Getting Gillard: The Royal Commission We Never Had To Have

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Since coming to office, the Abbott government has broken plenty of promises.

“No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised on the eve of the 2013 election. Every one of those promises bar the GST change has since been broken.

But while the government broke promises on health, education and pensions, when it comes to punishing its perceived enemies, it has been as good as its word.

During last year’s election campaign, the Coalition pledged to set up a judicial inquiry into the so-called “AWU affair”, the sadly non-scandalous controversy involving Julia Gillard and two former clients of hers in the Australian Workers Union in the early 1990s.

Unlike so many others, this promise has been kept.

Officially, the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption is tasked with investigating “the governance arrangements of separate entities established by employee associations or their officers”.

Unofficially, it’s a giant fishing expedition, with the transparent aim of smearing the reputation of Australia’s first female prime minister.

The Royal Commission has taken submissions and held hearings, but it hasn’t told us anything particularly new.

Certainly, the nefarious activities of the Health Services Union have been further exposed. Some nasty but isolated behaviour in the construction industry has been uncovered. And some minor irregularities have emerged in the Transport Workers Union’s election funds.

But, on the whole, the Royal Commission hasn’t uncovered much in the way of scandal or systemic corruption. The Commission’s performance has been so disappointing that even conservative allies, like the state Coalition governments and the Murdoch tabloid newspapers, are starting to lament the Commission’s poor strike rate.

Today, for instance, the Herald Sun’s James Campbell complained that the Royal Commission’s looming deadline of December 31 means that “while it might get to the bottom of the story of ‘Bill the Greek’ from back when Paul Keating was prime minster, it will miss contemporary and pressing matters of union corruption.” Quelle horreur!

Whatever the broader remit of the Commission’s activities, its investigations this week have zeroed in on the 20-year old activities of former Australian Workers Union officials Ralph Blewitt and Bruce Wilson.

The controversy, such as it is, revolves around whether Blewitt and Wilson used money from a dodgy union slush fund to buy themselves a house in Fitzroy, make renovations on a house owned by Julia Gillard (who was at that stage Bruce Wilson’s partner), and whether Gillard knew about this supposedly dastardly crime.

As we’ve long argued at New Matilda, there is little substance to the allegations (you can read my 2012 summary of the evidence for and against Gillard here). The constant pursuit of the non-scandal by sections of the right-wing blogosphere has everything to do with the right’s bitter hatred of Gillard as a progressive opponent, rather than any hard evidence that Gillard ever did anything illegal.

But enemies must be punished. And so it was that Julia Gillard got her day at the Royal Commission yesterday.

Across four hours of less-than-incisive questioning from Counsel Assisting Jeremy Stoljar, Gillard showed her usual crisp command of detail and a calm, deliberate demeanour.

Stoljar did a reasonable job of going over a very well-ploughed field of enquiry. But he presented no new evidence to the Commission, and therefore could ask no genuinely new questions of the former prime minister.

Hence, the only real issue was whether Gillard would incriminate herself, either by changing her story in any detail, or stumbling over any of the particulars.

She didn’t.

And that, more or less, was that. Gillard stuck to her guns. She reiterated that she knew nothing of the internal finances of the AWU slush fund she helped Wilson and Blewitt set up. She repeated her claim that she didn’t recall $5,000 being deposited into her bank account.

On the only concrete claim that Gillard acted illegally – that she falsely witnessed a document signed by Ralph Blewitt – Gillard again denied it.

The tabloids have today tried to make something of Gillard’s claim that she would have done things differently if she had another chance, in particular her remark that “none of us get to go in a time machine and go backwards.”

But that’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation. Gillard has long expressed remorse at the sloppy way she handled the case, not to mention regret about her relationship with Bruce Wilson.

It’s ironic that Gillard had some of her best days as prime minister under the pressure of media and parliamentary interrogation. Her performance in two marathon media conferences on the AWU affair – which, incidentally, covered the ground of yesterday’s questioning rather better than Stoljar SC – showed many of her best qualities as a lawyer and politician: a Gillard that was quick on her feet, in command of her brief, incisive and often very funny.

Those qualities were in evidence again yesterday. For instance, when Stoljar asked her “Were you annoyed that Mr Wilson had smashed up your bathroom?”, Gillard replied with her trademark dry wit. “It wasn’t my preference, no.”

Just as she did on those two earlier occasions, Gillard emerged from yesterday’s questioning with her reputation unscathed, perhaps even enhanced. Even Andrew Bolt was forced to grudgingly admit that “I doubt anything serious can be proven against her on the evidence so far.”

The peculiar pursuit of Gillard regarding the AWU affair is one of the great crusades of Australian conservative politics. It has occupied the obsessive attentions of journalists such as Michael Smith and Mark Baker, and has been the subject of hours of media conferences, thousands of web pages and gallons of newspaper ink.

It has been a false crusade. For all the rabid energies of the blogosphere and the talkback right, no substantive evidence incriminating Julia Gillard has ever emerged.

Not only is there no smoking gun, there’s no smoke, no gun, and no bullet. No charges have ever been laid over this matter. Almost certainly, none ever will.

If the Trade Union Royal Commission was set up by the Abbott government to highlight corruption and impropriety in the union movement, it has so far failed. Yesterday, as it degenerated into a farcical show trial, it began to discredit the institution of the royal commission itself.

There are many important issues for Australia’s judiciary and media to be looking into. Only last month, an Aboriginal woman died in custody while being held for unpaid fines.

It’s frankly astonishing that anyone at all cares about the youthful mistakes of a lawyer in the 1990s, even if she is a former prime minister – let alone that a government inquiry led by a former High Court judge is devoting time and money to it.

At best, this is giant waste of taxpayer’s money. At worst, as Laura Tingle observes today, “it has set a precedent for witch hunts against politicians that will long reverberate in politics”. 

Australian voters deserve better than this. 

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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