Federal Politics

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An incredible tale

IT'S an elaborate plot, this one that exiled Labor MP Craig Thomson implicitly asks us to believe has been hatched against him. Either that, or it's an incredibly long list of misunderstandings about his impeccable conduct at the helm of the union representing hospital cleaners, right before he scored a seat in Parliament.

If you follow the logic of Thomson's rebuttals to the Fair Work inquiry, a host of players has been drafted in the plot against him. This includes not only his union enemies, but public servants, journalists, his former staff and members of his national executive - all misinterpreting or mis-remembering key facts about his irreproachable financial management and his scrupulous handling of potential personal conflicts of interest, such as spending union funds on his ALP campaign.

To believe all of Thomson's denials requires an act of enormous willpower in the face of the forensic analysis by Fair Work Australia.

This is no cowboy outfit, remember, but a bunch of public servants who have spent three years gathering evidence and testing it against Thomson's explanations.

What they conclude makes for sobering reading. Not least of which is the finding by lead investigator Terry Nassios that: ''Mr Thomson has provided me with information that is false and misleading insofar as the expenditure of HSU funds on escort services is concerned.''

At almost every turn, Nassios finds holes in the explanations given by Thomson about apparent irregularities. On the $5700 for hookers charged to his union credit cards, Thomson insists: ''It wasn't me.''


Trouble is, investigators got their hands on court documents from Thomson's defamation case against Fairfax, owner of The Sunday Age, before he dropped his legal action last year.

They included brothel records with a photocopy of Thomson's driver's licence and what looked like his signature on the credit card receipt, plus phone records of calls from Thomson's mobile to the escort agency. Awkward, to say the least.

Thomson said yesterday that proof of a call did not equate to proof of who made the call, as Nine's Laurie Oakes pointed out how fanciful it sounded for Thomson to suggest someone else could transact on both his credit cards, had his driver's licence, made calls to escort agencies from his phone, and knew he'd be so dopey as to authorise payment of the credit card bills afterwards, all without Thomson knowing.

Thomson also claimed that, in 2004, a Health Services Union official threatened to destroy his political ambitions and ''to set him up with a bunch of hookers and ruin him''.

Fair Work was dubious, noting Thomson never provided any supporting evidence, such as a statutory declaration by an alleged witness, to back it up. We'll hear more on this under parliamentary privilege next week.

Then there's the $103,000 in ATM cash withdrawals. Thomson told investigators he got receipts and handed back change to the union's finance officer about half the time. If that were true, given he was making withdrawals sometimes twice a week, you might expect the finance officer would remember getting cash to bank regularly. Trouble is, Belinda Ord told Fair Work she couldn't remember him doing it even once over a period of years.

To believe all of Thomson's denials requires an act of enormous willpower in the face of the forensic analysis by Fair Work Australia.

Beyond the eye-popping findings about escorts paid for with dues from some of the nation's lowest-paid workers, some of the most incredible reading comes as his lawyers, Holding Redlich, try to explain away Thomson's failure to ensure tight controls over union money.

''It was not the responsibility of the national secretary to prepare financial policies, in particular in respect of cash withdrawals from credit cards. Mr Thomson, as national secretary, was under no obligation to prepare policies.''

Excuse me? So as the top full-time paid official of the union, on a salary of about $155,000, he was not responsible for drafting financial controls and having them passed by his executive?

In what must surely be a bitter irony for a Labor law firm that also represents low-paid workers, Holding Redlich argued Thomson was also under no obligation to develop financial policies on travel expenses by staff or spouses in response to a series of charges queried by investigators.

And on and on the report goes. Finding fault with his contention that he had authority to employ two union staffers whose roles involved lifting Thomson's profile in his quest for the seat of Dobell. Questioning a slew of other expenses, from tens of thousands of dollars spent on luxury hotels and fancy restaurants to cigarettes and jelly babies at service stations, all charged back to those poor hospital cleaners.

Thomson will draw heavily on the line of defence he filed with Fair Work Australia in his explanation to Parliament on Monday week. Expect a mixture of outright denials and argued technicalities. In essence: it wasn't me, or it wasn't my responsibility.

His goal is simple: to cast enough doubt to ensure his fellow MPs conclude they cannot judge these matters with any certainty, and must leave any action to the courts. It may be enough, given the strong interest - both in personal and policy terms - that the crossbenchers have in letting this government run full-term. Thomson might still face some form of censure or suspension, but they are deeply reluctant for Parliament to play judge and jury.

It was not lost on several MPs this week that the Senate bid farewell to Nick Sherry, the Labor minister who rebuilt his life and political career after a suicide attempt in 1997 in the face of claims - of which he was later cleared - of misused travel entitlements. For some MPs, even the seed of doubt is enough to make them think twice. That's all Craig Thomson needs.

Misha Schubert is national political editor. Twitter: @mishaschubert