Is This The Future Of Oz Politics?


The Craig Thomson affair can’t be good for Australian democracy. The ongoing scandal is steadily degenerating. Once a fairly obscure affair to do with some mild misbehaviour by a former union official, it is now an increasingly pathetic display of claim and counter-claim, the veracity of which are almost impossible to determine.

Those who saw Thomson’s speech to Parliament yesterday will agree that the strain of the controversy is taking its toll on the man at the centre of it. Although his speech was for the most part dignified and at times quite convincing, the frequent drinks of water and his tears when talking about media intrusions on his pregnant wife clearly demonstrate the stress that the member for Dobell is under.

What of the substance of Thomson’s speech: the accusations that he was framed by union enemies? These are almost impossible to verify without careful and diligent fact-checking, something that would ideally occur in a court of law. And yet, as we know, Thomson has not been charged with any criminal offence. It’s very difficult to establish the veracity of the wild conspiracy theories, complete with suggestions of phone hacking.

What we do know is that Thomson’s account differs in substantial details from others on the public record. Fairfax’s Kate McClymont has a look at some of them today, and finds important inconsistencies. For instance, Thomson claimed to have moved to Bateau Bay in 2009, four years after the Fair Work investigation suggests he made phone calls from his mobile phone to escort agencies. But the Fair Work report concludes that Thomson moved to the Central Coast in mid-2005 and could well have been in the area when those calls were made.

Thomson also said that it is possible that his mobile phone might have been hacked and his drivers licence number used in booking escorts. But how does that explain the fact that one escort booking was made from a hotel landline from a room booked under his name? Thomson admitted he couldn’t explain that one. Nor can he provide any plausible evidence to explain why, after he discovered his signature might have been forged on credit card bills, he didn’t report that matter to police.

Thomson also claimed that Fair Work Australia only interviewed him once and was biased against him. But Thomson refused a number of requests to be interviewed, citing ongoing criminal investigations.

Thomson attacked the integrity and credibility of the Fair Work investigator himself, Terry Nassios. That was a particularly distasteful moment, reflecting poorly on Thomson and representing a troubling attack on both Nassios and the agency itself.

In the end, to accept Thomson’s account of events — patchy as it is — you have to believe his assertion that here has been a widespread and intricate conspiracy against him. There’s no doubt that union leaders often make enemies. But the scale and detail of what Thomson is proposing seems to stretch credibility. Unsurprisingly, key figures such as Kathy Jackson and Marco Bolano immediately denied Thomson’s assertions. In a sense, we’re back to square one, with a number of public figures and an important federal agency attacked under parliamentary privilege in the process.

There has to be a better way to deal with probity investigations for parliamentarians than this. However, that better way would have to begin with difficult concepts such as a the presumption of innocence, which Thomson rightly argues has been trashed in his case. Given the febrile state of contemporary politics, it’s difficult to see how any parliamentary opposition, of either major party, would voluntarily give up the opportunity to smear and mudsling.

What we are left with is effectively an arms race, in which politicians of all persuasions seem prepared to race each other to the bottom on ethics issues, aided and abetted by a slavering media only too happy to report on their accusations. It’s the exact opposite of what we were promised by Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor in the so-called new era of minority parliament.

As even a casual observer can quickly ascertain, the reason Thomson is being hounded so ruthlessly has nothing to do with the seriousness of his alleged crimes (although misleading Parliament, which he may well have done yesterday, is by far the most serious thing he may yet be accused of). No, the reason Thomson is the unhappy spotlight of an unceasing media scrum is the minority Parliament, in which the loss of a single member can threaten Julia Gillard’s government.

This focus on the instability of the parliament is almost entirely a construction of Tony Abbott’s Opposition, which has refused to accept the legitimacy of the 2010 election from the very start. The Opposition’s constant campaign of destabilisation, taken up willingly by many in the media, has borne rich fruit for the Coalition, at least in so far as the government’s standing in the polls are concerned. But it has also, as Thomson himself pointed out yesterday, damaged the perception of Australian democracy amongst ordinary citizens.

Ruthless pursuit of political office without regard for the consequences is the mark of Abbott’s tenure as Opposition leader. It will almost certainly result in a nastier and dirtier style of attack politics than most citizens say they want. It may also result in some uncomfortable blow-back for the Opposition, with the government reportedly preparing to launch its own grubby assault on the personal probity of a conservative parliamentarian. The 2013 federal election will probably be the nastiest and most negative in history.

Is that a good outcome for Australian democracy? No. Is it a future we will have to get used to? Sadly, the events of recent months suggest that the answer is yes.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.