This Thomson thing has always been about Gillard
The arrest of Craig Thomson is a political disaster for Labor and Julia Gillard.
It was Labor that put the former union boss into Parliament. It was the Prime Minister who repeatedly defended him and declared “complete confidence” when questions were raised about the alleged misuse of low-paid hospital workers’ union fees to pay for prostitutes.
The Thomson saga has become a massive distraction for Labor that threatens to frequently derail its election-year message.
Yesterday’s dramatic scenes, with Thomson arrested at his electorate office at a NSW Central Coast shopping centre by Victorian and NSW police, came just a day after Gillard started the election year with the unprecedented gamble of a 227-day election campaign.
Now the PM faces claims - which she rejects - that she had prior knowledge of the arrest and revealed the election date to head it off. That sounds far-fetched. The reverse would have been more likely: swamp the bad news with a big announcement.
Thomson faces 149 fraud charges believed to relate to allegations that his union credit card was misused to pay for escort services while he was national secretary of the Health Services Union before entering Parliament in 2007. His lawyer says one of the counts against his client is for buying an ice cream for $12.
Thomson says he was restricted by legal advice on what he could say but he would travel to Melbourne next week to vigorously defend the charges.
“I have done no wrongdoing and that’s what will be found,” he said.
A court will decide if he is innocent or guilty, but Thomson’s absolute belief that he has done nothing wrong, and his ability to convince senior Labor figures of that, is why he remained a candidate at the 2010 election after the claims were first made in 2009 when Kevin Rudd was PM.
It is why Gillard stuck by him through 2011 when the Coalition was on the attack, and she repeatedly expressed complete confidence. In August 2011 she went as far as saying she looked forward to him being one of her MPs “for a very long, long, long time to come”.
But by April last year Gillard cut him loose, banishing him from the Labor Party and sending him to the crossbench.
Yet Labor still relies on his vote to pass some legislation. That is extremely awkward for the ALP when it won’t let the man elected under its banner be part of its team or attend its meetings.
Thomson has not been convicted. He remains innocent until proven otherwise. He is not the first MP to be charged and there is plenty of precedent for him to stay in Parliament and vote on behalf of the 88,000 Australians he represents.
The Opposition will continue with its theatrics to not accept Thomson’s vote, although it will try to prevent a repeat of the ridiculous and undignified scene last year when Tony Abbott and tactics chief Christopher Pyne literally ran out of the Parliament like naughty schoolboys when Thomson sat on their side of the chamber. Pyne even boasted he had run like a gazelle.
The issue deprives Labor of its desire to put the public spotlight on Abbott over his election promises and costings, and is a gift for the Opposition that will continue to haunt the Government in the election year.
Abbott treads a fine line when he says the issue is about the Prime Minister’s judgment.
“The Thomson matter isn’t just about what Craig Thomson may or may not have done, what he did or didn’t do,” Abbott said yesterday.
“It’s always been about the judgment of the Prime Minister, and I’m afraid the judgment of a Prime Minister - who was running a protection racket for Craig Thomson for months and years, long after it was obvious that there were issues - is something that remains very much in question.”
Liberal Senate leader Eric Abetz also sees it as a chance to attack Labor for being weak on unions that misuse members’ funds.
While Workplace Minister Bill Shorten has condemned the misuse of union member fees and taken a hard line on abuses, Abetz wants Labor to back a Coalition plan to force greater accountability and transparency of registered organisations such as unions.
Gillard, who was visiting flood-hit Bundaberg yesterday and insisted the election campaign doesn’t start until she visits Governor-General Quentin Bryce on August 12 to formally request it, said Thomson’s arrest was a matter for the police and she would not speculate on it.
But the Coalition’s attack on Thomson has always been about destroying Gillard.
Eighteen months ago the Coalition was in a frenzy, hoping it could force him out of Parliament and then win the subsequent by-election that would change the numbers of the floor of the hung Parliament - and just maybe lead to a general election or Abbott becoming PM.
Unless Thomson quits Parliament, which seems unlikely, there’s little chance of a verdict and by-election before the September 14 general election.
He can’t be forced out for being arrested or charged. MPs can be removed only if they are convicted of an offence carrying a jail term of 12 months or more.
But that doesn’t mean voters won’t be appalled every time they hear about this distasteful case and the alleged misuse of the hard-earned wages of low-paid hospital workers.
Thomson is entitled to his day in court. Gillard and Labor will also have their day of judgment on the handling of this matter, as well as many other issues. And now we know that will be on September 14 - 226 days to go.
Phillip Hudson is Herald Sun national political editor
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