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Since the news of Craig Thomson’s arrest on fraud charges yesterday, coincidentally occurring in the middle of Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s address to the National Press Council, the already-constant buzzing about union corruption has grown louder. Better writers than I have covered troubling aspects of the arrest, concerns about a fair trial, political motivation running the entire thing, and today’s Neil Mitchell interview with Federal Employment Minister Bill Shorten and Federal Opposition Treasurer Joe Hockey contains interesting comparisons and allegations of hypocrisy.

I do want to note the disgusting comment by NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell in response to the report that Mr Thomson was strip searched. My focus in this post, though, is to analyse series of interlinking arguments that underlie this buzzing. Let me start by saying that my introduction to philosophical argument and structure was over two decades ago, and started looking way to much like algebra before I got a grasp on it, so while I’m open to input on the way I’ve deconstructed the buzz, that aspect’s not what it’s about.

Last night, when I tweeted that we could perhaps wait until his case was determined before branding Mr Thomson guilty, @LeftyScumbag (who’s not so much a fan of the ALP), responded “Of course he’s bloody guilty. He’s a corrupt unionist typical of a Labor hack.” When I asked if all unionists were corrupt he replied “Not all of them, no. The honest ones don’t go into politics,” then “I don’t know if all Labor MPs with union backgrounds are corrupt. But I’d say it’s more likely than not.” I’ve yet to have a response to my question about whether he believes this is “More likely because unions are fundamentally corrupt, because non-corrupt unionists are apolitical, because the ALP’s corrupt?”

The Phantom Leftist’s responses iterate a common theme. What I have seen most often on Twitter is varieties of the following:

P1 Craig Thomson was an elected union official
P2 Craig Thomson is corrupt
C Therefore all union officials (and unions) are corrupt


P1 Craig Thomson is an ALP MP
P2 Craig Thomson is corrupt
C Therefore the ALP is corrupt

And it all comes down to

P1 The ALP receives funds from unions
P2 All unions are corrupt
C Therefore the ALP is corrupt/untrustworthy/acting at the behest of unions.

It seems fair to say that, had they known, rank-and-file Health Services Union members would not have approved the use of a union creadit card to purchase goods and/or services for an official’s own use. Peter Wicks notes that there were no guidelines on HSU credit card use at the time, which I’ll get back to in a second, because he also draws attention to the fact that Marco Bolano’s HSU credit card was used at brothels, that Kathy Jackson’s own use of HSU funds for personal gain “dwarfs than of Thomson,” and that neither of them have been charged (his site is excellent and strongly recommended).

If there were no guideline on union credit card use, nor any attempt to mask the non-union expenditures (as, for example, stationery supplies), then unethical seems more appropriate than fraud – the latter I’d be inclined to reserve for things like billing one’s employer for extortionate consultancy services by your own consultancy company.

But let me allow, for the purposes of this discussion, the claim of fraud and move on to the unstated premise that fraud also constitutes corruption.

The classic definition (like the Oxford dictionary‘s) most commonly gives bribery as an example of “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power” but I’m very comfortable with the wider definition used by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption that corrupt conduct is when:

  • a public official improperly uses, or tries to improperly use, the knowledge, power or resources of their position for personal gain or the advantage of others
  • a public official acts dishonestly or unfairly, or breaches public trust
  • a member of the public influences, or tries to influence, a public official to use his or her position in a way that is dishonest, biased or breaches public trust

For the most part I’d argue that just where fraud becomes corruption is unclear – according to Mr Thomson’s lawyer, on e of the 150 charges is that he allegedly used a union credit card to buy $12 worth of ice cream, which might be petty larceny but surely falls well short of corruption by anyone’s standard. That said, an isolated incident is one thing, a systemic pattern is another. So let us once again, for the purposes of this discussion, grant that the charges amount to corrupt behaviour, and move on to matters a little more contentious.

There are a couple of premises here that are accepted as facts in these arguments, but aren’t, which is why these oft-stated claims aren’t valid. To start with, while Mr Thomson has indeed been charged with 150 counts of fraud, he has not yet been found guilty of anything. (He is also, currently, an Independent and has suspended his ALP membership but I think that’s a little nit-picky).

Let me make it very clear that I believe any official taking personal advantage of their role at the expense of those they represent is abhorrent and indefensible.

Should Mr Thomson be found guilty of fraud he does deserve the fullest consequences of the law – but for now he’s not actually guilty.

However, even in the event that Mr Thomson is found guilty of fraud and corruption – even if he were found to have been rewarded because of corrupt behaviour, that would not support the concluding leap from one to all – while there is undoubtedly corruption by some in some unions (as there almost certainly is, to some extent, in many large organisations), it is quite patently untrue that all unions or all union officials are corrupt.

The union I know most about, of course, is my own – the official structural hierarchy has members at the top, and all key decision-making is rooted in the best interests of members. For that reason, Victorian branch ANF officials are paid according to the same Enterprise Bargaining Agreement pay structure as public sector nurses and midwives. I attended the most recent Annual General Meeting, where the branch’s finances were transparently laid out and explained. I have no doubt there are many other unions equally as principled and professional.

That there is, or may be, some corruption in some branches of some unions is a despicable, dishonourable, illegal, immoral breach of trust. But this argument needs only one union free of corruption to be disproved.

That leaves us with one argument – that the ALP is corrupt, or at least unreliable and untrustworthy, because of their union affiliation.

There is no question that many of the ideologies of the Left are also those of trade unions. Indeed, many of the services most Australians take for granted (publicly funded health care and education, an eight-hour day, weekends, public holidays, paid leave, the existence of leave full stop, employer-paid superannuation, occupational health and safety…) were once-upon-a-time the reckless, feckless ideas of unions and the Left. Rarely do employers, share-holders and CEO’s decide they’ve made sufficient profit and will raise wages or improve conditions – those changes come only through negotiation and, all too often, pressure.

In the same way that there are ideological similarities between Left-leaning unions and Left-leaning political parties, there are common goals shared by business and Right-leaning politicians and parties. In general they prefer to reduce pressures that limit business growth, and thus profit. And it makes sense that organisations are inclined to support those parties or politicians who they think will act in their best interests – though the line between support and influence can become blurred.

Some donors are fairly even-handed – Westfield Group gave the ALP the same amount Westfield Ltd. donated to the Liberal Party, for example, while Westpac and ANZ gave the same or similar amounts to each party, though NAB gave almost twice as much to the Right.

Conversely, some donors are understandably very partisan – Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon stated that 97% of British American Tobacco’s 2010 international political donations were to the Australian Liberal and National parties. According to Adam Bennett in The Australian today, the Liberal Party’s biggest contributors in 2011/12 included the mining and gambling industries, though the latter has also contributed to the Labor party (which, says Andrew Wilkie, explains why we still have no substantial pokie reform).

Here’s the thing, though.

Just as workers are represented by unions, employers are represented by associations. in the 2011/12 Victorian Public Sector Enterprise Agreement that-time-forgot, nurses and midwives were represented by the Australian Nursing Federation (Vic. branch), and public hospitals (and, de facto, their employer, the State government) were represented by the Victorian Hospitals Industry Association.

Like unions, the aim of these associations is to represent the interests of their members. So “the Australian Hotels Association (AHA), the Australian Hotels and Hospitality Association and Clubs NSW, who collectively donated almost $550,000” to the Liberal and National parties (source) donated to the parties they thought were most likely to support gambling legislation that generates income for pubs and clubs that run pokie machines.

What happens if an official of an association acts contrary to the best interests of its members? In some cases this may be unavoidable – Victoria’s Health and Community Services Union, for example, represents all those who work in mental health, so it’s possible a conflict could arise between the best interests of its nursing members, for example, and those of mental health assistants. But what about where the needs of members in unambiguous, and the failure to act is not because of internal conflict, but for personal gain?

In Queensland small retailers (including the Independent Grocers’ Association) have, since 1887, been represented by the Queensland Retail Traders and Shopkeepers Association (QRTSA), now the United Retail Federation (URF). In what the Sunshine Coast Daily last month described as a “dramatic about-face”, the URF has decided it will no longer opposed restricted trading hours, a move that benefits the supermarket duopoly and disadvantages small retailers who can ill-afford to pay employees to work longer hours. Queensland IGA chair Roz White has said this move may risk thousands of jobs, in what is already a shaky retail climate (and this was pre-floods).

According to a report this January, Metcash – who supplies over 3100 independent stores nationally – has been targeted by Coles-Woolworths. Acting in association with IGA, in late 2011 Metcash reportedly contributed around $50,000, matched by QRTSA, for court and associated costs fighting changes to allowable trading hours. Less than a year later Metcash recommended IGA allow their QRTSA membership to lapse.

So why, after a decades-long relationship, did IGA disassociate, and why did QRTSA/URF decide to stop campaigning against extended trading hours? The announcement was made on December 5th last year, by current president Bruce Mills, apparently to the surprise of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman:

[URF] claims to be the peak representative of corner stores and independents and had staunchly opposed any relaxation to trading hours.
But late last month, it suddenly reversed its position, calling on the State Government to forge ahead with deregulation.
The National Retail Association, which represents some of the biggest retailers, is preparing a fresh push to relax trading hours, with up to eight separate applications to extend opening hours across the state scheduled to be heard by the QIRC so far this year.
NRA deputy chief executive officer Bianca Seeto said the URF had previously been the main opponent in applications for extended trading hours and their opposition had been taken into consideration in the final judgment. [source]

But that announcement came after the better part of a year of discord between the Association and IGA members – I’ve been informed that “IGA store owners complained QRTSA’s communication with members was largely non-existent, that the organisation did not provide notifications and staff were often unavailable to take calls.”

This change coincided with then-president Scott Driscoll‘s transition to government – pre-selected for the Queensland seat of Redcliffe in November 2010, the life-time National Party member (who had been unsuccessful in previous pre-selection bids), won the seat last March, during the State election, after a hard-fought 18-month campaign that saw a post-preference swing of 15.6% away from incumbent ALP candidate Lillie van Litsenberg.

Mr Driscoll withdrew from his paid QRTSA role as executive director and Young Nationals members (and executive) Ben Scott was appointed in his steed, while also assisting Mr Driscoll in his election campaign. A former QRTSA executive reported that Mr Driscoll and Mr Scott were running QRTSA from an office within Mr Driscoll’s campaign headquarters.

Mr Driscoll retained his unpaid role as QRTSA president despite reports of concerns about conflict of interest from other QTRSA committee members, and criticism from Queensland Labor members that “the URF was a vehicle for Mr Driscoll’s self-promotion” – that followed a URF press release that slammed then-Premier Anna Bligh and didn’t mention Mr Driscoll’s political position.

Though Mr Driscoll is said to deny any conflict of interest, sources report communication with members dwindled, along with the previously-monthly QRTSA executive meetings.

Bruce Mills is a management consultant and director with an IT background. He seems to have used a community group’s Twitter account to praise Mr Driscoll, on more than one occasion, and while one need not have a personal association to be an influencer, Mr Driscoll’s Klout account lists Mr Mills as one of his highest, with four of the currently listed tweets being engaged with by Mr Mills – a favour sadly not returned. They appear together (at the 12 and 49 second marks) in a September 2011 clip about the Redcliffe Festival; and Mr Driscoll, Mr Scott and Mr Mills form 3/4 of the Redcliffe tourism committee. It’s fair to say, then, that they’re friendly, if not friends.

In September 2012 Bruce Mills was appointed QRTSA secretary; his wife Leesa is treasurer, while Mr Driscoll’s wife Emma is interim president. On December 5th 2012, the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission found that QRTSA hasn’t held authorised elections since August 1996.

So we have an employer association, until recently lead by a Liberal National Party MP, who appointed his wife, friends and campaign associates to run the organisation amid a dispute over use of funds and questions about political roles taking precedent over industrial responsibilities.

So here’s my question – where’s the outrage? Mr Driscoll may not have used QRTSA funds for his own use, but there’s at least a question that his representation of his members was subverted for personal political gain.

Surely that’s in the same league of corruption as the accusations leveled against Mr Thomson, yet I’ve heard nothing about this on the news, read nothing in the media, and I’ve yet to see any allegations that the Right, or even that employer associations are questionable.

Or is it only on the Left that one (potentially) bad apple means the whole barrel’s tainted?