Craig Thomson’s day in kangaroo court

Another day, another way in which the state of Australian politics sinks lower and lower. We reached the gutter about the time the Opposition decided that it wasn’t going to grant pairs for the purposes of allowing the Prime Minister to great foreign heads of state, or for a backbencher to be at the bedside of his wife as she delivered their child.

We got to the sewer when allegations of sexual harassment and improper use of funds against Speaker Peter Slipper (and yes, he is still the Speaker, certain commentators’ assertions to the contrary) were capitalised upon by the Coalition. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was only the loudest of his party in denouncing Slipper – and, of course, the government. Slipper was tried and convicted by the Opposition, with the enthusiastic co-operation of the media, and pressured to step down from his position until the matter comes to civil court. That pressure continues even now, and Slipper’s name may well be irrevocably tainted, regardless of the outcome of the civil case.

I’m not quite sure what comes below that. Perhaps the bedrock, because today Parliament treated us to the unedifying spectacle of an MP forced to ‘prove’ his innocence against a series of unsubstantiated, highly questionable allegations ranging from electoral fraud to (apparently) frequenting a brothel.

It was surely a coincidence that this was the same member who’d been denied a pair to be with his wife – the Member for Dobell, Craig Thomson. Persecution? Surely not.

Well, front Parliament Thomson did, and delivered an hour-long speech that started with a few choice quotes from the death threats he’d received. He defended himself from the allegations against him, contained in the Fair Work Australia report into the Health Services Union. He denied any wrongdoing whatsoever, and alleged in turn that he had been deliberately set up by those who were unhappy with the changes he’d made to the way the union operated. He named Marco Bolano, an HSU official, as having threatened to ‘ruin’ his political career by ‘setting him up with hookers’. Of course, he could not prove much of what he asserted was untrue – and acknowledged as much, but he did thoroughly tear apart the FWA report, pointing out how much of it weighed on the uncritical acceptance of testimony by Kathy Jackson and Michael Williamson, both of whom he said opposed him from the beginning.

Thomson reserved his harshest criticism for the Opposition, who he said had stirred up a ‘lynch mob’ against him, and for the media. Nearly in tears, he described the hounding he’d received from the latter, singling out Channel 7, who he said had stationed a crew underneath his bathroom window, while his pregnant wife was showering. (For the record, Channel 7 later issued a statement denying only the presence of any reporters under the window.)

About the Opposition he said this, ‘You have damaged democracy’. I think it’s fair to say, however, that this criticism could be just as easily levelled at the government, who expelled him from the Caucus some weeks ago in an obvious attempt to put him at arms’ length. After months of previous support, it looked like the government was cutting him loose while it still could, and it lent weight to the idea that he was as good as convicted already.

It was clear that Thomson was both furious and deeply upset. And he had every right to be, because between them, the Parliament and the media forced him into actions he should never have had to undertake.

What’s so terrible about making him front Parliament? Oh, just two little things – the presumption of innocence, and the separation of powers. Two little things that underpin our judiciary and our system of government.

All Australians are considered innocent until proven guilty. Thomson has not fronted a court. He has not been charged. As of this writing, there is no indication that he will be charged. A report was handed down by Fair Work Australia, a statutory body with no authority to bring prosecutions or make determinations of law – something it acknowledged in the report – and passed on to other bodies. The NSW police brought no charges. The Australian Electoral Commission found the report in error as regards its assertions of wrongdoing on Thomson’s part. The Victoria police are still looking.

Not that this, apparently, matters to either the Opposition or the media.

Then there’s the matter of separation of powers. This isn’t quite as clear-cut here in Australia as it is places like the United States, but one thing is unequivocal: only courts of law have the power to make findings in law. Even a Federal Commission can only make recommendations – it can’t enforce them. The Parliament’s only judicial power is in the area of contempt of Parliament, and even then the decisions are subject to review by Federal Court.

Thomson is entitled to his day in court, fairly and without prejudice. That idea isn’t good enough for the Opposition, who have kept up consistent pressure to force him to make a statement to Parliament ‘explaining himself’. The Parliament’s reputation was in danger! It was a ‘stinking, putrid mess’! Et cetera. They lost no opportunity to cram it into questions to Ministers, interviews with obliging media, and hijacked Question Time twice in the last sitting alone in an attempt to suspend Standing Orders and drag Thomson to the dock.

They finally got their wish – perhaps just because Thomson couldn’t take it any more. He certainly looked like a man at the end of his tether, and no wonder. He hadn’t been legally represented, or a jury of peers. There was no judge, no sworn testimony, no finding made against him, but he was treated as a convicted criminal making a plea for mercy.

In any court in the country, that would be considered a miscarriage of justice.

But, oh wait – we’re not in a court, are we? Unless it’s a kangaroo court.

Surprise, surprise – they weren’t satisfied with what they heard. As soon as Thomson sat down, Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne was on his feet, wanting the Parliament to ‘take note’ of the statement. Basically, the Opposition wanted another crack at Thomson, and through him, at the government. They tried this no less than three times, and each time failed – twice due to political manoeuvring on the government’s part, and once because the Opposition did not gain an absolute majority.

Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey pronounced it ‘a moral victory’ in booming tones reminiscent of a revival tent preacher or a priggish schoolmaster. It wasn’t. It wasn’t any kind of victory.

The reputation of the Parliament suffers every day in its present form. Contrary to Abbott’s oft-repeated assertions, that’s not because it’s a minority government. Let’s not forget, after all, that were the Coalition in power it would also constitute a minority government. It’s not suffering because Craig Thomson continues to represent the people of Dobell – he was duly elected, and has done nothing to warrant his being removed from that seat. And it’s certainly not suffering for lack of key legislation passing through both Houses.

It’s suffering because time and again, some of the most fundamental standards of Australian culture and society are flouted.

The courtesy to let someone speak without being shouted down – ignored every Question Time.

The decency to keep personal attacks on someone’s marital status, sexuality, mental health, etc., out of public and Parliamentary discourse – ignored at every possible turn.

The respect for Parliamentary procedure that enables it to function at all – exploited, twisted and sometimes outright dismissed.

The adherence to the principle of the presumption of innocence – Exhibits A and B, Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper.

The acknowledgement that the Parliament is not a court, and not entitled to decide the guilt or innocence of anyone.

The basic standard of behaviour we teach our children – that you do not tell lies. And no, I’m not talking about the ‘carbon tax’ – I’m talking about the Opposition’s willingness to play fast and loose with facts, statistics and law whenever it suits them.

And finally, the integrity not to set out to deliberately ruin a man’s life, his family’s peace of mind and his chances of ever being trusted again just because you think it might win you an election.

Craig Thomson is entitled to every protection under the law. He has been treated shamefully, and even if he is guilty of the allegations made by Fair Work Australia, the chances of an untainted prosecution are close to zero, thanks to the concerted efforts of the Opposition and the media.

I’ve said all that before. I shouldn’t have to keep saying it. No one should.

UPDATE:

Oh, and lest anyone still doesn’t get it …

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7 Responses to Craig Thomson’s day in kangaroo court

  1. Iain Hall says:

    Rob
    I think that you miss the point here. like most people who follow politics when I see any person giving a speech I judge it as a piece of drama, and I judge it on how well it has been delivered and more importantly on how persuasive the argument being put is, and on all of those measures Thompson’s hour long rant scores very poorly. Further we judge our MPs all of the time in a democracy every time they put their hands up to be on the Ballot paper finally never forget that we have trial by jury here which means that for the most important charges and accusations it we , the ordinary people who decide guilt or innocence and what is our parliament but a jury of those who we elect to represent us?

  2. Rob says:

    Iain, Andrew – Either you’re both a bit thick or you’re willfully ignoring THE ENTIRE DAMN POINT of this post.

    Parliament is not a court of law. Age readers are not police investigators. Blog commenters (thankfully) are not prosecutors.

    We live in a country with due process and presumption of innocence. Our judicial system is one of the most important institutions that separates us from dictatorships and banana republics the world over. If you’re willing to sacrifice these principles for the sake of political expediency, then you don’t deserve to live in an enlightened, democratic society. Move to Somalia or Afghanistan if you want mob rule.

  3. Iain Hall says:

    Sadly you are just totally ignoring the facts and the sheer lack of believability in Thompson’s explanation I cite George Brandis in today’s Oz who explains just why Thompson’s explanation is just utterly unbelievable:

    The Prime Minister has repeatedly vouched for Fair Work Australia’s impartiality and integrity and while its investigation into Thomsonwas inexcusably long, it was nonetheless exhaustive. Thomson’s version of events is an outright contradiction of the findings of Fair Work Australia. If Thomson is telling the truth, the entire Fair Work Australia analysis is wrong. His key claim is that he was set up by enemies within the HSU. The only evidence to which he points is the alleged threat by another union official, Marco Bolano, that he would “ruin his political career by setting him up with hookers”. He did not specify when this threat was made or the context. On the basis of that single threat, Thomson asks us to conclude that Bolano and unnamed others were parties to a conspiracy that involved: (a) hacking into Thomson’s mobile telephone on numerous occasions, in such a manner as to conceal the fact the phone had been hacked, and to mask that in the billing of the phone calls to various Sydney brothels; (b) taking Thomson’s driver’s licence, and subsequently returning it, without his knowledge; (c) impersonating Thomson at the Sydney brothels, where it is established that photo ID was required before the services of prostitutes could be purchased with credit cards; and (d) ordering outcalls (services provided in hotel rooms or non-brothel private premises) from escort services on a number of different occasions from a number of different hotel rooms.
    The most influential people in Sport

    Bolano has emphatically denied Thomson’s assertions. Although Thomson claimed that Bolano’s threat was made in the presence of others at the HSU offices, he was able to point to nobody who corroborates his claim that the threat was made. Indeed, Thomson pointed to not a single piece of evidence, not a single witness, not a single piece of documentary evidence to support his conspiracy theory. In fact, it is explicitly contradicted by each of the documents — in particular, the credit card vouchers, which bear his signature — relevant to the case. The credit card vouchers bear Thomson’s signature — a conclusion verified by forensic document examiner Paul Westwood, in a report I provided to the NSW Police on 22 August last year.

    Moreover, Thomson’s attempts to explain away the documents that stand in the way of his conspiracy theory are implausible and inconsistent. Thomson produced no evidence that his phone had in fact been hacked. He merely says that it is theoretically possible for that to happen. He does not dispute that the phone calls in question were billed to his mobile phone number. He claims that although the phone calls were made from Bateau Bay, he did not live there until 2009. However Bateau Bay is in Dobell, where he was the MP since 2007; the second of the calls to the Sydney brothel was made from there on August 16 of that year, when he lived in the electorate as an endorsed parliamentary candidate.

    He sought to explain the endorsement of his driver’s licence on the back of the credit card receipts by the fact that his licence number was well known within the office. That does not explain why the production of the licence was not required at the time the licence number was endorsed on the receipt. And although he says that the details of his driver’s licence were kept on file by the HSU because they were needed for right of entry permits, those permits don’t require endorsement of driver’s licence details. He simply did not address the evidence that the brothels paid for by the credit card required the production of photo ID. Nor did he address the fact the credit card receipts are signed in a hand that appears identical to his own signature.

    As to the allegations generally, he claims he has challenged the Victoria Police and FWA to obtain CCTV footage from the brothels in question. This would be of no assistance, given that the majority of transactions appear to have been for outcall services.

    Thomson’s statement is riddled with half-truths. For instance, he stated that the NSW Police concluded, after considering my letter of August 22, 2011, that no offence under NSW law had been committed. He omitted to say that the NSW Police also said they were transferring the file for assessment by the Victorian police, and the Victorian police subsequently announced a full investigation, which is ongoing. He also omitted to say that the NSW Police subsequently announced their own investigation, Strike Force Carnarvon, which is ongoing. He has also stated the FWA findings as to electoral expenditure have been debunked, when in fact the Australian Electoral Commission made findings as to whether specific payments were under the reporting threshold or had been disclosed, not whether they had been properly authorised by the union.

    Thomson’s statement concentrated almost entirely on the brothel and escort services allegations. He offered no explanation of the purchase of luxury goods for himself and his wife, and the use of several hundred thousand dollars of union money on his election campaign. In fact, he states that FWA failed to give credence to the fact cash expenditure was properly documented and accounted for. This is entirely at odds with Fair Work Australia’s findings, and the extensive evidence cited for those findings.

    Finally, Thomson’s speech yesterday depends on a version of events, first given to Laurie Oakes 10 days ago; that is, the existence of a conspiracy by HSU internal enemies to set him up with prostitutes. Before that, the last time Thomson went on the public record about the allegations against him was on August 1 last year, to broadcaster Michael Smith. Not once during the interview did Thomson make the claims he now makes. There are fewer more compelling indications that a witness’s account is not to be believed than the fact it appears to be a recent invention, at variance with an earlier version of the events he has placed on the record. But this is the position in which Thomson finds himself.

    even Age readers are unconvinced and if you check out the poll at the end of Grratten’s piece you will see that less than 20% are satisfied with his explanation.

    Not that I would wish it on anyone but I think that Thompson should be on suicide watch from his demeanour yesterday.

  4. cooeerup says:

    I think this whole thing is beginning to stink. The big question for me, as also stated by Tony Jones tonight on Q&A tonight, is that I find it incredible, given the amounts of money that was allegedly spent, that no prostitutes have come forward to say anything. Also, if he has, as he asserts, evidence to prove he was somewhere else on some of those nights prostitutes were booked how are we supposed to believe that he was with prostitutes on the other nights?
    The opposition really are looking like a pack of hungry wolves who will rip anything apart if it serves their interests. What a terrible example they are setting. Sadly they have whipped up anger amoungst many of the Australian public too.
    Cambell Newman won in a landslide in Queensland giving him total power and many who voted for the LNP are already regretting it as similarities to Joe begin to emerge. If the Coalition win power at the next election because voters in sufficient numbers want to reward their current behaviour then this country needs to look at how critical thinking is being taught in our schools.

  5. clyde1120 says:

    So where do we go now? It’s hard enough getting Australians to talk politics let alone vote sensibly vice just making a last minute decision based on emotion and what The Hun states as the truth. This debarcle will only IMHO lead us further down that path and where it stops, I certainly dont know?
    Anyone care to state whether this will curtail minority parliaments, or make them the standard going forward?

  6. Andrew Smith says:

    So you mean to say that the cc receipts with Craig’s own signature on them all amounts to nothing? And the alleged use of union funds to pay for brothel visits remain “unsubstantiated, highly questionable allegations”? Surely you must be little more than a rusted-on Labor voter.

  7. This post is excellent and I thank you for it. I chose not to watch the televised event. Too sad – whatever one thinks of Thomson. So I rely on intelligent comments such as yours.

    While it is not exactly the same sort of thing, I would draw attention to the appearance of Justice Angelo Vasta before the Bar of Parliament in Queensland in the wake of the Fitzgerald Inquiry. A bit of googling will uncover the whole story. The end result was that, after hearing Vasta’s defence at the Bar of Parliament, the politicians voted and decided he was not a fit and proper person to be a judge. Justice Vasta’s time on the Bench came, formally, to a halt. BTW, I would mention that Vasta was a rare beast on the Bench at that period – someone not of Anglo-Celtic origin.

    Parliament does have certain rights – as demonstrated in Queensland. They are ancient rights and seldom used. As far as I am aware, there were particular formalities leading to Vasta’s appearance and the Parliamentary vote. Certainly, there had been a media outing as occurred with everything to do with the Fitzy Inquiry. However, I think the actions of the current Federal Parliamentary Opposition are a world away from the legal underpinnings of a call to the Bar of Parliament.

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