By LUCY ORMONDE
For weeks – months, years in some cases – the media has been running with the story of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s alleged knowledge of dodgy dealings by employees of the Australian Workers Union in 1993.
And for weeks now, you may have been wondering: What the hell is a union slush fund? Anyone else?
Ah yes, the Foreign Minister of Australia, Senator Bob Carr.
He doesn’t get it either.
Carr recently commented that “I’ve tried to read the articles on this. And my attention is flagged generally by the time I’ve got to the fifth paragraph. I can’t see what the offense is. I’ve never understood.”
Perhaps, when you first saw the story on the inside pages of the paper, you skimmed over it. Or glazed over, assuming that the media would move on. But as the weeks rolled on – so did the stories – and when Prime Minister Julia Gillard fronted the media yesterday in a press conference that went for almost an hour, it became apparent that to have an opinion on this, some basic facts and background are required.
So it’s OK Bob Carr. We’ve got your back and we can learn together.
Here goes. Hold me.
It’s a confusing issue, but try to stay with it. Before Julia Gillard was a Prime Minister, she was a lawyer for a firm called Slater and Gordon. She had a boyfriend called Bruce Wilson who was an employee of the Australian Workers’ Union, and she did some pro bono legal work for Bruce and his colleague Ralph Blewitt. She helped them establish a fund called the AWU Workplace Reform Association.
But don’t let that name fool you – the money in the fund was actually intended for the reelection of union officials, but the money ended up being used for Mr Wilson and Mr Blewitt’s personal use, including buying a house in Melbourne.
So essentially there are three issues at the centre of this:
1. Whether the Prime Minister was involved or connected with any of this wrongdoing.
2. Even if she wasn’t, was she aware of it and should she have informed the police.
3. If either (1) or (2) are true, has the Prime Minister misled the Parliament in denying them.
Julia Gillard fronted the media during a lengthy press conference in August. She took questions from journalists in the parliamentary press gallery for over an hour in an attempt to move past the issue, which has dogged her sporadically since 1996.
And despite no clear evidence of wrongdoing on her part, yesterday the Prime Minister was forced to face the media again and defended the allegations that she knew about the deal.
“I did nothing wrong,” the Prime Minister said. “I did not set up a fund, I did not set up a bank account. Any such claim about me is a defamatory claim…. I provided advice as a lawyer about the incorporation of an association. I did not incorporate an association.”
The PM’s former boyfriend, Bruce Wilson also spoke publicly over the weekend, telling journalists that Julia Gillard was not aware of the misuse of funds. “They can go on a witch-hunt for as long as they like, and they will find nothing that will do her any harm,” he said. “It’s just a waste of time. They will find nothing…. (She) knew absolutely, categorically nothing,”
But Ralph Blewitt – Mr Wilson’s former associate who has previously admitted to engaging in fraud with Mr Wilson – says the PM did know what was going on. Blewitt went to the police last week and provided them with statements about the establishment of the the AWU Workplace Reform Association.
At the press conference yesterday, Ms Gillard hit back at Mr Blewitt calling him a “sexist pig.” She said: “Mr Blewitt, according to people who know him, has been described as a complete imbecile, an idiot, a stooge, a sexist pig, a liar, and his sister has said he’s a crook, and rotten to the core… His word against mine. Make your mind up.”
“You can work out who you believe: the person who is standing here, Prime Minister of Australia, who has done nothing wrong; or the man who says he’s guilty of fraud and is looking for an immunity,” the Prime Minister said. “Work it out.”
But it’s not just the media who have a stake in this. Obviously this is fertile ground for the Coalition who are using the issue for political gain. They’ve accused Julia Gillard of lying to authorities and during Question Time in parliament yesterday, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop called on the Prime Minister to ask her former employer, Slater and Gordon to release any documents they have on the matter.
This from the ABC:
Ms Bishop continued her line of questioning, asking Ms Gillard whether her reason for not opening a file at Slater & Gordon when she dealt with the AWU Workplace Reform Association was to avoid alerting her legal partners and the union of an “unauthorised slush fund”.
Ms Gillard rejected the suggestion, saying it was common practice to do routine matters for unions free of charge and described Ms Bishop’s questions as “bordering on the embarrassing”.
“To save her the questions, let me assure her, I didn’t fake the Moon landing, I wasn’t responsible for the assassination of JFK, I didn’t shove Harold Holt on a Chinese submarine – just before she gets to those questions, because where these conspiracy theories are getting us to is truly absurd and generally embarrassing.”
Bishop alleges that the Prime Minister had sufficient knowledge of what was going on that she had a duty to go to the police at the time, to try and stop it. But the Prime Minister claims that once she was aware of the wrongdoing, it was already the subject of an inquiry.
Meanwhile the ALP say that the PM has answered all the questions the media have thrown at her but that the Coalition just want to keep asking the same questions to fuel suggestions that something is being hidden, regardless of whether it is or not.
So, what do you think? Have you been following the story? Should the media be asking questions about it? Or is it just a smear campaign by the Coalition? Or is it a case of where there’s smoke there’s fire?