I'm sitting on the bed in Michael Smith's Melbourne hotel room and he has a question for me: "Do you feel dirty?"
Do I feel "tainted", he wants to know, by venturing into "misogynist grubby nut-job headquarters"?
Smith is the former talkback host who lost his job at Sydney radio station 2UE last year for trying to pursue a 16-year-old story about a union fraud committed by Julia Gillard's former boyfriend. Since then, the shock jock in exile has continued to play a pivotal -- if almost totally unacknowledged -- role in the resurrection of the story. And he's done it armed with nothing more than an iPhone, an internet connection, a ring binder bulging with documents and a conviction he's onto one of the greatest scandals in Australian political history.
I'd assumed our interview, arranged 20 minutes beforehand, would take place in the CBD Rydges hotel bar. Over a drink perhaps, given it's Friday afternoon. But it's not to be. "Why don't you come up to the room?" Smith asks as if greeting a life-long friend.
He's sitting at his desk in an open-necked business shirt, jeans and Blundstone boots. A pair of blue magnetic reading glasses, which detach at the bridge, hang around his neck. Any thoughts this would be a regular interview melt away as he thrusts an iPhone in my face and starts questioning me. He uploads the file straight onto his blog
and comments start pinging in from his loyal band of followers (warning: apparently your correspondent is not, according to "Maggie1954", "the brightest bulb in the room").
In ratings terms, Smith never made much of an impact -- he had a piddling 5.1% of the early-afternoon audience before his departure. But he seems to have found his calling in blogging. Updated with Andrew Bolt-style frequency and attracting around 90,000 page views a day, the site has made Smith something of a cult leader for those obsessed by the AWU affair. Funded by donations and his 2UE payout, it's trawled daily by politicians and journalists looking for fresh material.
"Michael had sniffed the seriousness of this story out before anyone had," said The Australian
's Hedley Thomas, who has led his paper's coverage of the AWU saga. "Michael has done a lot of the work -- the digging, interviewing and fact-testing -- that the Canberra press gallery and many journalists failed to do.
"I'm told that many in the Labor caucus are refreshing their browsers on Smith's blog every day, and that the PM’s staff are even more avid visitors to michaelsmithnews.com."
Smith, who declines to call himself a journalist, was a latecomer to the media. A former police constable, army corporal, Telstra executive and symphony orchestra managing director, he got his break at another Fairfax-owned station, Brisbane's 4BC, in 2007. While critics such as Mark Latham dismiss him as a reactionary blowhard, it was he who cracked the Craig Thomson scandal open last year in an interview
with the MP.
According to Thomas, Smith is "well-intentioned", "forensic" and "highly intelligent". He's also big-hearted, unguarded and foul mouthed: every sentence, it seems, is peppered with "prick", "bastard", "fuck", "bullshit" or "dickhead".
For someone who's stuck at one story for so long, he seems to have a remarkably short attention span. Getting him to stay on topic is like wrangling a sugar-fuelled child to sit still and eat their vegetables.
A question about his blog leads to a display of photos from his time in Mogadishu as a participant on this year's Go Back To Where You Came From
series on SBS.
"I thought every one of them had a bomb under them," he says, pointing at a photo of women in burqas. He then gets distracted by a photo of his wife, former concert pianist and current Australian Financial Review
life and leisure editor Katarina Kroslakova. Eventually, I manage to steer him to the blog.
"If I had 30 hours in the day I'd spend 30 hours a day on it," he says. "It's just my bloody obsessive personality. I just want it to be so right and it's never enough and I'm always feeling guilty I haven't done more work. I'm sitting here with you right now and I'm thinking: how many more comments have come in? I can't help it."
The blog, however, is only the start of his involvement in the story. A crucial reason police never charged anyone over the fraud was the absence of a complainant. That changed when Smith went to Victorian police commissioner Ken Lay in October and lodged a complaint about the alleged creation of false documents.
This set the stage for the arrival of former AWU bagman Ralph Blewitt to finally give a statement to police. Smith has become a confidant of the self-confessed fraudster, posts regular interviews with him on his blog and has served as a conduit between him and police. The pair -- whose connection is, in part, explained by both being ex-army men -- recently shared a hotel room with two single beds. In TV interviews with Blewitt last week, it was Smith hovering over his shoulder like a nervous media adviser.
While Gillard derides Blewitt as a "s-xist pig", "crook" and "imbecile", Smith insists "he's a decent man at his heart".
"I've seen nothing in his recent behaviour or statements to me to contradict the proposition that the bloke is genuinely remorseful and speaking the truth now," Smith says of the Vietnam vet. "Last night he came in with tears streaming down his face, holding his phone, shaking, saying the boys serving in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan had been on the phone to say, 'good on you Ralph'. That’s what drives him I think." Smith's eyes are watering and his voice is quivering.
Michael Smith and Harry Nowicki in their Melbourne hotel headquarters