With the casualties so-far confined to the PM's critics, Alan Austin wonders whether this will be the week the lid blows off the rumbling Canberra volcano?
WILL THIS BE THE WEEK the lid blows off the ominously rumbling Canberra volcano?
For several weeks toxic gas emissions in the media and harmonic tremors in Parliament have become more and more frequent.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has averted an explosion so far over her involvement in a union slush fund in the early 1990s when working as a lawyer at Slater & Gordon. And over her defence of that conduct more recently.
In fact, she appears to have benefitted from what she called in late-August “a very sexist smear campaign.”
Will that change this week? If so, who will the ash plume contaminate?
Intermittent shudderings have been felt as far back as 1995 when the matter was raised in Victoria’s Parliament. Activity subsided for most of the next 16 years until Glenn Milne in The Australian wrote a scathing attack in August last year.
This week, Opposition Deputy Leader Julie Bishop is tipped to raise “unanswered questions” in the Federal Parliament. Her concerns include the role Gillard played in setting up the fund for the Australian Workers Union (AWU). What was that role? What did Gillard believe to be the purpose of the fund at the time? What did she tell the WA Corporate Affairs Commissioner were its purposes? Are those answers consistent? And what was her awareness of union illegality?
The second possible development this week is testimony offered to police by former AWU employee Ralph Blewitt.Blewitt has mysteriously materialised from overseas. [Who is paying him? I have my suspicions, which I will air at the end of this piece.] What will he say? Is he believable?
[LISTEN TO THE ABC'S JON FAINE DISCUSS RALPH BLEWITT'S CREDIBILITY]
So far, the PM’s responses appear to have enhanced her popularity. Her decision to take on all questions bar none in a Canberra press conference on August 23 was hailed as a triumph.
Even The Age’s attack dog, Mark Baker, applauded “her pluck and candour” in answering every question. 'The Prime Minister's strategy was a resounding success,' he wrote. 'It stopped a damaging debate in its tracks – at least in the mainstream media.'
Well, yes. For a while. But attacks in other media – what Gillard referred to as “the internet nutjobs” – only increased.
Casualties so far, however, appear confined entirely to the ranks of Gillard’s critics.
Glenn Milne and The Australian were first to feel the heat of political vulcanology. The PM reacted with remarkable deftness to Milne’s August 2011 allegations and secured an instant retraction and grovelling apology. Milne has since disappeared without trace.
Shock jock with 2UE Michael Smith lost his job in November 2011 over the matter, though continues his campaign as a blogger.
Ean Higgins at The Australian suffered a humiliating slap in August this year when his editors were forced to retract and apologise for false allegations yet again.
More recently, Mark Baker was discredited by The Age bosses last week in another embarrassing public apology for dodgy reporting.
So far, the weight of testimony has been strongly in the PM’s favour. Most key players have backed her accounts. These include Peter Gordon from Slater & Gordon, current S&G managing director, Andrew Grech, and former boyfriend and ex-official with the AWU Bruce Wilson.
Several of those still in the attack squad have major problems with their own credibility.
Leading the The Herald Sun’s campaign is serial liar Andrew Bolt. He was found in the Eatock v Bolt matter last year to have concocted much of his “evidence”. Earlier, in the Popovic matter, he was found guilty of “serious defamation”.
Ralph Blewitt has been described by his sister Penelope Lennon as a compulsive liar.
“He is as crooked as they bloody come. He's rotten to the core."
Unfortunately for the Liberal Party, most of their hopes rely on the dubious testimony of Blewitt.
Julie Bishop found herself acutely embarrassed in February this year when she viciously attacked the PM in Parliament over her “failure” to appoint Bob Carr as foreign minister. Her assault was based on a front page story in The Australian which was exposed next day as a complete fabrication.
Analysts with a reputation for neutrality and scepticism have been unwilling to join the attack. These include the ABC’s Jon Faine, Nine Network’s Laurie Oakes, Phillip Coorey at The Sydney Morning Herald, Laura Tingle and Mark Skulley at The Australian Financial Review and Media Watch.
So, why has the Prime Minister’s personal standing soared while the allegations have been swirling?
Newspoll now has Julia Gillard leading Tony Abbott 46 to 33 per cent as preferred PM. The Opposition leads the Government by only 51 to 49 per cent on two party preferred measure. This is up one per cent from last month, and well up on a year ago. So the gap is closing.
One explanation is that Australian voters, like voters in the USA, accept that politicians tell lies. This is not a hanging offence in either country.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were shown throughout the recent US presidential campaign to have lied frequently. This did not disqualify them as presidential candidates.
Australia’s current leader of the Opposition is also widely known to fib routinely. For instance, is this not the most excruciatingly embarrassing interview by the leader of a major party ever?
If the PM turns out to have lied about her work 20 years ago, so what?
Is that the explanation? Of course, it is impossible to know.
Finally, to the questions as to who is funding the internet nutjobs, and who is paying for Ralph Blewitt’s trip to Australia?
Are they being paid by an ALP slush fund, to keep this “scandal” ticking along so the PM’s popularity can continue to rise?
With seismographs switched on, we may find out this week.
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