IN LATE August, Julia Gillard delivered one of the finer performances of her political career. After weeks of damaging media coverage and increasingly vitriolic internet commentary about her connections with a decades-old trade union fraud scandal, the Prime Minister resolved to tackle the critics head on.
At a Parliament House news conference, called ostensibly to discuss asylum seekers, Gillard dragged the proverbial dead cat into the centre of the room.
A silly mistake in that morning's Australian newspaper (it wrongly reported that she had been involved in establishing a union trust fund in 1992) led News Ltd to give her a formal apology and the toe-hold she needed to climb up and over the critics.
Brazenly conflating the mistake (it was a non-profit association she helped incorporate, not a trust fund) with a ''smear campaign'' driven by ''misogynists and nut jobs'' on the internet, Gillard declared: ''I have decided to come to this press conference today because this matter has got to the stage where we are starting to see recycled, false and defamatory allegations which I have dealt with in the past.''
None of it was new, she said - and then let the questions run. And run. With a flourish, she drew proceedings to a close: ''I've been on my feet now for, what, I can't quite recall, 50 minutes, something like that, taking every question that the journalistic elite of this country have got for me. If that doesn't end the matter then, with respect, I don't know what would.''
The journalistic elite was impressed. Even some of the more hardened hands were quick to applaud her pluck and candour. She had answered every question. She had faced a wide-ranging grilling. And she was indeed a victim - the target of vile and sexist abuse from the lawless blogosphere.
The Prime Minister's strategy was a resounding success. It stopped a damaging debate in its tracks - at least in the mainstream media.
But that day ought to be revisited for what should have been asked but wasn't, for what wasn't answered but should have been and for what remains unresolved. What Gillard didn't do was properly answer many new questions about her conduct in the early 1990s that were raised a few days earlier when The Australian published a partial transcript of a meeting in September 1995 between Gillard and senior partners of Slater & Gordon, a meeting that precipitated her departure from the law firm.
That meeting had been called after the firm became aware for the first time that the Australian Workers Union Workplace Reform Association, an association incorporated with the advice of Ms Gillard, had been corrupted by her then boyfriend, Bruce Wilson - a senior AWU official - to steal, it was later discovered, hundreds of thousands of dollars of union funds.
The firm was also disturbed about aspects of conveyancing work done by Gillard in 1993 for the purchase of a unit in Fitzroy. While the unit had been bought in the name of another AWU official, Ralph Blewitt, the transaction had been comprehensively managed by Wilson using a power of attorney drafted by Gillard.
What the senior partners did not know then, but discovered the following year, was that more than $100,000 towards the purchase of the property had been siphoned from the AWU Workplace Reform Association.
Gillard, then a salaried partner at Slater & Gordon, had been first challenged about her role in helping create the association and in assisting with the purchase of the Fitzroy unit at a meeting on 14 August, 1995, with Geoff Shaw and Nick Styant-Browne, an equity partner in charge of the firm's commercial department.
At that meeting Gillard confirmed she had not followed established procedures to open a formal file on the work done to incorporate the Workplace Reform Association. She had played down her role, claiming she had only given some advice about incorporation.
She also confirmed that she had drafted the power of attorney for Wilson without advising senior colleagues.
Gillard told Shaw and Styant-Browne that her unofficial file of paperwork relating to the Workplace Reform Association was no longer available as it had been passed on to someone outside the firm.
Immediately after that meeting, Gillard took leave and in her absence staff found the file in her office.
Questioned about this at her September 11 meeting with Shaw and senior partner Peter Gordon, Gillard said - according to the transcript of the recorded interview - that her recollection was ''that I hadn't opened a file on the system and that I had had some papers and at some point I had given the papers to [name redacted]''.
She said an assistant had found the papers in a cabinet: ''I was surprised … my recollection was I had given the papers to [name redacted]. I didn't expect them to be here and so I didn't go on a big hunt for it, really I should have. That was an error.''
She confirmed to the senior partners that she had not taken advice from anyone at Slater & Gordon about the structuring and incorporation of the association, an area in which the firm had experienced senior staff.
Gillard told Shaw and Gordon the association was a ''slush fund'' designed to gather money for union election campaigning.
But the application for the association's incorporation in 1992 and the rules drafted under Gillard's advice make no reference to campaign funding and declare the organisation's objectives to be the promotion of workplace safety and training.
At her news conference in August, Gillard offered a happy marriage of these seemingly diverse objectives: ''My understanding of the purpose of this association was to support the re-election of union officials who would run a campaign saying that they wanted re-election because they were committed to reforming workplaces in a certain way, to increasing occupational health and safety, to improving the conditions of members of the union.''
Gillard told journalists that after assisting with the incorporation she knew nothing about the workings of the association until ''matters were raised in 1995''.
She broke off her four-year relationship with Wilson days before her meeting with Shaw and Gordon, later saying she had been ''deceived'' by him.
At that meeting she was also questioned about her role in advising on the purchase of a $230,000 unit in Kerr Street, Fitzroy - a property Ralph Blewitt had never seen before it was bought in his name in February 1993 by Bruce Wilson, who attended the auction with Julia Gillard.
She said Wilson had persuaded Blewitt, a union crony based in Perth, to buy an investment property that he, Wilson, could live in. ''It made sense, I didn't have any particular reason to question it in great detail, or at all,'' she said.
After buying the property in Blewitt's name, Wilson managed all of the transaction, including the establishment of a $150,000 mortgage from a Slater & Gordon loan facility arranged by Gillard. A deposit payment of $67,722 transferred to Slater & Gordon's trust account was later found to have come from the AWU Workplace Reform Association, along with other amounts for stamp duty and costs.
Prior to the meetings in August and September 1995, Ms Gillard had not revealed to the senior partners that her boyfriend was involved in the transaction and that she had done the work without charge for her professional services.
Questioned by Peter Gordon, Gillard said that she had not made inquiries about the source of funds Ralph Blewitt would use to buy the property and service the mortgage: ''I assumed he had the money for the deposit and to meet the mortgage repayments when they fell due … To the extent that I thought about it, I hadn't made a careful inquiry about his financial circumstances.''
At her news conference, Gillard said she was unaware that funds stolen from the Workplace Reform Association had been used to buy the property: ''I did not, at that time, understand that any funds from any other source would be used to support the purchase, that is funds from the association or any other accounts related to the union.''
Gillard was also asked by journalists about persistent claims that AWU money may have been used to pay for renovations to a house she had bought in Abbotsford in 1991. Her answer was emphatic: ''I paid for my renovations.''
But in September 1995, when questioned extensively about the extent and nature of those renovations, Gillard was not so sure and was asked for, and agreed to, supply receipts for the work that had been done.
Peter Gordon: ''Julia, it's been put to a partner of Slater & Gordon in the last week that there exists a receipt with respect to renovation work conducted at your home which is in some way connected with funds from the Australian Workers Union Workplace Reform Association account.''
Gillard said she had heard a rumour that after Wilson left the AWU someone had presented the union with an unpaid account for work on her house. She said this could relate to disputed work on the property's front windows and fence which she was in the process of settling.
''I can't categorically rule out that something at my house didn't get paid for by the association or something at my house didn't get paid for by the union or whatever,'' she said. ''I just, I don't feel confident saying I can categorically rule it out, but I can't see how it's happened because that really is the only bit of work that, that, that I would identify that I hadn't paid for.''
Gillard told her news conference that she had ''determined to resign'' from Slater & Gordon because of growing tensions about the direction of the partnership and to pursue a political career.
Asked whether she felt her future at Slater & Gordon had been ''on the line'' during the September 1995 meeting, Gillard said: ''It's 17 years ago. I don't have a clear recollection of those matters.''
But Peter Gordon does. In a draft statement leaked to The Australian two days earlier, he said the firm had contemplated sacking her because her relationship with the other partners had fractured and ''trust and confidence evaporated''. But in view of her repeated denials of wrongdoing, he believed she should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Whether she jumped or was pushed, after the September meeting Gillard effectively did not work with the firm again. She took extended leave in October 1995 to (unsuccessfully) campaign for a Senate seat and formally left early in 1996.
At the August news conference, one of the more sceptical journalists remarked: ''Prime Minister, you have said in the past that you were young and naive when you got involved with Mr Wilson. But, I mean, you were 30 at the time … It wasn't like you were off the first train from Adelaide.''
Mark Baker is editor-at-large.Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/national/sold-to-the-union-man-20121009-27b4e.html#ixzz28q3MnQQq