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Note to editors - Chris Mitchell's AWU/Gillard story is #2 most read online at The Australian today

Chris Mitchell & The Australian bring GILLARD & the AWU slush-fund scandal back to mainstream media attention

Chris Mitchell's column in The Australian today.

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(Photo - Gillard and AWU supremo Bill Ludwig)

Some journalists seem to have discovered a passion for media freedom since the election of Scott Morrison’s Coalition in May and raids on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters and the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst in June. Yet some of the same people once supported the Gillard government’s attempt to muzzle the press. Now revelations about the authenticity of a West Australian Corporate Affairs document in the AWU slush fund affair may again test views on free inquiry.

Chris Kenny, on SkyNews on October 28, said former Ten Network political editor Paul Bongi­orno had not always supported media freedom. Writing for The New Daily in mid-October, Bongiorno warned that Australia was on a slippery slope to tyranny. Yet in March 2013, Bongiorno supported an attempt by the Gillard government, in the face an investigation by Hedley Thomas of the slush fund affair, to introduce a news media council to regulate the press. He tweeted: “There is no censorship. Just laws to uphold the newspaper-owned Press Council’s own stated aims.”

Many at the ABC and Fairfax backed Julia Gillard’s attempt to nobble the media via the Finkelstein inquiry set up by her former communications minister, now SkyNews commentator, Stephen Conroy.

Gillard, a solicitor in the early 1990s with Slater and Gordon in Melbourne, incorporated for her then boyfriend Bruce Wilson the Australian Workplace Reform Association in Perth. Wilson, at the time WA secretary of the Australian Workers Union, used money from the association to help buy a house in Melbourne’s Fitzroy in the name of union official Ralph Blewett.

I first learned of the affair in the mid-1990s when Queensland former state secretary of the AWU Bill Ludwig urged The Courier-Mail to look at the disappearance of money he considered his union’s. Years later, Ludwig’s faction in federal parliament, led by then treasurer and now national ALP president Wayne Swan, remained loyal to Gillard.

Former AWU national secretary Paul Howes in 2012 famously told Gillard at his union’s conference on the Gold Coast: “We’ve got ya back.”

Those wanting to replace her with Kevin Rudd, deposed by Gillard in June 2010, drove the slush fund issue to destabilise her. Former ALP attorney-general Robert McClelland was just one of several factional heavyweights pushing the story.

Gillard was rolled by Rudd in mid-2013 and the press regulator idea was dropped. Later, the incoming Abbott government set up the $45.9m trade union royal commission (TURC) led by former High Court judge Dyson Heydon to look at trade union corruption.

The royal commission found witnesses interviewed by Hedley in 2012 about the use of slush fund money to renovate Gillard’s house in Abbotsford in inner northern Melbourne were truthful. He had spoken to an AWU organiser, Wayne Hem, and Victoria Police fraud squad detectives and builder Athol James about work on the house. The TURC recommended no action against Gillard as she had been duped by Wilson but criticised her legal work for him and commented adversely about her testimony on James, saying “Athol James’s testimony is to be accepted over hers”.

In August 2012, Hedley tracked down former Slater and Gordon equity partner Nick Styant-Browne in the US, who revealed the firm had wanted Gillard out in 1995 over her role in setting up the association for Wilson.

Hedley, when interviewed for a piece on his induction into the Media Hall of Fame last November, said his slush-fund coverage was his proudest achievement, no small thing for a journalist with two Gold Walkleys and five other Walkleys.

Gillard’s political handling of the issue was masterful. She tried to intimidate two of this company’s former Australian chief executives and their Fairfax counter­parts into a series of backdowns.

She pulled on surprise press conferences at short notice in Canberra with political journalists who were not across the story — yet she refused to be interviewed by Hedley. She tried to shut down mainstream media interest but could not stop her own internal critics or the blogosphere.

Some of those bloggers have kept looking. Chief among them is former Sydney 2UE radio host Michael Smith, who lost his job in 2011 after a dispute with Fairfax management over his pursuit of the story. He now runs his Michael Smith News site from a small Thai island in the Andaman Sea. He and retired former Perth detective Dave McAlpine, who investigated the matter for the WA police in the 1990s, have kept probing the slush fund. McAlpine lives on a farm in northern Thailand.

Late last year, Smith emailed me to say he had located retired former WA Corporate Affairs chief R.P. Neal. Gillard had adopted a document allegedly from Neal in her evidence at the TURC.

Dated May 15, 1992, it purports to be Neal’s conditional approval of the Workplace Reform Association. The TURC relied on this document in its chapter on the association’s incorporation. It is signed and the words “Ray Neal assistant director” appear beneath the signature.

Neal’s name is Ramon not Raymond. For that reason, he always used the initials R.P. rather than “Ray” beneath his signature.

Smith has obtained from Neal a sworn affidavit that he did not sign this document. Speaking from Perth 10 days ago, Neal said he was not alleging the document was a forgery and mentioned a stamped signature that was sometimes used when he was away. On his blog, Smith has reproduced the stamp and signature from the alleged Neal document and they appear different. Smith also recorded a powerful phone interview with Neal, published on Smith’s blog in October 2016.

Both Neal and his former boss, Ralph Mineif, have said the association would never have been incorporated under terms set out in the letter: the association will be incorporated “subject to receiving a written undertaking that the association will amend its rules to include new rule 3A within 30 days of being notified of the incorporation.” Mineif says of the Neal letter: “In my opinion this is not a valid document.”

I advised Smith last year to send the Neal affidavit to Justice Heydon, whose office responded by notifying him the matter would be forwarded to federal Attorney-General Christian Porter’s office.

Speaking in Sydney last month, Smith and McAlpine said they thought the matter needed to be pursued. McAlpine does not understand how $400,000 can have been embezzled yet no one held legally accountable. Smith is trying to launch a private prosecution through the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

Gillard did not respond to texts for this column but her office emailed saying she was overseas and would not be commenting. Having spoken to her several times about the slush fund when she was PM, I believe she would suggest the paper speak to Wilson and Blewett about the Neal letter.

Doubtless Smith is right about likely media reaction. Journalists last month demanding federal Minister for Energy Angus Taylor fall on his sword over a forged set of travel expenses involving Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore are likely to ignore the latest twist in the slush fund story.

Wrote Smith on October 31: “The issue of ... (deceiving) a royal commission is a serious matter. I’d rate it much more highly than bagging Clover Moore over her travel expenses.” Indeed.

Chris Mitchell began his career in late 1973 in Brisbane on the afternoon daily, The Telegraph. He worked on the Townsville Daily Bulletin, the Daily Telegraph Sydney and the Australian Financial Review before ...
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PS - there will be quite a bit of follow up to this column across many media, parliamentary and judicial platforms.
Every touch leaves its trace.