A former Australian Workers Union official and self-confessed “bagman” told a royal commission into union corruption that he gave $7000 in cash from a union slush fund to builders working on renovations at Julia Gillard’s Melbourne home 20 years ago.
Ralph Blewitt is the first witness at the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, headed by retired High Court judge Dyson Heydon, and set up by the Abbott Government in response to claims that the former prime minister was involved in establishing the AWU slush fund.
On Monday, Blewitt gave evidence that in 1994 he went to Gillard’s home to meet his union boss, Bruce Wilson, her then-boyfriend and she welcomed him in before meeting Wilson in the kitchen. Three men in overalls came in and one asked for $7000, which he handed over.
“He stuck it in the front pocket of his bib and brace overalls and went back outside,” Blewitt said, adding the Gillard wasn’t present at the time he handed over the cash.
Two years ago as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard held a press conference at which denied she had received any funds to pay for her renovations and challenged anyone to provide evidence to the contrary. She also denied knowledge of the slush fund’s operations.
Earlier in his testimony, Blewitt recounted how he set up the slush fund known as the Workplace Reform Association in 1992 with Wilson, who was then secretary of the AWU’s Western Australian branch, without approval from other union officials.
“Only two parties [he and Wilson] were aware of this,” he said.
Blewitt said Gillard, who was a lawyer at Slater and Gordon, provided legal advice to help draft the association’s documents and pointed out her hand-writing on some of the paperwork.
Blewitt then sent monthly invoices to construction engineering firm Thiess for supposedly providing a union representative to advise on workplace safety reform at its Dawesville Channel project, but it never occurred.
When asked if he knew that the invoices were false, Blewitt replied “I knew that we weren’t providing a service for the invoices we were sending”.
He recounted collecting the first payment of more than $25,000 from a post office box and banking it.
Some of the money was allegedly used by Wilson to buy a house in Melbourne, although it was purchased in Blewitt’s name.
Blewitt told the Royal Commission that “Mr Wilson wanted to distance himself from the purchase” to claim living away from home allowance, so he didn’t want union to know he owned the house.
Asked why he didn’t challenge the use of union funds for the purchase Blewitt replied “If Mr Wilson wants to buy a house, he’s entitled to”.
“I was acting on and following instructions of Mr Wilson at all times,” he said.
The house was purchased at auction in February, 1993. Blewitt said Gillard and Wilson attended the sale, but he was not there.
Blewitt claimed that even when he was handed control of the WA branch as secretary, Wilson continued to direct its running from Victoria.
“I took the title in name only,” he said.
His support for his boss was “unwavering” because “Mr Wilson made it clear to me very early in our relationship that I was either with him or against him and, at any time he so desired, I would no longer be employed as a union official.”
Both Gillard and Wilson have denied Blewitt’s previous claims that they benefited from the slush fund or misused union funds.
During his day in the witness box, Blewitt also claimed that Wilson ordered him to pay $50,000 to ALP heavyweight and former AWU national president Bill Ludwig in 1993, travelling to Sydney to hand the money to his boss.
The claims given under oath by Blewitt may not be Bruce Wilson’s only difficulty after he was photographed allegedly attacking a press photographer outside the royal commission.
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