PLANET JACKSON: Power, Greed & Unions
Melbourne University Press, 2016, 328 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Michael Williamson, top dog of the Health Services Union (HSU), used to joke that ‘nothing’s too good for the workers - and their representatives’, as he brazenly defrauded the union to generously enrich himself. $5 million worth of generosity – that’s an awful lot of life’s little luxuries like fine wine, retail goods, international holidays, mortgage repayments, home renovations, Mercedes, speedboats and private school fees. Just one lavish, boozy lunch with his cronies would burn through the annual dues ($600) of one of his low-paid union members (hospital cleaners, orderlies, clerks, porters, etc.), writes journalist, Brad Norington, in Planet Jackson.
Williamson’s thieving was accomplished through misuse of his union credit card, through HSU business supply contracts at grossly inflated prices from companies fully or partially owned by himself or his family, and through nepotism and cronyism (he put eight family members on the union payroll whilst his mistress received $155,000 a year for two days ‘work’ a week). For a creative flourish, Williamson claimed reimbursement for false claims of muggings and burglaries of union money. Obviously, the poor chap must have been struggling to get by on his annual salary of $700,000.
Other senior HSU officials aped his example. Craig Thomson, a protégé of Williamson, trousered $250,000 to fund his successful 2007 Australian Labor Party (ALP) federal election campaign, and embezzled $24,000 to spend on prostitutes, sporting memorabilia and firewood, amongst the dishes on offer from the smorgasbord of personal goodies supplied on other people’s dimes.
Kathy Jackson was a $1.4 billion financial embellisher in her mentor’s mould – her favourites from the corruption buffet were fashion, medical services, hi-fi gear, groceries, liquor, camping equipment, shopping trips to Hong Kong and divorce settlement payments to her ex-husband. During the 2004 Boxing Day sales, Jackson ran up $7,000 in a single day on her union credit cards.
Jackson was the most cynical of the three, blowing the whistle on Williamson but only in an internal power struggle - so even that act of honesty was self-serving. Noble whistle-blower was the “perfect cover” for her own corruption, says Norington.
The HSU thieves were all addicted to greed. Even when Thomson faced ignominious defeat in the 2013 elections, he decided to stand again as an independent - just so he could milk the taxpayer by claiming a ‘resettlement allowance’ of $97,000 for defeated incumbents. Jackson, when publicly disgraced, tried to mine a new income seam by getting her hooks into a retired, dementia-suffering QC for a share of his $30 million estate, whilst having herself appointed as executor which gave her access to his bank accounts.
Norington examines in minute detail every sordid nut and filthy bolt of the HSU leaders’ corruption but only occasionally lifts his eyes to examine a greater corruption than that of a few light-fingered union officials, namely the industrially and politically corrupting intersection of the ALP and its affiliated unions.
Williamson, Thomson and Jackson bartered their union bloc votes for factional influence and potential plush parliamentary careers in the ALP whilst Labor politicians needed their factional union allies, even the crooked ones. Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, opportunistically motivated by retaining office, publicly covered for Thomson, whilst the party paid his enormous legal bills to keep him from going bankrupt, losing his seat and bringing down the minority Gillard government.
The HSU Three, even whilst they were shamelessly diddling their union members, saw the ALP, the self-proclaimed ‘party for the workers’, as a suitable political home for themselves. That tells us something, something unwholesome, about where the ALP’s loyalties really lie – with the labour elite, at the expense of the workers they claim to represent.