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The worst form of defence

Mark Latham makes a flimsy case for Gillard

3 November 2012

9:00 AM

3 November 2012

9:00 AM

Spectator Australia readers have seen enough of Mark Latham’s writing to know his attempts to project a blokey anti-intellectual persona are largely window-dressing. His is probably the sharpest mind to have graced Federal Labor’s front bench since (at least) the retirement of Barry Jones. Latham is perfectly capable of formulating a cogent and rational argument, if so minded, provided the facts allow for it.

So, when he offers (Latham’s Law, 27 October) a lame simulacrum of a defence concerning Julia Gillard and ‘the Slater & Gordon allegations’, only two explanations are open: either Latham’s heart really isn’t in it, or the evidence doesn’t allow him to do any better.

He begins with an ad hominem attack on Rebecca Weisser, which would doubtless be characterised as misogynic had it sprung from the lips or pen of a person lacking Latham’s impeccable left-wing credentials. But Weisser has not written a word on this subject. Her transgression, as editor of the Australian’s opinion page, is failing to censor or suppress discussion of an issue going to the Prime Minister’s fitness for office.

Latham ridicules Weisser over a remark which she supposedly ‘grunted’. I have spoken with Weisser on a couple of occasions. Her speaking voice could never be confused with grunting; not, at any rate, the kind of grunts normally associated with (for example) people who perpetrate malicious damage at Hungry Jack’s outlets.

According to Latham, Weisser grunted: ‘Craig Thomson and Michael Williamson want their matters to go away, so Gillard doesn’t want us to investigate her time at Slater & Gordon — it’s all part of the same problem.’ In his new career as a journalist, Latham might be expected to sympathise with attempts to discover the truth, when politicians would prefer such allegations not to be investigated. But no! Latham accuses Weisser of ‘warped logic’ and ‘political prejudice’, and puts her at the forefront of ‘the moral decline of Australian conservatism’.

Latham’s next gambit is a straw man: former AWU official Ralph Blewitt, identified by Latham as the Australian’s ‘star witness’, and described as ‘a shady character who fled Indonesia in 2009 to avoid arrest’. Blewitt may be every bit as dodgy as Latham suggests: who would cavil at Latham’s expertise in assessing the relative scruples (or lack thereof) of union heavyweights? But calling Blewitt the
‘star witness’ is preposterous.

Blewitt was never more than a bit player. The ‘star witness’ is Gillard herself. Interviewed by her employers in 1995, and fronting the media on 23 August 2012, Gillard admitted every relevant fact that Blewitt witnessed. Shady or not, Gillard’s admissions make him irrelevant.

Finally, Latham argues that ‘The Australian’s reporting … has been error-prone.’ If that were true, mistakes in a journalistic investigation do not discredit the entire process. How many ‘error-prone’ police investigations have resulted, eventually, in the guilty party being apprehended and duly convicted?

But the ‘one example’ which Latham offers as proving a propensity to error — presumably Latham’s best (or only) example — is entirely misconceived. It arises because, ‘on 3 September, [the Australian’s] legal affairs editor Chris Merritt argued that if Gillard had tried to register the AWU Workplace Reform Association as a fundraising body for union elections, it would not have passed muster under the Western Australian Associations Incorporation Act 1987’.

Merritt, of course, was unquestionably right. Latham thinks it an ‘error’ — so egregious an error as to justify a claim that ‘the Australian’s legal affairs editor knows nothing about this law’ — only because Latham misses the point.

Nobody doubts the theoretical possibility of incorporating a body to operate as a ‘slush fund’ for the benefit of Gillard’s then boyfriend, being (admittedly) Gillard’s intention from the outset. If called ‘The Bruce Wilson Slush Fund, Inc’, and with stated objects accurately reflecting that intention, there could be no problem. But such a body would have been useless to Wilson.

Wilson’s scheme (Gillard denies any knowledge of it at the time) depended on soliciting contributions, voluntary or otherwise, from businesses believing they were paying an AWU-related entity for benevolent purposes, like promoting safer workplaces and skills training. For this to succeed, the name and objects had to sound plausible.

Merritt is perfectly correct that ‘if Gillard had tried to register the AWU Workplace Reform Association as a fundraising body for union elections, it would not have passed muster’. Under section 8(1)(b) of the Act, ‘The Commissioner shall not incorporate an association … by a name that … is … likely to mislead the public as to [its] object or purpose’.

Hence, the objects were concocted to conceal the intention to which Gillard was admittedly privy from the outset. She insists she did not sign that document, nor draft the section which listed the objects. But she vouched for the association’s legitimacy to the WA Corporate Affairs Commission, although she always knew the real intention was to support ‘re-election of union officials’. Section 43(a) of the Act creates an offence of making or authorising a statement ‘that to the person’s knowledge is false or misleading in any material particular’ in ‘a document … lodged with or submitted to the Commissioner’.

If Latham wishes to apply his considerable intellectual powers to defending Gillard, here are four questions to begin with:

• Given the AWU retained Gillard’s firm, how could any lawyer have convinced herself there was no conflict of interest when her boyfriend asked her to set up a ‘slush fund’ under the name of her firm’s existing client?

• Gillard admits she was asked by Wilson for ‘legal advice to incorporate this association’. Precisely what advice was given regarding the adoption of a misleading name, and the fraudulent statement of false objects for the intended ‘slush fund’?

• How could Gillard conscionably vouch for the legitimacy of an association which, to her knowledge, was being registered with a deceptive name and specious objects?

• Interviewed in 1995, Gillard ‘could not rule out’ the use of association funds for her own property; 17 years later, she categorically affirmed that ‘I paid for my renovations’. Contrary to all human experience, has her memory improved with time?

Latham might then address much more intractable questions: how AWU funds came to be used for the purchase of a property in Blewitt’s name where Wilson and Gillard sometimes cohabited; what steps Gillard took, as the AWU’s solicitor, to ensure her client’s interests were protected; and why those steps failed to prevent Wilson making off with the net proceeds, including the AWU’s money, when the property was sold. Was this mere incompetence, or something more sinister?

Famously, Latham told Parliament ten years ago, ‘I grieve for the rise of the new political correctness — the hypocritical demand of the conservative establishment in this country for civility in political debate’, because ‘civility … helps the ruling class to avoid public scrutiny and accountability’. Latham, of course, is no hypocrite. His defence of Gillard proves there is a way to help ‘the ruling class to avoid public scrutiny and accountability’ without any risk he will ever be accused of lapsing into even momentary civility.

Anthony Morris is a barrister in Brisbane.

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