Amid dramatic claims that the prime minister had acted corruptly and coalition demands for her resignation, this morning the opposition rushed into Parliament to move a suspension of standing orders.
The suspension, one assumed, would be to demand the prime minister resign, or to call a vote of no confidence to test the PM's support, or at least demand she front the chamber and explain herself. It turned out to be to:
- "... enable this Parliament to take action to deny people smugglers a product to sell before the Parliament rises and the onset of the monsoon season ..."
So with claims of "smoking guns"* and the most serious accusations that can be made in Australian politics, the opposition preferred to chase monsoons rather than do what you'd expect they'd do if they had a skerrick of belief in what they were alleging about the PM.
It's hardly a smoking gun, but at least now, after acres and acres of newsprint and over 30 question time questions across weeks – the government even extended question time yesterday so that the opposition could get its full share in after Bob Katter confused everyone in the chamber by moving a suspension motion during question time** – we have a specific accusation.
The prime minister, it is claimed, misled us all by saying she had only advised on the establishment of the AWU Workplace Reform Association when in fact she wrote a letter to the WA Corporate Affairs Commission when the commission queried whether in fact they were trying to establish a trade union, which needed to be registered under different legislation.
The incriminating letter, which Gillard has said she can't remember, makes the grave claim that a body that was not a trade union was not, um, a trade union. She even cut and pasted from a template to do it – a shocking allegation as, of course, all lawyers write all letters from scratch. That's why they charge such outrageous fees.
What illegality or impropriety was committed in that letter sent in 1992, assuming Ms Gillard was the signatory, I can't tell you; it takes minds more conspiratorial than mine to see exactly what scandal lurks in stating a non-trade union body wasn't a trade union. More to the point, to the point that keeps being ignored by virtually everyone covering this saga, it has not a shred of relevance in 2012.
But this was the one issue that remained unresolved after all the questions this week, the one thread still dangling when all other efforts to claim that somehow Gillard acted corruptly or illegally or unethically have either been shown to be false, or shown to have no evidence, or retracted by her accusers.
This is the one issue on which the prime minister refused to give an answer in question time. Yesterday, in what could – and should – have been a key moment in this drama, Gillard, asked directly about the 20-year old letter by Julie "I forgot I spoke to Ralph Blewitt a week ago" Bishop, turned to Tony Abbott and said:
"Given that the leader of the opposition read along with every word of that question from the deputy leader: get up and ask it yourself, and then I will answer."
Abbott should have leapt to his feet and met the challenge. Until recent events he would have. But so mortified was he by the prospect of being filmed participating in this campaign and aggressively pursuing the prime minister, that he sat there silent. A key moment of confrontation passed. How would Gillard have reacted if he did? Her response about the letter, that she doesn't recall writing it, might have looked feeble in that moment and context, unless she is purposefully baiting Abbott and has a comeback prepared that will punish him for doing so.
Still, Abbott gets another bite at the cherry today, the last question time of the year. This is it, folks. This issue can't limp on beyond this. Sure, Nick Styant-Brown's mates in the media can, and will, keep trying to breathe life into it, but in parliamentary terms it ends now.
The opposition needs a kill, or to badly wound the PM on this final day before the summer break, at least ensuring that all her momentum acquired in recent months is lost. That, after all, has been the object of this smear campaign, which has grown ever more hysterical as Labor has come back to within touching distance of the Coalition in the polls.
The likely tone of question time was indicated by a statement the Prime Minister's Office released about the letter a short time ago. If people were expecting any sort of backdown or admission from Gillard, they'll be disappointed. This was a highly aggressive statement.
After months of speculation about a smoking gun, the Liberals have nothing.
So, the prime minister wrote to the WA Commissioner? So what? She did what lawyers do. Act on instruction. Provide legal advice.
So, the prime minister can't remember writing one letter from 20 years ago. So what? Lawyers write thousands of letters in their careers.
And what does the transcript show? That the PM said the association wasn't a union. So what? It obviously wasn’t.
In fact, the unredacted transcript backs up what the prime minister has been saying.
On it goes. And the prime minister has also written to Fairfax demanding a retraction of elements of Mark Baker's article in The Age this morning, including the assertion, which no one else has made and which isn't backed up by the facts, that she said the AWU Reform Association "had no union links".
Stand by for a final showdown this afternoon.
*To be fair, Christopher Pyne, subbing in for Julie Bishop who was off injured with a damaged credibility, demurred at the term "smoking gun" – it was much too serious for that apparently; he preferred "second shoe to drop".
**On, quelle horreur, on a policy issue, the Murray-Darling Basin.