PRIME Minister Julia Gillard has again tried to put an end to questions over her role as a union lawyer 17 years ago, accusing the coalition of trying to end the parliamentary year with a campaign of “smear and sleaze”.
Before question time, Ms Gillard held a 48-minute media conference on Monday to answer journalists’ questions about the pro bono legal advice she gave in the 1990s to former AWU official Bruce Wilson, who was her then partner, and another official, Ralph Blewitt.
Then a lawyer with Slater & Gordon, she advised the two officials on the establishment of the Australian Workers’ Union Workplace Reform Association.
The association’s funds were later allegedly the subject of fraud, but no charges were ever laid.
It was the second lengthy media conference in three months Ms Gillard has called to defend herself against claims that effectively question her integrity.
“I think Australians are sick of it; sick of stories they don’t understand about events 17 to 20 years ago,” she said.
Ms Gillard said the opposition was seeking a distraction because its anti-carbon tax campaign was running out of puff.
“They’ve got no positive plan for the nation’s future, so in those circumstances they’ve got to insert something in the vacuum and what they’ve determined to insert …. is smear and sleaze,” she said.
Ms Gillard said her role was to provide “low-level” legal advice about the incorporation of the association.
“I did not set up a fund. I did not set up a bank account,” she said.
Ms Gillard said Mr Blewitt – who last week gave statements to Victorian police on three AWU-related matters – was a self-confessed fraudster variously described as a “sexist pig”, an “imbecile” and a “crook”.
“His word against mine: make your mind up,” she told reporters.
Ms Gillard said she had ended her relationship with Mr Wilson after hearing rumours about the Victorian branch of the AWU.
“In those circumstances I came to a personal decision about ending my relationship,” she said.
The prime minister was also asked about a claim by former union employee Wayne Hem that in July 1995 he deposited $5000 into Ms Gillard’s bank account at the request of Mr Wilson.
Ms Gillard said she did not remember $5000 being put into her Commonwealth Bank account and her attempts to recover bank records had been unsuccessful.
Mr Wilson has said Ms Gillard did nothing wrong and knew nothing about any alleged fraud.
In parliament, Deputy Opposition leader Julie Bishop used question time to reopen the issue, focusing on whether the prime minister had satisfied herself the establishment of the association did not breach AWU internal rules.
Ms Gillard repeated her role was to provide legal advice to the two officials seeking to register their association, which was to be used for union election campaigning, and she had no dealings with the broader union executive.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who did not ask any questions in Monday’s question time, told reporters Ms Gillard owed the parliament a full explanation.
“All we’ve had from the prime minister so far are increasingly shrill stonewallings, increasingly shrill denials,” Mr Abbott said.
Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten, who led the AWU from 2001, told reporters Ms Gillard had no knowledge of the activities of the association and people wanted the government to focus on health, education and jobs.
“No one is putting any allegations of specific wrongdoing by the prime minister,” Mr Shorten said.
Labor frontbencher Simon Crean said the opposition hadn’t laid a finger on Ms Gillard.
Ms Bishop later told Sky News: “This is just the beginning”. – AAP