More often than not these days, even day-to-day political “footie commentary” is purveyed with greater depth and perceptiveness by the blogosphere and alternative media than in Australia’s sadly diminished mainstream mass media. The Craig Thomson soap opera is a case in point, although Thomson’s Parliamentary performance on Monday was rated equally poorly by both sectors.
Strategically and no doubt wisely abandoning any pretence of academic objectivity, UNSW’s Mark Rolfe gave Thomson’s performance a one star rating at the G8 universities’ site The Conversation:
Thomson’s statement showed him to be a man lost in politics, lashing at enemies with the usual tactics of push and shove because that’s how the game has been for him and others in this sorry little saga.
Thomson’s case about conspiracy was at best circumstantial and at worst composed of the kind of supposition that political players often make about enemy moves and intentions, even if it was more outlandish than usual. He expects us to believe this line of thinking, when we are actually incredulous at his story.
The Health Services Union has been decidedly unhealthy for more than 12 years. Thomson has been in the thick of it and has thrived in the melees, beginning with victory in 2002 in a struggle that involved allegations of defamation and gross misbehaviour. Why would Williamson be trying to destroy Thomson at the same time that he was supporting Thomson’s federal election campaign in 2007 and 2010 with election funds subject to an AEC investigation?
Still, Rolfe wasn’t going to let Tony Abbott and his Coalition cronies off scot-free either:
It’s the same game with the current fight in NSW Liberals which is spilling into the public square. For all the po-faced reactions of Abbott & co., we know they’d adopt Labor’s same arguments if in the same position. This is just the adversarial nature of the political game.
Meanwhile, Tom Cowie at Crikey provided profiles of some of the extensive list of characters on Thomson’s sh*t list.
Cowie’s Crikey colleague Bernard Keane was marginally more positive about Thomson’s performance:
Every political cycle has rare moments when an otherwise disengaged electorate tunes in to politics. The Godwin Grech moment in 2009 was one such. Leadership stoushes are another. Political journalists understandably ride them for all they’re worth. Craig Thomson’s defence yesterday was one such moment.
It was, even Thomson’s few defenders would admit, not exactly up there with Nixon’s “Checkers” speech in successfully wriggling out of a tight spot, although, like Nixon, Thomson offered plenty of detail about his early career in order to, well, humanise the figure behind the scandal.
But Thomson managed to throw up plenty of confusion, especially about the operation of Fair Work Australia in the conduct of its investigation, and offer a narrative of persecution by internal enemies that, oddly, exactly complements one of the stories the Coalition has been running in relation to the affair, that there’s something innately crooked about unions. And it’s only a few weeks since Tony Abbott smeared the whole industry superannuation sector with his reference to “gravy trains” and “venal” union officials.
Sydney University legal academic Anne Twomey appears to be much less than impressed by Thomson’s claim that the Australian Electoral Commission’s report had somehow both exonerated him in relation to spending half a million dollars of HSU funds on getting elected and also discredited the scathing Fair Work Australia report which precipitated this latest episode of the soap opera:
First, the ‘donations’ that allegedly funded the employment of staff to raise Mr Thomson’s profile in the electorate of Dobell did not require disclosure because they occurred before the date he was pre-selected as a candidate for the seat in 2007. As he was a new candidate and had not run in the previous election, donations to support his campaign did not count until he was pre-selected. The vast bulk of the HSU money that was allegedly used to support Mr Thomson’s campaign, as set out in the Fair Work Australia report, occurred before he was pre-selected. Equally, his electoral expenditure only counted if it occurred during the election period (from the issue of the writs to polling day). So any expenditure that occurred earlier than this did not need to be declared by Mr Thomson.
The second issue is the high disclosure threshold, which in 2007-8 was $10,500. While the amount of all donations needs to be recorded by political parties and by donors in their returns to the AEC, they do not need to be ‘particularised’ unless a single donation is over the threshold amount. For example, expenditure of $4,826.99 to establish a Campaign Office would have to be disclosed in the overall total of donations made by the HSU or received by the ALP, but didn’t have to be specifically itemised. Hence the AWC cannot tell whether or not it has been disclosed, because all it has is a global figure.
On the other hand, an earlier article by Twomey points out that Parliament does not have the constitutional power to expel Thomson, although that would occur by operation of law in the event of criminal conviction and imprisonment satisfying the criteria in s 44(ii) of the Australian Constitution. However that prospect seems highly unlikely before the excruciatingly distant expiry of the current Parliament next year by the effluxion of time. Even the extent of its power to suspend him is uncertain:
It is unclear whether the power to suspend continues to apply to conduct which does not fall under the Standing Orders and does not amount to an ‘offence against a House’ as defined in s 4 of the Parliamentary Privileges Act.1 …
However, when questions of power arise, it is ultimately for the courts to determine whether an institution of government, including a House of the Parliament, has the capacity to exercise a power.
As a general principle, the courts try to avoid interfering in internal parliamentary matters and treat them as ‘non-justiciable’ (i.e. something that they cannot or will not determine). However, when questions of power arise, it is ultimately for the courts to determine whether an institution of government, including a House of the Parliament, has the capacity to exercise a power….
In the case of the Federal Parliament, where the power to suspend is determined by reference to the scope of the powers of the House of Commons at the time of federation, the courts have not so far been called upon to intervene. They might agree to do so, however, if the challenge related to the power to suspend, rather than the merits of the suspension.
The exercise of such a power might be challenged on the ground that either (a) it was beyond the power held by the House of Commons at the time of federation (which is unlikely); or (b) that the power has been impliedly altered since by legislation or constitutional implications. For example, it might be argued that since the enactment of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987, the power to suspend is limited to ‘offences against the House’ and could not be exercised in relation to events that took place before the Member was elected and did not interfere in any way with the free exercise of a House of its authority or functions. It might also be argued that the constitutional implications derived from the system of representative government preserve the right of a Member of Parliament to exercise his or her vote in the Parliament on behalf of his or her constituents unless disqualified from doing so by legislation or the express provisions of the Constitution.
But of course these events aren’t really about removing Thomson from Parliament, however much Tony Abbott may posture to that effect. They’re about prolonging and exacerbating a public aura of chaos and decay around an increasingly punch-drunk Gillard government, so that its reputation with the electorate remains at historic lows through until next year’s election. And you’d have to give short odds on Abbott continuing to succeed in that aim, absent enough ALP pollies mustering the intestinal fortitude to eat a KRudd sandwich, however nauseating, in the interest of their own political survival.
In a more general sense, however, Bernard Keane argues it’s really all just about the soap opera:
What it definitely tells us is that the media and their audiences are far more comfortable with personalities and scandal than the “real issues” everyone says they prefer in political coverage.
This finally yielded some meaning for an otherwise meaningless saga. What does the Thomson affair tell us? That unions are corrupt? That we’re a lynch mob ready to drop the pretence of due process? What it definitely tells us is that the media and their audiences are far more comfortable with personalities and scandal than the “real issues” everyone says they prefer in political coverage.
The Thomson saga is, of course, Important, no doubt; the government, after all, Could Fall; big issues are at stake, such as The Future Of The Union Movement. The saga is not for trivialising. And yet it now looks nothing less or more than a torn-from-the-headlines crime drama missing only the characteristic doink! of Law & Order, the much longed-for transformation of boring politics into prime-time drama.
Thus has minority government served us; its hothouse atmosphere encouraging the hypertrophy of the more grotesque organs of the body politic, each to be placed on display by the media. It’s not so much that we’ve become judge, jury and executioner, but judge, jury and showman, reproving and castigating that which we’re delighted to display. That’s entertainment.
Nevertheless, looking at the bright side, the Gillard government might not be able to organise a root in a brothel (at least in PR terms), but Craig Thomson probably can (unless it was someone else).
- Fairly clearly Thomson’s behaviour to date, absent a finding of misleading the House on Monday, does not amount either to a breach of Standing Orders or an ‘offence against a House’. ↩