Yesterday, the Prime Minister raised the vexed issue of union re-election funds — in her case the now infamous AWU Workplace Reform Association — used for the purposes of fighting contested internal polls.

Unions typically use the funds — drawn from BBQs, raffles and deductions from organisers’ wages — for the purpose of promoting a particular slate of candidates. As democratic entities, every three or four years officials are effectively forced to re-apply for their own jobs through pitches to members.

In Gillard’s ex-boyfriend Bruce Wilson’s case, the fund was used, according to the PM, to assist with the re-election of safety friendly delegates who were ”committed to reforming workplaces in a certain way, to increasing occupational health and safety, to improving the conditions of the members of the union”. The problem was that the money came not from organisers’ pockets, but from construction behemoths and the WA government.

That notable bastion of union democracy Kathy Jackson raised the issue of the funds in her recent address to the HR Nicholls Society. Jackson said that not only had employees’ dues been used, but that money had also been drawn from factional sources (presumably the NSW Right) in order to keep control of unions that can then — if they are affiliated — exercise control over ALP preselections on the state conference floor.

“Big money in union elections,” Jackson said, “threatens the democratic foundations on which a healthy union depends”.

Jackson also alleged that former national secretary Craig Thomson had changed the HSU rules to make it harder for incumbents to be dislodged by banning the provision of photos in official AEC voting material sent to members. In that way, the incumbents, who control the re-election fund, can dip into their resources and run a blizzard of ads.

There are times when the secret accounts emerge into the spotlight — with the publicity egged on by one group in an attempt to smear the opposition.

As Crikey reported last month, in 2009 it was revealed that HSU official Sean Hudson had transferred $54,000 from a re-election fund into his personal account and later into a “HSU Social Club account”. That account, known inside the HSU as the “returnees” fund, was set-up specifically for the purposes of influencing elections.

During the stoush for control of the HSU’s No. 1 branch in that year, glossy videos and campaign material was produced in the three-way battle which suggests tens of thousands of dollars in expenditure. Jackson has alleged that part of that money was in fact drawn from the NSW branch of the union run by Michael Williamson.

Crikey also recalls the fierce 2002 battle for control of the Victorian branch of the LHMU, when rival factions raised significant resources to fund their campaign aimed at wooing, among others, Crown Casino employees, before the branch was returned to the Left.

Then there was the Transport 2020 fund set up by former state secretary David Feeney and current member for Corio Richard Marles in in 1990s (it was called then Transport 2000) with the explicit intention of paying “membership subscriptions to any trade union and the ALP of members”.

The current arms race means that tens of thousands — and sometimes hundreds of thousands — of dollars in cash are spent on internal campaigns the general public never hears about.

Industrial relations minister Bill Shorten has moved to strengthen the regulations governing registered organisations. But he is yet to ban or regulate the funds that, for as long as elections are held, will continue to corral cash from legitimate and not-so legitimate sources.