Failure of moral leadership condemns Labor Party
THERE has been no shortage of hypocrisy in the saga that engulfs the beleaguered federal MP Craig Thomson.
Rational people tend to act out of self-interest, and politicians are no different. It is therefore understandable that Julia Gillard should have sought to prolong her time as the head of the government by seeking to protect Thomson.
Similarly, it is perfectly legitimate for the Coalition to apply pressure to the government and Thomson as it seeks to take over the reins of power.
However, as deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop cogently stated in the House of Representatives last week, it seems inconceivable, as the Prime Minister and her frontbench colleagues have sought to argue, that parliament has no role to play when there are such serious findings against one of its members.
While the findings of Fair Work Australia that Thomson used union credit cards to pay for prostitutes make for salacious headlines, far more serious are the allegations that he misused more than $270,000 of Health Services Union funds to support his 2007 federal election campaign. The Australian Electoral Commission may well have some difficult questions to answer, as some of the allegations involving Thomson’s campaign funding were referred to the AEC for investigation in August 2010. The AEC reported that it had investigated material in the public domain but was unable to find any evidence to support the allegations against Thomson.
It is therefore highly likely that in the near future the AEC may find itself under the microscope of Coalition scrutiny.
The other grievous allegation against Thomson is that he took part in an arrangement with a printing company to inflate the contracts awarded to it and received kickbacks from the company as a result.
This matter is under investigation by a NSW Police taskforce but, if proved to be true, the arrangement would certainly attract greater penalties than the misuse of union funds to pay for prostitutes. As to Labor’s oft-repeated claim that it has a history of respecting the presumption of innocence and due process, two instances spring to mind.
First, the approach taken by the then Labor opposition with regard to allegations against former governor-general Peter Hollingworth that as Anglican archbishop of Brisbane he failed to act against clergy involved in the sexual abuse of children.
There were no findings by an independent investigatory authority or similar against Hollingworth and no proceedings afoot, yet then Labor opposition leader Simon Crean led a ferocious attack on Hollingworth lasting months, calling repeatedly for his resignation as governor-general.
The attacks were not confined to the governor-general but were also directed to then prime minister John Howard. Labor accused Howard of having failed to adequately vet Hollingworth’s background before appointing him.
In parliament, Labor moved censure motions against the prime minister, accusing him of a cover-up about his knowledge of Hollingworth’s alleged actions or lack thereof.
In a fiery parliamentary session on May 26, 2003, Crean assumed the role of judge, jury and executioner by declaring: “The prime minister does not get it, because while he says this is a difficult issue, the proposition itself is very simple indeed. It is as simple as this: you cannot have people in authority who have covered up for child sex abuse. It is as simple as that. There is nothing difficult about it.”
A few days later, Hollingworth resigned as governor-general.
There is no doubt Hollingworth’s behaviour warranted scrutiny, but it is also fair to say that Labor, under the privilege of parliament, hounded him from office before any due process had been allowed to run its course.
Similarly, the Labor opposition did not wait for the report of the Cole royal commission into the Australian Wheat Board in late 2006 before prosecuting its case through the parliament. Howard and other cabinet ministers were subjected to constant parliamentary attack from Kevin Rudd and Kim Beazley, among other Labor figures. Censure motions were moved against the government and ministers.
At one point, Labor called for then deputy prime minister Mark Vaile not only to resign from his portfolio but also to resign from parliament, on the basis of alleged failings in his administration. This was despite the absence of any findings against him.
And Labor called for the resignation of foreign minister Alexander Downer, also before any findings had been made against him.
It mattered little to Labor that the royal commission cleared Howard and his ministers of any wrongdoing. No apologies were forthcoming, despite a year of constant character assassinations made in the parliament and through the media.
By the standard federal Labor has set for others, the Prime Minister should have required Thomson to resign from the parliament.
At the very least, Labor should not count his vote but arrange a pair, as the Coalition did previously to avoid accepting the vote of disgraced Labor senator for Queensland Mal Colston.
The most troubling aspect of the Thomson saga is that the Prime Minister has shown no leadership on the issue, which again calls into question her moral compass. Gillard clearly believes that clinging to power at any cost and in any circumstance is more important than being seen to take leadership on an issue that many people find repugnant.
Her recent and belated claim that she is repulsed by the behaviour of unnamed union leaders rings hollow.
It seems her instinctive response to the many crises engulfing her government is to first deny their existence, then, when cornered, to adopt an assertive and increasingly aggressive stance.
That approach may work in the byzantine world of the union movement and within the factions of the Labor Party, but Gillard appears incapable of rising to the task of national moral leadership.
Her failure to lead in the Thomson matter condemns the entire Labor Party in its hour of greatest need.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, most recently the political-sexual satire ‘Fools’ Paradise’.
The Weekend Australian, May 19-20, 2012, Inquirer p 15.