Day after day, more breathless revelations emerge about the internal workings of the Health Services Union, with the spotlight now fixed on national president and ALP vice president Mike Williamson.

Fed by a constant drip feed from forces loyal to Victorian factional bomb-thrower and HSU national secretary Kathy Jackson, The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald have been dining out on details of Williamson’s multiple directorships and his protégé Craig Thomson’s enthusiastic credit card spending. Both have denied any wrongdoing, but the allegations are starting to add up.

Williamson has two board sinecures on NSW qangos and is a director of IT services firm United Edge, as first highlighted by Crikey on August 25. The firm appears to have benefited from free advertising in HSUEast newsletters without any disclosure to members. And then there’s the claims, being investigated by NSW Police, of overpayments to printer Communigraphix which allegedly provided him with a credit card to play with however he wished.

But almost completely absent so far has been any allegations relating to Jackson herself — despite logic dictating that her union’s louche approach towards personal expenses could hardly have been restricted to Thomson and Williamson.

In fact, the history of the HSU suggests the opposite — that it was the emergence of Jackson and her ex-husband Jeff Jackson as key players in the union’s Victorian branch in the mid-1990s that sparked the internal war threatening to bring down the Gillard government. And ironically, for most of this period, Williamson and the Jacksons were notionally on the same team.

Former Victorian No. 1 branch president Gail Gills was in a prime position to observe the descent into darkness. Gills is a 20-year veteran of the union’s presidency who alongside Armstrong staunchly defended their territory from raids from the Jacksons in Victoria and the NSW union run by Williamson.

She says that the latest machinations are a direct echo of the period 15 years earlier in which a rampaging national council controlled by Williamson attempted to enforce NSW’s control at the expense of rank and file members.

A respected member of the union’s “old guard” alongside left-leaning secretary Jan Armstrong, Gills recalls the tension that engulfed the HSU following the then-Kathy Koukouvaos’s arrival at the No. 3 Victorian branch from the Melbourne University Student Union in the early 1990s.

“When Kathy and Jeff came on the scene, it all began to fall apart,” said Gills, recalling the day Koukouvaos’ marriage to Jeff became public knowledge. And on the current turmoil: “Us old members of the HSU, we’re enjoying this immensely.”

Gills, along with her contemporaries, has retained boxes of incriminating documents relating to the workings of the union over the last 30 years. One incident in particular continues to rankle.

In 1995, Jeff Jackson was forced from his position as HSU assistant secretary over an alleged scandal involving child support to his estranged ex-wife. After his marriage to Kathy Jackson, Gills claims Jackson wanted to reduce his workload from five days a week to three at the same time he was supporting his ex.

Gills recalls the ambitious chieftain approached a doctor outlining his concerns. A letter from the doctor was then sent to the HSU’s accountant Eric Donnison, facilitating the reduced payments.

At around the same time, Kathy Jackson, who was an official at the HSU’s No. 3 Victorian branch covering health professionals, eerily began to invoice the No. 1 branch for “consulting” services without the knowledge of the branch’s committee of management, that included Gills and Armstrong. The invoices roughly tallied with the amount Jeff Jackson had forgone in salary payments.

“You don’t know anything about this, do you?” Gills recalls Donnison telling her, when the paper trail emerged following an audit of paid salary holders.

“Neither Jan nor I had signed any cheques [to Kathy Jackson] … normally one of us would need to sign those cheques.”

Following a grilling from two members of the management committee meeting in an adjoining room, Jeff Jackson resigned. Doug Byron, who would later take on Kathy Jackson’s forces in the bitterly contested 2009 HSU election, was appointed in Jeff Jackson’s place as assistant secretary.

And despite a failed bid to get the committee to rescind its decision, alternative employment options for Jackson remained bountiful.

The potty-mouthed firebrand was hired by the HSU’s national office as a “liaison officer”, then under the control of Williamson and Rob Elliott, the partner of Victorian upper house MP Kaye Darveniza (Darveniza was running the Health and Community Services Union arm of the Victorian union and was also vice president of the HSU’s national office. She remains extremely close to the Jacksons, as readers can discover elsewhere in today’s email).

But Jackson loyalists on the HSU’s committee of management promptly launched a witch hunt to destabilise Armstrong, with credit card statements released purporting to show a bevy of personal expenses (at the time, the union only had one card).

Unfortunately for Jackson, the resulting inspection revealed that Armstrong had acted ethically — $162.17 spent on lingerie was circled and paid back with interest. Armstrong then launched a defamation case against Jackson and two HSU trustees, which was settled years later.

Doug Byron’s successor as assistant secretary, Charlie Nader, also became embroiled in a bitter feud with the Jacksons during HSU elections in the mid-90s.

Nader reminded Crikey of a series of “shit sheets” that erroneously linked him to the Lebanese Communist Party and complained about his private taxi business. He alleged that the state ALP — at the time run by David Feeney — bankrolled the campaign against him. Nader sued Feeney and Jeff Jackson for defamation and later received a settlement. Feeney and Jackson’s legal fees were covered by the HSU’s national office.

Despite the setbacks, Jackson’s stint at the national office on the other side of the Yarra bore fruit. The double daters — Kathy and Jeff and Rob and Kaye — realised the real power could be sourced if they forged a marriage of convenience with NSW forces led by Williamson.

“A group of people set out to do the union over,” Gills recalls. “There was certainly no love lost between Kathy, Jan and I, or between us and Mike.”

Williamson had been the NSW state secretary of the Health and Research Employees Association and a fervent supporter of a merger during the 1980s with his Victorian sibling, the Hospital Employees’ Federation. In 1991, he got his wish with the creation of a federal umbrella organisation — the modern day HSU — with himself in control on the national executive. But the two NSW and Victorian branches remained separate legal entities.  With the Victorian-based Jackson and Darveniza making eyes, plans for a full NSW takeover — a merging of the branches to form an east coast conglomerate — could commence in earnest.

“Kathy was certainly pushing for the Victorian branches to fully amalgamate with NSW,” Gills says. “We had basically spent half our lives trying to stop the takeover of our branch.”

In March 1999, Jan Armstrong resigned and Gills also departed after an extended period of ill health. But by this time Jeff Jackson was again floating around the Victorian No. 1 branch’s offices.

A decade later, the married and divorced Jackson crew would finally got their wish. In 2009, the Victorian No. 1 branch, dissolved by the Federal Court with its finances in a shambles, conducted bitterly contested elections pitting Pauline Fegan loyalist Doug Byron against Jackson backer Marco Bolano. Just days after the result was declared in favour of Bolano, Crikey understands moves were put in train to merge the NSW branch with the Victorian No. 1 and No. 3 branches and create the conglomerate now known as HSUEast.

In April 2010, Kathy Jackson duly emerged as the new entity’s “executive president”, with Bolano as deputy general secretary. Williamson became HSUEast’s general secretary, in addition to his gig as the union’s national president.

Questions remain over why, when taking over from Thomson as the HSU’s national secretary in 2007, Jackson was so keen to pursue a forensic financial audit that led to the Fair Work investigation undertaken by investigator Terry Nassios. One explanation is that the attack on Thomson was really a proxy war against Williamson who stood in the path of Jackson’s full-spectrum control of the union. The marriage of convenience forged 15 years earlier had served its purpose.

On Monday, Royce Millar in The Age quoted Victorian No. 4 branch secretary Rosemary Kelly claiming that “forces within FWA were trying to avoid or postpone an investigation” into the HSU following a petition of her members in 2009. Interestingly, back in 2002, Kelly was barred from attending a HSU council meeting where Elliott stood down — the same meeting where Williamson anointed Thomson as his successor.

Then, as now, it seems that in the HSU some gashes run far too deep to ever heal over.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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