In Politics, Slush Happens
By Mike SeccombeNovember 29, 2012
Short of getting sued, there is probably nothing more mortifying for an Australian journalist, or at least one who takes his or her professional reputation seriously, than an unfavourable mention on the ABC Media Watch program.
I speak from experience. I’ve never been successfully sued, but I did once suffer a spray on Media Watch.
It was humiliating, notwithstanding the fact that it was a relatively light touch up. I was criticised not for getting anything wrong, but for restating facts which were correct. I, and the Sydney Morning Herald, for which I then worked, were bagged for allegedly recycling old news.
I still think the story was legitimate, in that it quoted from a primary source — one Tony Abbott — a series of admissions of facts which had previously been reported more obliquely. And frankly it gripes me personally because a certain other story which has been recycled and recycled and re-recycled for decades has been getting a lot of coverage lately. You know the one.
The story for which Media Watch criticised me ran on August 26, 2003. The headline was “Abbott Set up Slush Fund to Ruin Hanson”. In the interview which led to the story, Abbott, then the Minister for Workplace Relations in the Howard Government, confirmed the fund he set up, called (not at all ironically) Australians for Honest Politics, had raised about $100,000 from anonymous donors to pay for legal actions against Pauline Hanson and her party, One Nation.
Abbott further confirmed he had organised a separate "donor" to support a One Nation dissident, Terry Sharples, in seeking an injunction to block One Nation from receiving public electoral funds.
Mr Abbott said the money was promised to cover Mr Sharples if the case failed and costs were awarded against him. Abbott acknowledged he’d organised a team of lawyers who would represent Mr Sharples without charge, and then a second team after Mr Sharples sacked the first.
To quote further from that story: “Mr Abbott also acknowledged that he had at one time instructed his lawyers to offer Mr Sharples $10,000 of his own money if he would stop pursuing him for money to cover his huge court costs.
“He said his $10,000 offer to Mr Sharples was made in light of a disputed agreement between them that Mr Sharples would be covered by an open-ended indemnity for the costs of action against Hanson and One Nation.”
Abbott insisted the whole thing was done at his own initiative, and that neither John Howard nor anyone else in the government had been involved.
Said Abbott in our interview: “There was myself and two other trustees. We raised ... it may not have been $100,000 but it was certainly close to $100,000 and the job of Australians For Honest Politics was to fund court cases against One Nation.”
He said most of the money had been spent trying, unsuccessfully, to get another One Nation defector, Hanson's former private secretary Barbara Hazelton, to take legal action to stop the payment of $470,000 in public election funding, following the failure of similar action by Mr Sharples.
There was more to the story. You get the drift, though. And the irony, too, given that Abbott — who set up his slush fund 14 years ago — is now leading the call for the removal of Prime Minister Julia Gillard for her role in setting up a slush fund 20 years ago.
He finally had the guts to have a go himself on Thursday, the final sitting day of the year, instead of running the campaign through various surrogates, primarily his deputy, Julie Bishop. But he was no more effective than they have been over the past week.
But let’s get on with our comparison of the Abbott and Gillard slush funds.
There are, of course, differences: Gillard’s involvement was only as a lawyer who handled the legal work entailed in setting up the AWU fund. She did not control its accounts, she was not a trustee, she had no involvement, so far as anyone can show, in the disbursement of the funds and did not receive any benefit from them.
Abbott on the other hand, was a trustee and did determine how the money in his fund was spent. So his role was more analogous to that of Bruce Wilson and Ralph Blewitt.
That is not to say there was anything fraudulent in Abbott’s case. What it says is that when factional warfare breaks out in political organisations, legal skullduggery takes place.
Abbott’s actions 14 years ago were a manifestation of such internecine nastiness. Let us not forget that Pauline Hanson was a creation of the Liberal Party, which selected her as its candidate for the seat of Oxley in Queensland. Abbott himself was even more deeply involved; he employed the man who would later become Hanson’s Svengali, the egregious David Oldfield. (Just another of those interesting personal associations which mark Abbott’s career, like BA Santamaria, George Pell, Cory Bernardi, et al.)
Then of course the Liberal Party and Abbott got rid of Hanson and Oldfield, but adopted much of the substance of One Nation’s distasteful policies on race issues. Then they set up a slush fund to try to ruin Hanson.
To the extent Gillard is guilty of anything – at least on the evidence to date – she is guilty of playing politics in a similar, if less personally involved way.
There was internecine war in the AWU and she, a Labor-aligned lawyer, gave legal help to one faction.
Was it sneaky? Yes. Was she dealing with dodgy characters? Yes. Does the affair give us an insight into the unedifying world of hardball politics. Yes.
Does it disqualify Julia Gillard from being PM? No.
Or, if you think it does, you should also think, by extension, that Tony Abbott is unfit to replace her.
But let’s be realistic here. In politics, slush happens.
And in both the Abbott and Gillard cases it happened a long time ago.
Surely what matters is their respective plans for the future.
Which is why the only salient part of Thursday’s last Question Time for the political year — dominated yet again by the Opposition’s carping on about the AWU matter — was Gillard’s last answer.
That was the one in which she swatted away the allegations one last time, and set about recounting what this government had done in a practical sense, and what it was still working towards.
She ticked off the positives: raising the tax-free threshold, initiatives on dental care, mental health care, the national disability insurance scheme, implementing school funding reform, and carbon pricing, among others.
And then she shut Question Time down, before Abbott could say another thing. Not that he would have had anything to say — of a positive nature at least.