Well, it’s happened at last. The festering stink of corruption within the Australian Workers’ Union in the 1990s is now front-page news on every paper in the country.
This is despite the best efforts of Gillard and others to shut down all debate on the issue (shutting down debate on all manner of things, being something of a speciality of theirs—note the body language). You’ll all remember what happened on 29th August last year, when The Australian first published an in-depth exposé of these issues by Glenn Milne. A reportedly hysterical, threat-laden phone call from Gillard to News Limited CEO John Hartigan resulted in a same-day retraction and apology. Or some time later, when radio presenter and former police officer Mike Smith tried to air an interview with AWU official Bob Kernohan. Or when Andrew Bolt tried to pursue the substance of the allegations. Milne lost his spot on ABC television. Smith was sacked from the Fairfax-controlled radio station on which he worked. Bolt considered resigning from News Limited, but decided against it. And is now pursuing the story full-bore.
Of course, the story wouldn’t go away. As you know, I’ve been following the story through the blog of political cartoonist Larry Pickering, who over the past few weeks has been progressively revealing almost unbelievable tales of corruption in the union movement. By his own admission, Pickering embellishes his stories with melodrama, which has led Gillard’s boosters to claim that his entire series is mere scandal-mongering and a fabrication. The very same boosters who today would be bellowing from the rooftops, had these allegations been raised against Prime Minister John Howard, and not the incumbent Gillard. Pickering, however, stands by the substance of his revelations. Given these include the claim that a sitting Federal Court judge was complicit in the AWU scandal, and that he in fact owes his position to his continued silence on the matter, Larry had better have sworn testimony backing it all up, or he is exposed to any number of defamation claims. That these allegations have been on his website for weeks, and that no such defamation actions have been lodged against Pickering, speaks volumes. Truth is, after all, an iron-clad defence at law against libel.
The reality, however, is the story is no longer about Pickering at all—if indeed it ever was. He simply happened to be the only blogger around with both the sources and the guts to make accusations openly, credibly and publicly. He has, after all, no boss to buckle under threats and fire him. But given that those sources include (according to Pickering) past and present employees of Gillard’s old law firm, and past and present senior members of Gillard’s own parliamentary political party, and past and present senior officials of the very union which entrusted Gillard with their most sensitive legal and financial affairs, any unsourced muck-raking regarding Pickering’s prior business affairs, if it was done with a view to discrediting the allegations against Gillard themselves, is too little too late. That ship has sailed. Hard information regarding this affair is now being independently sought and verified by senior political journalists across the country, and efforts by Gillard’s MSM supporters (some of whom, totally coincidentally, are looking down the barrel of unemployment within the next year or so when their organisation goes under), to pretend the allegations begin and end with Pickering, are now simply the waving of a red herring.
The issue is out in the open now, and unless Gillard plans to ring up each news media senior executive, one by one, and make similar threatening rants, she is simply going to have to deal with the substance of the allegations. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has said as much, and has offered to facilitate an opportunity for Gillard to address the allegations on the floor of the House, as Labor MP Craig Thomson did some months ago. “I dealt with all this years ago” doesn’t cut it. Nor does the preposterous excuse that a thirty-something, senior partner in a major law firm, not to mention a former Secretary of the Victorian Socialist Forum and seasoned political head-kicker, was “young and naïve”. That hasn’t stopped her, though, from claiming today the whole thing was a sexist attack by a misogynist Pickering.
I heard an interview this morning with Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson, who in 1995 was President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), the union movement’s governing body, and who bore ultimate responsibility for ensuring transparent conduct within the Australian union movement. As you’ll see from the interview (which starts out canvassing the decline in our uranium mining industry, but then shifts to the corruption allegations), Ferguson denies having any knowledge of the allegations at the time, and to some extent feigns ignorance of them today.
Actually, that’s probably fair enough—as far as it goes. Ferguson is one of the few adults left in the Federal ministry, and has mature views on a wide range of issues, most notably his portfolio area. Were he more telegenic, or at least “charismatic” (whatever that means), he’d certainly make an excellent Labor Prime Minister. Reading between the lines, it seems clear that Ferguson is distancing himself from the whole mess. Given that the AWU executive themselves didn’t uncover the scandal until at least September 1995, it would be unreasonable to expect the ACTU to be even better informed.
Let me give an analogy for LibertyGibbert’s American readers. Let’s say you are a lawyer working for a large law firm which handles the regional Bell South account (I’m pulling that name out of the air). You are a female, thirty-something, senior partner in that law firm, and you personally handle the Bell South legal work. Your contact in Bell South is the senior regional vice-president, John Smith. You spend a lot of time working with him. Somehow, this morphs into a romantic attachment. You don’t tell your law firm about this new relationship—maybe because Smith is currently married with two children, maybe not.
Then one day, some months later, Smith comes to your office. He asks you to set up a new legal entity, “The Bell South Accounts Receivable Association”. This includes setting up bank accounts in the name of this entity—bank accounts to which Smith himself is to be signatory. There is no formal, written request from Bell South to do so. No paperwork. The address of the new legal entity isn’t that of Bell South’s regional headquarters, but a post office box in a small suburb of a distant city. The whole thing is done on the mere verbal say-so of John Smith.
Wouldn’t you, as a lawyer, be even a tiny bit suspicious? Wouldn’t you, if your motives were pure, at a very minimum lay out the facts of this request before your superiors, if only to get a second opinion—or at least, to cover your own backside?
But you don’t do any of this. Instead, you go right ahead and, as Smith asked, set up the new legal entity—covertly, that is, without making any attempt to double-check this directive with other Bell South executives, or otherwise inform Bell South. What’s more, you don’t even open up a new file for this work, or even bill for it, meaning it is also effectively invisible to the law firm’s other partners. Once it is ready, Smith immediately proceeds to intercept Bell South phone bill payment cheques and deposit them into the bank account of this new entity. You are aware of this. But you, a senior lawyer, still don’t suspect your boyfriend of any wrong-doing?
Then Smith takes the proceeds and buys a house for himself. There isn’t yet quite enough money in the account to cover the sale price, so your law firm provides a mortgage to cover the balance. Then you head off on holidays for a couple of weeks. While you’re away, he remembers you mentioning to him you wanted some renovations done on your own home. So he goes and has them done as well, paid for out of this account. You subsequently claim to have later paid for this work yourself, and produce handwritten slips in support of this claim.
How would you characterize the sum of all this behaviour? Naïveté? A damsel wronged??
The fact is, though, that Gillard herself was only a relatively minor player in the broader corruption being unearthed here. These are the facts that we are aware of so far, and which no-one disputes: Gillard was an accessory (wittingly or otherwise, and it must be stressed she continues to deny any a priori knowledge of criminal activity) to the embezzlement of upwards of half a million dollars of union funds. These funds were used for, among other things, the purchase of a house by her boyfriend, Bruce Morton Wilson, and possibly renovations to her own home (which she claims she subsequently paid for herself—a claim that can probably never be disproven). But given that a) her boyfriend was at the time a senior official in the AWU, b) Gillard handled the AWU account for Slater and Gordon, c) it is now clear that neither Slater and Gordon nor the AWU were aware at the time of the personal relationship between Gillard and Wilson, d) it is now clear that Gillard was acting, wittingly or not, in Wilson’s interests, and not those of the union he purported to serve, it represents, at a minimum, the most monstrous conflict of interest imaginable. You don’t have to be a lawyer to recognize that the proper ethical course of action for Gillard, once she became involved personally with Wilson, was to exclude herself from working on the AWU account. Or, if she failed to do so, at an absolute minimum make the fact of the personal relationship unmistakeably clear to her employers. Or, if she failed to do even that, to move heaven and earth to ensure she never improperly advantaged her boyfriend ahead of her client, or (God forbid) advantage herself personally as a result.
Gillard did none of these things. She did not remove herself from handling the AWU account. She did not (until subsequently hauled on the carpet) even admit to her employers of the personal relationship with Wilson. She certainly did not ensure that she was not working in Wilson’s interests at the expense of those of her client. And her only defence against the allegations of personal benefit are, apparently, a couple of hand-written receipts for payment of services rendered.
How do you think a prosecutor would view all this?
The axe may still take some time to fall. Nothing less than a full Royal Commission into the union movement will get to the heart of this mess, and that will not be called until the change of government next year. If it decimates one side of politics for a generation, that is the price Australian democracy must pay, for allowing itself to become so thoroughly and shamefully corrupted. If it results in criminal charges, or even imprisonment, for serving or former politicians who have committed crimes, then surely that would simply be a clear indication that justice in this country can still be made to work, and be seen to be done.
And the press pack who knew, or should have known, and said nothing—whether out of cowardice, or political allegiance, it matters not—should hang their heads in shame.