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Regrets they'll have a few

Date

Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

View more articles from Jack Waterford

As far as the government is concerned, Bill Shorten and Labor can never be sorry enough for Craig Thomson

Craig Thomson at the Melbourne Magistrates Court.

Craig Thomson at the Melbourne Magistrates Court. Photo: Angela Wylie

As parliamentary apologies go, Bill Shorten's on Tuesday was hardly up there with the apology to the stolen generation. But Christopher Pyne, leader of the government in the House of Representatives, looked on the money with his instinct that he had found a gift that would keep giving.

Shorten was being asked to apologise to the victims of Craig Thomson, recently convicted of wholesale fraud and abuse of power from his days as national secretary of the Health Services Union. Pyne had so framed matters that Shorten, and Labor generally, were being asked to apologise not only to the union members who had been ripped off by Thomson's excursions to prostitutes, use of union cash as if it were his own, or use of union cash as though it were the Labor Party's.

He was also being required to apologise to Kathy Jackson and other individuals in the union who have assumed the mantle of whistleblowers, and who are, these days, hardly friends and factional allies of Shorten in his other guise as a factional warlord in the murky world of Victorian Labor politics. These were people Thomson had attacked under parliamentary privilege during an opportunity thoughtfully given to him by the opposition in the last parliament, after numerous allegations (all true as it turned out) about his misbehaviour.

And implicitly Shorten, and Labor, were being invited to apologise to the people of Australia for having harboured, promoted, protected and taken the money of this crook over the years.

Pyne has no intention of letting Thomson off the hook. His personal explanation to Parliament is now before the privileges committee, on a complaint that it was an abuse of the privileges of the House. Thomson may not face further financial or other penalties on this account, though it is to be observed that Parliament still adheres to the (these days) legally dubious proposition that it has the power of sending people to jail. But if it even tried, there'd be a chance, albeit slight, that Thomson could be portrayed as some sort of martyr, so it won't come to that. It is not Thomson being targeted by the exercise, but Shorten and the party-union nexus.

There is still plenty of parliamentary juice in that lemon, apart from the stitching-up planned during the royal commission into unions. If I were a Liberal Party tactician, for example, I would be rising in the Senate soon to move that so much of standing orders be suspended as to permit Sam Dastyari to have an hour - perhaps two - to give a full and complete explanation of his dealings with Thomson (and indeed other members of the HSU) over the years.

The explanation could extend to ways in which Dastyari used his power and influence as general secretary of the NSW branch of the Labor Party to organise money for Thomson, first to stave off bankruptcy (which would have put him out of Parliament), and second, for legal representation.

Perhaps Dastyari, being a little bit politically naive, as NSW party people so often are, believed in Thomson's innocence, and was not merely purchasing delay.

The problems of the HSU extended well beyond Thomson to systematic rorting of it by Michael Williamson, and friends and relations - another piece of prize bastardry on the union membership, the political party, and, as it turns out, the reputation of the Labor Party that occurred under Dastyari's stewardship.

Shorten, as a union and party factional ally of the NSW Right, is readily smearable by association, too. He can at least be thankful he, unlike HSU players, is not saddled with allegations of personal dishonesty.

But many, even among his parliamentary colleagues, would not be unhappy to see him discomforted, perhaps by cross-examination before the royal commissioner about how he parlayed union power into political power, able, with a few other chieftains, to allocate seats in Parliament.

Liberal strategy is to remind voters continually that Shorten is not merely a wicked Labor socialist, tarred by (disloyal) association with a Gillard government the  party no longer even bothers to defend. He is also to be painted as a bogy, representing all of the supposed iniquities of brute union power. When 80 per cent of voters no longer have associations with unions, that may well work.

Shorten was probably sensible in deciding that Labor should not resist the Pyne motion. One is damned if one does, and damned if one doesn't; whatever happens, one will be verballed by the government about its significance.

He'll probably be calculating the merits of another apology, but perhaps this is one he should resist. Steve Conroy insulted Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell in estimates on Tuesday in suggesting he was involved in a political cover-up. It was clear that it was deliberate.

The usual suspects were jolted out of their dozes to be shocked and horrified that anyone would impugn the honour of a professional military officer. There will be no doubt confected outrage for many a day. Perhaps Campbell could or should challenge Conroy to a duel.

But everyone protests too much. Campbell has ventured, voluntarily and knowingly, into a zone where his conduct, motives and actions can and should be scrutinised and criticised. I have observed any number of soldiers engaged in political and other cover-ups, and they are not, even then, immune from scrutiny. But Campbell is not here being a soldier, and should not be allowed to hide behind his uniform. Nor should he let his present minister hide behind it. He is doing this, inter alia, by letting the minister pretend that there are sound military reasons for the political secrecy with which he has surrounded his shameful treatment of asylum seekers, on or off water.

Campbell in estimates was trying to shield his minister. Public servants do this. One can often call it's a cover-up, especially when people are being economical with the truth. When military officers take bureaucratic posts - as Alan Stretton did with the National Disasters Organisation in 1974, Duncan Lewis did in becoming national security adviser, then secretary of defence, and Campbell has done in heading the Joint Agency Taskforce, they are to be judged as pen-pushers, not soldiers.

Campbell is, plainly, a direct adviser to the minister on non-military tasks, for example, about the management of our detention centres. He provides copious political cover for the minister, Scott Morrison - cover going well beyond professional military service as a military commander. He has, for example, adopted the minister's directive about compulsive operational secrecy as his own - giving it an appearance of professional (as opposed to political) detachment that is not supported by many of his professional colleagues. To say any of this is not, of course, to suggest that he has done anything wrong, or that his service to the interests of the government of the day has been anything but exemplary. It is simply to say that he is not beyond criticism for his efforts to protect his bosses.

Jack Waterford is editor-at-large for The Canberra Times.
jack.waterford@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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