Mao dismissed Watergate as a "fart in the wind". Much of the Canberra press gallery would have preferred to see the AWU scandal possessing the same transient attributes. Alas, as with Watergate, the stink surrounding the slush fund Julia Gillard enabled for her former unionist lover has been hard to shake.
Leaving aside the alleged diversion and theft of union funds (which Gillard claims to have known nothing about), the affair is fundamentally about the perversion of the political process and a cover-up at the centre of union and political power, with all of the attendant consequences.
The scandal gripping Gillard’s premiership isn’t merely about her questionable professional conduct as a lawyer. It’s a more serious affair because the allegations of "routine" (as the PM dubbed it) wrongdoing go to the heart of Labor and its most powerful union masters. Who controls the AWU controls the Labor government and The Lodge.
Like the AWU scandal, Watergate was about corrupt political practices which had become routine. It involved crimes—illegal slush funds, break-ins, conspiracy—and, eventually, a cover-up that reached the White House. It became the "cancer on the presidency" of Richard Nixon that ultimately consumed it.
The US Constitution was vindicated. But the 1970s was a parlous time for Australia’s most important ally and the West. The "third-rate burglary" and cover-up diminished executive branch authority, sapped America’s confidence at home and undermined its prestige abroad.
Arab countries embargoed oil exports to the US and launched the surprise Yom Kippur War against Israel — bringing America and the Soviet Union closest to the nuclear abyss than they had come since the Cuban Missile Crisis. North Vietnam dismembered the Paris Peace Accords. Iran slid into an Islamic terrorocracy. A more adventurous Kremlin expanded its sway from Afghanistan to the Americas and deployed intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Eastern Europe, setting the stage for a new Cold War showdown.
By decade’s end, the world was a less safe place. Some fart.
Henry Kissinger noted in his seminal tome Diplomacy that Watergate cast a long shadow over American foreign policy. Historians will debate how long, but the lesson is that strong executive government is crucial to good government, the furtherance of the national interest and preservation of freedom.
Australia is not America and the sky will not fall if Gillard lingers. But Australia has a role to play — looking after its interests, the values it cherishes and the commitments it makes to its friends — that demands a strong and effective executive which, regrettably, it has lacked.
Gillard admitted the absence of sound executive government under Labor before she knifed Kevin Rudd. It has only grown worse since she tacked together a minority government. The leadership deficit first manifested itself in the bitter feuding with Rudd during his time as foreign minister. Now, Gillard’s failure to account for her actions that led to the AWU slush fund and the cover-up has further crippled her authority — as if that were possible.
Only weeks ago, Gillard congratulated Barack Obama on his re-election, stressing that US leadership was "vital" for peace and security. ”Australia has a long history of working with the US to make a difference on these global challenges" and would continue to do so, Gillard pledged. Now, she can’t even muster caucus votes to back Israel, the principles of the Oslo Peace Accords or the Obama Administration at the UN. Vive la différence.
The repudiation of Gillard’s leadership over Palestinian status at the UN was another signpost to five years of inept Labor foreign policy. Australia’s regional relationships with Beijing and Tokyo are degraded. In the case of Jakarta, they are in tatters (over the Government’s maladministration of the live cattle trade and lethally incompetent handling of the people-smuggling debacle).
Cornered over the serious AWU allegations, Gillard has squandered what little executive authority was left to her, preferring instead to bully and smear her antagonists — all very Nixonesque. The cover-up that began 17 years ago has morphed into a media and gender war.
Attacking the press is a move straight from the playbook of the Watergate cover-up. Nixon’s attorney-general, John Mitchell, threatened the Washington Post’s TV licences and, infamously, its publisher: "Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer" if the Post published a secret election slush fund story.
That approach initially shielded Gillard from significant media scrutiny, but isn’t doing so now. In addition to News Ltd papers, Fairfax mastheads finally have jumped into the fray. Mark Twain’s advice never to pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel remains no less true today. Even the somnolent ABC has opened a dozy and previously disinterested eye.
Never short of expletives and slurs for friend or foe, Nixon wasn’t shy about playing the victim and would have slipped into a pair of Fred Perry pumps if he had thought a Gillard-style "misogynist" smear advantageous. Though Gillard’s ginned-up gender war provided a distraction, Tony Abbott has called time. Complaints that a female Prime Minister has been been referred to by the apparently chauvinist-pig pronoun "she" (who knew?) will have no currency before a royal commission examining union corruption.
With the year-end Newspoll showing Labor again plumbing an electoral finale of Mayan proportions, backbenchers may reflect on Nixon, who was by all accounts ill-suited for a job demanding a person comfortable in their own skin and with the truth. On his way out the West Wing, Tricky Dick seemed to confess (or was he perhaps justifying routine wrongdoing?).
"Always remember," Nixon advised, "others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them — and then you destroy yourself".
Alan R.M. Jones was an adviser in the Howard Government