A political scandal that threatens to bring down Australia’s fragile government deepened yesterday, with a trade union reporting to police allegations that a lawmaker paid prostitutes with thousands of dollars of union money.
The allegations date back to 2005 and 2007 when Labor Party backbencher Craig Thomson was national secretary of the Health Services Union. They were first raised by a Sydney newspaper in 2009, but police did not investigate at the time because the union, which is aligned with the governing Labor Party, never made a complaint.
Yesterday the Health Services Union’s executive board voted unanimously to refer the matter to police and cooperate with any investigation of Thomson, who was elected to government in 2007.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard refused yesterday in parliament to detail her dealings with Thomson.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott interrupted question time to demand Gillard make a statement about discussions she or her office had with Thomson over a Labor Party loan that helped him pay legal fees.
However, Gillard walked out of the chamber, along with about 30 other Labor Party members, during Abbott’s speech, prompting the conservative leader to accuse the government of stonewalling.
“They are defending the unjustifiable,” he told parliament.
Thomson stepped down as chairman of a powerful parliamentary committee late on Tuesday.
“The current circumstances will clearly distract from the important work of the committee,” he said in a statement. “I continue to reject claims of wrongdoing.”
Gillard has faced repeated questions on Thomson, who abandoned his defamation case against the newspapers that first ran the allegations, but not before New South Wales Labor had paid A$90,000 (US$ 94,141) toward his legal fees.
Thomson denied the accusations and said that an unnamed man took his credit card and forged his signature to pay for visiting prostitutes at a Sydney brothel. Thomson also said that that man had repaid the money.
With opinion polls showing the government has become deeply unpopular, observers agree that the ruling Labor Party would have little hope of retaining Thomson’s seat in a by-election.
Abbott said the government’s preoccupation with defending Thomson was preventing parliament from addressing issues of national importance.
“They are defending the indefensible and justifying the unjustifiable to protect their own position in government,” Abbott said. “This is a prime minister who is so determined to stonewall, who is so determined to ignore issues of integrity in government that she won’t listen to the debate.”
Kathy Jackson, who replaced Thomson as the union’s national secretary then ordered an audit of its books during his tenure, said police would be given full access to financial records.
“Police are investigating this matter and we are not going to cause any impediment to them and will provide every record that we have available,” she told reporters.
She added that an audit report represented to the union in 2009 “established a basis for suspecting that there may have been misuse or misappropriation of union funds.”