The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, which began on May 12, opened with allegations against former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard.
The commission's first day receiving evidence confirmed it is a political show trial.
The first person in the witness box was former Australian Workers Union (AWU) official Ralph Blewitt. The “explosive allegation” he made was that Gillard was at home when he paid a builder $7000 for renovations at her Melbourne home from a slush fund.
Not that she actually saw him pay the builder or had any knowledge of the payment, but she was at home at the time. Perhaps the Royal Commissioner might draw the inference that she was at home because that was where she lived. And the year? 1994.
Blewitt is a former AWU state secretary who now lives in Malaysia. The fund — the Australian Workers Union Workplace Reform Association — was set up by Blewitt and another AWU official, Bruce Wilson, in 1992 to receive payments from the Thiess construction company for safety services that were never performed. It was established with legal advice from Gillard when she was a salaried partner at the law firm Slater & Gordon.
For the past two years, the slush fund has attracted the attention of the Murdoch media, mostly because of allegations made by Blewitt against Gillard and Wilson, who was her partner at the time. Both have repeatedly and strenuously denied any wrongdoing.
Blewitt has confessed his own dishonesty with the slush fund in a series of interviews with The Australian.
For the past 18 months, the Victorian Police have been investigating four offences related to “Blewitt, Wilson and others.” The offences are: obtaining property by deception, receiving secret commissions, making and using false documents, and conspiracy to cheat and defraud.
The investigation has been conducted with the cooperation of Blewitt. He is expected to be charged with, and plead guilty to, fraud related offences. In return, police are expected to submit that Blewitt should not receive a custodial sentence for his part in the criminal activity.
All of the first day’s evidence about Gillard and Wilson leads to some obvious questions — if Victorian Police have enough evidence for a prosecution, why has that prosecution not been carried out? Why should it be sidetracked and aired before a Royal Commission if the due processes of law are being undertaken?
Unions have consistently said that if there is evidence of corrupt activity by union officials there are existing remedies under present laws. The courts are the proper place to test these matters.
This is precisely what took place with former Health Services Union officials Michael Williamson and Craig Thomson. Both received jail terms for defrauding union members. Thomson has exercised his right of appeal and will be back before court later this year.
Blewitt also accused Bill Ludwig — recently retired AWU national president and Queensland state secretary, and influential figure in the Right faction of the ALP — of secretly receiving $50,000 from Wilson. Blewitt claimed he withdrew the money from the slush fund and gave it to Wilson, who then told him it was for Ludwig.
This is strenuously denied by Ludwig. In any event, it amounts to hearsay. A claim by Blewitt that he gave $5000 from the slush fund to a Transport Workers Union official in WA in 1994 would also appear to be hearsay. In denying that he ever received the payment, the now retired official described Blewitt as “a liar”.
Another matter of some interest is who is paying Blewitt's travel expenses from Malaysia. Blewitt, 69, admitted under cross-examination on the second day of the hearing that his finances were not in good shape and he had been unemployed, living on a Veterans’ Affairs pension, since he left the AWU 15 years ago.
He also said a Melbourne lawyer, Harry Nowicki, paid for his travel and accommodation from Malaysia on a number of occasions. Nowicki is reported to be writing a history of the AWU from 1985 to 1997, which explains his interest in the matter.
If the initial hearing and press reports are any guide, the inquiry will gift headlines to the Abbott government, provided by disgruntled would-be ALP politicians with tales to tell of how they were unfairly overlooked for pre-selection to parliament.
This is scheduled to go on until December when the Royal Commission is expected to present its report. Many have predicted that it would ask for an extension of time into next year to complete its investigations.
The recent budget papers seem to have anticipated this. A total of $53.3 million has been allocated for its operation over the next 14 months. The Abbott government has estimated that $23.4 million will be spent by the commission by June. A further $30 million has been allocated for the next financial year.
In a further indication of its priorities, the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission, which has yet to be legislated, will have its numbers increased by 50% while 16,500 public sector jobs will be axed. Another victory for extreme right-wing politics over the economic well-being of most of the electorate.