Hedley Thomas writes The Diary in UK magazine The Spectator
I’m trying to get down to the local hall for our friend Tracey’s birthday. But there’s breaking news and it is nail-bitingly distracting. The Sunday papers are going to splash with a story about Julia’s old boyfriend, former union boss Bruce Wilson. Bruce, as we say in the breathless introductions to such stories, is ‘breaking his silence’. What will Bruce say? Why isn’t he saying it to the Australian? What will my boss say about Steve Lewis from the Sunday bloody Telegraph getting the yarn?
I recall the last time the Sunday tabloids splashed with Julia Gillard’s ex, in 2007. Back then, Julia was doing the trash-talking, ‘breaking her silence’. You got the gist from the screeching headline: ‘A conman broke my heart’. I remember it because I’ve spent recent months writing all about Bruce and Julia’s role in what we call Slushgate. Memo to PM: your reference to our efforts as ‘so-called investigative journalism’ was a bit harsh.
Tonight, waiting for Bruce to burst into print, I wonder if he will return serve and now sledge Julia for calling him a conman. Will he confirm our story that a homeless $5,000 popped into Julia’s bank account? Will he state the suspiciously obvious: that as he and about half the Victorian branch of the Australian Workers’ Union helped in a reno on Julia’s house in 1994-95, it would strain credulity if she had not copped a free bathroom. Or will Bruce The Chivalrous ride in on a white charger and save her from the attack dogs of the hate media?
My imagination runs away with headline possibilities. I’m wickedly hoping the headline is ‘We were little rort rats’. Or ‘PM took my slush fund’. The romantic in me likes the idea of a Bruce-Julia reunion in the Lodge, hence ‘I can mend Julia’s heart’. Or ‘I’m gonna wash that Tim right outa her hair’.
At Tracey’s party, I learn it’s ‘Gillard knew nothing’. Apt if it were about the economy. But it’s not much help for the story being run by us ‘Brucers’. Mark Latham came up with that one — a play on ‘Birthers’ who claim that Barack Obama was not born in the US. I step outside the hall to take a call from Harry Nowicki, the former union lawyer-turned-Brucer who flew Wilson’s bagman, Ralph Blewitt, from his jungle hideout to Melbourne to talk to the cops about the 17-year-old fraud. Harry strikes me as more of a Ralpher than a Brucer. He calls a lot, always with ‘one more question’, like TV detective Columbo.
I call Mike Smith, now a full-time blogger after losing his job at Fairfax for putting ‘unauthorised questions’ to the PM about Slushgate. What are ‘authorised questions’?
The beer is cold at the local hall. I down a few quickly while trading insults with my unionist mate. ‘You work for Rupert Murdoch – you hack phones!’ he says. ‘Yes! That’s how I know you’re still calling Brisbane hookers and charging them to your union credit card,’ I retort. He is warming to my plan for a modest share in a racehorse. I’m going to name the nag ‘Slush Fund’. I want a mare with a reddish mane and a powerful kick. I tell my unionist mate he can’t use the members’ money to pay for his share in Slush Fund: that would be illegal. I stress it has to be his money. He stares at me.
This unruly saga featuring Bruce, Ralph, Julia, the slush fund, the renos, Slater & Gordon, and Bill ‘The Greek’ Telikostoglou (the ‘big Greek bullshit artist’ who screwed up the PM’s fence or something) has been weird from the outset. Sometimes I think it is like a TV mini-series the studio rejected because a grown-up decided the characters and plot are too whacky.
The events of Tuesday night are particularly weird. Bruce is talking to the ABC’s 7.30 about how the slush fund was perfectly legal, and Julia did nothing wrong, and the $5,000 payment to her might have happened, and, just by the way, cash bricks of ‘union money’ were buried in Ralph’s backyard. I think I hear furniture splintering and vases smashing in the PM’s office. Ralph buried the freakin’ money! No wonder the PM now calls her once good buddy a ‘complete imbecile, an idiot, a stooge…’
A Brucer-cum-Ralpher from the Liberal party tells me Mark is a valued part of the opposition’s strategy. ‘But Mark is on Julia’s side,’ I say. My Liberal party contact giggles: ‘He’s doing a brilliant job. For us.’
Former union official Grace Collier, a Financial Review columnist, calls me. But Grace can’t talk. She is laughing too much. We’ve just seen Latham on Sky, telling the nation he’s uncovered a dastardly plot hatched on Mike Smith’s blog — a conspiracy to engage Taleban terrorists to assassinate the PM. We need to alert the police. Or ASIO. Better still, tip off the anti-Brucers in the Canberra Press Gallery — they’ll love it.
Ralph, the ‘sexist pig’, couldn’t find Kabul on an atlas, but he’s hitting back in other ways, telling the Liberal party’s Michael Kroger on Sky that the PM has consorted with ‘married women’. Jesus wept. Now Kroger is about to wet himself. Grace is incoherent.
I wake up to discover Ralph’s Malaysia-based wife Ruby is now entering the fray with an impassioned if unintelligible defence of her man. I like loyalty. Ralph spoils the moment by telling Mike that Ruby wants to ‘tear Julia a new…’ From what I can make out, Ruby and Julia are not in a relationship.
I worry about how the PM is going to describe other former clients and besties. But I can hardly wait for the next chapter of Slushgate in the new year.
Hedley Thomas is national chief correspondent at the Australian and key investigative journalist behind the AWU/Gillard revelations.