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Obama Birthers take over The Australian

The Australian’s campaign against Julia Gillard, kicked along by its legal correspondent Chris Merritt, has descended into ancient history and smear. Former Labor leader Mark Latham investigates.

As a case study in the flawed reporting of The Australian on the union slush fund matter, it is hard to beat the work of Chris Merritt, the paper’s legal affairs editor. Merritt specialises in arguing the same point (that the Australian Workers Union Workplace Reform Association might have been a trade union) without ever proving his point.

This is typical of the media politics of smear, dealing in speculation and misrepresentation, rather than hard facts.

My interest in Merritt’s work originated from one of fellow Australian reporter Hedley Thomas’ allegations against Julia Gillard, concerning her legal advice in 1992 for the establishment of the AWU-WRA. In August, Thomas wrote that if the Western Australian government had known the AWU-WRA was designed “to help in the election of union officials, it would not have been registered”.

It would not have been eligible,” he argued, “under the legislation that governed such associations.” Strangely, for a so-called investigative journalist, Thomas provided no corroborating material for this assertion. No legal opinion. No extracts from the WA legislation. No departmental advice.

I thought his claim looked suspect, especially given the AWU-WRA had been successfully registered for a range of workplace functions, and the Western Australian Associations Incorporation Act 1987 allows associations to be created for “political purposes”. So I made further inquiries.

When I asked the Associations and Charities Branch of the WA Department of Commerce about the registration of associations engaged in fundraising for union elections, I was told “there should not be a prohibition on that”. I also asked if this was a valid opinion going back to 1992, thereby allowing for subsequent legislative amendments. The officials answered “yes”. Not for the first or last time, Thomas was wrong in his claim against Gillard.

Merritt has now written three defences of Thomas’ position (on September 3, November 30 and December 7), adopting a curious style of reasoning. He has not sought to address directly the question of the registration of associations engaged in fundraising for union elections. Rather, he has argued a different point: that if the AWU-WRA was, in fact, a trade union, it could not have been registered under the WA laws as they stood in 1992.

How is this little exercise going? In his “Prejudice” column in The Australian last Friday, Merritt wrote of the AWU-WRA as follows:

So was it a union? Gillard says she wrote to the WA Corporate Affairs Commission arguing that it was not a union. And if the normal dictionary definition is applied, it clearly was not.”

No joy there for the prosecution. So Merritt delved back into the definition of a union applying in the WA Trade Unions Act 1902.

This is where The Oz’s pursuit of the Prime Minister now rests: that as a privately-employed lawyer 20 years ago, Gillard gave inaccurate advice to a WA authority concerning the definition of a trade union outlined in state law 110 years ago. This is no different to the Obama Birthers in the US: the making of loopy allegations on matters of ancient history, which no normal person in the community would regard as credible.

The purpose of the Trade Unions Act was to provide for the registration and regulation of unions. As the AWU-WRA was not so registered, one could argue, by definition, it was not a trade union. Nonetheless, let’s entertain Merritt’s thesis and examine the full definitional clause in the 1902 legislation:

Trade union shall mean any combination, whether temporary or permanent, for regulating the relations between workmen and employers, or between workmen or workmen, or employers and employers, or for imposing restrictive conditions on the conduct of any trade or business, whether such combination would or would not, if this Act had not been passed, have been deemed to have been an unlawful combination by reason of some one or more of its purposes being in restraint of trade.”

Merritt is perhaps the only person in the country who thinks this arcane language causes a problem for Gillard. It may not have tripped up Edmund Barton, Chris Watson or Alfred Deakin but 110 years later, according to Merritt, it has the current PM on the run.

There is no end to Merritt’s sophistry, arguing on Friday that as the AWU-WRA was committed to “a more equitable distribution of wealth” it might be regarded, according to the 1902 statute, as a trade union. By this logic, the Australian Tax Office and Centrelink, with their role in the redistribution of income in Australia’s tax-transfer system, are actually trade unions.

Not surprisingly, the relevant WA authorities in 1992 had no interest in such nonsense and registered the AWU-WRA as an incorporated association. It was not a trade union.

Surely now The Australian will end this train-wreck of a campaign. No wrong-doing has been proven against Gillard, not 20 years ago, not at any time since. The only wrongness on display has been the mistake-ridden reporting of Hedley Thomas and Chris Merritt.

15
  • 1
    drmick
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    The rights and wrongs are irrelevant now. The low s@um have scraped the bottom of the barrel, picked up a smear and have created a skid mark in the minds of the ignorant and weak like themselves. They have achieved exactly what they set out to achieve; and like our legal system, (formerly our justice system), there is no justice, just lots of legal, (whatever that is?).

  • 2
    John Bennetts
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Latham’s petty, well-researched, pedantic view of the world has quaint charm.

    Especially when compared with the slack logic and cherry-picked facts - and worse - of those who he targets.

  • 3
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    This piece should be instructive to The Australian that a little relevant research can be useful by saving reams of misdirected commentary.

    Can’t wait to read their star journos’ reports once the Barbara Ramjan defamation case gets underway in 2013. I hope Mr Latham is poised.

  • 4
    Steve777
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    I used to be a regular buyer of the Weekend Australian. I particularly enjoyed the ‘Inquirer’ section which contained a number of columns giving interesting analysis of the issues of the day. The Australian’s editorial position was always pro-Coalition, as were most of its columnists, but they had something interesting and useful to say. And as long as facts aren’t confused with opinion then an editorial position favouring one or other side of politics (or of any issue) is not a problem.

    A few years ago, things changed (maybe the election of a Labor federal government). The Australian started pretty much openly campaigning for regime change. In terms of fairness and balance it was often little better than its tabloid stablemates. As part of this campaign it started pushing voodoo climate science. I stopped buying it about three years ago.

    The Australian deserves to sink into oblivion. It won’t be missed.

  • 5
    Pedantic, Balwyn
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Sadly The Australian has achieved its objective of denigrating Julia Gillard, just as they did with Simon Overland.
    As Essential has demonstrated today mud sticks; and few understand or are interested in the technicalities of the argument tabled by Mark Latham.
    Gillard haters will hate her more, those in the middle think she has something to hide otherwise why would Tony Abbott & Co go on and on about it? But of course that’s the point isn’t it.
    The country deserves better than this appalling lack of ethics by its Opposition.

  • 6
    Roberto Tedesco
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Why bother with the facts when you’re only interested in pursuing a one-track vendetta?

  • 7
    David Hand
    Posted Monday, 10 December 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Mark,
    I thought you would have worked it out by now.

    The coalition went for Gillard in retaliation for her shemaless misogyny rant in October. The objective is not so much to get her convicted of a crime but to set up the election campaign around Union corruption and influence. The words “Gillard” and “slush fund” are now firmly embedded in voters’ minds. Expect the electorate to be reminded of it in the election campaign.

    I note you aren’t contradicting that. You’re just saying, “It’s not illegal to set up a slush fund”

  • 8
    Lance Boyle
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Mark, I am hoping you were serious when you wrote this elsewhere.

    Even in upmarket publications like The Australian  and Fairfax’s newspapers, errors abound – so many in fact I have decided to write a book about media incompetence, using Slater & Gordon as a representative case study.

    I would suggest you contact Joanne Painter, ex-Age journalist, who rang the ABC Faine program to let it be known the very basis of the story below is factually incorrect. She never pulled a story.

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/investigations/age-article-alleging-funds-abuse-pulled/story-fng5kxvh-1226516951640

    Indeed, she said if she had been ‘stood over’ she would have splashed it out, in a dramatic story. She was a fearless journalist now p.r. trainer and happy to let the truth be known about matters AWU which she was investigating at the time.

    This alleged misrepresentation by The Australian was not considered important enough by the ABC to report, in their news or current affairs, when the likes of Ralph Blewitt were waiting in the wings to be interviewed for another ‘no comment’.

  • 9
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    David Hand - RTFA - the AWU campaign was going long before the Gillard’s speech. I’d attribute it to the Carbon tax coming in, the world not ending, and the Coalition looking for another equally dodgy one note.

  • 10
    Phil Smith
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    The WA Associations Incorporation Act, at the time, prohibited the incorporation of a trade union as defined in the Trade Unions Act. That definition is much wider than the traditional conception of a trade union. What Mark Latham side-steps are the objects of the AWU Workplace Reform Association. Despite Ms Gillard’s sophistry, the purpose of the Association (if one reads its constituent documents) was clearly to have a role in regulating workplace relations. If it was, on the other hand, really a body to hold funds for the re-election of union officials, then the tenor of its rules, let alone the “main purpose” (appearing on the application) and the subsequent public advertisement were all misleading. One might add that in this case too, the solicitor drafting the documents was clearly inept.

  • 11
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Abbott being so far behind Gillard in the popularity stakes too?
    Murdoch’s Limited News & PR had to devote their resources to do something to handi/kneecap her.

  • 12
    David Hand
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm,
    It has been widely reported that when the Gillard -slush fund story broke in August, Julie Bishop wanted to go after Gillard then. She was held back by Liberal strategists who were rightly fearful that an Abbott attack on Gillard’s past would play her as the victim and not work.

    All that changed on 9 October. A shameless, spiteful piece of mud-slinging attacking Tony Abbott’s character changed Coalition tactics. With that speech, Gillard delivered the opportunity for the Coalition to go after her over the slush fund.

  • 13
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 12 December 2012 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    Blot & Milne” 14(?) months ago?

  • 14
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 12 December 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Didn’t Milne “fish this out of the school septic tank”, to lob back into court so Blot could play with it. So they could then play a “reliable source’s tennis” game with it?
    What happened to Milne as a result? Imagine the “loss of face”/embarrassment for Limited News when that happened? What that did for their “infallibility” and ability to do whatever they liked and not have people treat them their way?

    Why do people like Nixon, Overland, Conroy, Brown et al come in for such a devotion of resources for a public bollocking from that Limited News tag-team behemoth, any more than for publicly critiquing their unbalanced partisan “views-service”, operating in a virtual vacuum of hard copy competition, with the weight that gives it for influencing punter perception, for it’s disservice?

    “You scratch our back and we’ll scratch yours”?

    And what’s with this unhealthy obsession of Blot’s with “Gillard’s love life” – as though he thinks he can vet and sit in judgment on that – as though he thinks he can use it however he wishes (like Dutton with his allusion on Lateline)? Why isn’t he equally morbidly fascinated with the “comings and goings” mores of his conservative side of politics and politicised op-eds – to deck the lop-sided halls of his public columns/show with?

  • 15
    John Hargrave
    Posted Monday, 7 January 2013 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    I miss Mark Latham
    He called it as it was. A true Labor man

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