It would appear that the great Craig Thomson-Health Services Union scandal has finally come off the boil. As with so many scandals the salacious bit is really not the issue, having sex in brothels is not illegal and hardly unexpected. What else are brothels for? The gist of the scandal then is that the union paid for brothel visits, under the guise that it was for guest entertainment. The issue is that it was improper, which covers a lot of ground: an inappropriate use of union members’ funds.
Tony Abbott has been trying very hard to convince the world that Thomson’s conduct means he is not a fit and proper person to hold elected office based on the formula that hiding inappropriate expenses on the third spreadsheet of a cost centre workbook related to an obsolete business unit is corruption. Speaking from the inside of a vast accounting system all I can say that there is any number of fairly inappropriate uses of entertainment cost centres.
Is the third or fourth bottle of red inappropriate? The limousine pick up from the airport? Is the Monte Cristo on the balcony a cigar too far? Is it going to Aria or Otto or Tetsuyas that makes a meal inappropriate? Or putting up the guests in the Park Hyatt when the Park Vue would do? I imagine that all across the big end of town the corporates pay for these everyday of the week, even more so, maybe twice daily. That’d be shareholder’s money. I can even imagine Tony Abbott taking care of his guests with generous use of the Liberal Party MasterCard; perhaps he even makes an offer of liqueur when he takes potential donors out on the town.
Actually what we’re talking about when we talk about entertainment is any number of regrettable and shame inducing behaviours that the workplace pays for (one way or the other), usually by blokes who know the bloke who’ll be approving their credit card invoices. It’s a blokes upstairs taking care of blokes upstairs thing. With regard to Craig Thomson I don’t doubt that he didn’t fulfil his duties and responsibilities as National Secretary, and that he was probably neglectful when it came to his mates’ expense claims. But also we’re talking about a bloke who’s found his entertainment on the front page, and has responded with completely predictable defensiveness, shame, and pleading.
What Tony Abbott is really attacking when he attacks Craig Thomson is the role of unions, characterising them as being parasites on the body of Australian employees and employers, a crass impediment to the operation of the free market, especially the free labour market. Thomson and his after-dark shenanigans are simply a tool to stick it to the unions and Julia Gillard. This is to be expected, this is no game change. It’s what the Liberals do. Nothing much has changed since Malcolm Fraser was bagging Bob Hawke for wasting members’ funds with JetSet travel in the early seventies.
It should have been so interesting, it should have been nigh on compelling. Minority government that is, it could have been. It could have been pluralism in action, genuine conversations spilling over into and out of the Parliament. Minority government has enough risk attached for government to be sexy again. But it isn’t, government and parliament are fallow fields for thought.
What the Thomson scandal is clarifying with wonderful punch is that the opposition haven’t managed to adapt their game at all under the minority government. They are doing what they’ve done for decades, Tony and manic black-hattedness charge about raining on every single parade they find. Not that Labor have managed to modify what they do either, the play of public statements isn’t for thinking about, it’s for a run of play (who’s winning?) approach to the media cycle and by extension the electoral cycle. Julia has done all right but it’s a long way from compelling. As for Thomson, well, he always struck me as a caravan-park-manager-kind-of-guy, seedy, but he clearly knows how to have a good time.