Julia Gillard was home when a union official corruptly paid $7000 for renovations on her property, according to explosive allegations to a royal commission that put the former Labor prime minister at the centre of a secret union slush funds scandal.
Former Australia Workers Union official Ralph Blewitt claimed yesterday that he paid a tradesman working at Ms Gillard’s Melbourne house in September or October 1994 on the orders of her then boyfriend, former AWU leader Bruce Wilson.
Mr Blewitt, the self-confessed bagman for Mr Wilson, told the commission that Ms Gillard was in a room near the front door of her Melbourne home when he arrived bearing money from a union slush fund purportedly set up to improve workplace safety.
The fund — the AWU Workplace Reform Association — was set up in 1992 by Mr Blewitt and Mr Wilson with help from Ms Gillard, then Mr Wilson’s girlfriend and a salaried partner at law firm Slater & Gordon.
While admitting that Ms Gillard did not see the money change hands, he claimed she said words to the effect: “Oh, Bruce is through the back. Just go through.” Mr Blewitt said he then met Mr Wilson in the kitchen veranda area of Ms Gillard’s Abbotsford home.
“Mr Wilson called out to somebody, they asked me if I had the money,” he said. “I said, ‘Yeah’. He called out to somebody who came in. He asked me to pay him $7000, which I did. I counted off 7000 and gave it to that gentleman. He stuck it the front pocket of his bib-and-brace overall, and went back outside to join the other two workers that were there.”
When she was first quizzed about it by head partner Peter Gordon at Slater & Gordon in 1995, Ms Gillard could not categorically rule out that money from the slush fund was used to pay for her renovations. In 2012, as prime minister, she insisted she paid for her own renovations.
The damaging allegations involving Ms Gillard on the first day of a royal commission into union corruption came shortly after Mr Blewitt named the Queensland union and ALP “godfather” Bill Ludwig as the intended recipient of a secret slush fund payment of $50,000 from Mr Wilson.
Mr Blewitt, who is likely to be charged over the alleged scam, claimed under oath that he drew a cheque made out for $50,000 cash from the Perth bank account of the slush fund in September 1993 on the orders of Mr Wilson and then travelled to Sydney to hand it to Mr Wilson at the Camperdown TraveLodge hotel where the AWU was holding a national executive.
When he asked Mr Wilson what the money was for, he said Mr Wilson told him it was for Mr Ludwig.
Mr Ludwig, who only recently retired, was the AWU’s Queensland secretary and national president, and a highly influential figure in the ALP’s Right faction when the $50,000 payment was allegedly made.
The retired Queensland union boss strenuously denied receiving the money yesterday, and sources close to him claimed Mr Blewitt could not be believed. A spokesman said: “Mr Ludwig never received such money and completely rejects the allegation.”
Mr Ludwig was so close to Mr Wilson that he was grooming him as a future prime minister, Mr Blewitt said.
Years later, after ditching support for Mr Wilson, Mr Ludwig became a firm supporter of Ms Gillard when she ousted Kevin Rudd and took over as prime minister in 2010. He is also a longtime patron of current Labor leader Bill Shorten.
Mr Blewitt claimed the funds for Mr Ludwig and the renovations on Ms Gillard’s home came from the Workplace Relations Association, a secret fund that was set up for Mr Wilson to receive payments from the Thiess construction company for safety services never performed.
Ms Gillard later described the association as a “slush fund” for the re-election of union officials but has strenuously denied having any knowledge of its operations.
The association was to receive regular payments from the Thiess construction company totalling $90,000 in the first year of its operation for safety services never performed.
Mr Blewitt said money from the fund was allegedly used to buy a house in Melbourne’s Fitzroy for Mr Wilson at an auction in February 13, 1993, and he personally handed over money from the slush fund for a deposit and other costs.
Ms Gillard did the conveyancing work for the Fitzroy property and was present at the auction to buy it. Her signature also appears as a witness on a document as allegedly witnessing the handover of power of attorney from Mr Blewitt to Mr Wilson for the house purchase because the house was bought in Mr Blewitt’s name.
Ms Gillard is accused of failing to tell fellow partners about her role in helping to set up the slush fund as a separate entity from Slater & Gordon’s client, the AWU. Nor did she inform them about her role in the house conveyancing.
At one point yesterday Mr Blewitt, who will give further evidence today, broke down as he related how he feared losing his job if he crossed Mr Wilson. He said he started as an AWU organiser in 1987 in Perth with Mr Wilson, who rose to be the union’s West Australian branch secretary.
Mr Wilson was then sent to Melbourne to become the AWU’s Victorian secretary in an attempt to reclaim control of the Victorian branch, and the numbers on the union’s national executive for Mr Ludwig. Mr Blewitt said he remained behind as AWU branch secretary in Western Australia — but in name only because he did Mr Wilson’s bidding.