Federal Politics

License article

Sadly, this lady is for turning

Julia Gillard bungled her moment to stand as steely as Margaret Thatcher.

IN JULY last year, after Rupert and James Murdoch had testified to a British parliamentary inquiry on the phone-hacking scandal, Julia Gillard grabbed herself a headline by saying there were ''hard questions'' to be answered by News Ltd in Australia.

Now, as head of the labour movement in Australia, she has some hard questions to answer herself.

The Murdochs were expected as corporate chiefs to answer for what was happening across their company and to clean out any rot (and they apologised for breaches of privacy and shut down the News of The World).

Gillard, as a Labor prime minister, heads the political arm of the labour movement. What is she doing to clean out any rot? Has she called for an audit of unions to see if others, beyond the Health Services Union, are rorting their members? Er, well, no actually.

What has she done to ensure workers are no longer ripped off by shoddy unions? Nothing. Zip. Bugger all.

Gillard assumed that because some rot had been uncovered in one part of the Murdoch empire, there was a serious risk of more being found in another part, on the other side of the world. Why does she appear to assume that some rot in the union movement in Australia is isolated to one or two unions? Has it occurred to her that just as the hacking of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone turned out to be the tip of the iceberg in the News of the World scandal, so Craig Thomson's issues could be the tip of a very ugly iceberg within the ACTU and Labor?


We know there is something rotten in the HSU. We know there are serious questions about millions of dollars from the meat workers union superfund going into a now failed property development company. Are we to believe these are just two unhappy and isolated accidents about which senior ACTU and Labor figures knew nothing?

Because Labor holds minority government by just one vote, nearly all the focus has been on Thomson and the allegations about him. It should be on the iceberg. Gillard should now be getting answers to the sort of hard questions she expected News Ltd to face. How far does this rot spread and what should be done to clean it up?

If she had used her authority and power as Prime Minister to champion the cause of low-income workers and in their name clean up any rot in the union movement, she would be in a very different political space now.

The PM should have told Thomson, soon after the 2010 election, to stand aside from the Labor Party until this was cleared up. He was never going to vote with Tony Abbott or cause a byelection, because he would know that if he did so then neither the unions nor Labor would look after him after he left Parliament.

Gillard's message could have been exquisite. Something like this:

''I have spoken with Mr Thomson and am grateful he has agreed to stand aside from the ALP until the matters pertaining to him have been resolved.

''Like everyone else, he is entitled to the presumption of innocence.

''Fair Work Australia has been advised that this matter is not to be delayed in any way and that if further resources are needed they will be made available. They have been further instructed to co-operate fully with state and federal police.

''Nobody deserves to have a cloud over their reputation for any longer than necessary. As Prime Minister I accept responsibility for taking the lead in protecting the Parliament.

This cloud has also hung over the Parliament for too long.

''I am a proud unionist and proud of what the union movement has achieved. I will not allow that movement to be used to fleece workers rather than protect them. I have asked the Attorney-General to advise the cabinet what needs to be done to ensure proper accountability to the members of any union for their finances. Any necessary legislation will be expedited through the Parliament.

''To those who may say, with the government having no votes to spare, that these steps are unwise I would say this. The union movement is there to protect workers. Any suggestion that a union is itself ripping off workers goes to the very heart of the movement's existence. If a Labor government refuses to protect the workers, what do we tell Australians we stand for?''

It would have been a gobsmacker. It would have trumped John Howard's 2004 declaration that ''this election is about trust''. Gillard would have made Margaret Thatcher look like a mouse. She would have won hearts and minds and earned credibility and respect.

Instead, she turned away. I think she is afraid of the iceberg. It is all a bit close to home. How close, I wonder.

Here is the nub of Labor's problem. Australians respect people for standing up for who they are. It's when you stand for nothing that they think nothing of you. So if you say you stand for the workers, and then out of self-interest stand by while they are trodden on, you can expect to be regarded with contempt.

That's where Labor now sits.

Amanda Vanstone was a minister in the Howard government.