AWU Affair Is No Schadenfreudegasm
By Mike SeccombeNovember 26, 2012
Somewhere about two-thirds of the way through Julia Gillard’s most recent epic press conference early on Monday afternoon, one reporter attempted to ask a question relating to a matter of some substance and relevance.
His subject of interest was sexual and physical abuse within the Australian Defence Force.
Earlier in the day, in response to several hundred plausible allegations of abuse within the Defence Force, detailed in a long report by law firm DLA Piper, Defence Minister Stephen Smith had made a parliamentary apology to all those who had suffered. A taskforce also is being set up to investigate further and oversee compensation to victims. So this is an issue of great significance, not to mention considerable cost to the taxpayers.
But when the chap tentatively tried to raise it with the Prime Minister, others among the gathered media pack looked askance. They were focused instead on an alleged scandal involving Gillard and some dirty doings 20 years ago in the Australian Workers’ Union — the so-called AWU slush fund affair.
Gillard told the bloke who wanted to ask about the Defence Force that she’d come back to his question, but never did. It wasn’t her fault; she ran out of time because the questions about the AWU thing rolled on and on, until she had to run to Question Time in the House.
But that one reporter's question, and the response, shows us something significant. There are lots of issues about right now: the ADF abuse question, the Murray-Darling rescue plan, the government’s response to the Gonski report on education funding, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, proposed new media laws, the list goes on.
The government is doing a lot of stuff. There are relevant questions to be asked about it all. And what is the monotonous focus? Something that really doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
Now, it hardly needs saying that we in the media just love a good scandal about impropriety in government, and this writer is no exception.
Oh, how I enjoyed calling for the resignation of the oleaginous Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson in 1992, when he was caught using his influence to try to help his cousin Gregory Symons out of some legal difficulties. (Symons was later jailed for forging government documents relating to a migration scam.) And calling for the resignation of Labor sports minister Ros Kelly, over her behaviour in pork-barreling certain electorates with sports grants funding.
And then, after the fall of the Hawke-Keating government, wading into all the various scandals of the Howard government, which the statistics show was by far the most ethically challenged federal government of the past 40 years.
And I don’t know about you, but I find the inquiry by the Independent Commission Against Corruption into the dealings of Eddie Obeid and the hopelessly compromised former Labor regime in New South Wales to be an utter schadenfreudegasm (to use the wonderful word-invention of The Daily Show’s John Oliver). The most satisfying bit of comeuppance since the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking by the Murdoch media in Britain.
But, for the life of me, I cannot see where the scandal is in the Gillard case.
Twice now she has held media conferences, exhaustively — exhaustingly — answering questions. Twice now, no one has been able to knock a chip off her.
Now, it may well be that young lawyer Julia was more aware than she is letting on about irregularities in the operations of a union slush fund. That’s plausible, if unprovable. But there is no evidence whatsoever that she had any active involvement in any wrongdoing.
There just isn’t.
As she pointed out repeatedly in her press conference, this alleged scandal has been dragged up repeatedly over many years; you have to think the likelihood that any smoking gun will be found now is extremely remote.
And those intent on making a case against her — particularly the Murdoch media and the Opposition, are seeking dirt from increasingly dirty sources.
The most recent and classic example is their reliance on the word of Ralph Blewitt – one of the AWU officials who siphoned money from the fund, who claims — quelle horreur! — that Gillard had witnessed a power of attorney without actually been present.
There is no evidence for this, though, aside from Blewitt’s word. And what sort of a man is he?
To quote Gillard, from her press conference:
“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 wrong doing 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 his core.
“His word against mine — make your mind up.”
Now, I might be wrong, but I think the fair and balanced parts of the Australian media have just about made their minds up: there is no scandal here.
So only two questions really remain. One: how much longer will the partisan media keep on flogging this dead horse?
Two: How much longer will the Opposition keep on flogging it?
In Monday’s Question Time, the Opposition devoted every single question to it.
Deputy leader Julia Bishop was the prosecutor; the Liberal Party has clearly decided leader Tony Abbott, already fighting perceptions of sexism and aggressive negativity, should not sully himself with this particular bucket of dirt.
In response, Gillard was for the most part far less feisty than she had been in the preceding media conference, explaining herself as if to a dull-witted child.
And Bishop’s questions all went nowhere.
Meanwhile, Abbott was a spectator.
At the end, she leaned into the microphone, to inform those Australians who might be listening on the radio: “I confirm that the leader of the Opposition was present at Question Time today.”