The head of Unions NSW, Mark Lennon, has called on the disgraced former secretary of the Health Services Union, Michael Williamson, to honour his ”moral” obligations and repay as much as possible of the $5 million a court says he owes his old union.

Mr Lennon said it was ”appalling” that someone who had been placed in a high position of trust by the movement should betray that trust in ”such a systemic way”.

”The most disturbing aspect … is that clearly there was a lot of thinking behind Michael’s web of deceit,” he said. ”He is morally bound, in my view, to pay the full $5 million and he should not try to find any legal ways to wriggle out of his responsibilities.”

On Tuesday, Mr Williamson pleaded guilty to defrauding the HSU of nearly $1 million. He also declared himself bankrupt. The NSW branch of the union recently obtained a $5 million judgment against its former boss.

Despite the fact Mr Williamson turned the HSU into a personal fiefdom for almost 16 years, Mr Lennon said he did not believe in limiting tenure for union officials.

”Unions are democracies, their secretaries are subject to election every three to four years, and it’s a decision for members – I don’t believe in limited terms,” he said.

He also argued there was no need to overhaul existing governance regimes for unions, because a ”good system of checks and balances was already in place”.

The Abbott government is planning a major crackdown on union accountability, and will introduce legislation before Christmas, setting up a new registered organisations commission, targeted primarily at unions.

When the Coalition announced the policy before the election, it linked the plan directly with the scandals inside the HSU.

It said the new body would ”amend the law to ensure that registered organisations and their officials have to play by the same rules as companies and their directors”.

Mr Lennon said he hoped Labor would oppose the legislation because he didn’t think it was necessary. ”However, if the government chooses to bring it in, then I think unions will be in a position to meet the new requirements, whatever they may be,” he said.

The office of new Labor leader Bill Shorten sidestepped questions about the party’s stance, saying the caucus would ”consider any legislation put before Parliament in the upcoming sitting”.

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