This morning’s dawn raid on Craig Thomson’s home while his young family slept — pre-leaked by police to the media who wet themselves over pictures beamed to breakfast television — is highly unlikely to have any implications for the longevity of the Gillard government.
They are essentially the same credit card claims, stemming from Thomson’s five-year term as Health Services Union national secretary from 2002-2007, first raised by Mark Davis on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald way back in April 2009.
Outside his house, Thomson told journos he had “done nothing wrong”, was “fully co-operating with the police” and that he was very much looking forward to concluding the matter “before the end of the year”. His lawyer then took to Sky News to issue grave warnings about defamation.
Despite this morning’s action being executed by NSW Police on behalf of their Victorian fraud squad counterparts, Thomson was repeatedly badgered by the Bateau Bay press pack over why he had refused to sit down with the NSW Force as part of their investigation. NSW’s Strike Force Carnarvon is actually focused predominantly on the NSW branch and the merged HSUEast branch when it was under the control of Michael Williamson. It is also investigating, at a lower level, allegations of malfeasance in the NSW branch of the HSU when Thomson was assistant secretary from 1999 until 2002.
Victoria Police are trained on Thomson’s period as National Secretary, as well as other claims around the Victorian No 1 and No 3 branches controlled at the time by Kathy and Jeff Jackson. There were suggestions today they were keen to get hold of Thomson’s signature to compare with old-style credit card receipts used in various brothels. Thomson has maintained in federal Parliament he was set up by union rivals.
The road from the raid to a premature Tony Abbott government is a long and torturous one, and almost certainly won’t be resolved before the next federal election. It requires the opposition to jump through at least five flaming hoops.
The constitution mandates that an MP is banned if they are convicted of a crime that carries a penalty of over a year, regardless of how much time they are actually sentenced to. So, for example, if Thomson was ever convicted of fraud or theft under the Victorian Crimes Act he would be banned from federal Parliament because that crime is “punishable” by up to 10 years in prison.
But an early exit from parliament would mean a subsequent trial and all appeals would have to be exhausted before mid-July at the latest.
The other option is bankruptcy stemming from Fair Work Australia’s civil claims lodged last week that could potentially (although probably won’t) attract penalties of up to $450,000. But as Thomson lawyer Chris McArdle and Industrial Relations academic Andrew Stewart explained last week, those could well fail on a two-year statute of limitations provision, pending the outcome of an appeal in the Toyota Materials Case currently before the Federal Court.
Assuming one or both of those bans eventuated, a byelection in Dobell would then need to be won by the Liberals’ preselected candidate Karen McNamara (held by Thomson by 5.1%).
Then, assuming Peter Slipper continues to vote with the government, Julia Gillard would still hold a 76-74 advantage in the House before the exclusion of the speaker, or 75-74 with Anna Burke in the chair.
If Slipper votes with the Coalition in a motion of no-confidence we’re getting closer to a new poll, although all indications are he won’t act to bring down the government. Andrew Wilkie has already said he probably won’t back any no-confidence motion unless it relates to a proven instance of sleaze.
Amusingly, Liberal MPs Ross Vasta, Andrew Laming and Gary Hardgrave all had their offices raided by police before the 2007 poll but none ended up facing charges.
There may well be a lot of damage to HSU finances, but it seems the worst of it occurred during post-Thomson era. Twelve days ago, Crikey revealed a $7 million hole in HSUEast’s finances — a legacy of the disastrous 2010 merger between the NSW/ACT branch and the Victorian No. 1 and No. 3 branches. The No 3 branch controlled by forces loyal to Kathy Jackson was “apparently insolvent”.
In an interview with the local Central Coast Express Advocate last week, Thomson claimed he wanted to be judged on his record with constituents and not on the media storm. Despite his suspension from Labor, he is still close to local party figures and appeared not to rule out another run next year as an endorsed candidate. While he doesn’t sit in the federal Labor caucus, Thomson is believed to have recently been invited by the Dobell Federal Electorate Council to address them. However, NSW general secretary Sam Dastyari is unlikely to countenance that possibility and has instead called for a preselection ballot to be held early next year.
The heat has also gone out of the allegations from other angles. The HSU has disaffiliated with Labor in Victoria, a move that sapped the vigor out of the feverish battle for control of the union to gain delegates at ALP state conference and in turn influence state and federal preselections.
Meanwhile, also in Victoria, the lower-level saga of the de-merged Victorian No. 1 branch elections will kick off in the Federal Court tomorrow before Justice Treacy. As first revealed by Crikey last week, secretary hopeful Diana Asmar is fighting to get her name on the ballot paper and has accused her rivals of repeatedly ignoring her membership payments in order to deny her the ability to run under internal union rules.