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By Dustin Halse

25 July 2012

My opinion piece originally published on ABC.

Cronyism, corruption, and questionable procurement arrangements marked the 15-year reign of Health Services Union East boss Michael Williamson.

The findings of an internal investigation conducted by Ian Temby, QC, and accountant Dennis Robertson, leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald, are utterly staggering.

The report reveals that payments totalling at least $20 million were paid to union suppliers despite there being no competitive tendering process. In excess of $5 million was paid to companies operated by Michael Williamson and his wife, Julieanne.

More than $1.5 million of union funds were spent on the acquisition and refurbishment of a warehouse which Mr Williamson's son Christopher leased at a favourable rate.

Michael Williamson's brother Darren, his sister-in-law Monique Irvine, his close friend Cheryl McMillan and her sister-in-law Julie Astill were among the dozen highest-paid people in the union.

Michael Williamson's annual salary was $394,675 as of September 2011. Between 2005 and 2009 Julieanne Williamson was paid $384,625 to perform clerical duties, including photocopying and scanning.

During the course of the investigation Mrs Williamson contacted Mr Temby and stated "I felt I should have been charging $200ph, as the work was downright disgustingly filthy". Doubt has been cast over whether the claimed duties were actually performed.

And the list goes on.

HSU East represents workers employed in aged-care, residential care, community health, disability services, ambulance services, and both public and private hospitals. The majority of these workers are not well paid. And for many, their work is often both physically and emotionally taxing. On any measure this is one of the most egregious examples of corporate mismanagement. For a union it is especially so.

HSU East members will no doubt be appalled by the actions of Michael Williamson and his inner clique. Collectivism and egalitarianism are the central foundations upon which unions have historically stood. Indeed, the enduring novelty of unions is located in their ability to replace competition between individuals with cooperation. Unions are supposed to protect workers from the strong arm of the boss. Power lies in knowing that you are a part of a great body of workers who possess a common goal.

The executive of the HSU East seemingly abandoned these lofty principles long ago.

That a union leader can justify receiving a salary of nearly $400,000 beggars belief. That a union can outsource millions of dollars of work without a tendering process is ridiculous. That an individual can run a union to benefit the interests of his family and close friends without any pause for hesitation is plainly unethical.

Put simply, it appears that for 15 years Michael Williamson held absolute power and ran HSU East as his personal fiefdom.

A political contest over the impropriety highlighted in the Temby and Robertson report has already begun. Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, an anti-union ideologue, said that the findings had 'blown the lid on the rotten culture at the Health Services Union East Branch'. Senior Liberal Christopher Pyne is drawing links to embattled MP and former HSU National Secretary Craig Thomson by contending that he was Mr Williamson's 'protégé'. Abetz also suggested that a 'culture of entitlement and illegality is not confined solely to the HSU'.

Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Gillard and Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney have stated emphatically that the corruption evident within HSU East is not endemic. Kearney argued that the report has vindicated the ACTU's decision to suspend HSU East from the council earlier this year.

Yet, the continuing political oscillation and subsequent analysis will most likely focus on the need to ensure that there is greater oversight of unions. And, of course a strong regulatory system appropriately designed and satisfactorily enforced is a crucial element of the puzzle.

However, it is important to look beyond the institution of a comprehensive regulatory process. Indeed, what has become endemic in Australia is the corporatisation of trade unions over the past 30 years. Unions now closely follow a standard corporate managerial model. Power is often disproportionately invested in union executives that are non-responsive to the concerns of ordinary members.

Michael Williamson is the case in point. He was able to conduct the business of HSU East in a manner entirely of his choosing. He created a power elite within HSU East and as a result ordinary members were frozen out of important operational decisions.

Ultimately, unions are the members. How can the apparent bridge between union executives and rank and file members be closed? Perhaps the starting point is to allow members to actively participate in the decision making process.

I wonder what an ordinary HSU East member might have to say? That's if there are any left after recent events!

Article originally published on ABC.