Lack of evidence has done nothing to extinguish the fires of controversy over Julia Gillard’s former relationship with Bruce Wilson, and the media campaign that followed. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Renovated truths and a royal commission into trade unions

Former AWU union official Bruce Wilson arrives at the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption this week.

It sounded like a radio play, as if Jon Faine had taken tips from Orson Welles. There was flair, drama and solemnity, but instead of Martians landing it was the leaked evidence of Bruce Wilson, former partner of the former prime minister. What followed was a dramatic counter-narrative to a story that has been rumbling for years now, one that has damaged a PM, cost journalists their jobs and created tension between the nation’s media outlets. And this week, a man who had been burnt by ABC management for his coverage of this story before, weighed back in.

On ABC Local Radio, Faine’s scoop was Wilson’s confidential submission to the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. Included in its investigative scope, the commission is examining the establishment of a “slush fund” in the 1990s by two Australian Workers’ Union officials, Bruce Wilson and Ralph Blewitt. As Wilson’s then partner, Julia Gillard, who at the time was a salaried partner at the law firm Slater & Gordon, provided pro bono advice on the incorporation of the fund, ostensibly established to receive re-election funds.

What has been alleged is that Blewitt and Wilson misappropriated those funds for the purchase and renovation of private properties. Previous criminal investigations have produced no charges, but Gillard has stated she broke off the relationship once she realised she had been deceived. Hitherto, no evidence has emerged that substantiates allegations Gillard knowingly helped them administer corrupt funds, or that she ever benefited personally from the kitty. 

All of this is old news – if news is what it is. The Australian newspaper most aggressively pursued the story and, in Glenn Milne’s example, too aggressively. In 2011, Milne published an op-ed rehashing the allegations. In it, he wrote: “Gillard shared a home in Fitzroy bought by Wilson using the embezzled funds.” This was false – Gillard was living elsewhere – and in the end a full retraction of the story was made, and an apology issued to the then prime minister. Milne had not bothered to check with Gillard’s office, and days later the ABC told him he would not be welcome back on their Insiders program. 

But the story rumbled on, fuelled not by the emergence of fresh evidence but seemingly by the need of some to believe that it was true. It was a startling phenomenon – the continuation of a story whose momentum is magically, rather than substantially, provided. 

Until 2012, here is what we knew: Gillard had provided legal advice to Blewitt and Wilson; Blewitt and Wilson probably acted improperly – Blewitt has admitted as much, and Gillard certainly felt she was betrayed. But that’s about it. What we don’t know – what has never been proved – is that Gillard was ever anything other than a dupe. 

And yet the story continued. Infuriated, Gillard called a marathon press conference in August 2012 to dispatch any lingering suspicion. She would take any and all questions on the issue of the AWU slush fund until the scrum was exhausted. She did. And then, incredibly, she repeated the performance. The prime minister had exposed herself to nearly two hours of interrogation. And nothing came of it. What was interesting to see was the difference between the heat of the suspicions and the absence of evidence. There was a fervid desire for Watergate, but the questions couldn’t bear the passion. 

Faine felt similarly. On his ABC Radio show in November 2012, he interviewed former 2UE broadcaster Michael Smith, a former officer with Victoria Police. As a broadcaster at 2UE, Smith had been dogged in his pursuit of the prime minister, though Smith says he resigned when the station refused to air an interview he had conducted with former AWU Victoria boss Bob Kernohan. Later on the show, Faine spoke to Fairfax journalist Mark Baker, who pursued the story with similar fervour. 

The story was, Faine felt, a beat-up. He challenged his guests to provide evidence for their allegations. “This either has to go away or stand up, and so far it’s a house of cards.” Faine was in full flight – editorialising aggressively, pressuring his guests. A complaint was made, which was upheld by ABC management, censuring Faine for a “biased” interview. The ABC said, “The argumentative style of the interviews by Mr Faine, combined with a pattern of strongly stated personal opinions that at times oversimplified the issues at hand, was not in keeping with the ABC’s rigorous impartiality standards for current affairs content.”

The ABC’s Media Watch, then hosted by Jonathan Holmes, agreed with the ruling. But many others didn’t. Faine’s ABC colleague Chris Uhlmann wrote in a series of furious tweets: “The ABC’s finding that Jon Faine is guilty of a ‘lapse in standards’ in 2 interviews on the AWU slush fund is absurd. Jon challenged two journalists to defend claims that the Prime Minister acted improperly in her former career as a lawyer. Jon believes that, based on the publicly available evidence, the Prime Minister did no wrong. To date, the facts support that view. The interviews, which so shamed the ABC’s correctness commissars, were robust exchanges between a broadcaster and two journalists. Jon pressed them to lay out the key allegations and provide evidence to support their claims of wrongdoing. In short, he did his job. Well. Jon is one of the jewels of local radio’s crown and I am proud that I was once his producer. I await a robust defence of him from management.”

This week, Faine picked the story up again – something he had been accused of avoiding – though this time it was to read Wilson’s evidence that he was pressured with money to smear Gillard. Wilson alleges that former lawyer Harry Nowicki, representing a mysterious cabal, offered him money to falsely incriminate Gillard. Nowicki has since denied these claims, calling Wilson “delusional”. Faine read a few pages of the 91-page document, repeatedly pausing to state that neither he nor the ABC were asserting the truth of Wilson’s statements. They have not, and cannot, corroborate them. That will be a job for the commission.

It is important to parse the various suspicions and motivations that have comprised the allegations against Gillard. There are the general and legitimate claims of union impropriety. Then there are the more specific, rolling allegations that Gillard was wilfully embroiled in impropriety. They have often been conflated, but they are not the same. There is evidence for one, but not the other. 

Interestingly, it appears as if the stubbornness with which News Corp journalists and commentators pursued the story rubbed off on others. It developed enough steam to create the impression it was a story – or that with enough digging a story would emerge. Other news organisations began to follow, fearing they would miss out on their very own Watergate. So far, there has been nothing. On one side, those in pursuit cite the nobility of their cause: to fearlessly speak truth to power, and to risk unpopularity and loneliness in doing so. On the other side – Faine’s side – is the belief that the story was crookedly inflated beyond its worth by political bias or hunger for a career-defining revelation. The sides are starkly opposed: arguing it is irresponsible not to chase the story, and vice versa. 

The Australian editorialised on the issue this week. Still it is complaining the press has missed a story, although the worth of the story becomes limper by the day. “We have seen inconvenient facts dismissed by Ms Gillard as slurs from ‘misogynists and the nut jobs on the internet’, and much of the Canberra press gallery took this cue to leave the issue alone,” the broadsheet fumed. “But if a ‘nut job’ or a ‘misogynist’ utters a fact, it is still a fact.”

The royal commission, enlarged by legal powers to compel evidence, is in a more privileged position than journalists to determine Gillard’s responsibility. It is hearing evidence on this matter currently. None yet has suggested any more than that Gillard set up a legal entity for her then partner and that he had paid for renovations on her home. Inconvenient facts, yes, but no crime.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "Renovated truths".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is a Melbourne-based writer.