Thursday, August 28, 2003

“I can’t believe it’s not a bollicking”

At the risk of permanently losing my latte-sipping leftist credentials, I find myself about to come out in limited, half-hearted support of a staunch right-wing death beast: Tony Abbott, federal minister for workplace relations.

And not just because he has an eerie resemblance to my former landlord, the gentleman academic.

I watched the 7.30 Report interview last night about whether he had lied about setting up a “slush fund” to attack Pauline Hanson’s One Nation “party”. (I say “party” because “Pauline Hanson’s One Nation” was always a corporation controlled by three voting members, unwilling to open itself to democratic governance by its members (who were in fact mere financial supporters). It’s registration as a party was a fraud on the Electoral Act and Hanson received some $500,000 of public funds for campaign expenses as a result.)

I started off jeering at Abbott, and thinking he was being evasive and obfuscatory. Which he was. But eventually, I got rather sick of Kerry O’Brien’s interview – pleasant as it is to see a bully being bullied.

As Deborah Snow pointed out, there are two separate issues:

“The first is a pledge he made to a disillusioned former One Nation candidate, Terry Sharples, in July 1998 to defray legal costs in a case Sharples was bringing against One Nation.

The second is a trust that Abbott set up the next month to pursue One Nation through other legal channels.”

It has been said that Abbott lied to an ABC interviewer in 1998 when he answered “absolutely not” to the question “So there was never any question of any party funds or other funds from any other source being offered to Terry Sharples?”

Let’s unpack this. In all fairness, the point Abbott tried to get across last night was Sharples was never going to be paid to take on Hanson in the Courts. Abbott organised free legal counsel and said he would make sure – if Sharples lost – that any costs order made against him by a Court and payable to One Nation would not come out of Sharples’ own pocket.

Now whether giving someone a financial guarantee that there will be no cost to them, is at the end of the day, different from “offering” money is an open question. It is certainly not “paying” someone to launch a court case, but that was not the question he was asked to answer.

However, Sharples’ case was never brought. The fund in question (to quote The Age):

“was used to challenge the registration of One Nation in Queensland by preparing a proposed case to be brought by Pauline Hanson's former assistant, Barbara Hazelton. The case did not go ahead and Mr Abbott said the money remaining was returned to the donors.”

So, what we have is (a) a guy guaranteed that if he lost and had costs orders made against him that order would be paid; and (b) funds spent preparing a case that never proceeded. “Slush fund” for a witch-hunt? Hmmm.

Much as I say this through gritted teeth, and with a vein bulging so prominently upon my brow it threatens to burst the skin and inflict whiplash injuries on nearby innocents, Abbott deserves praise.

He backed people to do the right thing and expose a corrupt organisation that was perpetrating a fraud on the public purse and the public’s trust. He may have done it by shady means and for dubious motives, but he did not attempt to use public or party funds to do it. He also did it at a time when his Prime Minister refused to come out in the open and call a spade a dirty great mud-dripping shovel.

It’s a dubious, lop-sided kind of integrity at best – but at least this bullying blusterer of a politician was prepared to take action and not wring his hands in the face of a rising tide of simplistic, fear-driven politics.

As I have said in comments on others’ posts on this issue: (a) Hanson never wanted members with rights in the context of a properly run political party under electoral law - her "party" was a corporation run by three people that did not tolerate internal dissent; and (b) this false structure allowed her to misappropriate (ie steal) $500,000 of public money.

If this was a tax rort committed by a barrister, no-one would be crying over a jail sentence of say, 6 – 12 months. Stealing what the average worker earns in 10 years *is* a big deal. Nor would anyone say ignorance was an excuse.

3 years without parole? Harsh, certainly.

Abbott, using political power and influence to hound a new party out of existence, or showing more determination than most in his party to stand up to a truly outrageous fraud? Much as I may dislike the man, I think the latter.

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