ABC pundits exposed by rejecting Gillard-AWU slush fund reports
Sometimes ABC hosts just can’t help but show their true colours. Like last Thursday week when Melbourne ABC radio personality Jon Faine and ABC TV Insiders host Barrie Cassidy discussed the decision of the West Australian Director of Public Prosecutions to drop charges against self-confessed fraudster Ralph Blewitt.
Blewitt had been charged on 31 counts in March last year under the previous WA Barnett Liberal government. He had admitted being the bagman for Bruce Wilson, former Australian Workers Union WA chief and one-time boyfriend of former prime minister Julia Gillard, in a scam that set up a slush fund to channel payments from big companies meant for the union to Wilson himself.
Gillard, a partner at Slater and Gordon in Melbourne at the time, had been romantically involved with Wilson since 1992 and had helped to set up the AWU Workplace Reform Association, which was registered as a fund for training workers. Cassidy joked that this newspaper had destroyed whole forests printing stories about the slush fund, while Faine said that the dropping of the Blewitt charges showed there was never anything in this story.
Proffered Faine: “The only person charged from all of that is now completely cleared.” Well, no actually. The charges have been dropped. Does Faine, for example, think Cardinal George Pell has been cleared of those charges dropped against him?
In fact, Blewitt spoke for 18 minutes to 2GB host Alan Jones that same week about what exactly he, Wilson and Gillard did do, once again admitting his own crimes. But the ABC is not interested. “Not at any stage was there any suggestion that Julia Gillard had done anything wrong,” chimed in Cassidy. Well, no again, guys.
Remember Gillard’s big Canberra press conferences when she denied her house had been renovated with money from the slush fund? This paper in 2012 produced her exit interview from Slater and Gordon, which was much less clear-cut about who paid, and it found an honest AWU official, Wayne Hem, who admitted using money from Wilson’s account to pay workers on the site.
But those trying to whitewash the affair face other hurdles. Such as the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption that heard evidence from Hem and another builder, Athol James, both considered credible by commissioner Dyson Heydon, a former High Court judge. They testified that cash from Wilson had been used to pay for renovation work on Gillard’s Abbotsford house in Melbourne’s inner north. Heydon specifically rejected Gillard’s denials she was the beneficiary of cash sums for the renovation.
The redacted text of her exit interview from Slater and Gordon, obtained by Hedley Thomas and published in 2012, showed that when Gillard left her employment in 1995 over her work for Wilson, she had failed to declare her personal conflict of interest and had not created a file for that work. The firm was worried the slush fund work could jeopardise its relationship with one of its largest national clients, the AWU.
Then there is the evidence of two other judicial figures. One, Ian Cambridge, was appointed to Gillard’s Fair Work Commission in December 2009. A former national head of the AWU, Cambridge had kept extensive diary notes in the mid-1990s of his attempts to track down the Wilson fraud. Thomas revealed details from the Cambridge diaries in November 2012 and the story was widely followed in the media but ignored by the ABC.
Last year Thomas obtained and published handwritten notes by Gillard’s mentor and manager at Slater and Gordon, Bernard Murphy, written in August 1995 after he interviewed Wilson. These show Wilson told Murphy, appointed to the Federal Court by Gillard, that if the slush fund was ever investigated, Wilson “would go to jail”. The Murphy notes were not presented to the royal commission.
I can just hear the conversation at the ABC: “Who cares about all this? It does not convict Gillard of anything.” And it is true Heydon did not recommend charges against her.
But so what? There was a very good reason to investigate this then 17-year-old can of worms.
Gillard, as former PM Kevin Rudd’s deputy, had challenged the sitting Rudd in June 2010 without having faced the sort of scrutiny Rudd had endured as opposition leader throughout 2007, quite appropriately for a candidate for PM. Remember all the stories about Rudd’s time as head of the Office of Cabinet in the Queensland government of Wayne Goss when Rudd earned the moniker “Dr Death”? Yet Gillard had a damaging stain on her record.
Faine and Cassidy put the motivation for the slush fund stories down to then opposition leader Tony Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Not so, and although they did eventually run hard with The Australian’s story, it was entirely the paper’s decision to look at the issue.
As Cassidy, a former staff member to Labor PM Bob Hawke, would surely know, many senior ministers in the Gillard government at the time had grave misgivings about her history. Attorney-general Robert McClelland was just the only one brave enough to say so publicly. Senior ABC figures would have been aware of the story long before Gillard became PM.
I was first asked to investigate the matter in the mid-1990s after I had taken over as editor-in-chief of Queensland Newspapers. I was urged by former state secretary and national president of the AWU Bill Ludwig to assign journalists to find out what had happened to his union’s money. Cassidy’s AWU contacts would likely be better than mine.
While Faine and Cassidy pretended the story is an obsession of this newspaper, Cambridge’s original investigation was followed extensively at the time in The Agein Melbourne, where Faine and Cassidy live.
Faine lamented he was the only real victim of the affair because he had been censured by the ABC for an interview with former Sydney 2UE host and now blogger Michael Smith about the slush fund story.
As ABC spin doctor Nick Leys wrote for this paper at the time “the ABC has apologised for a lapse in standards” by ABC 774 presenter Faine over interviews with Smith and former Age editor-at-large Mark Baker about the AWU slush fund allegations.
The ABC said: “Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that the interviews were not conducted in keeping with ABC impartiality requirements. The argumentative style of the interviews by Mr Faine, combined with a pattern of strongly stated personal opinions … was not in keeping with the ABC’s rigorous impartiality standards.”
ABC chairman Justin Milne should educate himself about the way our public broadcaster ignored this story. He might start with what Cassidy wrote on the Drum website in November 2012, arguing The Australian was pursuing a legitimate story but giving it too much prominence.
Within seven months, Gillard’s enemies had used a story Cassidy thought had too much prominence to roll another sitting Labor prime minister.