Into the woods: Victorian Labor, the great defection, the HWU, training day, Daintree, and the big pile of money

Back in the day when deconstruction was a new thing, our learned pupil master Howard Felperin would give a very basic starter example from Macbeth. “Till Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane? Birnam Wood doesn’t come to Dunsinane. It’s just talk. Men put branches on their shields and pretend to be Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. Birnam Wood doesn’t kill Macbeth. Words do.”

Thereby hangs a tale of excitement and woe in Victoria, land of the Danolution. As His Danness settled into a third term (“I didn’t get on the beers… there’s work to be done”), seven Labor Victorian ministers and MLAs suddenly switched allegiance from the Labor Right to join the Socialist Left. This was like one of those movie scenes in a courtroom where seven informers all retract their statements at once. “I didn see nothin’… maybe I got the dates wrong, eh.” 

These ministers, such as Tim Pallas and Steve Dimopolous, had suddenly, after many years, come to see that a democratic socialist approach was preferable to a Catholic-derived redistributive one. Doubtless intense intellectual debate preceded this collective move. Connoisseurs were particularly amused to see Tim Richardson make the perp walk right to left. If there were ever a right-wing turdblossom growing in a Melbourne back alley, it’s Tim Richardson, a factional warrior in state Parliament since the age of about eight.

Amazingly, these folks weren’t walking towards the red light. They were getting out of the blast zone. All seven were associated with the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) faction formerly known as the “Shorts” (for Bill Shorten), a faction whose odds of survival may be about to get very long. 

Shorting the Shorts: the Bill bill comes due

Every other grouping in Labor has been trying to get rid of the Shorts for quite a while now. After Labor Unity — the Shorts-Cons (Cons being led by former senator Stephen Conroy) — broke up, the AWU became part of Adem Somyurek’s Centre Alliance. This backyard faction purported to have dreams of national dominance, cobbled together from suburban branches, and outfits such as the Frittlers Union, etc.

Somyurek may well have been a mere front for the Shorts, but soon it didn’t matter. Somyurek was bugged by military-grade surveillance, practising branch-stacking on an epic scale, federal intervention in the Victorian descended, the National Left (Albanese’s mob) did a deal with the Cons — who were now  “led” by Richard Marles — to dominate the party, and the Shorts were suddenly very isolated indeed. 

The Kitching wars

Then, a bizarre turn. Shorten ally, the late senator Kimberley Kitching, who had been dropped into the Victorian Senate number one spot while Shorten was leader and against bitter opposition to the move, died of a heart attack. Her death was then weaponised by Bill Shorten and a group of factional allies, working through the Herald Sun, to accuse other Labor senators and groupings of systematic bullying, on the eve of a federal election.

For many, that was the end of it as far as Shorten went. To preserve his power, he seemed willing to risk another devastating election loss. His ally Diana Asmar, head of the troubled Health Workers Union (HWU), was on the front page of the Hun, pretty much saying that Kitching’s Labor enemies had killed her. Incredible sabotage. Still, they got what they wanted: the now-vacant Senate slot went to the Shorts’ Jana Stewart, rather than going to a Con as had been intended. 

But it was a costly exercise. For this malarkey on election eve, Shorten was bumped even further down the cabinet list — he is now minister for egg beaters, sadness, and the town of Kettering, Tasmania — and the Somyurek-engineered Centre Alliance broke up. Now, the rats are leaving the sinking Shorts. They know that the killing season has begun, and the new dominant groups are going to try and carve up this faction gang once and for all. 

The HWU runs a train

But why now? Well, the public got a hint of such with a couple of preelection stories in The Age about the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC)’s “Operation Daintree”, an investigation into the several million dollars worth of government funding for training, put into a union, which never spent it for that purpose. Which union? Why it’s the HWU, of course, run by Diana Asmar, and formerly managed by the late Kimberley Kitching, whose widower is Shorten consigliere and disgraced-everything Andrew Landeryou.

As The Age reported, $3.4 million in total was given to the HWU on the eve of the 2018 state election. The grant process was bizarre. According to Paul Sakkal’s report, initially, $1.2 million had been sought, but before the tender had even been finalised, Andrews and Jill Hennessy, who was health minister at the time, announced an additional $2.2 million seven days before the initial contract was awarded.

A small amount of the money actually went to the HWU’s separate training outfit, a company called the Health Education Federation. The contract wasn’t tendered out: there was allegedly departmental advice against awarding it because it was of poor quality.

Then, oh dear, COVID hit, and the training — around protecting health workers from violence — couldn’t be done. So where has the sodding money gone? That’s what IBAC is investigating. After The Age sent questions to IBAC regarding the Daintree report leaked to them, IBAC sought and got an injunction, preventing the publication of any material within it. 

Doubtless, Andrews and Hennessy had only one thought when they sent $3.4 million the way of the HWU on the eve of an election: the cause of violence-protection training in hospitals is so urgent that normal due diligence couldn’t interfere with the cause of the workers.

Yet, it would have made the HWU and the Shorten faction very happy campers in 2018. Why? Because the HWU leadership had driven the union to the brink of bankruptcy in 2016. 


As Ben Schneiders and Royce Millar reported in 2016 in The Age, the HWU (it’s actually named the Health Services Union, No.1 Branch; Health Workers Union is a trading name to rid the stink of its former leader, convicted thief Kathy Jackson), was close to insolvency, having burnt through $3.2 million in operating losses over the previous two years, and avoiding insolvency by selling its building in 2016.

Asmar had paid herself $180,000 a year throughout, and ran expensive freeway billboard ads featuring herself, as a “recruiting” tool. As The Age had earlier reported, Asmar’s husband, David Asmar, had fled to Lebanon when investigated over the online payment of ALP memberships using online giftcards and all done from one computer at… yes, you guessed it, the HWU office. 

Still, despite all that, maybe they could do worker training, right? Wrong. Both Asmar and Kitching were found to have sat certification tests for other officials (to get qualifications required to have the right to visit workplaces, as organisers), and to have presented unreliable evidence to the Fair Work Commission. Asmar had her right to enter workplaces removed as a result.

Who better for the Andrews Labor government to give charge of $3.4 million of taxpayers’ money to — for the purpose of much-needed training of some of the lowest-paid, most vulnerable workers in the state — than this crew? And where has this bloody money actually gone? 

A forest burial?

Well, presumably Operation Daintree has found out. Did IBAC injunct The Age to prevent the report leak because it is still chasing up leads in the scandal? Or because it didn’t want to be accused of a “James Comey” by not opposing leakage in the weeks before an election?

Because if the Operation Daintree report lays out the full story of the HWU, as well as of the litters of dogs in its leadership who have used and abused it and its members over the years, then it would have been a scandal that even Matthew Guy’s Liberals could have done something with — a real smoking ruin.

As it was, not only did we not get to see the report, but it involved no public hearings, as outgoing IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich noted, in a wider call for IBAC to be separated from political interference. 

The Age notes that it has not been suggested that the HWU leadership is guilty of full corruption, skimming money from the $3.4 million, so much as a general process of floating different power groupings in the Labor empire to keep things sweet. As far as visible leadership goes, that may be so. But there are layers within layers of any union, and multiple people have authority for the disbursement of ongoing small sums — or can simply access bank accounts illegally.

One would have to ask, in particular, whether the late Kitching was a direct recipient of money diverted from this $3.4 million haul, piped towards her by persons unknown. She had already rorted the HWU when she was appointed “general manager” of the union, after the Shorts faction had managed to win control of it from the SDA (i.e. Shoppies) faction.

Kitching had simply used the HWU salary as a grant to pursue her political ambitions inside Labor. Is it possible she was accessing cash again, to use in her campaign to retain her number one Senate spot, which she was in danger of losing once Shorten had left the leadership?

If that’s the case, then a source of the stress that some say contributed to her fatal heart attack may not have been (and never was) the alleged bullying by other Labor senators, but could have been the knowledge that IBAC was, however lumberingly, on the trail of this $3.4 million transfer.

That’s a possible explanation, but in these murky depths, the final location of the missing money may prove hard to pinpoint. I guess we’ll find out eventually.

Feed the Daintree?

The question is, once this report comes out, how far back up the Labor tree will it reach?

The leadership of the Victorian Labor Party have been involved in funnelling $3.4 million of taxpayers’ money to an incompetently led, perpetually near-insolvent union. Why? Where are its members’ dues going, year after year? To fund a poorly designed training scheme, to be run by a leader who had lost her organiser rights over a training rort.

Well, one principle has already gone. Jill Hennessy, the health minister at the sharp end of shooting this money to the HWU, a minister spoken of by some as a future leader and premier, quit in December 2020. She cited the usual “family and personal” reasons for departing a party cruising towards a 2022 victory, giving up another six to 10 years in power and a strong demand that Dan’s eventual replacement be a woman.

There were howls when Hennessy went, that a powerful woman was being lost to personal matters, and a cheeky headline in The Age for those in the know (“Attorney-General Hennessy quits to spend more time with her children”). But, you know, in the end, it’s all about family. 

That leaves only Premier Daniel Andrews in the spotlight for this shoddy arrangement. How much is the Operation Daintree report going to ping him when it becomes public? Will he need to consider his position, just on the far side of triumph?

In this respect, it’s worth noting an Andrew Bolt piece published the day after the recent Victorian election in the Sunday Herald Sun (here’s the free Daily Mail rip-off for non-Hun subscribers).

Bolt’s readership is all cooker now but he’s not a cooker himself, and so his call for Dan to resign may be a nap bet on some inside knowledge. He was friends with the late Kitching and all this crowd, and so he may have knowledge from the other side about how close Daintree will get to some very murky practices. Once again, we’ll soon see. 

Roll discredits

So where are they all now? Bill Shorten is rubbing two sticks together to try and keep his media profile alight. Adem Somyurek is desperately hoping that the 29th preferences of the No More UFO Anal Probes Party will get him elected as a Democratic Labour Party rep in the Legislative Council. The old Gray Wolf ain’t what she used to be.

Stephen Conroy has moved from the gaming industry to the advisory board of ASPI, the defence-contractor-funded lobby group desperate for unending Australian rearmament, while Conroy’s “successor” — really perpetual lieutenant — Richard Marles is in Washington, DC, promising our commitment to a war over Taiwan.

The mighty Australian Labor Party, marching us to war for Lockheed Martin. Kathy Jackson, a convicted thief of union funds, has won $3 million from the will of a QC with dementia, a will she typed up for him, but is also being pursued (how hard?) for restitution of funds she rorted. Diana Asmar is still in charge of the HWU, hoping for an eventual preselection. And seven footsoldier MPs quit a dying faction — unless of course this move is an entrist ruse for factional survival arggghhhhh — and all the public sees of it is a “recruitment triumph” by the state Socialist Left.

And the actual members of the HSU1/HWU? The low-paid workers who do your lifesaving medical tests and mop up your blood and piss, and a hundred things in between, these workers pushed to the limit during COVID? These workers are still being ripped off, badly served, piss-poorly represented and possibly rorted by the administration of a union that was captured 20 years ago by a bunch of mouldering, right-wing, ex-student politicians.

All that time, Labor, the ACTU and everyone else has allowed them to fuck their members over, year on year on year, because it is more convenient to do so to keep a deranged subfaction happy than it is to actually tackle the deep rot within the union movement and the Labor Party. The continued tolerance of this shames everyone involved, and the stain of that guilt hangs on very many hands indeed. 

If this is finally coming to a crisis, and if it takes a few promising careers with it, then that is nothing less than deserved for the complacency and lassitude shown to the issue of union representation and party democracy over two decades. Indeed, such minor players may go, while the principals survive, which will be a fitting punishment for the minor players indeed.

But having watched this for several decades, I will not be surprised if they all get out of it once more, farce trumping tragedy.

Yes, IBAC is just words and whispers. But words can kill and there might be a lot of deconstructing going on as, one way or another, Daintree Wood comes to Danistan.

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