Judicial inquiry the nation has to have
- From:The Australian
- November 30, 201212:00AM
DESPITE the sound and fury of her parliamentary performance yesterday, Julia Gillard added nothing to the sum total of human knowledge about her role in the incorporation of a sham workplace safety association that became a slush fund milked by her former boyfriend and his bagman. Well might the Prime Minister complain that these events occurred 20 years ago, before she entered politics.
It was she who decided not to open a file on the case, as is standard legal practice. If she had, the disputed letters could be produced now. In fact, had she put her dealings on the record from the start it is highly unlikely her legal partners would have allowed her to keep the brief.
Ms Gillard's entire defence against the charge that she misled the West Australian authorities came down to this: that the AWU Workplace Reform Association was not, in a technical sense, a trade union. Never mind that she made representations to the WA authorities on behalf of two officials of the AWU. Never mind that the words "AWU" were written into the application document in her own fair hand. Never mind that the association became the vehicle used to siphon hundreds of thousands of dollars from the union or that the two officials who ran it withdrew so much cash that one of them was forced to bury it in his backyard. Ms Gillard, without elaborating, tells us she is in the clear.
Whatever her strengths, Ms Gillard's background in industrial law draws attention to her party's achilles heel. Her own office has had links to senior figures in the Health Services Union, and she long stood by discredited former Labor backbencher Craig Thomson after evidence of union fraud was presented against him. The Prime Minister has blustered, stonewalled and obfuscated as details have incrementally been unearthed by The Australian's Hedley Thomas and other journalists on the AWU matter. Now fresh revelations have demonstrated how Ms Gillard failed to level with the public, and has gone close to misleading the parliament, over whether she might have misled WA authorities in 1992.
Ms Gillard has repeatedly been asked whether the Corporate Affairs Commission raised concerns about the application she lodged to incorporate the AWU Workplace Reform Association, and whether she argued for the association's bona fides. But, as with some other crucial questions, this is one Ms Gillard continually refused to answer directly. On the contrary, in parliament on Monday she seemed to suggest such correspondence might never have occurred. "The correspondence he refers to has never been produced," the Prime Minister said, "so the claim has been made, but no correspondence has ever been produced." Yet, as this newspaper revealed yesterday, previously unreleased sections of Ms Gillard's 1995 interview as part of her law firm's internal investigation of this matter confirm the correspondence. At best, Ms Gillard has been less than frank.
But it gets worse. The transcript revelations also suggest that her letter to the WA authorities could have downplayed the association's union links. This does not accord with Ms Gillard's other comments in the interview that she knew this was a union "slush fund". If Ms Gillard's letter misled the Corporate Affairs Commission as to the true nature of the association, or if the description she drafted was misleading, she may be in breach of the law.
We know Ralph Blewitt and Bruce Wilson, by their own admission, fraudulently obtained upwards of $400,000 through the AWU Workplace Reform Association. They withdrew so much illicit cash they did not know where to put it, and Mr Blewitt tried to bury it in his garden. We know that if Ms Gillard, as their lawyer, had either notified the AWU executive or her firm the scam might have been nipped in the bud. Furthermore, after the WA Corporate Affairs Commission declared it ineligible for incorporation as an association, it could not have proceeded without Ms Gillard's written arguments in response. All of this occurred in secret - without Ms Gillard adopting the standard accountability check of opening a file for the work. After money was fraudulently channelled by Mr Wilson and Mr Blewitt through the fund over three years, it led to an investigation at Slater & Gordon, the dropping of the AWU as their client and, ultimately, the exit of Ms Gillard. Yet even then Ms Gillard did not tell the police or the AWU about the so-called slush fund.
Ms Gillard's stubborn unwillingness to be transparent about the facts raises questions of character. Her elliptical answers, her dismissive put-downs of questions from fair-minded reporters, her mocking, off-hand parliamentary manner and her history of playing the misogyny card to distract from unsavoury issues may be useful
short-term tactics, but they merely delay the reckoning for, one way or other, these outstanding questions must be answered.
The prospect for Labor now is a long, hot summer, with this unresolved affair left festering. Ms Gillard's technique of blaming the messenger is wearing thin; she has tried to blame a mendacious media, right-wing bloggers and the opposition. She must know, however, as we do, that much of the information comes from dissatisfied members of her own party, who want this running sore cleared up once and for all, for the sake of the union movement and the party.