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No let up at home and the likely involvement in more doubtful areas of the past seems to be increasing.

Des Moore

Whistleblowers turned on by law firm

Hedley Thomas, National chief correspondent, The Australian, October 20, 2012

LAW firm Slater & Gordon filed a legal action against union officials who blew the whistle on wrongdoing by Australian Workers Union bagman Ralph Blewitt, the controller of a secret "slush fund" that Julia Gillard had helped him establish 18 months earlier.

Concerns among union officials about financial irregularities and the conduct of the then branch secretary were silenced by Mr Blewitt in the Supreme Court defamation action brought on his instructions in October 1993.

The action came six months after Mr Blewitt, who now admits to being involved in fraud, transferred about $100,000 from the slush fund to buy a $230,000 Melbourne terrace for the use of Ms Gillard's then boyfriend, union boss Bruce Wilson.

Ms Gillard attended the auction for the Melbourne property, helped in the transaction, and witnessed a power of attorney giving Mr Wilson control over the asset.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly and strenuously denied any wrongdoing, and said she did not know about the workings of the slush fund.

The Weekend Australian has obtained legal documents and other files showing AWU officials alerted rank-and-file members in September 1993 to significant anoma lies in union accounts and worries about Mr Blewitt's leadership.

Their leaflets warned that, with Mr Blewitt at the helm, the union risked returning to "bad old days" of corruption. They also revealed attempts to level "20 charges of misconduct and mismanagement of union funds" against Mr Blewitt.

"Unfortunately, unless something is done to restore justice and credibility to the union, the union is destined to go back to the bad old days (of corruption)," the leaflet stated.

The attempts to have the union accounts audited and Mr Blewitt investigated or ousted were crushed by the legal action, in which Ms Gillard and her then boss in the industrial unit at the law firm, Bernard Murphy, were acting on Mr Blewitt's instructions.

Mr Murphy, appointed a Federal Court judge by the Gillard government last year, said yesterday he had nothing to add to a statement he made two months ago. He said then that his reasons for leaving the firm of Slater & Gordon in 1995 had nothing to do with the AWU.

Mr Blewitt said yesterday the defamation action was ordered by Mr Wilson, who jointly controlled the slush fund.

Mr Blewitt said the defamation action was vital to silence dissenters because if they had succeeded in ousting him the slush fund, which was being used to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars, would have been exposed and ruined.

"It shut the union officials up; it killed them off. They were not able to go on with their campaign against me because they were not financially able to compete," he said yesterday.

Ms Gillard said in an impromptu media conference in August she provided legal advice for the establishment of the slush fund, but knew "absolutely nothing about its workings" until serious allegations were raised in 1995.

Her office refused to answer questions yesterday about her role in the defamation action, including whether the concerns raised by the union officials about Mr Blewitt rang any alarms about wrongdoing.

In the defamation action, Mr Blewitt said the claims against him by the "AWU Rank and File Reform Group" brought him into public scandal, odium and contempt, and were intended to bring about his sacking.

The action was abandoned in late 1995 after the fraud claims forced Mr Blewitt and Mr Wilson out of the AWU.

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon crosses the line in her handling of the Ashby-Slipper case

DENNIS SHANAHAN, POLITICAL EDITOR, The Australian, October 20, 2012

AS Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon has crossed a line in her political, legal and media handling of the commonwealth's role in the sexual harassment claim of James Ashby against the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper.

To use Julia Gillard's analogy of the behaviour of Craig Thomson, the besieged former Labor MP facing a case of misuse of union funds, there is simply a point when the line is crossed. That point is difficult to identify; it is a shadow line between the tides.

Yet there is a growing number of Labor MPs who believe Roxon's actions have demonstrated contradictory legal strategies, damaging public comments, prejudicial actions and poor political judgment. Of course, her opposite number, George Brandis, believes she has behaved in a manner unbefitting an attorney-general and should resign.

In the modern interplay between politics, court hearings and the media it has become commonplace for politicians and lawyers to use the media to create a public expectation of what would be a fair outcome in a high-profile case.

The most notorious result of such expectations was the murder and mayhem unleashed on Los Angeles in 1992 by the public outrage over the leniency towards white police officers who beat Rodney King.

In Australia, Kevin Rudd's use of the evidence being put before the royal commission into the Australian Wheat Board Iraqi kickbacks scandal allowed the then opposition foreign affairs spokesman to frame the Howard government with a sense of corruption, regardless of the findings of the commission.

In the case of Ashby's sexual harassment claims against Slipper and the commonwealth, Roxon has worked assiduously from the beginning on simultaneous legal and political strategies.

Since Ashby first filed his claim in the Federal Court late on the afternoon of Friday, April 20, Roxon has provided a public running commentary on the virtues of Ashby's claims, defended Slipper's rights vehemently, sought to kill Ashby's case completely and keep the politically explosive text messages secret. As Attorney-General she has apologised to the Federal Court for favouring Slipper over Ashby during hearings and for giving the appearance the court may not have been impartial.

This was done knowing Slipper's own texts displayed such a level of crudity and disrespect for women that his position as Speaker was no longer tenable, and showed exchanges about Asbhy's sexuality, his sex life and his preference for men, and suggestions and invitations from Slipper, including to a gay bar.

While a party to the litigation, Roxon and other ministers accused Ashby of "ulterior motives" and political conspiracy to damage Slipper and bring down the "democratically elected government". Even after the commonwealth folded its case and paid Ashby $50,000 to settle his claim against the government for breach of contract, Roxon continued to describe the claim as "vexatious" and called for the separate case against Slipper to be dropped.

Roxon may yet face defamation proceedings for her continued pursuit and characterisation of Ashby's case, and her legal and political judgment will be tested when the judge makes his decision on Slipper's attempts to "strike out" Ashby's claim.

But for many Roxon's conduct is already deemed a failure in the interplay of politics, the law and the media.

The Ashby-Slipper case broke after Ashby filed his claim against Slipper and claimed the commonwealth had failed to protect him.

It became a political furore because the PM had appointed Slipper - from the Liberal National Party - as Speaker to give the government an extra vote in parliament.

Roxon's initial public reaction was to defend Slipper as Speaker, to distance the commonwealth from paying his legal fees, to ensure Slipper's response was heard, as "first law officer of the country" to be "respectful of that process" and to accuse the media and Tony Abbott of being part of a "lynch mob".

Part of Roxon's criticism of Ashby, his legal team and Sydney's The Daily Telegraph was that the claims had been published before being filed in court as part of a political campaign. This claim was wrong. "We don't live in a country where there is trial by media or trial by lynch mob. That's what Mr Abbott has wanted to happen. Allegations were very much detailed in the media," Roxon said on April 27.

At this stage the government was unaware of the content of all 15,400 messages on Ashby's phone, and was accusing the opposition of a political conspiracy.

On May 28 the government was given all the messages from Ashby's phone, including the messages Ashby relied on to claim sexual harassment and the sexually explicit misogynist remarks that led to Slipper's resignation.

On June 9 Roxon was briefed by her department and the Solicitor-General's office about the "vast bulk" of the text messages. Between May 28 and June 9 the government assessed the strength of Ashby's sexual harassment claims and became fully conscious of Slipper's own statements.

Four days after June 9, the commonwealth filed motions in the Federal Court seeking to declare Ashby's case be summarily dismissed on the grounds it was an "abuse of process", a "vexatious proceeding" (that is, a frivolous or not a real action), and that if those arguments failed the action be struck out or permanently stayed. That would have kept the text messages secret.

At the same time Roxon sought to free herself of restrictions on using the text messages only for the purposes of the court case, so that the government could use them to sack Ashby. On the morning of the case on June 15 Roxon held a press conference and said: "The commonwealth strongly believes that this process has been one which is really for an ulterior purpose, not for the purposes of an ordinary workplace complaint."

Specifically referring to the toxic texts, Roxon said: "Our commonwealth view, now that we have been provided with a vast amount of material, is that it will be clearly shown - and this will be argued in the court - that there were in fact clear intentions to harm Mr Slipper and bring his reputation into disrepute, and to assist his political opponents." This was a joint political-legal strategy.

Roxon said she would not use the term political conspiracy "as yet", but that the government would not seek to dismiss the case "unless we felt very strongly that the material that we currently have shows us that that's the case". Based on selected text messages, the government argued in court that a News Limited journalist, Steve Lewis, and a former Howard government minister, Mal Brough, and other Coalition figures formulated the sexual harassment claim to damage Slipper.

On Saturday, June 23, The Weekend Australian published a story using "senior ministers" as sources and relying on "material understood to have been lodged with the Federal Court" setting out the case against Ashby and Coalition MPs, based on the text messages, that would be argued in the court on July 23. Roxon said she couldn't comment on the story, although senior ministerial sources said "it will indeed be argued in court". After two more briefings for Roxon, the commonwealth sought on August 30 to strike out Ashby's claim of breach of contract on the grounds that "it has no reasonable prospect" of success.

Yet three weeks later Roxon announced "that mindful to taxpayers" who had footed a bill of $730,000 so far, the government would settle the case with Ashby and pay him $50,000 in damages.

Even as she settled the case Roxon argued it was "vexatious" and an abuse of process, while publicly urging the separate case against Slipper "should now be dropped".

Last week, faced with the inevitable end of his career, Slipper apologised for the text messages and resigned.

At the end of the week Roxon was accused of acting inappropriately as Attorney-General and of trying to keep the texts secret. Her response was, as a lawyer might describe it, a "guilty denial" that if that was the intention, it hadn't worked.

Roxon awaits judgment.

Gillard returns to a world of pain

AFR 20 Oct 2012, Tony Walker

Gillard returns to a world of pain

“We’ve been thrown back into the primeval slime.’’

That comment from a Labor powerbroker and Julia Gillard supporter captured the ennui that pervades sections of the Labor Party at the end of another week during which nasty odours kept rising from the aforementioned primeval slime.

A lingering stench from the government’s handling of the resignation of the former speaker, Peter Slipper, Fair Work Australia’s announcement that it would pursue ex-Labor MP Craig Thomson over misuse of union credit cards, and continuing static around a missing file from Gillard’s days as a Labor lawyer are not politically life-threatening in themselves – but all are fraying a stricken minority government.

Gillard’s leadership may not be back where it was in February, when she faced down a challenge from rival Kevin Rudd, but it wouldn’t take much to prompt a new round of Labor muck-wrestling.

A slip back to a 30 per cent primary vote in polling due out this coming week would not be good news for the Prime Minister.

“Anyone who thinks this is a successful strategy in which we’re locked into oblivion, I wonder why the f--- they’re in politics,’’ an exasperated Rudd backer tells the Weekend Financial Review.

Adding to a febrile atmosphere politically is a “new age of misogyny”, including claims and counterclaims about Tony Abbott’s alleged hatred of women, reinterpreted on the run by the arbiters of language at the Macquarie Dictionary as “entrenched prejudice against women”.

Whether we like it or not, this has shifted the terms of a debate involving a female prime minister in ways that might prove unpredictable

Shadow attorney-general George Brandis, SC, has taken to likening the missing Slater & Gordon file dealing with Gillard’s establishment of a union “slush fund’’ that, as it turned out, enabled her then boyfriend to siphon money for his personal use to the 18½ minute gap on the Watergate tape.

“Remember it was not the act itself that brought Richard Nixon down, it was the cover-up,’’ Brandis tells the Weekend Financial Review.

Brandis may be indulging in hyperbole, but pulling at the threads of a threadbare government is not the least effective tactic of destabilisation and harassment on various fronts, as we saw during the week in Senate estimates committee hearings on matters relating to the Slipper affair.

In those hearings, a prosecutorial Brandis chivvied officials of the Australian Government Solicitor and the Attorney-General’s Department over outrageous costs – getting on for $1 million – of defending sexual harassment and breach of contract claims brought against the Commonwealth by political staffer James Ashby, former assistant to the now disgraced Peter Slipper.

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon had described Ashby as a “vexatious’’ litigant, and yet the Commonwealth bestowed a $50,000 settlement on a supposedly frivolous claimant to avoid a potentially larger payout, and astronomical legal costs.

This may have been justified under protocols governing such cases where government liability risks growing exponentially, but whether fair or not, the outcome has not been a good look for Roxon.

Earlier haggling with Ashby’s lawyers, including an offer of $15,000, had not yielded a result, but every “vexatious litigant’’ has his price, it seems. This has been an unseemly episode, to put it mildly.

Criticism of Roxon’s handling of the case – or mishandling, depending on your point of view – is welling in Labor ranks, including leaving Slipper to fend for himself in his defence of sexual harassment allegations against him personally.

The former speaker faces financial ruin in a case that would never have happened if the Prime Minister and her advisers had not shown poor judgment in shuffling Slipper into the Speaker’s chair in the first place.

Gillard might have remembered a predecessor’s advice about lying down with dogs and getting up with fleas.

The government is now back where it started before it eased former speaker Harry Jenkins into retirement, making way for Slipper to provide an additional body on the floor of the House and thus avoid reliance on Andrew Wilkie’s vote. The Tasmanian independent had threatened to do a runner over what he correctly viewed as a breach of promise by Gillard on poker machine reform.

Wilkie’s leverage has now been restored in a hung Parliament. The member for Denison declined to discuss the issue in the week, beyond telling the Weekend Financial Review through a spokesman that he was “surveying the landscape’’. I bet.

Underscoring the precariousness of the government’s hold on power is that it now depends on Slipper’s vote (you couldn’t take that one to the bank!) and that of Craig Thomson, who stands accused by Fair Work Australia of 37 breaches of his responsibilities as representative of a registered organisation, and a further 25 infractions against the rules of his own union, the Health Services Union.

If you were Gillard, you would not be resting easily at the thought that your fate was in the hands of an unstable Slipper, a tainted Thomson, a disillusioned Wilkie and an exasperated posse of independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, whose own reputations have been sullied to an extent by association with a government in permanent crisis.

Conventional political wisdom has it that the government will run its full term and Gillard will survive if she can make it to the end of the year, but this discounts the extraordinarily flimsy state in which it finds itself as far as numbers in Parliament are concerned – tainted and untainted – plus unpredictable events that may occur beyond anyone’s ability to anticipate, and the ceaseless manoeuvrings of Rudd and his supporters.

The government also faces questions over what are likely to be rubbery numbers in its imminent Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook aimed at persuading us that it can convert a deficit into a surplus in this financial year.

We shall see, but whatever forecasts are incorporated in the MYEFO will be contentious and politically problematic.

This brings us to Rudd’s ambitions and intentions, as far as they can be gleaned from conversations with his supporters and opponents, and observations about the man’s own activities in recent weeks.

“We’re expecting a renewed push in the next month or so,’’ a strong Gillard supporter told me.

Rudd backers believe he has until February to make a move, when Parliament resumes and it becomes clear that time is not on Labor’s side if it is to avoid what one described as “Armageddon’’ at the polls.

It is a moot point whether Rudd is doing the numbers or not – his backers say there is no “number-crunching’’ going on – but it would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall at the Union Club in Sydney several weeks ago when Rudd dined with supporters, including a prominent figure in the NSW right who has done the numbers for him previously.

With Gillard overseas this past week, Rudd has reverted to his hyperactive self in the Australian media, twittering for all he’s worth, appearing on the ABC’s Lateline to give us the benefit of his wisdom, and taking to the airwaves in his home town of Brisbane, where he lamented the “toxic direction’’ of political discourse and took a slap at the Labor establishment over lack of progress towards party reform: never mind that an authoritarian and controlling Rudd himself took little interest in genuine institutional reform when he was leader.

On Lateline, Rudd told viewers in a message that will have been directed as much to them as to his colleagues. “I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I’m contesting the next election.’’

Rudd was talking about the next federal election, but he might just as easily have been referring to the next leadership poll, if there is to be one in the remaining parliamentary sitting weeks before Christmas or in February, the cut-off point for any change.

The former prime minister’s ebullience this past week, confected or not, will not have been lessened by the knowledge that one of his principal supporters is publishing an insider’s account of the putsch that deposed him.

Journalist and former member for Bennelong, Maxine McKew, will publish her book the week after this coming one. It’s not an event Gillard and her supporters are anticipating with relish, since McKew has never made any secret of her displeasure over the way events unfolded.

“Winners get to write the first draft of history. What I’m writing is an important second draft,’’ McKew ominously told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Rudd himself is among insiders who have been interviewed for a book that is certain to feed Labor paranoia, if not leadership tensions.

McKew lost her seat of Bennelong, which she had wrested from John Howard, in the snap poll that followed Rudd’s ouster.

She was not amused.

“Hell hath no fury like a woman who has lost her seat in Parliament,’’ observed a Gillard backer.

Welcome home, Prime Minister.

Tony Walker is the AFR’s international editor and a former political editor.

The Australian Financial Review

The perils of stiletto politics

Editorial, The Australian, October 20, 2012,

UNFORTUNATELY, Prime Minister, even misogynists get to vote.

AT the end of the second week in which correspondents to The Australian are writing about little else, we are compelled to return to the vexed topic of misogynists, a term recently redefined as a man who consults his watch before a woman has finished talking.

Some in the Prime Minister's team have been encouraged by her instant global YouTube fan club that rallied behind her misogyny speech. Television can be a fickle medium, however, and Julia Gillard's unfortunate tumble in front of the TV cameras in India this week was replayed over and again on prime-time news bulletins in the US and elsewhere, the lesson being that if Labor hopes to recover its footing in time for the next election, it needs to seek firmer ground.

That territory, as we have often observed with no particular claim to originality, is in the sensible centre, where most Australians of goodwill and honest intent cluster, a place where Twitter and YouTube are popular, but not as popular as the political class sometimes imagines. It is there that a prime minister with a capacity to unite a nation will find the broad support required to return to office. It is a place where the tricks of student politics will be a hindrance rather than a help, but where honesty, integrity and common sense are rewarded.

The remoteness with which Canberra is viewed from the rest of the country creates problems for today's politicians trying to win the middle ground. A divide-and-rule strategy can be effective on campus, but it is pernicious in the real world, where class enemies also get to vote. US presidential candidate Mitt Romney's biggest blunder was an off-hand remark in which he appeared to be dismissing 47 per cent of the electorate. The use of the stiletto as a political weapon is potentially an even more perilous path. The Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that there are 99.1 men in Australia for every 100 women, suggesting that in a two-cornered gender election, Ms Gillard might just scrape home, but the vote would have to be rock solid, with some metrosexual sympathy to allow a margin for error. Any hint of a wagging finger, or sign of contempt will be poorly received. When voting is voluntary, an appeal to activism can sometimes draw out enough enthusiasts to win an election. In Australia, where everybody can and does vote, sectarianism in whatever guise does not, and cannot, prosper.

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