There is no doubt the relentless questioning of Prime Minister Julia Gillard over the AWU 'slush fund' scandal is damaging the government, and pushing more important policy issues out of the news cycle.
But what will end this impasse? In a standing-room-only media conference in Parliament House's Blue Room yesterday, Gillard either answered each question, or picked apart each question, with laser-like precision. But is that enough?
Time and again, journalists – who, to be fair, are doing exactly what they're paid to do – failed to gain traction on the major questions:
– Why did Gillard not tell the AWU leadership that she was setting up a fund bearing the union's name? Gillard's answer: because her boyfriend Bruce Wilson, and his colleague Ralph Blewitt were the union. She said: "Unions aren't big blancmange things that wander around talking for themselves in the same way that companies don't. Companies speak through company office bearers. Unions speak through elected officials. The people I was dealing with, Mr Blewitt and Mr Wilson, were both office holders of the AWU."
– Did her boyfriend deposit $5000 into her own bank account? Gillard's answer: if it did happen, that's not uncommon between partners; she doesn't recall if it did happen; and after asking CBA to dig back into its archives and find proof of the payment, Gillard has been told the bank doesn't hold records that long (in this case 17 years). She told journalists: "I just ask you for one moment to assume that that is true, that $5,000 was put in my bank account by a person I was then in a relationship with, who the witness involved said had had a big night out at the casino. Can you piece together for me the personal wrongdoing involved in that? I doubt you can."
– When Gillard found out her boyfriend was involved in a range of nefarious dealings, and subsequently broke up with him, why didn't she go back to the AWU and tell them she had concerns about the fund she'd helped Wilson set up? Gillard's answer: because by the time she found out Wilson was shonky, at least two bodies had launched investigations into the union's dealings – the National Crime Authority and Victoria police. She said: "Mr Gude who first raised claims about me publicly in October 1995, advised the Victorian Parliament at that stage the National Crime Authority was involved in the investigation, that the matter had been referred to the Victoria Police and he personally was referring it to the employee relations commission in Victoria. So, AWU involved in its own investigations and other authorities getting involved as well. Once again, you can't report things you don't know and I didn't have before me any details or any evidence about transactions on the accounts of the association, any bank accounts, that had been established by the association."
It was a good, thorough, grilling by journalists who have raked over every detail supplied to them by interested parties, and who have dug up many facts of their own.
However, it is abundantly clear to this observer that those questions have been put, and re-put enough times to beg the question: what proof or evidence could Gillard now supply to put an end to this matter?
There is none. That is, the press gallery has asked for proof, when none could be provided even if Gillard wished to do so.
Public figures, in trial by media, face a reversed onus of truth that the average citizen does not have to deal with. There's really nothing wrong with that, up to a point, as we expect our elected leaders to be beyond reproach.
In court, one is assumed innocent until proven guilty. In a media conference, things work differently.
In this case, Gillard is being asked to prove that she didn't do certain things: didn't know the fund was shonky; didn't know the AWU leadership was kept in the dark; didn't receive the $5000 she's said to have received; didn't secretly realise when Wilson was exposed that she should tell the AWU to investigate the fund she'd set up.
So again, what would the evidence look like if she could provide it?
A diary entry from the weeks in which she advised Wilson saying "thought Bruce might have been up to no good, but he says he isn't – phew!"
Or a memo slid across the table to Wilson saying "could you and Blewitt please just confirm in writing that your bosses know what you're doing?"
Is there a cheque stub somewhere with Wilson's handwriting on it saying "$5000 to pay Julia back for all the bills she's been paying"?
Or perhaps, in the early days of electronic mail, she sent an email to a colleague saying "I was going to tell the AWU to check out Bruce's fund, but it looks like they're on to it already!"
Yes, that list is absurd. None of those things exist, so what exactly is Gillard being asked for in order to clear her name?
After 17 years, the most that can be asked for is confident answers that do not muddle the facts, and my reading of yesterday's rather heated media conference is that Gillard delivered just that. No stumbles. No 'umms' and 'ahhs'. Just a clinical explanation of why some questions made no sense, and an attempt to answer the ones that did.
Is Julia Gillard guilty of some crime, or lapse in professional conduct? Quite possibly. But is there any scrap of evidence that she could advance to settle the matter, or that her opponents could advance to prove fraudulent behaviour? In all of the claims and counter claims up to this point there is not.
That being the case, I have to agree with some commentators who've argued that answers to the questions no longer matter – only that the questions themselves being repeated ad nauseum through to the 2013 election.
That is a political strategy that, in the absence of any new information relating to this matter, could become as risky for the interrogators – lead by Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop, who continued with a string of questions in question time yesterday – as the interrogated.
And as Labor MPs keep pointing out, Rome is burning. There are pressing policy matters that need to be settled. Until such time as new allegations, or evidence come to light, that should be the end of it.