CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Questions about PM and AWU that won't go away
, September 1, 2012
Julia Gillard’s pre-politics misadventure as a legal adviser and one-time romance with an Australian Workers Union official, accused of siphoning off hundreds of thousands of dollars from a union slush fund, has come back to haunt her in an big way.
Ms Gillard has consistently and strenuously denied any knowledge or wrongdoing in relation to the mid-1990s affair, which had also been largely ignored by the mainstream media until very recently.
For her part, the Prime Minister has also vigorously tried to shut down any attempts by journalists to delve into what she describes as “vile” allegations and irrelevant matters that occurred 17 years ago.
Two journalists — Glen Milne and Mike Smith — were sacked by their employers last year when they attempted to air some of the allegations surrounding the affair.
Nevertheless, the issue has been bubbling along in the “blogosphere” for many months and bit-by-bit many of the pieces of the jigsaw have fallen into place.
But when former Attorney-General Robert McClelland — who had intimate knowledge of the AWU scandal because he had been a lawyer working on behalf of the national organisation of the union and charged with recovering the missing funds — declared in the federal parliament in June that there remained questions about the case, there was little chance it would be left alone.
From all accounts to date, Ms Gillard, who was a partner at Labor legal firm Slater & Gordon at the time, was only tangentially involved in the scandal, which saw her then boyfriend and alleged embezzler, Bruce Wilson, allegedly siphon off up to $400,000 in union funds while he was AWU secretary in Western Australia and Victoria in the early 1990s.
However, there was an apparent conflict of interest between Ms Gillard’s job of looking after her firm’s client, the Victorian branch of the AWU, and her boyfriend, Mr Wilson.
Ms Gillard acted as Mr Wilson’s lawyer and allegedly set up the vehicle that Mr Wilson allegedly used to move union funds in his favour.
According to reports, not denied by Ms Gillard, Ms Gillard arranged for Slater & Gordon to act — without fee — to do the conveyancing work on behalf of the purchaser of a house at 83 Kerr Street in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy.
The purchaser of the house was a Mr Ralph Blewitt, Mr Wilson’s offsider, but Mr Wilson signed the documents using a power-of-attorney allegedly prepared by Ms Gillard.
Part of the purchase price for the property was a cheque for $67,772.30 drawn on the account of the “AWU Workplace Reform Association Inc” in favour of Slater & Gordon.
No one to date, including the Slater & Gordon senior partners, who agreed with Ms Gillard’s request to leave the firm when the alleged fraud came to light, has claimed Ms Gillard knew that the cheque had come from union funds.
The firm conducted an investigation into the fund and Ms Gillard left the firm, claiming she wanted to pursue a Senate seat instead.
Slater & Gordon partner Andrew Grech said the investigation at the time found no wrongdoing by Ms Gillard.
“Ms Gillard co-operated fully with the internal review and denied any wrongdoing,” Mr Grech said in the statement.
“The review found nothing which contradicted the information provided by Ms Gillard at the time relating to the AWU/Bruce Wilson allegations and which she has stated consistently since the allegations were first raised.”
However, the reasons the issue continue to plague the PM are twofold.
First, Ms Gillard in large part owes her prime ministership to the AWU — the union at the centre of the scandal.
It is now clear that a cover-up of the Wilson matter was engineered and has left the union tainted to this day.
One of the key people who installed Ms Gillard as Prime Minister, Paul Howes, is an official of the AWU.
Mr Howes claims he wants “zero tolerance” for corruption in unions, telling the ACTU congress just this year: “If we have dodgy trade union officials who rip off those workers, we need to hunt them down… to make sure they pay back.”
Second, there appears to be a direct parallel between the Labor Party turning a blind eye to corruption in the Health Services Union and to the AWU case.
The government has dragged its feet in prosecuting the HSU matter just as it appears the AWU case was swept under the carpet. No moneys were ever recovered from the AWU case, and no one was ever prosecuted.
Despite Ms Gillard’s assertions that the matters do not relate to her performance as prime minister, they do go to the heart of matters of personal integrity and credibility and demand a full and frank explanation.