Parsing the Prime Minister

Hundreds of thousands of words, maybe even a million by now, have been written or uttered in regard to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s relationship with the AWU’s then-high flier Bruce Wilson and his secret bank accounts. Despite all that the verbiage, it can all get very confusing — especially when you factor in the oft-displayed inclination of certain leading members of the Canberra press gallery to banish the whole sordid business from their sight and readers’ minds.

To figure out the gulf between known fact and what Gillard insists on calling "unproven allegations", the best approach — the most illuminating, at any rate — is to contrast and compare her explanations and excuses from then with the more recent utterances of now. What emerges is a tangle of inconsistencies, self-serving gloss and frustrating failures of memory and recollection.

This is Part I of a two-part forensic examination of the Prime Minister’s defence of her ethics and honesty.

Frustrating, that is, for anyone who would just like a few straight answers, especially to the biggest question of them all. Is Julia Gillard a fit person to serve as the nation’s leader

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the last time we had one of these press conferences I asked you about the time when your colleague Bernard Murphy spoke to you about what had been uncovered within the AWU, the Victorian branch the AWU, and you explained that one of your reactions to that was to break-off your relationship with Mr Wilson.

I was wondering if you could give us a broader outline of exactly what took place, what was the context of that conversation and what did you and your legal colleagues do as a result of what was uncovered?

PM: Well it’s a matter of public record that rumours and concerns started in the AWU in, around August 1995, about matters particularly involving the Victorian accounts of the AWU. It’s also a matter of public record that these concerns came to the attention of the Slater & Gordon partnership; consequently they came to my attention.

The Slater & Gordon partnership then did things like the internal review, the transcript of which is in the public domain and you’ve had the opportunity to read it, as has anybody else who is wanting to follow the details of this matter.

As for me, obviously at the time these matters came to the attention of the partnership they came to my attention too. I did not have in front of me any evidence of criminality or wrong doing but there was a lot of rumour about what was happening in the Victorian branch of the AWU at that time.

In those circumstances I came to a personal decision about ending my relationship with Mr Wilson and I did so. Then of course the Slater & Gordon internal review went through and you see the outcome of that review.

I know that there’s been a lot of focus on what I should have reported to authorities at that time. Well you can’t report things you do not know. I did not know about transactions on the accounts of the AWU Workplace Relations Association. My role was as a legal adviser providing advice about the incorporation of that association. This is a common misreporting and let me clean it up right here and right now.

Gillard no longer claims she didn’t report what she knew of Wilson’s wrongdoing to AWU or police because there were investigations ongoing, but because there were just “rumours” and “you can’t report things you do not know”. So she knew nothing yet she ditched Wilson because, well, why? Apparently, according to Gillard’s latest account, it was because she heard “rumours”.

File that under implausible deniability, because Gillard actually knew a great deal — far more than her client, the AWU, though she now seems to take the view, depending on the question being asked, that contrary to her erstwhile fellow Slater & Gordon partners, the union was not her client; her lover Bruce Wilson was.

In fact, this is what Gillard said in her August media conference

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, when the scandal erupted and it became known that this money had been stolen by two shysters, who told you? Was it someone at the AWU or was it Bernard Murphy who’d been told by someone else?

PM: Well, I can’t go to matters of privilege, but first and foremost, allegations were being raised and dealt with within the AWU. Those allegations came to my attention. I formed a view that I had not been dealt with honestly and based on that view I ended a relationship I had back then, 17 years ago…

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, as I understand it, when these issues were first questioned within the AWU, the matter was looked at at Slater & Gordon by Bernard Murphy. Now, I presume he then informed you of these issues. What was your reaction at that time? This is specifically the activities of Mr Blewitt and Mr Wilson?

PM: …What I can say … is once I became aware that I had been deceived about a series of matters, I ended my relationship with Mr Wilson.

Yet on November 1, Gillard stated in Parliament, “By the time the matters she [Bishop] refers to came to my attention they were already the subject of inquiry and investigation.”

On one count Gillard plays Sergeant Schultz, who knows nothing. On the other, she asks us to accept she had information which led her to believe Wilson was a crook, that she believed his mischief was someone else’s problem to unravel and her assistance was neither needed nor required.

I have been defamed on a number of occasions with forms of words saying that I set up a fund or a bank account …I did not set up a fund. I did not set up a bank account. Any such claim about me is a defamatory claim and I’d look to this Press Gallery to try and show some leadership in standards and accuracy here.

What I did was I provided advice as a lawyer about the incorporation of an association. I did not incorporate an association. The only entity that can incorporate an association is the Registrar of Incorporated Associations.

Let’s use an analogy here. If a lawyer provided advice on the incorporation of a company, would you say that they incorporated the company? No you wouldn’t. Would you say that they are responsible for the conduct of that company after it is incorporated and in operation? No you wouldn’t.

To use another analogy: you can’t have a chicken without the egg. The AWU Workplace Reform Association, set up with Gillard’s legal advice and assistance, was the vehicle for her lover’s illicit slush fund. It was the legal entity which was needed to establish and control the slush fund.  As Gillard said in her 1995 Slater & Gordon interview, “the thinking behind the forming of incorporated associations… [was to avoid a] dispute about who was the owner of the monies in the bank account, so it was better to have an incorporated association, a legal entity, into which people could participate as members, that was the holder of the account.”

Gillard’s pedantry doesn’t obscure what she did nor how her actions and failure to act enabled a shady enterprise to be created. The full picture has yet to emerge but intimations of serious fraud, possible extortion, diversion and money laundering bring to mind, albeit on a smaller scale, the likes of Jimmy Hoffa.

JOURNALIST: The AWU Workplace Reform Association had the AWU name in it and you knew it was not a workplace safety association; in fact the slush fund phrase was your own phrase in that transcript. So were you a party to a deception against the union?

PM: I dealt with this extensively at the marathon press conference that I did in August and before I answer your question let me just go to some of the issues here about the amount that I’ve dealt with this on the public record.

There has been an emerging kind of consensus amongst the media, perhaps egged on by the Opposition, that I need to give a full and frank account of these matters. Let me just remind, I first answered these matters on the public record in 1995, when they were raised by a Liberal Party minister.

I then dealt with these matters on the public record again in 2001 when they were raised by a Liberal Party backbencher. I dealt with these matters on the public record in 2006 when I filmed an Australian Story. I dealt with these matters on the public record in 2007 after the shopping around of a dirt file by persons employed then in the ministerial office of the Liberal Party. It might be a question some of you want to ask as to whether that person is still employed by Mr Abbott.

On not one of these occasions cited by Gillard could it be said – at least not with a straight face – that she provided a “full and frank account”. At best, she supplied blanket denials or implausible excuses, e.g. “I was young and naïve”. But of course, this is all Tony Abbott’s doing.

I dealt with these matters on the public record in a marathon press conference in August, one of the longest prime ministerial press conferences ever held. I have dealt with these matters at press conferences in Melbourne, in Brisbane. And so let me come to your question.

I refer you to my answers in the marathon press conference in August where I explained to you that I acted on clients’ instructions, that in terms of the use of the words ‘slush fund’ I said very specifically, I did not think that that helped with the understanding of this matter, that my understanding on the instructions provided by my clients was that this was an association which would support the re-election of union officials running on a particular platform of change, hence its name.

The answer Gillard provided to this question on Monday and in her August performance presser did not accord with the answer she gave to Slater & Gordon, when she acknowledged that it is “not proper to use union resources for election campaigns” yet provided legal advice to set up a legal entity to raise funds – a “slush fund” as she herself called it – in the union’s name under the guise of “workplace safety”.

JOURNALIST: One of the allegations made by Ralph Blewitt is that the power of attorney here, which you witnessed, you weren’t actually present when it was witnessed. I think he told Michael Smith as recently as October that he can remember signing it or thereabouts on 4 February and yet it was dated 23 February. So were you there to witness this power of attorney?

PM: I’ve said publicly on more than one occasion I did nothing wrong, and I did nothing wrong in the witnessing of this power of attorney. I witnessed thousands and thousands and thousands of documents for clients during an eight-year – I’ll answer your question – I witnessed thousands and thousands of documents over an eight-year legal career for clients and I did that witnessing properly.

So it’s going to come down to Mr Blewitt’s word against me. Let me remind you who Mr Blewitt is. Mr Blewitt is a man who has publicly said he was involved in fraud. Mr Blewitt is a man who has sought immunity from prosecution.

Mr Blewitt is a man who has fled Indonesia to avoid a police interview in relation to land fraud, although he denies wrongdoing in the case. Mr Blewitt says he owes money on another Asian land deal.

Mr Blewitt admits to using the services of prostitutes in Asia. Mr Blewitt has published lewd and degrading comments and accompanying photographs of young women on his Facebook page.

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.

Again, Gillard refuses to provide a direct answer to a straightforward question. Why not? Instead, she defames Blewitt, her old friend and “client”. As The Age’s Mark Baker put it, “This, of course, was the same Ralph Blewitt in whom Ms Gillard apparently saw no character issues when her legal advice was used to install him as frontman for perhaps the biggest union rort in Australian history”. Even if one accepts Gillard’s responses as “full and frank”, one could be forgiven for wondering at the company she keeps.

JOURNALIST: Can you just clarify the point about whether it was wise to include the name of the union in the association when it was set up? And secondly on the matter of what happened in 1995, given the problems that have emerged, or the suggestion of problems, was it appropriate for you to advise the AWU about the existence of the reform association, or was there a client issue there about who was your client?

PM: Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? It’s a wonderful thing over 20 years. But put yourself in my shoes incorporating that association. This did not strike me as a non-standard transaction; unions incorporate associations to support the re-election of union officials.

As I made clear in August at the very long press conference in fact that is done to better assist with the management of these funds, that there had been circumstances in the past where a team of people who are all going to support each other at the next election decide at the time of the election that they’re going to go separate ways and create new tickets.

And if the only way in which you’ve done the fundraising for your re-election is that it’s kept in a shoebox as cash or it’s popped in someone’s personal bank account, it means that when you then divide and go your separate ways it can be very difficult to work out what’s what, what money is whose.

So it is common for unions to incorporate associations for this kind of purpose. In those circumstances dealing with this matter during my legal career, a matter which at the time struck me as pretty routine, pretty low level, indeed so low level I didn’t even charge for it, a matter of that nature, then it was being set up to support the re-election of a team of union officials in the AWU – hence the name – and they were intending to stand on a certain platform, hence the objects of the association.

Hindsight is when we typically must face judgment. But again, Gillard does not answer the question, which was not whether it was right to incorporate a union election fundraising organisation, but whether it was right to give it a name which implied it was an AWU entity and for a purpose different from that stated in its articles. Moreover, when interviewed by Slater & Gordon, Gillard did not state it was a matter of such low priority she did not bother opening  a file. Gillard offered that only as a post-facto implied justification; at the time, in 1995, she admitted a file should have been opened:

This, this was a more substantial job than that and really ought to have been opened on system, but I think, well, I don’t have a specific recollection of thinking to myself should I open it on system or shouldn’t I open it on system, but apparently I didn’t.

The truth is always easier to keep straight.

Interviewed last week on 7.30 (which has itself suddenly been seized of the scandal after slumbering for over a year), former Slater & Gordon equity partner, Nick Styant-Brown said:  

Gillard stated in the interview that she did not open a file. This was not passing advice to a rank-and-file union member; this matter involved the incorporation of a legal entity and it was most unusual that a file was not opened. Fees were waived in relation to the work that was done on the file. Then there was the question of her involvement in the purchase of the Kerr Street property and the fact that she had understood that a tenant of the property was to be her then boyfriend Mr Wilson and that was a relationship which had never been disclosed to me.

And how does the PM bat away those observations?

JOURNALIST: In 1995, given that there were questions being raised about the funds of the union, would it have been appropriate, or should it have been appropriate that you advised the AWU of the association?

PM: The questions then in circulation in the AWU related to arrangements and circumstances in the Victorian branch. But I think it is true to say, and history records very extensively, that the AWU was well and truly seized of this matter.

And then in terms of who else was involved in looking at the matter, Mr Gude who first raised claims about me publicly in October 1995, advised the Victorian Parliament at that stage that the National Crime Authority was involved in the investigation, that the matter had been referred to the Victoria Police and he personally was referring it to the employee relations commission in Victoria. So, AWU involved in its own investigations and other authorities getting involved as well.

Once again, you can’t report things you don’t know and I didn’t have before me any details or any evidence about transactions on the accounts of the association, any bank accounts, that had been established by the association.

History records that the AWU did not know of or discover the existence of the AWU association and the funds it had fraudulently diverted or even extorted until some six to none months later, when it was too late to recover the funds.

Moreover, Gillard’s defence that the AWU was “seized of this matter” and that the police were on the trail is no defence to keeping mum. Indeed, common sense – a phrase the PM is want to use – and her duty to her client, the AWU and as an officer of the court, was to report what she knew to investigators.

Not only does Gillard concede she failed in her duties by not seeking to inform the police or the national executive of the AWU — a telling admission in itself — her first reaction when confronted by her law partners was that she should contact union official Bob Smith to, in her words, make one of the allegations “go away”.

JOURNALIST: You’ve described that association as fairly routine just now. Is Bill Shorten then wrong in saying it was inappropriate, unauthorised and out of bounds?

PM: Well I refer you to that interview by Bill Shorten where he says he’s crystal clear about my conduct, and crystal clear that I engaged in no wrongdoing. What he was talking about 17 years later, 20 years later, after all of this is on the public domain, is the AWU-view of those transactions. Well, yes, it’s 20 years later. But Mr Shorten is crystal clear about my conduct and about no wrongdoing by me.

Oh really? Here’s what workplace relations minister and former AWU head Bill “I don’t know what the PM said, but I agree” Shorten had to say about Julia Gillard’s legal work for the AWU:

TONY JONES: We know that as a lawyer Julia Gillard admitted she helped Bruce Wilson set one up, so I’m asking: what is it? What is one?

BILL SHORTEN: Oh, well, that account was unauthorised by the union and it was an inappropriate account, that account, as far as I can tell. So that was out of bounds.

Couldn’t be more crystal clear. But when Gillard takes up the matter, things grow  muddy very quickly.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask you about a report about Mr Wilson putting $5,000 into your account? Can you remember that happening and do you know what it was for if it did happen?

PM: I’m happy to address that but let me say this about that claim. On the day that claim came out publicly I referred to it as smear because it is a matter associated with my personal life. And whilst I’m going to answer your question, I just ask you for one moment to assume that that is true, that $5,000 was put in my bank account by a person I was then in a relationship with, who the witness involved said had had a big night out at the casino. Can you piece together for me the personal wrongdoing involved in that? I doubt you can.

Number two, in terms of that being personal smear, The Australian newspaper that published that report said in a comment piece by Hedley Thomas and in other ways in that edition of the newspaper, that this was a claim that had some particular veracity about it because it relied on diaries which were contemporaneous notes from the time, hence all of this needed to be viewed very seriously.

What The Australian didn’t tell you is on the day that that edition of the newspaper was reported, as is clear from the next day’s edition of the newspaper, The Australian at the time of that report was in possession of information that showed at least one entry in the diary did not accord with an individual’s recollection.

So we are told on one day, well this is a diary, all very serious, contemporaneous. We’re told on the next day, actually this bloke reckons the diary’s not right and this information, that the diary’s not right, was available to The Australian newspaper when they published this edition. Hence my degree of dissatisfaction with that reporting.

On the actual assertion, I do not – to the best of my knowledge – I do not remember $5,000 being put in my bank account. Across most of my working life, my engagement with ATM machines has been like everybody’s else’s, you get a surprise on the downside when you put your card in and check your account balance, not a surprise on the upside. You’re normally very unhappy about how little is in your account rather than happily surprised that there is extra there. That has been my experience over most of my working life.

Now I do not have a memory of this money going into my account. However, it is a long time ago. And so I have taken steps to try and check. I specifically made inquiries of the Commonwealth Bank, the Commonwealth Bank was mentioned in the report, I did have a Commonwealth Bank account at the time. They have advised me it is not possible to get records from 17 years ago.

I had hoped to be in a position to produce my bank records to help verify recollections here but I cannot be put in that position because the records are not available.

The deposit in question was for $5,000 – nearly $8,000 in 2012 dollars – and at the time would have represented around a month’s after-tax salary for a young law partner. Then and now, Gillard was also facing allegations that she had personally benefited. Yet Gillard implies the unexplained deposit imay have been a gambling windfall and related to her personal relationship with Wilson. Common sense would suggest that her memory would have been “seized” by that deposit.

Moreover, Gillard told her Slater & Gordon interrogators that she wasn’t on easy street. When questioned about renovations to her own Abbottsford house, Gillard stated, “The account is for $3780. I’ve paid $2000 of it already and I’m making arrangements to get the $1780 together to pay the rest of it.”

But when pressed on the question, the PM reverts to smearing the journalist and accuser then claimed, alternatively, she wouldn’t have noticed and has a faulty memory. Gillard’s inability or unwillingness to answer this question does little to instill confidence that she can be relied upon to rule out the possibility that she has not in fact personally benefitted from in some way from Wilson’s frauds.

JOURNALIST: What’s your thoughts about companies such as Woodside and Thiess putting money into a Workplace Reform Association and that money being used for electioneering? This is company money.

PM: You have to speak to the companies about it and you would have to speak to their state of knowledge about what they thought the funds were being used for. I can’t speak for them.

Given that the name of the association she helped set up implied it was for something it was not, Gillard must have some thoughts. But she declines to answer the question let alone be “full and frank” about it.

JOURNALIST: In August you said that the money for the renovations on your house you paid for, you’re quite clear on that. In the statement from 1995 you seem to leave some doubt or area of possibility that perhaps there might have been some other supply that went in towards the renovation on your house, that was closer obviously to the time, the 1995 statement. Can you explain why you are so emphatic and certain that you paid for everything now?

PM: I refer you to the Slater & Gordon transcript and what I say on that transcript is that I’d spent some time on the weekend trying to look through my receipts about my renovations. Subsequent to that interview with Slater & Gordon I spent more time getting my receipts together and adding it up and thinking about it. And having done so at the time, which I did in 1995, I am confident that I paid for the renovations on my home. And I did it in the way in which people normally do it.

I did things like extend my mortgage, I renovated over time. There was the time when the bathroom was demolished and all the rest of it which I detail extensively and perhaps in colourful terms in the Slater & Gordon transcript. But I believe I paid for all of my renovations, I took steps to check in 1995. I took some steps before the Slater & Gordon discussion and I took other steps afterwards.

Can I just, and this is a bit frustrating with all of these matters, if anybody has a piece of evidence that says I knowingly received money to which I was not entitled for my renovations, please feel free to get it out. If anybody’s got it, it’s only been 20 years.

JOURNALIST: Did you reimburse anybody for your renovations?

PM: No, no I did not. And I’ve been dealing with this allegation over the best part of two decades as well. I refer you to the Slater & Gordon internal review where I discussed, again in colourful terms about the quality of trades personship in our society, or perhaps in those days, or the ones I was dealing with. Where I discuss all of this in colourful terms and I very, very clearly say that there was an incident where a person who I hadn’t paid because of my dissatisfaction about the work had gone to the AWU looking for payment and was sent away and I paid that person’s account.

Let us distill Gillard’s answer to its murky essence:  She was unable to rule out having had renovations on her house paid for with AWU funds or by funds associated with the AWU Workplace Reform Association.

Staggering. Quite simply staggering.

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