View from The Hill

Interrogation of Gillard produces nothing new

Former prime minister Julia Gillard departs after giving evidence at the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption in Sydney. AAP/Paul Miller

During Julia Gillard’s evidence to the Royal Commission on union corruption, even Commissioner Dyson Heydon became impatient with the traversing of old ground.

Trying to curb questions that had already been asked during the morning he pointed out that Gillard had been in the witness box a very long time and it was a “very tiring place to be”.

Gillard has, figuratively speaking, been in this place for an extremely long time. The ground has been dug again and again. Nothing fresh was excavated on Wednesday. Did anyone think it would be?

When prime minister, she was cross questioned extensively about her role, as a Slater and Gordon lawyer, in the 1990s establishment of a union slush fund – which collected money from construction companies that was later fraudulently siphoned off - and about allegations that some of the money was used to pay for her house renovations. The fund was set up by Gillard’s boyfriend Bruce Wilson, an AWU official and his union associate Ralph Blewitt.

In 1995 she was grilled about these issues during an internal investigation at Slater and Gordon.

She has always categorically denied any wrong doing, and on oath on Wednesday she remained adamant.

Gillard was asked in 1992 by Wilson and Blewitt for legal advice in incorporating what became the Australian Workers Union Workplace Reform Association. It wasn’t a substantial job, she told the commission – “three, four, five hours at most”.

The work was done without charge – she said this was common practice as part of encouraging unions to direct business to the firm. “I did more substantial jobs than this for free for trade unions.”

But she does regret in retrospect not setting up a formal file on the task.

Indeed: “Obviously if one got to do the whole thing again you would do things differently given what I know now that I did not know at the time.”

She insisted she had no reason to think at the time that the name of the fund was misleading.

Gillard reiterated at the hearing what she’s said many times before - that after advising on setting up the body, she had no ongoing role with it.

She totally rejected claims that Wilson had handed over cash to tradesmen for renovations to her Abbotsford house. Indeed she said she never saw Wilson with significant amounts of cash.

She’d paid for all the renovations herself – and “it was my practice to pay by cheque”.

When she was interviewed in 1995 during the Slater and Gordon investigation she was somewhat more tentative in being confident she’d footed the bills for everything. But she has since said that she later checked all her records, and is sure she did.

Gillard said she ended the relationship with Wilson after a discussion “where he was evasive and I formed the view that I had not been fully in the picture about the nature of his conduct”.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Jeremy Stoljar SC gave Gillard as tough a time as he could.

He tried to make a lot of the fact that she had relied on advice for the names of tradesmen for the renovations rather than getting quotes (Gillard said she had the funds and wanted to get on with it). She didn’t have “contracts” with the tradesmen. He sought to put significance on the difference between “invoices” and “receipts”.

Sometimes there was an edge to Gillard’s voice but she kept very cool, even with the questions that contained provocative allegations she had already rejected.

Her pursuers will no doubt continue to hound her. But they didn’t get any of the help they’d probably hoped for from her commission appearance.

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