Eric Abetz has conceded he wrongly made a claim about union leader Tony Sheldon and members’ funds. Source: News Limited
Mr Sheldon, the national secretary of the Transport Workers Union, engaged lawyers and reserved his right to take legal action over the comments by Senator Abetz on the ABC’s Q & A program in February. Senator Abetz, who described his comments as an ‘innocent error’’, has offered to pay Mr Sheldon’s “reasonably incurred” legal costs with the bill footed by taxpayers.
Mr Sheldon admitted last year that money from a political slush fund, the McLean Forum, was used to support candidates in elections in the HSU’s NSW branch and the Flight Attendants Association of Australia. But he denied any TWU members’ funds were used, insisting funds for the McLean Forum came from weekly contributions by union officers and employers.
Senator Abetz told Q & A Mr Sheldon had admitted “he used the money of the Transport Workers Union membership fees to bankroll a Health Services Union election without the knowledge of his membership’’.
Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, acting for Mr Sheldon, wrote to Senator Abetz last month demanding he take out advertisements apologising for the “defamatory” comments.
In a letter to the law firm, Senator Abetz said “in my public life, I have always sought to correct the record when I have been in error’’.
“I accept that I was mistaken in making the statement ... and, accordingly, I am willing to correct the record,’’ he wrote.
“Where, in respect of the HSU elections, I referred to TWU membership fees, I should have referred to McLean Forum funds. I completely reject, however, your assertions that my misstatement was reckless or made with malice.’’
The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance resumes hearings into the TWU in Sydney today.
A TWU spokesman said the minister’s “main justification’’ for the commission investigating the union “was the false claim that we had used members’ funds when we supported a reform group in the HSU elections to remove the influence of the corrupt Michael Williamson’’.
“The minister’s entire argument was baseless, as is the government’s justification for the TWU’s inclusion in the royal commission,’’ the spokesman said. “This underscores our argument that the royal commission is nothing more than the pursuit of politics through judicial means.”
In his letter, Senator Abetz said he had made an “innocent error’’ which occurred as a result of a not unreasonable confusion’’ given the close links between the TWU and the McLean Forum and the fact that Mr Sheldon and other TWU officials are officeholders in both organisations.