Shorten moves to put HSU branch in administration
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Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten has taken the unusual step of seeking to have the embattled Health Services Union’s east branch put into administration.
Lawyers acting for the Government have argued before the Federal Court that the branch has ceased to function effectively.
The Government lawyer acting for Mr Shorten told the court it wants an administrator in charge “until democratic control of the union’s east branch can be restored”.
The judge presiding over the hearing has demanded Mr Shorten’s lawyer file the application to appoint the administrators by Monday. The decision to appoint an administrator will then be in the hands of the Federal Court.
The HSU’s east branch covers workers in the health services sector in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT, and has been the centre of a political scandal about the alleged misuse of union funds.
In what he describes as “grave action”, Mr Shorten is proposing all elected offices in the east branch be declared vacant and an administrator is appointed “to manage a transition to a properly functioning organisation”.
The proposal would see dedicated branches in NSW and Victoria with fresh elections in each of them. Current members would be transferred to the branch of the state where they currently work.
Union insiders are already claiming an action this severe has not been taken since the deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation in several states in the late 1980s, following a Royal Commission into corruption within the former union. However, the HSU is not currently facing deregistration.
The Government’s intervention into the branch is the latest chapter in the legal and political saga that has consumed the HSU.
Multiple investigations are underway or being examined into financial irregularities allegedly involving former union official and now Federal Labor MP Craig Thomson, and HSU east general secretary and former Labor party vice-president Michael Williamson.
A report to be released into the east branch, written by Ian Temby QC, the former Commonwealth director of public prosecutions, is said to contain a new wave of problems for the union.
Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten has acknowledged the move to appoint an administrator at the branch is “extremely rare”.
“We have not taken this action lightly,” Mr Shorten said.
“I am concerned – and I know the Prime Minister is concerned – that the interests of (HSU east members) are not currently being properly served by the dysfunctional fighting within the HSU east branch.”
Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) president Ged Kearney says the Government’s decision to appoint administrators to the HSU East branch is “very serious and grave”.
“Normally this is a step that the ACTU would not welcome, but we do recognise the situation with the HSU east branch has now reached a point of serious dysfunctionality,” she said.
“It is deteriorating into what seems to be factional fights between Ms Jackson, Mr Williamson and others in the HSU east branch.”
Ms Kearney warns the ACTU is accepting the intervention on the condition that the administrator is not appointed to other HSU branches, and that the process of sorting out governance issues is swift. She also pledged the ACTU’s support to the HSU.
Unions New South Wales secretary Mark Lennon agrees, saying the move is an ‘appropriate’ first step, and pledged the group’s support to the HSU East branch.
HSU national secretary Kathy Jackson had already launched court action against the 75 members of the branch council, claiming 17 should be excluded from voting because they are paid organisers.
Earlier this month she called for the entire executive to resign due to the recent scandal involving the union.
Fair Work Australia, meanwhile, also has investigated allegations surrounding Labor MP Craig Thomson, including that he used union credit cards to pay for escort services.
Mr Thomson has denied the allegations and his lawyers have asked a Senate committee not to publish Fair Work’s final report.
Mr Thomson had previously said he had nothing to hide, but his legal team is now arguing the release of the report could prejudice any legal action taken against him.
Fair Work found a raft of contraventions of union rules and workplace laws but has not named anyone. It is still considering if it will launch any legal action.
The industrial watchdog has agreed to hand the report to a Senate committee and the Opposition says it expects the report to be published.
The Opposition says the latest move from Mr Thomson’s team is a desperate argument and a delaying tactic.