Truckie union officials in head-on over sending funds to Sierra Leone family
Former TWU finance committee chairman accuses branch secretary of ‘bad governance’
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
TWU’s NSW state secretary Richard Olsen at the union’s Parramatta offices