Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten will seek to have positions at the Health Services Union declared vacant and administrators appointed in a surprise move against the trouble-plagued organisation.
Mr Shorten said he wanted to put the interests of the union’s health workers first.
"They are not being served by the dysfunctional fighting within the HSU East Branch,’’ Mr Shorten said.
"Many [HSU East] members do not earn a lot of money. But they pay their union dues. They do not deserve the bad headlines that have been so associated with the HSU East leadership.
"These are ordinary Australians who have heard some pretty extraordinary allegations against their union leadership."
The move to put the HSU East into receivership was "extremely rare", Mr Shorten said.
It comes on the back of the Craig Thomson credit-card scandal that has been dogging the federal government, including fresh claims today that a third of the $1.5 million in fees paid by HSU members went to its national secretary, Kathy Jackson.
Earlier, Richard Niall, SC, for Mr Shorten, told the Federal Court that the minister intended to issue an application under the Fair Work Registered Organisations Act, following what one union official described as ‘‘factional warfare’’ within the union’s hierarchy.
The government will seek to:
- Propose in the Federal Court that all elected offices in the HSU East Branch be declared vacant immediately, and that an administrator be appointed ‘‘to manage a transition to a properly functioning organisation, which will involve a more democratic and representative structure’’.
- Put in place a new structure would provide for dedicated branches in NSW and Victoria, and for fresh elections for offices in each of those branches.
- Current members would be transferred to the branch in the state in which they work.
Mr Shorten said his application was supported by a range of HSU officials and members, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and UnionsNSW.
Outside court Ms Jackson blasted Mr Shorten’s move as a ‘‘cheap political stunt".
"We will get to the administration point whether he applies for it or we apply for it. That will happen,’’ she said.
"This is a spiteful move .... by the ALP. They should have taken action on [former national secretary and federal MP Craig] Thomson and [the HSU East general secretary Michael] Williamson earlier.
"It’s very predictable; we’ve been calling for intervention for a while now. The union is in crisis. We’re in court trying to sort this out," Ms Jackson said.
The drastic move comes after Gerard Hayes, the acting deputy general secretary of the NSW branch, today said the union was ’’hemorrhaging members’’ because of the ’’factional warfare’’ between whistleblower Ms Jackson and the union’s head Michael Williamson, who is refusing to step down from the union he has run for 17 years.
Mr Williamson is being investigated by NSW police over allegations he received a secret commission from a major supplier to the union. He has denied any wrongdoing.
To add to the union’s woes, an internal investigation into its governance has found problems in its procurement processes.
Fairfax has revealed that Mr Williamson failed to declare his part ownership of United Edge, which received hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from the union for provision of IT services. Mr Williamson also organised for his architect to be put on retainer with the union and his wife’s company Canme received $400,00 for archiving and secretarial services.
It was also revealed recently that the union’s procurement officer Cheryl McMillan had provided Mr Williamson with a black Centurion American Express card attached to her own private account. Mr Williamson is understood to have put up to $30,000 a month on the card.
Mr Williamson’s refusal to stand down has frustrated the wider labour movement, with the HSU being suspended recently from Unions NSW and the ACTU.
Ms Jackson today said Mr Shorten should not participate in the decision-making of the HSU.
"We’ve ended up [here] because of his and others in the ALP trying to win this union for their own political power,’’ she said outside the court.
"This is not about putting an administration in place that suits Bill Shorten.
"Bill Shorten should go back and be the Minister for Industrial Relations and not the minister for the HSU."
When asked to comment about the "gang of 10" HSU secretaries trying to oust her, she said, "Good luck.’’
"This is a spiteful move by them. It’s about protecting the ALP and protecting their own backsides. They should have taken action on Thomson and Williamson earlier and they didn’t and now they want to shoot me down.
"What we are seeking is that the rules of the union are adhered to. There are 20 people on that council that have been getting a vote that should not have got a vote.
"[Peter] Mylan, Williamson and [Gerard] Hayes have been allowing these people to vote, which skews the result. So what we are seeing is an outcome where the people who can vote do vote and the people who don’t, don’t vote."
The matter is due to return to court shortly.
- with Megan Levy and Louise Hall
More to come