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Nov 30, 2012

Constant over-reach on AWU is no accident

The constant over-reach that has characterised the AWU scandal reflects its lack of substance. And there was plenty else happening in Parliament this week that didn't get a look-in.

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Next time you find a press gallery journalist complaining about the dire quality of public debate in Australia, ask them what they did during the AWU saga.

In a week rich with policy issues of substance and import — the Murray-Darling Basin, a nationally important, years-long process over which many MPs have agonised, Australia’s UN vote on Palestine, the continuing controversy over offshore processing, the start of the government’s NDIS and education reforms — the focus of course was on what Julia Gillard did 20 years ago.

One of the problems with the analogy repeatedly used this week of the Godwin Grech matter is that in that instance, there were specific allegations of corrupt behaviour by the Prime Minister and Treasurer in the course of their roles as such, capable of being tested against specific evidence, evidence which turned out to have been fabricated by a Liberal Party mole.

It is only this week that we have arrived at an allegation about Julia Gillard doing something illegal over twenty years ago, and even that is problematic: it was advanced on Tuesday by Julie Bishop, retracted later that day by Bishop, advanced again by Tony Abbott yesterday, then retreated from yesterday (downgraded to “conduct unbecoming”) when he was put on the spot in Parliament, then advanced again after Parliament had risen.

This morning, George Brandis, continuing his self-conceived role as a sort of alternate High Court Chief Justice, laboriously tried to retool the allegations of criminality by shifting away from specifics about her letter to the Corporate Affairs Commission in favour of claiming, based on a reading of her 1995 exit interview, that Gillard always knew the Association was dodgy and therefore must have been acting illegally in advising on its registration.

But most significantly, Brandis declined to repeat his claim made yesterday under Parliamentary privilege that Gillard was a criminal.

There’s been a similar pattern in the media coverage: there have been four instances where media outlets have been forced to retract, apologise for or clarify claims they have made about what Julia Gillard did in the 1990s.

The most recent one was yesterday, by The Age in Mark Baker’s article, which had to be changed online because it claimed that Gillard has told the WA Corporate Affairs Commission that the AWU Workplace Reform Association had no trade union links. Remarkably, Baker today was trying to wish this away, claiming the only problem was “editing changes” at Fairfax, and that Gillard was “hairsplitting.”

If Gillard had told the Commission that the body had no trade union links, it would have been a blatant lie, and illegal. The claim was not merely wrong, but defamatory.

There’s a pattern in all this, in the constant overreach, amendment and overstatement by both the media and the opposition. It’s what happens when you have a smear campaign rather than specific, fact-based allegations of wrongdoing. If you don’t have a core of fact to rely on, you’re at constant risk of going too far.

The fact that both the opposition and many in the media have been guilty of this is perhaps the reason why Tony Abbott will walk away unscathed from this week. Abbott has made the most serious allegations possible against a Prime Minister, and one of his leadership group has demanded she step down, only to retreat from both of them when challenged in Parliament and fail to back up the claims.

Malcolm Turnbull must be wondering what he did wrong. When he made the same mistake, having been deliberately misled by Godwin Grech about the evidence, he was excoriated for it. No such fate for Abbott; indeed, his media cheerleaders want him to “stay the course”.

Unfortunately the only “staying of the course” that can be done will be through the media. The opposition and the media wasted four days of parliament on this issue this week. At some point, we might get to discussing issues of relevance to Australians in 2012.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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130 comments

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130 thoughts on “Constant over-reach on AWU is no accident

  1. oldskool

    IC-1101
    Also, I am not saying Bernard’s coverage in this instance is bad. In fact, I admire it and embrace it, because it’s opinion, just as I admire and embrace Bolt’s opinion (the day you stop embracing another person’s opinion is the day you tread dangerous water).. However, don’t critique the media and say it is unbalanced when your own coverage is just as one-sided and unbalanced. You either go down the pro-ALP/Greens route and ditch the media critique, or retain the media critique and offer both arguments.

    The Herald Sun is not obliged to offer both sides of an argument because:
    1. It doesn’t critique other outlets
    2. It is a free market: a publication is free to shape it’s content relative to its readership

    Please show where Crikey has been biased- pointing out that the opposition has not presented any evidence for their assertions is not bias it is reality.

    I have absolutely no qualms in not embracing Bolts ‘opinions’
    firstly he dresses his opinions as fact, when most of the ‘facts’ he presents are clearly wrong, and secondly he is logically inconsistent, search his opinion pages and you will constantly find contradictory posts.

    If you admire this poor presentation, then that says more about your biases, than mine. Bolts blog is written from a clearly partisan point of view- there are many posts on Crikey where Bernard criticise the Labor Party, and the Greens, however there are probably slightly more criticizing the Liberals, because they say more silly things.

    Finally any media outlet has the right to call out any other if they can show evidence of false or misleading information or hypocrisy- why shouldn’t they, it is a competitive market place; if your opposition is wrong its in your best interests to show it.

  2. IC-1101

    @ Achmed

    You missed my point.

    You’re also generalising by automatically assuming I subscribe to Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones etc. because I disagree with this article and Crikey’s politics coverage. That is a generalisation.

    To quote Christopher Hitchens:

    “There is a tendency on the Left, that if you disagree with them it must be for the lowest possible reason. If you’ve found the lowest possible reason than that must be it”.

    There is a fundamental difference: Andrew Bolt, as an example does not write for an outlet that proclaims moral superiority on media and political matters, and it doesn’t critique other outlets. At least not as an entire section on its own accord. Crikey, however, spends a lot of time critiquing the “media” (because Bernard Keane apparently isn’t part of the “media”: he must watch down on people from his Ivory Tower), and was a staunch support of the media inquiry. And yet, it offers the same unbalanced, unfair coverage as those the inquiry looks to criticise. What, because Crikey says it’s right that automatically makes it so?

    Also, I am not saying Bernard’s coverage in this instance is bad. In fact, I admire it and embrace it, because it’s opinion, just as I admire and embrace Bolt’s opinion (the day you stop embracing another person’s opinion is the day you tread dangerous water).. However, don’t critique the media and say it is unbalanced when your own coverage is just as one-sided and unbalanced. You either go down the pro-ALP/Greens route and ditch the media critique, or retain the media critique and offer both arguments.

    The Herald Sun is not obliged to offer both sides of an argument because:
    1. It doesn’t critique other outlets
    2. It is a free market: a publication is free to shape it’s content relative to its readership

    Those points also apply to Crikey…but it’s dangerous when an outlet advocates for media accountability and balance when it fails itself in that regard. If only one side is pushing the accountability, there is something wrong. That was at the core of the inquiry fundamental flaws.

  3. IC-1101

    What I find disheartening about this entire saga is just how divided Australia is. If Tony Abbott supposedly pushes a woman into a wall, it’s about “character” and outlets like Crikey jump up and down like as if it is an integral piece of national interest.

    But our PM is brought into accusations that, even despite the lack of evidence, must have come from somewhere. Why is it that I read articles praising the PM, arguing their is no substance or argument, but if it is a conservative leader, then we must question their acts.

    Also, the whole “negative politics” sentiment is dangerous, because to remain positive without scrutiny is IMO a pathway towards social coercion, unsurprisingly a trait of leftist governments throughout history. How does one reman positive if they disagree?

    Questions have been asked about our PM, and they should be answered and concluded beyond a reasonable doubt, like any other citizen.

    And until outlets like Crikey stop taking sides and start at least, at the very least, acting a little bit skeptical about her (sorry, is “her” sexist?) past actions, then it will continue to be one of the most unbalanced, biased outlets out there.

    “Unfortunately the only “staying of the course” that can be done will be through the media. The opposition and the media wasted four days of parliament on this issue this week. At some point, we might get to discussing issues of relevance to Australians in 2012.”

    Bernard, where is your article discussing the waste of time used to attack the Opposition?

    Don’t go crying about the “media” (what is it exactly that you’re part of? Are you part of your own medium, one that represents the moral benchmark? Yep, that must be it! Only the Left isn’t biased!) and then commit the same unbalanced coverage of national politics that your Crikey colleagues also engage in.

    More pathetic than the apparent no-substance argument plaguing the PM’s reputation? The downright militant commitment to her cause by people, like the author of this article, that don’t have the capacity to scrutinise their own.

    The next time there is a major outcry about the Opposition leader it will be my duty to ensure your coverage is compared to that of your coverage of PM scrutiny: balance.

    Crikey isn’t the only outlet that can critique.

  4. Julian Fitzgibbon

    ” Read everything else in this thread and see why your post is just so much right wing Lib bullsh!t”
    How many times do I have to repeat this – there is nothing left-wing about stealing money. I wish people would stop pretending that this is just normal left-wing behaviour.

    The most delusional thing about the commentary here is about how the Murdoch press is carrying out a vendetta. Oh really? How come just about all the News Ltd papers are agreeing that Abbott went to far, why are they all agreeing there is still no reason to believe that Julia Gillard personally profited? Is anyone so delusional to think they believe that for a moment?

    In her exit interview Julia Gillard stated her renovations were managed by an AWU official Jim Collins. And what do you know, Jim Collins was one of the signatories for the AWU slush fund accounts. At what do you know, in spring 1994 there are two payments totally $17,000 to an outfit called Town Mode. What does an investigative journalist do when they want to know who owns a business? The easiest option is to use the online ABN look-up facility (although I am sure there a more extensive paper archives available).

    Try it, see how long it takes you to find a likely name behind Town Mode and then plug that into google to see if you can find a Melbourne builder. It took me 5 minutes. Do you really think News Ltd journalists haven’t done that? If News Ltd wanted to bring down Julia Gillard they could simply snap their fingers and do it.

    But why should they do it, when they now have a stick up her backside that they can twist whenever they want? Come on ALP, show you respect Australia and choose an honest person as your leader.

  5. Julian Fitzgibbon

    “Is it the case that everyone to the left of you can see this flaw, but they just can’t make you see it?”

    Errr, I expect I am to left of most people here.
    Seriously, what is left wing about pocketing union money?
    What is left wing about taking kick backs from employers in exchange for using the workforce to handle contaminated soils?
    What is left-wing about union leaders taking kick-back from employers at all?
    What is left-wing about standing silently by while a member of your team is crucified in the media over credit-card vouchers with a misspelt name on them?
    What is left-wing about using behind the scenes muscle to sack journalists who raise questions about your past?
    What is left-wing about blocking Palestinian recognition?
    What is left-wing about the pointless operation in Afghanistan?
    What is left-wing about giving sycophantic addresses to the US Congress and allowing US bases in Australia?

    What the hell does “left” or “right” have to do with Julia Gillard and assessing from the public record the probability of whether she was pocketing AWU money in 5K chunks at a time? Are you really suggesting that the Left is so morally compromised that fraud and embezzlement are just their normal ethical standards?

    There was a politician once who said: “I didn’t leave the Labor party, the Labor party left me.” Frankly if the values that Gillard and her supporters espouse are left-wing, then I want nothing to do with it

  6. Apollo

    Well what media don’t love to get a scandal expose’? It’s been a very smart strategy by the LNP. Why talk about possible Labor reform achievements on the Murray, education or NDIS when you can kick your opponent down? And exploiting the asylum issue won’t win them much support because the public is highly informed public these days. They know the complex situation of refugee and economic migrant movements compounding together that no one seem to be able to come up with a solution to resolve, and the LNP’s favorite Nauru solution failed to be strongly effective just as the department of immigration has warned. No amount of spins from LNP, Greens and Labor will fool those in the middle who can get freely available facts and prefer post politics reality based solution.

    I think Abbott is on to a winner here and he might win the next election based on industrial reform issue. There are two under-current themes in this week attack and it does not matter whether JG is guilty or innocent. The first is to do with JG and Labor’s link to the unions which have been exposed to be corrupted while exerting tremendous power of influence on the Labor party, policy and the economy. The second is even if JG was innocent at the time, it looks like she is not very intelligent and does not have good judgement since she helped to set up some slush fund for her then-boyfriend and she was clueless about how fraudulent it was run. She did not do herself any favour either and casts doubt on her intelligence and judgment by following the Is.rae.li and US’ line on the Palestinians. Even the US public opinion is shifting away from giving Isr unqualified support and they recognise the need for equal consideration on the side of the Palestinians also, one thing the internet revolution has done is greatly empowering democratisation, the US public is not only able to fact check but instantly find information and opinions from around the globe, they are not trapped in the American media bubble that the government and the media machine are able to manufacture consent.

    I better leave it there, I won’t delve further into IR issue and might piss BK off again for “over reaching”.

  7. Julian Fitzgibbon

    “Julian, I hear you stole some money 20 years ago. ”
    It’s true, but I am not a fit person to be Prime Minister.

    Let me put it this way, I have formed a judgement based on what scant evidence has emerged and my understanding of human nature. My judgement is that I believe a fraudster is occupying the Lodge, I don’t suppose she is committing fraud at the moment and I don’t suppose she has become PM just to get free home renovations at her house at Lalor (although judging by her exit interview at Slater and Gorden I would suggest perimeter security at the Lodge should be stepped up as she seems to have problems with unrequested tradies breaking into her home and spontaneously commencing substandard renovations). Some of her performances this week have even been quite amusing, especially the crack about Humphrey B Bear. But you can’t disassociate the performance from the substance, where Bishop was being coy about having a 10 minute phone conversation, Gillard was being coy about the disappearance of large sums of cash.

    The problem with having (hypothetically) a fraudster as PM is she probably isn’t a strong or independent leader, rather some people are able to pull her strings. Now whether this is for things that are annoying but essentially harmless, such as having to make sure David Feeney gets a Victorian Federal seat, or more serious things like agreeing to have US troops on our soil or trying to obstruct Palestinian recognition, who can tell? But surely there must be someone in the parliamentary party who can string some words together and hasn’t such alarming skeletons rattling around in their closets? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Labor party where the dirtiest politicians didn’t float to the top?

  8. michael r james

    I disagree with BK’s comment: “perhaps the reason why Tony Abbott will walk away unscathed from this week.” Although existing detractors of both Abbott and Gillard will have their blind prejudices confirmed (Frank Campbell, lookin’ at you), I believe more of the middle will have got a quite terrible image of Abbott–thru all the noise, his outsourcing of the sh!t-stirring to the hapless (and female) Julie Bishop looks terrible (his mention of gender in his 15 minutes merely reminded everyone of this), and at the same time the indomitability of Gillard also shone thru.

    In her analysis of the week, and of the year, I reckon at least one of the Canberra press gallery (in addition to BK), Laura Tingle, got it right: (this is open access):

    [(afr.com/p/opinion/through_the_hurly_burly_to_last_DUVguZgSWOZj7BrfW8xIiN)
    Canberra observed: Through the hurly-burly to a last hurrah
    LAURA TINGLE Friday 30 Nov 2012.
    .
    The parliamentary year finishes with Labor recovered from oblivion in the polls but barely with its toes in the land of political contestability but Abbott a deeply unpopular Opposition Leader.
    .
    But the Prime Minister has led her government safely through a wild parliamentary year and finishes it with both Abbott and Rudd diminished threats. It has not always been pretty or smart but in the tradition of Fantastic Mr Fox and the wolf, we raise a silent paw to the Prime Minister in homage to her sheer resilience.]

    I think Tingle also nailed the business about Gillard’s so-called defeat by caucus:

    “…that cabinet government is not just a good thing, but what we are supposed to do here in Australia. …. However it got to its final position, the government had an argument about it and got to a much better, more considered position than the one the Prime Minister had originally put up, that everyone could live with. (Even though abstaining from a UN vote is still objectively a pretty pathetic position.)”

    And Tony Jones should get a nod for interviewing Tony Windsor and discussing some of those more important issues on Lateline.

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