold Walkley or have it rendered as a sub-Logies joke. The fact that there is so much at stake should increase the pressure to broaden the scope of this story, not decrease it as the stress-bunnies would have it. Thomson may tell Parliament enough to force a reconsideration of his situation, or his words (and silences) may be hammered to fit a pre-existing narrative.
When Thomson rises at midday to give his much-anticipated statement to Parliament, what he says should not matter so much as the reaction he receives.
Indeed it will, and those who do the reacting will be judged accordingly: can Fairfax be trusted to report this issue given that it is a participant? Will there be any follow-up on Heffernan, will Abbott refuse to accept his tainted vote, can a broadsheet newspaper focus on more than one issue ...

38 comments:

  1. Space Kidette21/5/12 7:57 am

    Andrew,

    There is a bit of a disconnect with the line Fairfax are running. They are implying in recent stories that they have information that confirms that Thomson is lying.

    If that is the case why did they agree do drop the case? If you really had the goods on the guy why not run the story and be damned?

    A big newspaper just agreed not to run the story because Thomson was suing and they just agreed to drop the case - not in this lifetime.

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  2. "At what point do you blame the media for not actively looking into this "saga" and just waiting for various interested parties to drop things into their laps?"

    I think we have long passed that point.

    Consider Grattan's article on the weekend, saying that because she found Pyne's email to Ashby to be "cryptic" there's no story there ie until something falls into my lap I'll be jigged if I waste any effort doing my job.

    This from one of Australia's most senior journalists.

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  3. I was just going to ask you your view on the Wixxileaks piece. That it was written five days ago and the MSM still hasn't moved a finger on it is mind-boggling.

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  4. Fairfax announced they are happy to have the terms of the defamation case revealed:

    http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/political-news/thomson-told-to-fix-record-on-defamation-20120520-1yz35.html

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  5. The Jackson/Lawler connection stinks to high heaven, I wish journalists with a few resources behind them would start digging into that instead of just endlessly repeating their attacks on Thompson. If nothing else it'd give them a new person to hound for a few years, surely reason enough for our modern crop of journalists!

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  6. I read the wixxi yesterday thanks to your link and was also staggered that not one member of the press gallery had taken a look at the association between the Liberal party and the other players in this matter. A damning indictment on the sloth of the media and their subservience to abbott.Thank heavens for politically homeless, at least we can get the facts here.

    I watched the Thomson statement today and thought he looked pretty genuine and listening to interviews with folk in his electorate they seemed to believe him.

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  7. Great post Andrew, very well detailed.

    I appreciate your acknowledgement also, very kind of you.
    I have done 3 posts on this issue now, and spoken with people inside FWA and the HSU. there is a long way to go on this investigation yet...

    Thanks again

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  8. 'Fairfax has since settled with Thomson, yet it has not shared with us the reasons why it did so'

    That would be probably because it was confidential althought it is clear:

    (a) he got nowt for it;
    (b) Fairfax have unleashed McClymont on Thomson completely now.

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  9. Alphabajangodelta21/5/12 10:48 pm

    The silence of the gallery on this is surely due to incompetence, but there's a little part of me that wonders if there isn't a journo or two caught up in this and are being protected by their peers through deliberate distraction. As we know, Canberra is a highly intertwined politico-media complex. Though until evidence of a conspiracy emerges, incompetence is the operative hypothesis.
    A Four Corners that was still on its game should be able to sort this all out - and take the Walkley with Wixxy.
    And a fine piece by the way. Some of your recents were a little half-baked, even 'au grattan'. But this is a cracker.

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  10. What a boon for Abbott, as he can go to the next election having defused the anti Work Choices campaign and the whole union movement brought into disrepute. Now if only two of the key FWA players had not left the country on "long leave".

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  11. Fantastic post - I missed the televised address to Parliament yesterday because I was travelling. Busily catching up this morning and have gone straight to your insightful analysis - why bother with Grattan and others? I already know what they will have to say.

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  12. I read the wixxy stories elsewhere. What is most astounding and condemning of the msm is that wixxy sent the stories to all the major msm, yet all chose to not run the article. Worse were the excuses given, insufficient time etc.
    From wixxy's comment here I can hope that he will reveal more on this issue.

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  13. I posted a comment on The Age asking why the relationship between Jackson and Lawler has not been explored by Fairfax. They rejected the comment. Since Thompson's speech, they have not allowed the comment funtion on any of their pieces. They continue to play this down, when it is clearly an important piece in the puzzle.

    Something is going on there.

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  14. Chris Grealy22/5/12 8:53 am

    Thomson had some harsh words for the press gallery, who deserved the censure in my opinion. This morning, we see why - a Murdoch rag running the headline, "We know he lied", by an anonymous staff writer. Classy journalism that.

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  15. I wonder how Thomson can even have a fair trial now - you would think one of the first gambits his lawyers will pull will be to dismiss on those grounds.

    Personally, with the competence the FWA has shown to date, i doubt he will ever face a court anyway.

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  16. Very good article. Thanks for the link to wixxyleaks. I found what was written their most interesting. Thompson has raised reasonable doubt, especially in light of what supposedly happened to Jacksons husband in regard to claims he was set up in 2009 in exactly the same way Thomspon says he was setup. And that was reported in The Australian? And now the same media are letting her get away with saying Thompson is delusional? It beggers belief. As yet I haven't heard one media outlet call her on it, I guess too much of their time and money and reputation is invested on making sure we all think he is a sick and delusional conspiracy theorist.

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  17. Is it worth sending this kind of article to an international news outlet? Some of them might be interested in why the Australian press is failing to investigate/report on this story. Just a thought.

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    Replies
    1. As long as they have the internet there, this article should be discoverable.

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  18. Take a cold shower everyone! Maybe nobody (worth suing) has run with the Jackson-Lawler-Abbott connection because to do so - by which I mean, more than just pointing it out - might lead to a defamation claim?

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    Replies
    1. Oh no, not a defamation claim! I'm sure that if a newspaper got a defo claim it would shut down! See Space Kidette above.

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    2. I'm sorry but Space Kidette's got it completely back to front. If I remember correctly, it was Fairfax's running of the story that prompted the defo claim - Thomson beat his chest saying he'd take them to the cleaners and then ... the matter settled a few weeks before the trial. No doubt on the standard terms as to confidentality (as another Anonymous suggested above). Though it didn't stop them all but saying he'd walked away with zip. Once that happened, then the story really caught fire - and was picked up by the other outlets.
      Besides, it was one thing for Fairfax to risk a defo claim on a story where there's substantial independent documentary evidence (you know, those credit card statements). It's another for anyone to run a nudge-nudge-wink-wink piece saying X knows Y who knows Z and asking what that means.
      I yield to no-one in my view that the Canberra press gallery are about as useful as tits on a bull. But, like I said, people need to take a cold shower on this one! I mean, some of the comments are bordering on conspiracy theorising.
      As for that police raid, it may or may not have been kosher. But I sure as hell wouldn't be casting doubt on it print just because someone I don't know heard from someone *who works for the target of the raid and is otherwise unidentified* said it wasn't.

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  19. wixxy made serious allegations against the police in his first instalment about the raid on HSU - follow up on this please?

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    Replies
    1. I've asked him, let's see what he says.

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    2. if he has evidence it should be referred to PIC

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    3. Wicks now saying that the police undertook a selective search of the HSUeast in early May.

      He should be getting his info to the PIC posthaste

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  20. Explosive stuff from Wixxy on Independent Australia. The 'p' in the credit card imprint alone would be enough to establish reasonable doubt.

    It would be worth checking hen the brothel in question began electronically processing credit card transactions - if it was before the date of the alleged card misuse then it blows another huge hole in the case against Thomson.

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  21. What's the story behind Harmers taking on two cases pro bono? That can't be cheap for them. Some IPA funding perhaps?

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  22. Dear Andrew, Some time ago you wrote about a deal done between the government and the opposition in regards to front bench pay. I think it detailed that the opposition would have to give up more than it seems if they re-shuffled.
    Could you provide me with that link, and maybe your source?
    I know I could find it for myself, but my essay on the Harry Potter exhibition isn't going to write itself, and I'm already procrastinating enough as it is.....
    Thank you!

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    Replies
    1. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/abbott-should-prune-frontbench-dead-wood/story-fn53lw5p-1226301890283 (check it out in Google News)

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  23. "First of all, Thomson didn't drop the action against Fairfax; they settled "

    Yes he did. He filed a Notice of Discontinuence.

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    Replies
    1. If anything - we will only know if Thommo accepts Fairfax offer to waive confidentiality. Somehow I don't think he will, do you?

      Defamation cases can drag on forever. As I understand the chronology Fairfax had got its hands on the bigger story via the discovery process - once the defamation was dropped it was free to publish again with the results we see today. The whole action was a Thommo own goal, alas poor Thommo.

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    2. Well as it turns out, Andrew Elder, he filed a notice of discontinuence in return for Fairfax accepting $240,000 from him, financed by the members of the NSW ALP. Then he lied about it.

      This one's a weasel, and I suggest you stop falling for his bullshit. You might even care to correct the record, as all good media people should do.

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    3. I'd be fascinated to see your response to these, keeping in mind both Fairfax and the Coalition have an interest in letting this run and run.

      I've never pretended Thomson is a saint. I do assert, however, that the Coalition will have to do better than this in order to govern the country.

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    4. The Jackson stuff is a sideshow to the Thommo issue - nothing more than the bruvvers dealing with the rat in the ranks in time honored fashion.One has to wonder why they didn't surface all of her iniquities long ago? Probably because too much of it goes on in other unions, Andrew. Almost certainly because of that. But all they have left now is revenge - she's done the damage.

      You can rest assured Jackson will be history now that HSU has gone into Admin; but Thommo still remains in public eye and will almost certainly do even more damage to Labor before this is over which will continue to help your bete noir.

      I take your view about coalition needing to do better. Fair enough. But given you seem to be a progressive Liberal it's not to your credit, imo, these justifications for Thommo or the culture that produced him, still less shooting the messenger media. Takes away from your other critical assessments of media, especially when you write inaccurate stuff and don't correct it. Still, I guess it drives in the traffic from the luvvies eh?

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  24. This is the most amazing thing ever. Only minutes after reading the story by MadWixxy linked in this article I looked at the ABC website and saw this as the top story:

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-05-28/fair-work-australia-vice-president-deeply-involved-in-hsu-fight/4038274?WT.svl=news0

    "Fair Work Australia vice-president Michael Lawler has had direct involvement in the internal politics of the Health Services Union, the ABC has revealed.

    Leaked documents show Mr Lawler wrote a letter of complaint to New South Wales police last year on behalf of himself and his partner, HSU national secretary Kathy Jackson."

    So the ABC manages to 'reveal' a story already broken twelve days before - by an amateur blogger no less.

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  25. Like it or not, Tony Abbott will be PM in about 18months.

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