Prime Minister Gillard responds to accusations
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Chris Uhlmann
Prime Minister Julia Gillard today refuted claims of impropriety during her time as a lawyer at the firm Slater and Gordon and attacked those making the claims against her.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: For months, a vicious online smear campaign has been questioning Julia Gillard's conduct as a lawyer 17 years ago. It's spilled over into the national news media and today the Prime Minister declared enough is enough. In a fiery defence of her time at Slater & Gordon, she said News Limited stories about her involvement in the creation of a union fund were defamatory and wrong.
Political editor Chris Uhlmann reports on an unusual day in federal politics.
CHRIS UHLMANN, REPORTER: It began as an announcement about lifting the refugee intake.
It was punctuated by an appalling security breach when an intruder got within striking distance of the Prime Minister.
JOURNALIST: How did you get in?
INTRUDER: No, just got in through the public entrance.
JOURNALIST II: Prime Minister, something very odd just occurred. What have you been handed there?
JULIA GILLARD, PRIME MINISTER: Oh, Mark, I wish could help you, but I’ve got no idea.
CHRIS UHLMANN: It morphed into a defiant challenge by Julia Gillard.
JULIA GILLARD: I'm answering your questions now. If you've got questions, put ‘em.
CHRIS UHLMANN: And over one hour and 13 minutes it became one of the most extraordinary press conferences of recent years as Julia Gillard acted to end questions over her character that reach back 20 years.
JULIA GILLARD: None of this is new. I am standing in front of you now as a 50 year old woman. Have I learned a few things across my lifetime? Yes, I have.
CHRIS UHLMANN: As a 30 year old woman the Prime Minister was a partner in law firm Slater & Gordon and had begun a relationship with an up-and-coming Australian Workers’ Union official, Bruce Wilson. It would end in acrimony in 1995 amid allegations by the AWU that Bruce Wilson and fellow official Ralph Blewett had misappropriated union funds. The Prime Minister has always said she was unaware of what the two were doing.
JULIA GILLARD: Once I became aware that I had been deceived about a series of matters, I ended my relationship with Mr Wilson.
CHRIS UHLMANN: No charges were ever laid against Bruce Wilson or Ralph Blewett, to the great disappointment to the union and police, even though an association they set up in WA with a noble aim of achieving safe workplaces used money from building companies for their own benefit, including buying a house in Victoria.
JULIA GILLARD: I did not at the time understand that any funds from any other source would be used to support the purchase, that is funds from the association or any other accounts related to the union.
CHRIS UHLMANN: At the heart of the allegations against the Prime Minister is that she did the legal legwork to set up the association, that she never kept a file on it at her law firm and that she described it as a “slush fund” when questioned about it by the senior part partner.
JOURNALIST III: Did you help to draft the document that you knew was false because the purpose of the association was fundraising for a union election, not workplace safety, as stated in that document?
JULIA GILLARD: My understanding of the purpose of this association was to support the re-election of union officials who would run a campaign saying that they wanted re election because they were committed to reforming workplaces in a certain way, to increasing occupational health and safety, to improving the conditions of the members of the union.
CHRIS UHLMANN: On the weekend the Prime Minister said she wouldn't dignify any of these allegations with a response, despite the fact that The Australian newspaper had been running hard with them.
JULIA GILLARD (Sunday, Sky News): Delving into matters 17 years ago for what purpose? If you've got an allegation I did something wrong, put it. If you can't put it, why are we talking about this?
CHRIS UHLMANN: Today The Australian was forced to apologise for reporting that the Prime Minister had set up a trust fund for Bruce Wilson and Julia Gillard decided that attack was the best form of defence.
JULIA GILLARD: These are defamatory allegations and they are wrong.
CHRIS UHLMANN: This rebooting of ancient charges began as an internet campaign and one of its torchbearers is cartoonist Larry Pickering. His base attacks on the Prime Minister are among the many reasons why much of mainstream media hasn't revisited this story.
But The Australian's recent investigation did raise new information and new questions, like why Julia Gillard never opened a file on the association. She says it was routine to provide free advice.
JULIA GILLARD: With the benefit of hindsight, of course it would have been better that I had opened the file on the system, but at the time it did not strike me as a matter of particular significance.
CHRIS UHLMANN: What is significant is who was fashioning the bullets being fired at the Prime Minister. As you would expect, fingers are being pointed at the Opposition, but to date its attack’s been muted, and whenever it does come up, a more intriguing trail is raised.
TONY ABBOTT, OPPOSITION LEADER (Saturday): I think there are questions that she does need to address. Let's not forget that these issues were most recently raised in the Parliament not by the Coalition, but by a member of her own cabinet, Robert McClelland. I think there are questions that the Prime Minister does need to answer.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Only aficionados of this ancient case could have spotted an attack on the Prime Minister buried in this June speech by the former Attorney General.
ROBERT MCCLELLAND, ALP BACKBENCHER (22 June): Indeed I know the Prime Minister is quite familiar with this area of the law as lawyers in the mid-1990s were involved in a matter representing opposing clients. Indeed, my involvement in that matter has coloured much of my thinking in this area.
CHRIS UHLMANN: So as with so many things in this parliament, there's a deeper story. The recent attacks on the Prime Minister cannot be divorced from the deep desire some in her own party have to see her deposed and the people writing these stories are being offered assistance from inside Labor's ranks. The Prime Minister hopes today draws a line under the allegations.
JULIA GILLARD: Will the misogynists and the nut jobs on the internet continue to circulate them? Yes, they will. And it wouldn't matter what I said and it wouldn't matter what documents were produced and it wouldn't matter what anybody else said, they will pursue this claim for motivations of their own which are malicious and not in any way associated with the facts.
In terms of the conduct of more mainstream media, well you are in a better position to answer that than me.
But I've been on my feet now for, what? - I can't quite recall; 50 minutes, something like that, taking every question that the journalist elite of this country have got for me. If that doesn't end the matter, then, with respect, I don't know what would.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Malicious motivations aren’t confined to the internet and Julia Gillard's hope that this marks the end of the matter might be optimistic. But the Prime Minister was challenged to answer lingering questions and she did that today and she did it well.
She has, in the estimation of her former law firm and its former senior partner, done no wrong and her performance today was one of the best she's given in a long time.
But the rise of the embittered citizen journalist raises other questions for those who would seek to serve as politicians.
JULIA GILLARD: Yes, it does worry me that that's where politics has got to. That things that are demonstrably untrue, indeed, absurd, are circulated and recirculated and recirculated and somehow, at least in some section of the population, manage to worm their way in to become the orthodoxy.
CHRIS UHLMANN: The Prime Minister has good reason to worry.
LEIGH SALES: Political editor Chris Uhlmann.