Federal Politics


AWU mud is not sticking

Allegations against Julia Gillard over her involvement in the so-called AWU slush fund scandal nearly 20 years ago have not reached the point where they raise any serious questions about her integrity, her modern-day competence or her fitness to lead the nation or her party. No power on Earth can make her immune from further efforts to discredit her by the opposition, sections of the news media or by people obsessed with the injustice of her occupation of The Lodge. But the campaign has pretty much reached the point where most of the mud is beginning to settle on those throwing it, rather than her. No precise charge against her has been formulated. Documents said to undermine her version of events have been circulated, but their significance, if any, depends upon inference on unconvincing inference. The attack on her integrity and her competence fluctuates, but the evidence, such as it is or is hinted to be, and the record, including her own answers to questions over 18 years, has yet to get to first base in suggesting witting involvement in fraud, in complicity in the misappropriation of union money by a former lover, or even in culpably negligent or incompetent legal representation.

This is not to say that the story of wholesale rorting of AWU funds, and the abuses of power by AWU officials - this time in the early 1990s - is not an interesting one, with few of those involved, including Ms Gillard, appearing in their most attractive light. Union affairs are often highly political and confused, and Parliament has often seen the consequences of poor union record-keeping, and strange expenditure. No one has demonstrated that Ms Gillard was a party to misappropriation of money, or that she knew that her lover was rorting. She showed personal misjudgment in becoming involved with an AWU official who proved to be a rorter; she showed professional misjudgment in acting for the union, effectively at his direction, while she was in such a relationship. Those misjudgments played a role, once the frauds were uncovered, in her law firm's losing the lucrative AWU account, and in Ms Gillard voluntarily leaving the law firm's employ, once it became clear that she had lost the confidence of some of the partners. She has paid a continuing price for those misjudgments, not least in having to deal with innuendo of complicity in, or facilitation of, her lover's fraud, the hostility (at least for a while, of further generations of AWU officials) and, in recent times, finding these events at the focus of a non-stop campaign of denigration calculated at undermining her leadership. This campaign seems to be based on resentment about her being Prime Minister, even though her party did not win a majority at election.

But mistakes and errors of judgment, personal or professional, fall well short of raising fundamental questions of fitness for office, let alone capacity to perform a job 20 years on. No doubt Ms Gillard regrets some of her decisions - the fact that she does falls well short of admission of wrongdoing. Even some looseness of memory, economy with the truth, or carefully guarded words from someone as yet unaware of where the questioning is going or what stray document is in someone's possession fall well short of consciousness of guilt, or cover up. Put bluntly, members of the public are right to suspect the case against her is impossibly complicated but otherwise unconvincing. Those who, by contrast, are steeped in the affair but who insist that there are still unanswered questions are constantly changing ground, or identifying only facts as yet unknown rather than evidences of some misfeasance by the Prime Minister.

This week has seen both the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, and his deputy, Julia Bishop, take charge of the ''prosecution''. While Mr Abbott has confined his open interventions to vague assertions that Ms Gillard ''has questions to answer'' - his behind the scenes role was made clear on Monday by the actions of his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, in ostentatiously handing Ms Bishop a thick folder, labelled Ms Gillard/AWU at question time. Hitherto, much of the charge against Ms Gillard has come from social media. In adopting the campaign, both Mr Abbott and Ms Bishop have put their own judgment and credibility on the line. Yet neither has gone any distance, even with documents referred to yesterday, in making out a case. Theirs is a high-risk enterprise, of the sort which will make some cautious observers continue to wonder whether there is, after all, some fire behind the smoke. If there is, it is about time it was seen. If there isn't - and members of the public should assume this until the contrary is proven - they should make adverse judgments not about Ms Gillard but about the judgment, the strategy, and the tactics of the Coalition leadership.