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.

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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.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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