Monday, September 03, 2012

Julia Gillard’s beige-picket fence

In a nation supposedly obsessed with real estate, last week’s crescendo of media coverage over PM Julia Gillard’s links with corrupt union practises distinctly lacked in solid, irrefutable bricks and mortar.  Instead, what you might call the mere chattels were being lobbed thick and fast. 

It is no accident that the language of real estate – e.g. the property “ladder” – is largely interchangeable with career-speak.  Both presume an only upwards (or at worst, sideways) trajectory; no one ever seems to have the misfortune of riding the property (or career) “snake” all the way down – not within the discourses of the main game, anyway.

Careers and houses can also be broken down into the same three, sometimes conflicting components, of which getting the mix right is the best chance for success:  income earned (or rent saved, for owner-occupiers), capital accumulation, and work-life balance/property liveability (jobs with oppressive hours/conditions are akin to “renovator’s delights”).   There is also arguably a fourth component, which I’ll label “cosmetic improvements” (“if any”, as the usual real estate disclaimer continues, while leaving out, of course, the “cosmetic” prefix).  In the career sphere, CVs are notorious for “cosmetic improvements”; i.e. such “improvements” are presumed to be a negative force, needing to be stamped out.  In real estate however, cosmetic improvements are eminently fair play in general, and a well-trodden path to enhancing capital gain in particular.

Quite enough has been said about Julia Gillard’s chattels (including apparently corrupt ex-partners), whether cosmetically or otherwise.  What I now propose is to focus on Julia Gillard’s improvements; including, more specifically, whether they are cosmetic or structural.  I mean this in the literal, real estate sense:  I’ll leave to my readers to extrapolate whether the PM’s early career can now be regarded as cosmetically-, as opposed to structurally/legitimately enhanced. 

Before we can get to the actual bricks and mortar however, we need to canvass the prerequisite loan application form.  As we are talking about pre-low doc/sub-prime loan times, career/income is an essential box-to-be-filled on this form.  We know that from October 1987*, Julia Gillard was a solicitor, and then from sometime in 1990, a partner at Melbourne law firm Slater and Gordon.  In or in the months after September 1995, she left Slater and Gordon (the date and circumstances of this appear to be in dispute).  In the March 1996 federal election, she ran unsuccessfully as a Labor Senate Candidate (if Julia Gillard was still in the employ of Slater and Gordon up to this time, she appears to have been “on leave” during the campaign).  Sometime during 1996 (but after March), she became Chief-of-Staff to the then Opposition Leader of the State of Victoria, John Brumby (same URL), and then from 1998 began, after being elected MP to the federal seat of Lalor, her current career trajectory (ibid).  All up, it’s an impressive career ladder with no “snake” in sight, although there is perhaps a rung, or two, of detail missing from 1995-96.

In any event, the known real estate adventures of Julia Gillard are more or less limited to the years 1991 to (September) 1995, years during which her career/income, as a partner of Slater and Gordon can be presumed to have been stable or upward.  Hence let the bricks and mortar analysis begin.   

In May 1991*, Julia Gillard purchased 36 St Phillips St, Abbotsford (an inner suburb of Melbourne).   Settlement was in July 1991*.  While the purchase price is not known (Sydneysiders – where the daily broadsheet rattles off seemingly any given house’s historical purchase prices like they were today’s train times – no doubt find this weird), we do know that a deposit of $40,000* was paid.  I am presuming that this was a deposit of at least 20%, i.e. that the purchase price was $200,000 or less.  If I am incorrect here, PM Gillard appears to have significantly overpaid for what was, AFAICT, her first non-rented home.  My point of reference here is my recollections of Melbourne’s property market at that time (it was in deep recession, down significantly from its 1989 peak), and also the fact that an objectively superior inner-Melbourne property also connected with Julia Gillard– 85 Kerr St, Fitzroy – was purchased two years later in 1993 for $230,000.  [Update 24 November 2012: some documents refer to the property as “1/85 Kerr St”, and the Age has called it a “flat”.  From the street, however, it appears to be a single-occupancy terrace]
Even at $200,000, the most likely figure Julia Gillard paid for 36 St Phillips St in 1991, I would surmise that the 1991 vendor/s would have been ecstatic.  Abbotsford was not one of the more desired inner-suburbs at that time, and narrow, low-lying St Phillips St clearly was (and is) not one of Abbotsford’s better streets.  Whether, as well as (allowing me some exaggeration here) possibly buying in the worst street in the worst inner-suburb (at least at the time), PM Gillard additionally purchased the worst double-fronted** house in this street can only be conjectured, but we do know that number 36 needed, or at least received, significant renovations during PM Gillard’s first four years of occupancy/ownership there.  So let us now turn to these improvements, and see whether PM Gillard’s apparent disregard for real estate’s “Position, position, position” maxim, in buying 36 St Phillips St, was fiscally overcome – or compounded – by what she did and spent next.    

As I said near the outset, even the most flagrantly cosmetic improvements in real estate are usually fiscally- (and seemingly also for most people, although not in my case, ethically-) sound.  In the present case of Julia Gillard and 36 St Phillips St, we do not know her sale price (I’m assuming here that she sold this property when she purchased her present residence in Altona), but we do know the cost, and most other details, of the renovations she undertook there between late 1992 and 1995.  Hence, whether these renovations were capital-gains successful for PM Gillard is necessarily a moot point.  However, renovations, at least when not intended for short-term on-selling, also can be presumed to have a “liveability” factor gain (as set-off against an “income” loss).   Julia Gillard’s renovations at 36 St Phillips St – given that her apparent intention was to continue residence at that address – are notable for being a seeming exception to this presumption.  The available evidence suggests that these renovations were so botched as to cause the very property “ladder”, in the PM’s case, not just a missing rung, but to verily slither away.

Media coverage of Julia Gillard’s botched renovations has either replayed them as comedy or racism – the latter (if not also the former) because the ethnicity (Greek) of two of the seven (at least) tradesmen PM Gillard had working for her was portrayed by her, in her 1995 interview, both stereotypically and negatively.  I’ve extracted the renovations parts of the 1995 interview transcript below (square brackets are my annotations).  For me, contra to the hapless-Julia comedy angle, and a necessary factor to be considered in the “racism” question, the key issue is: whether, with her renovations, Julia Gillard was the architect of her own misfortunes?  As she expressly – but oddly stumblingly (“No, I, I, I suppose . . .”)* –  acknowledged in 1995, PM Gillard at no time had a builder in charge of the overall renovations, never mind an architect.

The only logical answer to my “architect” question therefore seems to be “yes”.  Again, I’ll leave it my readers to ponder the present-day implications here.  I will allow one caveat in my answer, however: the timing and necessity of the 1970’s décor (but apparently otherwise functional) bathroom, specifically, was dictated to Julia Gillard by her then partner Bruce Wilson:

Bruce whilst I was away [in Aug-Sep 1994] decided that I should just get it done so he commenced with a group of friends demolishing the bathroom.”*

Evidently, and perhaps not surprisingly, Julia Gillard and Bruce Wilson’s relationship broke up soon after this “Surprise!” bathroom demolition (the 1995 interview does not give a more exact date, but clearly the relationship was over sometime before the date of the interview).

Finally, back to the cosmetic vs structural renovation issue.  Although I’m no builder/engineer/architect, it seems to me that Julia Gillard has pioneered a new hybrid between cosmetic and structural renovation (“cosmuctural”, perhaps?).  A cursory look at the lie of St Phillips St reveals the unusually deep east-west open drain, masquerading in the Melway, at least, as a pedestrian path.  This suggests, to me, an area with poor natural drainage, and so a susceptibility to damp from the foundations up.  And PM Gillard indeed encountered damp foundations at no. 36*.  What is more surprising is her apparent understanding of the reasons for this dampness: 
“[It] was because the way in which the glasswork and the paving were done at that time was causing water to go into the foundations.”*      
Paving’s permutations could certainly exacerbate run-off into the foundations, but I am genuinely at a loss to understand how window (I am assuming) glazing, however configured, could do so also.  Perhaps PM Gillard meant the window frames and seals, as opposed to the glass itself.  Either way, I can’t help but think that Julia Gillard has gone for a “solution” here that is both expensive and slapdash, and not particularly pretty to boot.  An external inspection (front street and rear lane) of 36 St Phillips St the other day reinforces the latter point. The front façade looks serviceable and correctly heritage; certainly there is no hint of the two front sliding aluminium windows that were mistakenly installed in 1994, and then promptly de-Greeked (i.e. replaced with heritage-orthodox wooden sash windows) at PM Gillard’s demand*. 

This is a shame, in some ways, as these two front-facade aluminium windows would quite possibly have possibly have been the last of their kind to be installed anywhere in Melbourne’s inner-suburbia, given that the “heritage” bandwagon was already well and truly rolling in 1994 – albeit not yet in Abbotsford, it appears***.  More than as a mere token relic of the thousands of Melbourne inner-suburban terraces given Mediterranean façade makeovers between the 1950s and early 1990s, however, PM Gillard’s retaining, post-1994, of the front-facade aluminium windows would have given 36 St Phillips St an architectural unity.  You see, beyond the beige front façade and beige picket-fence, no. 36 appears to be structurally unaltered since the 1970s – its sides and back are peeling, ramshackle even.
* All references here are to “Slater and Gordon transcript of a meeting between Peter Gordon, Geoff Shaw and Julia Gillard on September 11, 1995”, published as “What Julia told her firm Australian 22 August 2012; URL paywalled, but edited extract below

** The housing stock of St Phillips St is approximately evenly split between single- and double-fronted

*** No one has been accused, to date, of breaking heritage rules in 1994.  There is an official heritage report on 36 St Phillips St available via Google search, complete with a photo of a ramshackle-looking (but judging by the car in the photo, last ten years or so) façade and front fence.


Slater and Gordon transcript of a meeting between Peter Gordon [PG], Geoff Shaw and Julia Gillard [JG], at the time respectively senior partner, general manager and partner at the firm, on September 11, 1995.

[Extracted from an edited, apparently leaked, transcript published as “What Julia told her firmAustralian 22 August 2012; URL paywalled]


JG: Yep. I've, I moved there [to 36 St Phillips St] in July 1991. When I first moved there I shared it with two other people. It's a two-bedroom place, I shared it with a couple. And when I first purchased it, interest rates were quite high and my salary was lower than it is now, and I didn't really do anything of substance to the property for 12, 18 months, something like that [i.e. JG started renovating sometime between mid-1992 and early 1993]. I then started to get various bits of work done, go relatively slowly and as I could afford to get them done bit by bit. I remember commenting to Geoff [Shaw] at one point that I renovated so slowly other people would call it maintenance because not much was happening.

Then substantial renovations got done on the property last year [1994], which included the kitchen being entirely redone and the bathroom and laundry being entirely redone and internal plastering and painting being done, and yes, so I got all that work done in September, October, Novemberish last year.

PG: OK. Did you contract all of those works to the one subcontractor or builder or did you manage them yourself?

JG: No, I, I, I suppose I should do it piece by piece. I originally got glasswork and [external?] paving work done; that was because the way in which the glasswork and the paving were done at that time was causing water to go into the foundations. I contracted with a glassworker/ woodworker person called Athol James, who I found in the local newspaper, and contracted with a paving place that I got from the local newspaper after getting, I got three quotes and then picked the lowest one of them, so that got done first.
I then, I then got the floors done and I got Athol back to do that, so the front of the house, the old part was the original baltic pine floorboards. The back part was chipboard and I wanted to get the floorboards matched with old baltic pine so I could get it all sanded down and polished. I'm sure this detail is really exciting you. And Athol came and did that, got old pine and matched it all up and you know all of that sort of stuff, which was a substantial job. And then I got some bloke in I think that he recommended to do the sanding, so that was what happened next.

Then what happened after that was I got the kitchen done, I purchased Ikea cupboards and stuff, purchased the actual appliances from a Radio Rentals place in Clifton Hill, and purchased a granite bench top from a local place near me called the Marble Centre, that's also in Abbotsford, and then I had installers who were recommended by Ikea put it all in. His name was Taugney the Swedish Builder, and he took a substantial amount of time to do all of that though I was the envy of Leonie, I recall at that stage, for having a Swedish builder.

That left me with the kitchen functional but the, the kitchen had like cork in it, all of that had basically been ripped to shreds when they had taken the old cupboards out and put the new cupboards in so it needed tiling, it needed tiling on the splashbacks, you know around the sink and around the stove, it needed plastering work, kitchen ceiling, that sort of thing, and I had had a long-held plan to fix the bathroom and laundry. Both were a sort of 70s renovation which amongst other things was red and yellow in colour and I therefore wanted to get it replaced.

I went away to, for a holiday, in late August early September last year [1994] and I had been talking for a long time about getting this bathroom and laundry work done.

And, Bruce whilst I was away decided that I should just get it done so he commenced with a group of friends demolishing the bathroom.

By the time I came back the bathroom had been demolished so I had no option but to get the rest of the renovations done and a series of tradespeople who Jim Collins predominantly organised, Jim Collins being an organiser at the AWU, who he recommended through his local football club, a series of tradespeople came in and did the renovation which predominantly consisted of the bathroom, completing the kitchen, tiling on the kitchen floor, plastering work, replacement of ceilings and the like.

PG: To the extent that in respect of the bathroom it was required to purchase product tiles or grout or whatever, how was that paid?

JG: I went and picked tiles both for the bathroom and the kitchen from various tile shops and paid for them.

PG: Right.

JG: When they were delivered.

PG: Yep. In terms of the tradesmen who did the work in those areas, who were they?

JG: I don't, I don't recall their names. I have some of their receipts at home. There was a tiler, an electrician, a plasterer who had with him a general roustabout person and a plumber and they all knew each other and had worked together before, but it wasn't like one of them was the builder who was organising everybody else. So they came in and did it and I paid each of them. I've had occasion over the course of the weekend to look through my personal records in relation to this matter and I do have a series of receipts from various of them about bits of the work that was done.

PG: Right, and I take it the inquiry over the weekend may have extended to this work as well, the Athol James work, the glasswork, the paving, the floors and the sanding.

JG: Yes, I've got, I recall, I recall particularly dealing with Athol because he came back more than once and sort of lived at my place for a substantial period of time whilst he did the floors, I don't specifically recall whether I've got a receipt from him, I think I do. I've certainly got his number and stuff in my address book from having used him.

PG: OK. Julia, it would be helpful to us if we could have copies of those.

JG: Yes.

PG: Do you have a problem with supplying them to us?

JG: No, no problem at all.

PG: Good. So that, is it fair to say as a general summary of that work that all of the work was paid for by you?

JG: I believe all of the work was paid for by me. I was getting receipts, I was paying it. I at that stage borrowed an additional $20,000 from the bank to pay for the renovations. I had occasion to ask Geoff if I could be pre-paid, which he did. I don't recall the amount. But that was recouped out of my pay for the first six months of this year. And, between that pre-payment and the borrowing of the $20,000 from the bank, I paid for that work.

PG: Right.

JG: I should say that, when I say the 20,000 from the bank: that was the bathroom, the work that was organised subsequent to the demolition of the bathroom. Athol James, the tiler, sorry Athol James, the paver, Taugney the Swedish builder I had paid over time as work was done.


This year [ie. 1995] I had additional work done on my place to try and do something about the outside, the outside is still not painted the right colour, and needed, needed further work done on it. Bill the Greek recommended to me a friend of his called Con, the last name I believe to (be) Spiri, Spiridis or Spiritis or a word to that effect. Con organised for me, or Con came and did the following things.

There are, there were two of the original Victorian windows on either side of the house that were not functional and the wood was rotting. I wanted them replaced by new windows. Contrary to the directions I gave him about that he replaced them with aluminium sliding windows which I was particularly unhappy about. The veranda was slate and it was coming up and the posts which held up the veranda in part were rotting so I contracted with him to replace the posts and to tile the veranda. He did tile the verandah after a fashion, but the job is uncompleted. He did put in posts but he put in, ah, what's the word, decorative posts chiselled out with patterns, rather than plain posts. Given it's a Victorian weatherboard house I was pretty unhappy about that as well. And he mortared the fence and put pickets in it which was required to complete the fence.

When I came home and saw the posts and the windows which got done in, done in one day I raised it immediately with Bill the Greek in fairly vociferous tones and said this has just totally buggered up this job. This is just hideous, you know, you need to talk to Con about it. Bill had been the link to Con. Bill said he would speak to Con about it. Con came back subsequently and did the fence and I raised it with Con. Con said he would get, he knew he had made an error with the windows. He would get the windows replaced with wood windows. He didn't think the posts were his fault because that was the sort of posts that were described to him so there was an ongoing debate about whose fault it was that the posts were the wrong posts. He basically half finished, did most of the fence though bits of it are uncompleted and then he didn't return. I periodically raised with Bill what on earth is happening with Con and these windows and these posts and the tiling's uncompleted and the fence is uncompleted. Bill would say I'll fix it, I'll fix it but it never got fixed.

Life got a little bit more crazy than it had been and I ceased to sort of pay much regard to it or think about it but there was this uncompleted work at the property or to the extent it was completed large bits of it were done wrong. I don't know what transactions Con and Bill have had about the account for that work, but I believe what has happened is Con has gone to the AWU looking for Bill or looking for payment for the account.


PG: OK. Is there anything else that you think we need to know about?

JG: No, I think that's it, I can't think of anything else.

PG: OK. Thanks. The interview was continued because we needed to talk about . . .

JG: Sorry, I'm getting confused, the, Geoff when we were not on tape asked me a series of questions about things that I have had done to the house that I don't recall getting invoiced for. It occurred to me that one of those things is, and Geoff has actually seen this with his own eyes. Bill the Greek, whilst I was at work one day, built for me a low level brick fence. I didn't ask him to do that. The result was truly hideous and I think Geoff saw it when he dropped me off one night and everybody else who's passed my house has commented on it. In order to try and make it look less hideous, part of the work that Con was to do was to mortar it and put pickets on it that goes like that to try and stop it looking quite as Greek, dare one say.

I didn't, I've never, I didn't pay for the bricks, I didn't pay for the bricks. I've never had an account in relation to the fence. Now, I don't, I don't know what that means about where Bill got the bricks from, and I don't know whether that means anybody worked with him on the fence, that I haven't paid. He, you know, he pleased as punch sort of said he had built it for me. That he had built it for me. Whether that means he himself did it, given Bill's obvious difficulties with the truth I no longer know.

PG: What are Bill's obvious difficulties with the truth?

JG: He's just a big Greek bullshit artist.

[snipped to end]

Front facade of 36 St Phillips St, Abbotsford

East facade (view over back fence) of 36 St Phillips St, Abbotsford

South facade of 36 St Phillips St, Abbotsford

Update 23 November 2012

The plot thickens, as (mostly) minor document after minor document is drip-fed onto the broadsheets’ front pages.  If Little Red Riding Hood (22/11 corrected from "Goldilocks") had been a lawyer (or ex-lawyer), she would have had no trouble with her trail of breadcrumbs disappearing when they were most needed.  A lawyer’s every billing moment leaves at least a footprint in the forest.  But in Julia Gillard’s case, piecing together these footprints into a coherent trail remains a work in progress.

In the mean time, the two most major recent developments* have received scant follow-up.  The first is that the money defrauded by Wilson and Blewitt largely came from big-end-of-town corporate pockets – i.e. “donations” presumably used to buy industrial peace.  The second is that “big Greek bullshit artist” Bill Telikostoglou was not just an over-promising tradie working on Ms Gillard’s home reno, but a senior AWU figure, at least one senior enough to receive a “large” redundancy cheque of $16,218, in August 1995, apparently to smooth Telikostoglou’s exit from his (oddly unspecified) AWU role.  Admittedly, in dollar terms here, we are not talking sheep stations – just cosmetic, structurally-pointless cheque-writing for dumps in the back streets of Abbotsford (and yes, that’s a metaphor as well).

Julia Gillard’s position at the moment reminds me of a certain ex-US president.  “No, I did not have legal relations with that conveyancing file” is her current line.  If she is further grilled about these matters today, I suggest her next holding-the-line defensive mantra could be “Yes, the paralegal passed me the file, but I didn’t inhale”.

* These two developments are covered in Hedley Thomas, “Rushed cheques and a quiet exit: how the AWU 'covered up' fraud”, Australian, 16 November 2012

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