YOU could be forgiven for imagining that after years of scandal, the Health Services Union would have been put out of its misery by now and its plight as a political plaything of the ALP ended. Think again.
Fresh elections for assorted Victorian and New South Wales branches opened yesterday, and while vowing to keep their distance from what has been described as a ”toxic carcass”, Labor factional players could not seem to resist the contest.
Right-wing factional players confirmed being reluctantly drawn into battle for fear that their rivals would win control if they did not.
After months of controversy sparked by allegations of the misuse of union funds by former national secretary Craig Thomson, now a federal MP, the union disaffiliated from the ALP at the height of the HSU saga last year.
Three months ago the Federal Court placed the union under administration after intervention by Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten. With the union formally out of Labor clutches, HSU members were hopeful fresh elections would deliver new leaders removed from party shenanigans.
But well-placed sources have confirmed long-term intentions to take the HSU back into the Labor fold once the Thomson affair quells, along with the subsequent controversies around former national president Michael Williamson and national secretary Kathy Jackson.
Others are pointing to the damage done to the ALP and the union movement by the HSU row as they step up a campaign for Labor and its industrial wing to sever their 120-year-old bond.
Candidates associated with Ms Jackson, Mr Williamson, and the Australian Workers Union and plumbers union-aligned Victorian Labor Unity group were wheeling and dealing over tickets yesterday, with one senior union and ALP insider describing negotiations as a ”dog’s breakfast”.
Party powerbrokers fear the election will open up dangerous new fronts for Labor.
Diana Asmar, a former Darebin mayor and HSU candidate in 2009, has declared her intention to run for the HSU No.1 branch in Victoria with the support of some in the right-wing Labor Unity group.
But Darebin is now the subject of a Brimbank-style Ombudsman’s investigation likely to report during the HSU election campaign that ends in November.
Cr Asmar’s husband David, who works in the electoral office of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, is known to be of
interest to the Ombudsman. Asmar supporters are increasingly nervous about the potential fallout from the collision of HSU and local government controversies.
Equally troubling for Labor is the growing cloud over union slush funds and the misuse of money for non-union activities. This is especially sensitive as Labor continues to reel from the HSU scandals and persistent probing of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s involvement in the establishment of an AWU slush fund in the mid-1990s.
In 2009 hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and resources were tipped into a bitter HSU election in Victoria by other unions for ALP factional reasons.
Labor insiders said yesterday they expected unions including plumbers and the AWU to financially back candidates from rival right-wing groups in the current contest.
But the AWU and plumbers union denied pledging support for any ticket. . ”It’s too messy. We’re going to stay out of it,” AWU secretary Cesar Melhem said.
Late yesterday an attempt to run a joint ticket of Cr Asmar and former HSU Victorian official Stuart Miller – appointed by Mr Williamson last year – appeared to be close to collapse. Mr Miller told The Saturday Age he was undecided about running.
Current HSU Victorian organiser Fleur Behrens, who is believed to be backed by Ms Jackson and Senator David Feeney is running for leadership of the Victorian No.3 branch, whose members include physiotherapists, occupational health therapists and social workers.
She will do battle with at least one ticket dubbed ”Clean Sweep”, led by Western Hospital radiographer Craig McGregor, who insists he has no Labor connections.
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