Perhaps, in modern parlance, it seemed like a good idea at the time. However, the insistence of the independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor that Craig Thomson deliver a statement to the House of Representatives next week could turn out to be counterproductive.
If the now-independent MP for Dobell uses the privileges of the House to attack his former colleagues in the Health Services Union East branch, or senior public servants in Fair Work Australia who have made findings against him, this will further discredit the Parliament.
Oakeshott and Windsor are invariably lecturing about parliamentary standards, even though the latter recently called Tony Abbott a ”rabid dog”. In view of the fact that the forthcoming Thomson statement was largely their initiative, they have a responsibility to ensure he does not misuse parliamentary privilege to make what might otherwise be defamatory comments.
The Thomson controversy provides a glimpse into modern day unionism. There are many fine trade union officials who work hard for their members and do not abuse their entitlements. The likes of Joe de Bruyn, Paul Howes and Ged Kearney come immediately to mind. But, as Howes commented yesterday: ”The Health Services Union saga has meant the very legitimacy of trade unions have been called into question.”
The only problem with this evaluation is that it does not go to causation. Like all registered employee organisations, the HSU East has privileges under Commonwealth legislation. Trade unions were on the losing end of the industrial disputes of the 1890s. Governments came to the rescue in the early 20th century and employee organisations were given rights under legislation similar to those now contained in the Fair Work Act.
For more than a century, trade unions have been registered organisations whose rules are ratified and enforced by federal government entities, currently Fair Work Australia. Registered organisations obtain what is termed coverage – meaning a trade union can negotiate pay and conditions for members and non-members alike in designated areas of work.
This is a significant privilege. Once an employee organisation gets approval from a government body to cover certain categories of employees, no other employee organisation can enter the field. In the case of the HSU East, for example, dissident members cannot break away and establish a rival organisation. It’s just not allowed.
This means that incumbent trade union officials have nothing to fear from external competition. All they need to worry about is being toppled in an internal leadership ballot. This is possible but extremely difficult.
In the 1940s and 1950s, several unions changed hands as the anti-communist Industrial Groups, which until the mid-1950s had Labor Party support, took on and defeated the communist and pro-communist leadership in some key unions. The late Laurie Short managed to remove and replace the communist leadership of the ironworkers’ union in the late 1940s. It was a bitter and protracted battle in which Short received considerable support from others.
Today few have the inclination, or the time, for such endeavours. That’s why the leadership of many unions only changes following an internal dispute within a union. And that’s why, unless there is an internal dispute, the unprofessional behaviour that has led Fair Work Australia to make findings against Thomson can occur without detection. The existence of privilege and an absence of competition can facilitate unprofessional behaviour.
Even governments find it difficult to prevail against entrenched union officials. For example, successive conservative governments failed to prevent communist controlled and influenced unions from attempting to subvert the war effort during the early years of the Second World War. At the time, the Communist Party supported the Nazi-Soviet pact and opposed the Allied cause. As Paul Hasluck commented in his official history, The Government and the People 1939-41, industrial disputes in Australia only declined after Nazi Germany invaded the communist Soviet Union in June 1941.
It was much the same during the Vietnam War. As Paul Ham wrote in Vietnam: The Australian War, ”throughout the war, HMAS Jeparit, HMAS Boonaroo and other transport vessels faced the threat of constant delays caused by union action”.
If governments cannot prevail against embedded union leaders, not that much can be expected from the occasional whistleblower. The best way to reform the HSU East is to open it up to genuine competition.
Gerard Henderson is the executive director of the Sydney Institute.