Two decades before Nicola Gobbo, or Lawyer X, came to national prominence as a Melbourne barrister-turned-super snitch on her gangland clientele, she was involved in an infamous political hoax.
- Nicola Gobbo claimed the now Senate President Scott Ryan was a likely author of forged letters 23 years ago
- The ALP released the letters on the eve of the 1996 federal election but they were quickly revealed to be fakes
- Without direct evidence, Ms Gobbo told federal police Scott Ryan was likely behind the forgeries, but Mr Ryan was cleared
As a willing participant in what was a Labor “dirt” operation, Ms Gobbo, then a young ALP member and former student activist, accused now Senate President Scott Ryan of being the likely author of forged letters that ended up deeply wounding the Keating Labor Government ahead of the 1996 federal election.
It was a scurrilous claim to make against the 22-year-old Scott Ryan, then a University of Melbourne student.
Ms Gobbo had no direct evidence to back it up.
Indeed, she even acknowledged Scott Ryan had denied being responsible.
Nevertheless, she signed a statutory declaration to federal police pointing the finger at Mr Ryan; a statutory declaration used by the ALP national secretariat to throw mud at the Liberals and one that saw reporters — including this correspondent — tearing across Melbourne in the pre-election frenzy to track down Ms Gobbo, Mr Ryan and others.
Little did anyone know back then, but Ms Gobbo was already a police informant, registered the year before while still a University of Melbourne law student, two years after a 1993 raid on her Carlton home had found methamphetamines with a street value of $80,000.
She was arrested but trafficking charges against her were dropped and no conviction was recorded.
Instead, she received a good behaviour bond for drug use and possession.
Ms Gobbo’s later career representing a galaxy of underworld criminals, including Carl Williams and Tony Mokbel, adds a new complexion to an intensely peculiar political episode that embarrassed federal Labor and humiliated former federal treasurer Ralph Willis.
A political whodunnit
It all began shortly before 4:00pm on February 28, 1996, three days before the federal election, when Mr Willis called a press conference in Parliament House’s Blue Room.
The treasurer was flourishing a brown envelope that had arrived anonymously in his office.
Inside were two letters, one stamped “PROTECTED”, the other stamped “SECRET”, suggesting then opposition leader John Howard planned to slash federal payments to the states by 15 per cent should he become prime minister.
One of the letters purported to be from then Victorian premier Jeff Kennett to Mr Howard, urging the federal Liberal leader to dump his plan and instead make “significant reductions to those Commonwealth programs that you have publicly and privately opposed for the last ten years”.
Mr Willis, a normally cautious fellow, hadn’t checked the letters’ authenticity.
Instead he launched a full assault on Mr Howard and the Opposition, saying it was clear that “the federal Liberal Party is not just lying to Jeff Kennett about their secret agenda, they’re lying to the whole of Australia”.
Election eve hoax
If true, the sensational and explosive revelations could have shattered the Liberal Party’s election campaign.
The Liberals were ahead in the polls and Mr Howard was poised to end 11-and-a-half years of Labor rule.
But within 45 minutes of Mr Willis’ press conference, a furious Mr Howard addressed reporters alongside deputy Liberal leader Peter Costello to denounce Labor’s desperate use of what were revealed to be forged letters.
Mr Howard said he had just spoken to Mr Kennett who had told him the fake letters used an old letterhead, an outdated telephone number as well as a telex number rather than a fax number and what he called an “internet number”.
By 11:00pm, Mr Willis “unreservedly” withdrew his allegations against the Liberal Party and referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police (AFP).
It quickly spiralled into a political whodunnit.
The next morning, Mr Kennett went on Melbourne radio, saying the fraudster must be someone who worked in Mr Willis’ office.
The Premier said he had given the name of the person who he believed had committed the hoax to the AFP.
Mr Willis immediately rejected this claim, saying it was he who’d been the victim of an “extremely elaborate hoax, perpetrated by someone who was no friend of mine or the Labor Party”.
Enter Ms Gobbo, an ALP member and by now an articled law clerk.
On Friday, March 1, the day before the federal election, she made a statutory declaration to the AFP, saying it was her belief that the “originator of the documents in question” was very likely Scott Ryan who then worked part-time both as a researcher in Mr Kennett’s office and as an occasional staffer for Mr Costello.
She had reached this conclusion after talking to him the day before, encouraged to do so by an old National Union of Students mate based in Sydney who had called her saying he’d heard “rumours” about Mr Ryan’s involvement and wanted her help to stack it up.
She’d known Mr Ryan from her student politics days, dating back to 1992.
They had been avowed enemies at first when she and three others contested for the position as editor of the Melbourne University newspaper, Farrago.
It was a Labor versus Liberal student animosity.
But they developed a friendly relationship “based on our joint interest in working on campus against elements of the extreme Left”.
Ms Gobbo telephoned Mr Ryan at home.
She says she congratulated him, saying the letters “just had to be you”.
He replied; “Oh, come on”, according to her statutory declaration, but then went on to say what a great stunt it had been, what a devastating effect it had had on Labor’s campaign and that “Costello couldn’t be happier”.
He told her Mr Willis had been stupid to believe the letters were real because anyone could have forged them.
“I could forge it easily using a Mac 16-point Palantino font,” she recalled him saying, according to her statutory declaration.
But she said Mr Ryan denied being responsible for the letters.
Despite this denial, Ms Gobbo said she believed his comments “point strongly to his authorship of the letters”.
Her statutory declaration was nothing more than a hunch based on circumstantial evidence.
In the fevered pitch of election eve, the ALP national secretariat released a media release stating its hope that the statutory declaration would assist the police investigation to “put at rest once and for all the outrageous allegation made by Mr Kennett yesterday … that the author of the letters was in fact someone on the staff of the Treasurer”.
The door knocks
Back then, this correspondent was a reporter for the Melbourne newspaper, the Herald Sun.
I’d been assigned to track down Ms Gobbo and Mr Ryan.
The details of her statutory declaration had been quickly leaked — and not by the AFP.
I visited Ms Gobbo’s home, then a house in Rathdowne Street in Carlton.
If anyone was at home, no-one answered.
A call to her childhood home in the leafy eastern suburb of Kew wasn’t helpful either.
I went to Mr Ryan’s home in Essendon.
The address is still inscribed in my contact book.
Mr Ryan’s mother Anne, a delightfully cheerful woman, answered my impertinent knock.
I explained I was from the Herald Sun and wanted to talk to her son. She smiled warmly and said she’d go get him.
I waited for some minutes. I could hear the low hum of talk in the background.
When she returned to the door, her sunny disposition had disappeared.
“Thank you, but Scott won’t be speaking,” she said, before firmly shutting the door.
Mr Ryan has consistently denied having any involvement in the forgery and his former boss, Mr Costello, who questioned his staffer about it, said it was a “completely baseless allegation” trumped up by a desperate Labor Party.
The AFP quickly cleared Ryan too.
Exactly 23 years later, with his accuser’s identity now known, it is hard not to firmly conclude that Mr Ryan had been caught up in a cack-handed and amateur political smear.
Topics: law-crime-and-justice, police, judges-and-legal-profession, political-parties, alp, liberals, history, courts-and-trials, federal-elections, melbourne-3000, carlton-3053, essendon-3040, vic, canberra-2600, australia
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