Tuesday, 30 August 2011

In the court of public opinion, Thomson's on his own

The Australian public have a healthy cynicism about politics.

They reckon that politicians are all much the same and nothing much that they do comes as any surprise. Naturally if there is a bit of scandal in the air then, if they have time, they might follow the latest controversy.

But despite the usual cacophony, the electorate are not so stupid as to think that the latest evidence of the misdemeanours or otherwise of politicians is more important than what is happening about the economy. The economy is what really counts because it affects the hip-pocket nerve; jobs and living standards.

So when it's announced that 1,400 jobs are to be lost and when people hear that international economic turmoil might impact on them personally then the public expect our politicians to be talking about the real issues that worry them. And they don't want to hear some shallow bandaid response; they want to see the Government deal with the substantive issues.

Last week instead of being on a real economic message in a substantive way, the Prime Minister tinkered by giving an ex-politician $1,000 a day to demonstrate she was doing something useful even though she was basically doing nothing and spent most of her time giving her full confidence to the man at the centre of a political scandal.

Because Ms Gillard does not focus on what the public want, they naturally don't want her. So having set the record for Labor's lowest-ever primary vote, she will soon beat her own record.

Abbott is doing better. The PM has at least three problems. Firstly, Ms Gillard is incompetent. Secondly, she can't extricate herself from Thomson. And thirdly, Mr Abbott is focussed on stopping a new tax that will cut living standards. He could be even further ahead if he had more economic policy instead of the new tax he is proposing for a more generous paid parental leave scheme than the one just introduced by Labor.

On the Thomson issue the PM needs to act and not obfuscate. She should be doing something about the issue at the centre of the scandal - the apparent misappropriation of union funds.

Fair Work Australia (FWA) seems to have been dragging its feet for years by not properly supervising the finances of some registered organisations including the Health Services Union (HSU). The HSU referred its auditor's reports and legal advice at least two years ago to FWA.  How does FWA explain the delay? As the HSU thought matters should be referred to the police, how does FWA explain that it did not adopt the same approach? And why is the Government intending to exempt the head of FWA from attending Senate committee hearings?

Instead of offering unlimited support to Thomson the PM would be smarter to give herself some wriggle room and say that she will initiate a full and independent inquiry into FWA to make sure that union members are properly protected and that FWA fulfils all of its duties.

This inquiry would not be a substitute for the full independent review promised when the Fair Work Act was introduced but it would be a lot better for her to be seen supporting union members who feel they have been ripped off than just mouthing 100 per cent support for Craig Thomson.

It is no fun being at the centre of scandal and very tough on family members. I do not know what Thomson did or otherwise. He can't expect a presumption of innocence; no-one gets that unless the police lay charges. In politics, the court you face is the court of public opinion and usually the media are the principle prosecutors and judges. It might be unfair, it might be rough justice, they might exaggerate, and sometimes not get the facts right but that is our system.

I have had first-hand experience of this.

My mistake was to give a telecard pin number to one of my teenage children to use in case of an accident or something equally dire on a trip he was taking. I apologised for that error of judgement but I was not to know of the consequences. My son never had an accident and so I never thought about it again until five years later. I had stopped using the telecard, thanks to having a mobile phone. For five years, Finance never informed me that they were paying huge bills in my name. A fraud investigator from Telstra rang my office and told me that his calls to the Finance Department got nowhere so he thought he would ring me direct to ask about the obvious fraud on my phone. I initiated an inquiry, I asked for the police to be involved, I informed the PM in writing, I paid for the approximately $1,000 of calls made by my son over the five years and also paid about $49,000 for calls made fraudulently by persons unknown to me or my son. Labor and Liberal MPs, including senior cabinet ministers, came to me privately and expressed support on the grounds the fraud could have happened using anyone's pin number.

I answered any question. Craig Thomson has not.

Craig Thomson's best course of action is to spell out what happened and then cop the consequences. He is going to wear this saga for the rest of his life; whatever happened is all going to come out. If others were involved, as he claims, then he can't afford to wait while his reputation is shredded day in, day out.

There is no point for him to take any notice of Julia Gillard; the political reality is that her interests and the interests of other members of the Caucus are different to his interests.

Whatever the MPs say to him, however sympathetic and well-meaning they might be, and I don't doubt he has the goodwill of friends in the Labor Party, he is on his own and needs to act in his own interest.

That's politics; it can be a tough and unrelenting business.

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