Prime Minister Julia Gillard says the allegations of her wrongdoing have no foundation. Photo: Andrew Meares
IN APRIL 1992, a young lawyer at Melbourne firm Slater & Gordon, named Julia Gillard, did the legal work to set up an organisation named the Australian Workers Union Workplace Reform Association. It was run by the then Victorian head of the Australian Workers Union, Bruce Wilson, at the time also Gillard's boyfriend, and its West Australian branch head, Ralph Blewitt.
According to the "application for incorporation of association" document, the association's purpose was the "development of changes to work to achieve safe workplaces".
The document also states "the association is not formed for the purpose of trading or securing a pecuniary profit to the members from the transactions of the association".
In fact, according to allegations outlined in sworn affidavits a few years later, including by the then AWU national secretary, Ian Cambridge, and in records of extensive investigations and court cases into the matter (none of which have resulted in a prosecution), the association was used for very different purposes.
It was used to set up 13 bank accounts, which allegedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars from construction companies such as Thiess Contractors, who thought they were paying for safety measures and training.
At least some of that money was allegedly used for the personal benefit of Wilson and Blewitt, including to help buy a house in Melbourne's Fitzroy in Blewitt's name, for Bruce Wilson to live in.
As Julia Gillard's political career progressed, allegations surrounding this case followed her; they were raised under privilege in the Victorian Parliament in 1995 and again in 2007 when she did a newspaper interview explaining that she had been "young and naive" and badly let down by Wilson.
No wrongdoing on her part was ever proven. She has always strenuously denied that she benefited in any way from the arrangement, or that she knew what the association was going to be used for, or that she had done anything at all wrong.
In recent weeks some new evidence has emerged that raises new questions. Those questions are not so much about whether she personally benefited — which has been the focus of the scuttlebutt for past 17 years — but about her professional conduct as a lawyer.
According to a statement by a former Slater & Gordon equity partner, Nick Styant-Browne, to The Austra-lian newspaper, the firm conducted a formal interview with Gillard about the incident that was "recorded and transcribed".
He says in that interview Gillard confirmed she "did not open a file at the firm" about the workplace reform association and she "understood the purpose of the association was to hold re-election funds for union officials . . . she stated it was referred to as a re-election fund or slush fund".
We knew already from their own testimony that the AWU's then national leaders — Ian Cambridge (then national secretary and now a Fair Work Australia commissioner) and Bill Ludwig (still AWU national president) — did not know about the association, even though its name indicated it was associated with the union they ran.
In a 1996 affidavit, Cambridge said he knew of no instance when an individual union officer had been authorised to open and operate a bank account in his/her own right, that such a practice would make it "extremely difficult if not impossible to audit such accounts and to maintain track of . . . finances" and that the bank accounts he had discovered appeared to have been used to "hold and/or launder union funds, as a step in the conversion of those funds to unauthorised, invalid, irregular and possibly illegal uses".
Now lawyers are once again being drawn into this decades-old saga, as they describe Gillard's departure from Slater & Gordon around the time that union officials began making the allegations about Wilson.
Styant-Browne says the firm "took a serious view" of the issue. The current managing director, Andrew Grech, says in a statement: "Ms Gillard co-operated fully with the review and denied any wrongdoing . . . The review found nothing which contradicted the information provided by Ms Gillard at the time in relation to the AWU/Bruce Wilson allegations."
Yesterday he went further, saying that to his knowledge no one had advanced any credible evidence over the past 17 years that had any more substance than when the allegations were first made and denied.
Former partner Peter Gordon has also made a statement saying there was "no explicit or indirect evidence" that Gillard was involved in any wrongdoing.
But according to a draft of Gordon's statement, released by Styant-Browne without Gordon's authorisation, he also said the partnership had been "extremely unhappy with Ms Gillard and considered that proper vigilance had not been observed" and that "duties of utmost good faith to their partners especially as to timely disclosure had not been met".
In his own final version of his statement Gordon says it was true that the partners were "less than thrilled with how our relations with Bernard Murphy [then senior partner, now a federal court judge] and Julia Gillard had deteriorated" but said intra-firm relations were already strained because of its involvement in an entirely separate case, which was about assault and a breach-of-employment contract that had brought down a Victorian minister.
The questions now being asked about Gillard's conduct include:
■Whether — as Styant-Browne asserts — Gillard knew, or learnt, that the association had not been set up for the purpose of workplace safety as asserted in the legal paperwork, but rather as a re-election or "slush" fund.
■Why she did not open a file on the association. Was there no contract for payment, no paperwork that could be reviewed or used by other lawyers who might take over the work in her absence?
■How could the association be set up without the knowledge of the national executive of the AWU? Did the law firm not ask to see a resolution or approval from the union executive authorising its establishment?
These questions and more are likely to be raised in a legal opinion now being drafted by Melbourne QC Peter Faris.
Those pursuing the case want to use the opinion to try to raise a complaint about professional conduct or to press for the West Australian or Victorian government to reopen an inquiry in light of new evidence.
But Victorian Legal Services Commissioner Michael McGarvie told The Age it was by no means guaranteed that any professional conduct complaint would even be heard. McGarvie, who made no comment about Slater & Gordon or Julia Gillard, says the limitation period for conduct complaints in Victoria is six years, although the commissioner can accept complaints outside that time period if there is a reasonable cause for the delay, or if it is in the public interest.
There are also major legal questions about the status of the transcript of interview referred to by Styant-Browne, where much of the alleged new evidence is raised.
Slater & Gordon says it has unsuccessfully asked Mr Styant-Browne to return the material. Mr Styant-Browne has received a legal letter from Arnold Bloch Leibler asking him to return all the "confidential information".
But those working to have the case reopened are persistent, particularly retired Melbourne lawyer, and former Builders Labourers Federation official, Harry Nowicki, who has spent months assembling available documentary evidence and who found Blewitt in Malaysia.
For 17 years Blewitt has kept his silence, but he now says he will give evidence about the case if he is granted immunity from prosecution.
Gillard maintains she has dealt with all the old accusations and refuses to answer detailed questions.
Attorney-General Nicola Roxon implored journalists yesterday to run the "ruler of credibility" over the allegations and that it was "beneath the prime minister to have to constantly respond to assertions where really no new allegations have been put".
The issue is certainly being followed closely by Gillard's enemies inside and outside the Labor Party. The Coalition has taken a behind-the-scenes interest, while publicly saying only that these are legitimate issues for the media to pursue.
Some of Gillard's accusers are bandying wild, unsubstantiated allegations around an issue that would have long ago lost currency if it not been for Gillard's rise to the top.
But whatever the motivations of those working to dredge up new information, if they continue to uncover it, the Prime Minister will continue to be asked new questions, even after all these years.
Lenore Taylor is the Sydney Morning Herald's national affairs correspondent.