It was a packed hearing room in Sydney this morning when star witness Bruce Wilson took the stand at the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. Wilson, more famous for being a former boyfriend of Julia Gillard than for his role with the Australian Workers’ Union, took the stand at 10.20, looking as if he would rather be anywhere else.

However, he is proving to be a phlegmatic witness, not going down the Obeid-like path of failing to recall anything, and giving concise answers to questions. Counsel assisting Jeremy Stoljar kept suggesting that parts of his statement, as yet untendered, were false, to which Wilson issued calm denials. There’s little sign of the famous hot temper on display when he lashed out at a News Corp photographer a month ago, pushing the man on a public street.

The former union official is giving evidence about the events of 1992, when he established a secret “slush fund” with self-confessed bagman Ralph Blewitt. The fund, the Workplace Reform Association, was used to issue sham invoices to the Theiss construction company for safety services for a Perth project, none of which were provided.

This morning he admitted that he sent invoices from the AWU-WRA to Theiss for January to March 1992 even though he knew no work had been done. He told counsel assisting that this was not a problem because it was like a lawyer’s retainer. “If for whatever reason, you don’t do the work, you still send the bill, I bet.”

Under repeated questioning about this, he said that the agreement was “from the nominated start date of the contract to the nominated finish date of the contract”, irrespective of whether anything had been done.

To date, the exchanges inside the commission have been of the “he said, she said” variety, with counsel assisting trying to show that the WRA was bodging up invoices, and Wilson saying that while the work hadn’t actually been done, the invoices were entirely legitimate.

It was previously alleged in the commission that money from this fund was used to buy a house for Wilson in Melbourne, and counsel assisting has mentioned the possibility of criminal charges.

Gillard is involved because when she was at law firm Slater and Gordon, she provided legal advice for Wilson about setting up the WRA; she has denied any wrongdoing. Gillard’s biggest failing may be bad taste in men, but if that were a crime, there would be more female inmates than houseflies.

The problem for Bruce Wilson is that thanks to the activities of Michael Williamson and Craig Thomson, the public is convinced that parts of the union movement are cesspits of rorting and corruption. When it was discovered that the two former officials of the Health Services Union had used union funds for activities ranging from house renovations to escorts, the public image of union leaders took a steep nosedive. “Right-wing union powerbroker” is now a synonym for “dodger”, creating a bit of an issue for the current Opposition Leader, former AWU secretary Bill Shorten, who is inexorably being dragged into the current proceedings.

Yesterday former AWU Victorian branch president Robert Kernohan told the commission that he was  “bloody horrified” by what he had discovered about Wilson in 1996. He said that when he raised the alarm with Shorten about the alleged fraud in 1996 he was told, “think of your future. There’s been a payout, we are all just moving on.” Shorten denies this.

The biggest beneficiary of these proceedings, of course, is the Coalition government, which has paid a lot of money to have its opponents’ bad habits exposed to the public gaze. Whether it is in the public interest to have so much public money spent on this, as opposed to a topic like the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, is another matter.

The hearing continues.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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