Truckie union of­fi­cials in head-on over send­ing funds to Sierra Leone fam­ily

For­mer TWU fi­nance com­mit­tee chair­man ac­cuses branch sec­re­tary of ‘bad gov­er­nance’

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - BRAD NORINGTON AS­SO­CIATE ED­I­TOR

Sierra Leone does not im­me­di­ately come to mind as a na­tion of spe­cial in­ter­est to the Trans­port Work­ers Union.

The TWU, a ma­cho, male­dom­i­nated or­gan­i­sa­tion that rep­re­sents the work­ing in­ter­ests of Aussie truck driv­ers, has no mem­bers in this small coun­try on the west coast of Africa, rav­aged by civil war and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters.

Yet Richard Olsen, leader of the TWU’s largest branch as union sec­re­tary in NSW, be­lieves Sierra Leone does merit his at­ten­tion.

In­deed, Olsen be­lieves some of its in­hab­i­tants de­serve a hearty share of his mem­bers’ money — at least when he can re­mem­ber ex­actly which coun­try is on the re­ceiv­ing end of union gen­eros­ity and how much he has do­nated.

Ge­orge Clarke, un­til re­cently the TWU’s long-serv­ing NSW branch pres­i­dent and chair­man of the weekly fi­nance com­mit­tee meet­ings called to ap­prove spend­ing, took a dif­fer­ent view last year when he ob­jected to Olsen spend­ing mem­bers’ money on an un­cer­tain quest to help Sierra Leone na­tion­als em­i­grate to Aus­tralia.

Clarke said he was not be­ing heart­less. He ar­gued that the pri­or­ity should be the mem­bers, many of whom are not paid well, who con­trib­ute $710 a year for the union to look af­ter their wages and con­di­tions.

Union mem­ber­ship was fall­ing and re­sources were scarce, Clarke said. Surely the ap­pro­pri­ate chan­nels for giv­ing money to peo­ple on the other side of the world in times of cri­sis should be gov­ern­ments, aid agen­cies or the UN?

It both­ered Clarke, too, that the TWU had only re­cently emerged from the scru­tiny of a royal com­mis­sion into union gov­er­nance and cor­rup­tion. Other unions, in­clud­ing the one led by Bill Shorten be­fore he en­tered par­lia­ment, were the sub­ject of ad­verse find­ings about cav­a­lier spend­ing and poor ac­count­abil­ity, and even rec­om­mended for crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tions. The TWU’s NSW branch re­ceived a pound­ing as well for its lax fi­nan­cial prac­tices.

Plead­ing a case for fi­nan­cial rec­ti­tude, Clarke was among a small mi­nor­ity that voted against the Sierra Leone spend­ing. Shortly be­fore year’s end, he quit in protest at what he called “bad gov­er­nance” re­lated to union funds spent at Olsen’s re­quest.

But Clarke’s exit was linked not just to Sierra Leone. He claimed Olsen presided over other un­usual spend­ing that — un­like the Sierra Leone do­na­tion — did not fol­low proper pro­ce­dures.

As he tells In­quirer, Clarke re­signed be­cause he grew tired of sit­ting as chair­man of a fi­nance com­mit­tee and be­ing asked to ap­prove ex­pen­di­ture af­ter the money had been spent, rather than be­fore, as re­quired.

Apart from reg­u­lar wage and util­ity bills, all spend­ing above $1000 must be ap­proved be­fore­hand by a fi­nance com­mit­tee or ex­ec­u­tive meet­ing. Ev­ery union has this rule, re­flect­ing fed­eral law. Union lead­ers are the cus­to­di­ans of their mem­bers’ con­tri­bu­tions. Clarke puts it this way: “We’re a ro­bust union, but there are guys treat­ing it like it is their union and not the mem­bers’ money.”

To ar­gue his case, Clarke cites an eclectic list. He al­leges an aban­doned “long lunch” cul­ture has re­turned un­der Olsen’s lead­er­ship in which union Amer­i­can Ex­press cards have been used to fi­nance ex­pen­sive restau­rant out­ings for TWU of­fi­cials at prom­i­nent es­tab­lish­ments such as Syd­ney’s Kings­leys Steak­house.

He claims the fi­nance com­mit­tee was not prop­erly con­sulted about Olsen spend­ing $5000 on le­gal fees for of­fice staff at risk of de­por­ta­tion to In­dia if it was found their work visas had ex­pired.

He claims pro­ce­dures were not ob­served when Olsen backed a TWU do­na­tion to help Michelle Rowland, La­bor’s fed­eral mem­ber for Green­way in Syd­ney’s west. “He rang me on the phone but it never went to the fi­nance com­mit­tee,” Clarke says.

A sim­i­lar sce­nario al­legedly oc­curred around the pur­chase of lounges for Olsen’s of­fice (“He bought them and told us later”) and union funds spent on over­seas trips (“He booked them and told us af­ter”).

Olsen re­futes these claims. He in­sists he has al­ways put spend­ing mea­sures to the fi­nance com­mit­tee or branch com­mit­tee of man­age­ment for ap­proval as re­quired. He is adamant Clarke “signed off” on the spend­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to Olsen, the Im­mi­gra­tion De­part­ment did ap­proach him last year about the pos­si­ble ex­piry of staff work visas. He sup­plied a list with ev­ery­one’s cit­i­zen­ship or visa sta­tus, and claims “not one cent” was spent in le­gal fees.

Olsen con­firms that $15,000 was do­nated to Rowland’s elec­tion ac­count last year but in­sists “Mr Clarke has also signed off on those min­utes”.

He agrees he bought three lounges for his of­fice but says each cost less than $1000 and so did not re­quire ap­proval. He con­firms restor­ing lunches for of­fi­cials us­ing union funds, say­ing they are a rea­son­able ex­pense. He says he hosts dif­fer­ent small groups each week, which is con­trary to Clarke’s claim the same small band of loy­al­ists is usu­ally wined and dined, with bills some­times top­ping $1000 that are then split among dif­fer­ent union Amex ac­counts.

Olsen, whose salary pack­age of $260,000 in­cludes a car, al­lowances and 22 per cent su­per­an­nu­a­tion, says over­seas trips are prop­erly ap­proved. He con­firms Clarke’s fur­ther claim about some com­plaints (“dra­mas with phone calls”) from mem­bers want­ing help who were con­nected to In­dian staff whose English was “very poor” or “at best rea­son­able”. But Olsen puts these in­ci­dents down to in­ad­ver­tent er­ror: mem­bers should have been re­ferred to the ser­vice cen­tre, not back­room ad­min­is­tra­tive staff.

On one sen­si­tive is­sue, nam­ing rights for a new $3.5 mil­lion head­quar­ters to be built on a $2m plot at Minch­in­bury in Syd­ney’s west, Olsen agrees with Clarke’s claim that he has pro­posed call­ing the build­ing “Richard Olsen House”. He says he is “on firm ground” as past HQs have been named af­ter serv­ing union sec­re­taries.

Clarke slams the idea as pre­pos­ter­ous. He won­ders why Olsen would want to name a build­ing af­ter him­self af­ter barely 18 months in the job. He says the TWU of­fice in Syd­ney’s Sus­sex Street has a plaque com­mem­o­rat­ing for­mer union boss Ted McBeatty, but the build­ing was not named af­ter McBeatty. He ac­cepts the union’s main HQ in Par­ra­matta — re­cently sold for $7m to help fi­nance the new one — was named af­ter the late Harry Quinn. But Quinn, he says, named the build­ing without con­sul­ta­tion and ef­forts to stop him came too late.

To re­turn to Sierra Leone, ver­sions of the union spend­ing, and how much, seem to dif­fer.

Clarke claims Olsen told the fi­nance com­mit­tee last year he wanted to spend $8000 fol­low­ing a re­quest from Her­bert Wil­liams, a TWU em­ployee from the union’s mes­sage ser­vice cen­tre.

Ac­cord­ing to Clarke, Olsen read out de­tails of the re­quest from a piece of pa­per and can­not re­call if doc­u­mented sup­port­ing ma­te­rial was shared around the ta­ble be­fore a vote on the mat­ter. But he is adamant the re­quest was for $8000 to as­sist Wil­liams’s brother, whose wife was swept away in a Sierra Leone mud­slide, leav­ing two chil­dren without their mother.

Be­fore the vote he lost, Clarke protested that a lot of peo­ple — in­clud­ing core-busi­ness TWU mem­bers — were in “dire straits” and “de­serv­ing of char­ity”. He said he backed the fi­nance com­mit­tee’s de­ci­sion to do­nate $5000 to help the child of a mem­ber need­ing costly med­i­cal care. But money for a non-mem­ber in Sierra Leone?

When The Aus­tralian first raised the Sierra Leone do­na­tion with Olsen a week ago, he said: “It does not ring a bell.” He then re­called union money was spent late last year to help bring two chil­dren to Aus­tralia. He said their par­ents had per­ished and the gift was $4000, not $8000.

Olsen said he did not know if the staff mem­ber’s fam­ily came from Sierra Leone, or what stage im­mi­gra­tion pro­ceed­ings had reached. He called Wil­liams into his of­fice to check. “Yes, it is Sierra Leone,” Olsen said.

A few days later Olsen re­vised the fig­ure, con­firm­ing by email it was $6960 and “signed off and ap­proved by Ge­orge Clarke”.

The TWU is one of Aus­tralia’s old­est unions and a cen­tral player in the dom­i­nant right-wing fac­tion of the NSW ALP that Shorten and past La­bor lead­ers have re­lied upon for in­ter­nal party sup­port.

But the union is not the pow­er­house it once was. Olsen took over 18 months ago fol­low­ing enor­mous up­heaval when his pre­de­ces­sor, Michael Aird, was ac­cused of try­ing to shift the union to the left and was ousted.

It was a messy, even bizarre exit in which Aird sought to jus­tify his re­in­state­ment from sus­pen­sion over re­ported “ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions”, at one point by re­ly­ing on the opin­ion of a Syd­ney sex­ol­o­gist. He fi­nally left af­ter an aborted at­tempt to bar­ri­cade him­self in his of­fice. TWU of­fi­cials pre­vented any pos­si­ble re­turn by chang­ing the locks.

The most se­ri­ous, ex­is­ten­tial is­sue for the TWU’s NSW branch is its mem­ber­ship num­bers.

The Aus­tralian re­ported in 2008 how, un­der then NSW branch sec­re­tary Tony Shel­don, the union had ef­fec­tively dou­ble-counted its num­bers.

I did the cal­cu­la­tion of di­vid­ing mem­ber con­tri­bu­tions for 2007 by the an­nual fee and found the fi­nan­cial mem­ber­ship could be as low as 16,000 — not al­most 40,000, as claimed. The royal com­mis­sion reached the same con­clu­sion in 2015, and last week the Fed­eral Court fined the TWU $271,000 for fail­ing to re­move more than half of its “un­fi­nan­cial” mem­bers from its books. Why would the union bother in­flat­ing mem­ber­ship num­bers? One rea­son is that it could boost the union’s clout in­side the ALP.

An ar­ti­cle pub­lished by The Satur­day Pa­per in Novem­ber last year about an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into very large do­na­tions made to GetUp! and La­bor can­di­dates by the Aus­tralian Work­ers Union when Shorten was in charge quoted a lawyer, Michael Bradley, as an au­thor­ity. Bradley said the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment’s new Reg­is­tered Or­gan­i­sa­tions Com­mis­sion had been “given a weird ju­ris­dic­tion to look at, among other things, any fail­ure by unions to com­ply with their own rules”.

The con­text was con­tentious — the ROC had asked fed­eral po­lice to help seize doc­u­ments that the union seemed un­will­ing to hand over — but Bradley claimed the sub­ject of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion it­self was “the equiv­a­lent of a park­ing fine” and “no more than a pro­ce­dural fail­ing or an over­sight by the union”.

How Bradley could know these things with cer­tainty is un­clear. But any par­al­lel with “park­ing fines” when of­fi­cials at the TWU or any other union are re­spon­si­ble for how thou­sands, in­deed mil­lions, of dol­lars of their mem­bers’ money are used, seems odd to say the least.

‘We’re a ro­bust union, but there are guys treat­ing it like it is their union and not the mem­bers’ money’ GE­ORGE CLARKE

JOHN FEDER

TWU’s NSW state sec­re­tary Richard Olsen at the union’s Par­ra­matta of­fices

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