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Need for speed on union reforms

HSU president Michael Williamson is still getting his $350,000 annual salary while he's stood aside.

HSU president Michael Williamson is still getting his $350,000 annual salary while he's stood aside. Photo: Ben Rushton

DO OTHER people feel that seeing one more interview with anyone associated with the Health Services Union might be enough to invite an attack on the television set? The byzantine politics and rorting in this extraordinary outfit are beyond ordinary comprehension, and nothing comes to a conclusion.

Everything about it seems big - its officials' remuneration (president Michael Williamson is still getting his $350,000 annual salary while he's stood aside), the amounts allegedly siphoned off for personal gain. Not big are the wages of many of the unfortunate members. How those leading one union could have misbehaved so blatantly, on such a scale, for so long, beggars belief. As does the stupidity. Williamson, already in all sorts of trouble, added to it by allegedly trying to get documents away in a bag to evade last week's police raid.

When the Gillard government's history is written the HSU connection will be a dark chapter, though it all started long before. If it is a wonder that Craig Thomson, former national secretary, was originally endorsed, it is extraordinary he was re-endorsed for the 2010 poll. By then people knew he was a time bomb.

The HSU story is full of ''if onlys'' for Labor. If only Thomson had been booted out by the preselectors. If only Gillard had robustly condemned the union's nefarious behaviour early. If only she'd dispatched Thomson to the crossbenchers long before last weekend.

The political moral is that if not dealt with quickly, scandals can cartwheel out of control and do immense damage to a government. In the Thomson affair, the hung parliament clouded judgments (but it wasn't hung when he was reselected). Labor did not want to cede any points to Tony Abbott. Nor did it want to do the slightest thing to provoke Thomson, presumably fearing he might create a byelection or be disgruntled as an independent - though he had no better job to go to and would always be likely to support Labor from the crossbenches, as he has now promised to do.

While the investigations grind on, hopefully eventually bringing to justice those who've taken down ordinary workers, action is needed to ensure greater protections against rogue union officials.

The ACTU, fearing guilt by association, has already suspended the HSU. Dave Oliver, incoming ACTU secretary, said last week there were significant regulations in place governing unions and employer organisations: the issue was compliance.

Workplace Minister Bill Shorten has suggested toughening penalties and improving transparency. Abbott has announced the Coalition would amend the law so officials of registered organisations ''have to play by the same rules as companies and their directors'' who, if found guilty of the sort of offences being talked about, could face personal fines of up to $200,000 and prison.

Things should be kept in perspective - most union officials behave honestly (and are not paid mega salaries).

But it is important for signals to be given to those responsible for running unions and the people they serve that any corruption that's found will be rooted out. This would seem to require both improving governance and strengthening penalties.

In this effort, Julia Gillard should get on the front foot, not find reasons to delay. The reforms ought to be done before the election.

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