These Empty Scandals Are The Real Scandal



"No, YOU resign!"

"No, I won’t."

"Well I won’t either."

And that, pretty much, is all the OzCar, or "Utegate", affair is about.

Although it features dramatic Senate Estimates testimony, a forged email, reciprocal calls for resignation and some extraordinarily vicious and emotional parliamentary debate, not to mention a protagonist with a name out of a Dickens novel giving a performance out of an Artaud play, the OzCar debate is not about anything as real as actual policy. It’s not even about integrity. It’s about tactics. In other words, it’s not really about anything substantial at all.

But tactics and the cut-and-thrust of parliamentary attack and counter-attack seems to be what most politicians and political journalists care about in this country. For the media, it’s politics as a football game, complete with armchair coaches and half-time analysis. For both Labor and the Opposition, it seems, this affair is evidence that politics is really about manipulating the political process, rather than about the policies you propose to implement. The result is that in a week when emissions trading legislation is to be finally voted on in the Senate, Australia’s legislature and a large part of its senior public service have been consumed by a circus.

Let’s go over the facts. When the global financial crisis hit the international automotive industry hard last year, car dealers found they were suddenly unable to secure finance for their show-room vehicles. In parallel with his other — surprisingly successful — efforts to keep the Australian economy from collapsing, Treasurer Wayne Swan investigated policies to prop up Australian car dealerships with Government finance guarantees. The Government decided to investigate setting up a $2 billion fund for this purpose, a so-called "special purpose vehicle" which would be run out of the Treasury department for the purposes of guaranteeing finance to motor dealers.

Ipswich car dealer John Grant heard about the scheme. A friend of the Prime Minister and the donor of one clapped-out Mazda ute to his local election campaign, Grant approached his local MP, Bernie Ripoll, who referred the matter on to the Treasurer’s office. Grant’s case was then raised by members of Wayne Swan’s staff with Treasury public servants — including the now famous Godwin Grech — who were putting together the OzCar program. Grant’s name was apparently specifically mentioned by Grech in a meeting between Treasury officials and Ford Credit.

No money was ever dispensed. In fact, OzCar has not even been voted for by Parliament. But the Opposition thought it smelled a rat. Apparently, Malcolm Turnbull was aware of the existence of an email from the Prime Minister’s Office, which would implicate the Prime Minister in pressuring Treasury to arrange finance for John Grant. Liberal Senator Eric Abetz determined to question Treasury about the matter in Senate Estimates hearings.

Last Friday, the unfortunate Godwin Grech was called to appear before Estimates, where he gave his now infamous testimony, complete with stuttering answers and riveting existential anguish. Grech claimed that he was under the impression that Grant was an important person, not just your average constituent, and that this matter was of significant interest to the Treasurer. Grech also said he might be wrong, but that it was "recollection" that he had seen an email — somewhere, somehow — from "the PMO" about the matter in question.

In the wake of Grech’s testimony, which looked very bad indeed on Friday night television, Turnbull called for Wayne Swan and then Kevin Rudd to resign. Whether it was wise to do so, it certainly pushed the scandal into overdrive. By Saturday, the BBC and major news outlets globally were reporting the resignation call as major news. The story of course dominated the Australian news media over the weekend.

So began the hunt for the "missing email", first leaked to Steve Lewis from The Daily Telegraph. Turnbull arguably alluded to it in his strange conversation with Andrew Charlton at the Mid-Winter Ball. The Prime Minister and Treasurer sent staff scurrying back to their email servers to scour their records for it. Nothing turned up. The Australian National Auditor and the Federal Police were called in.

And then it all unravelled. The Australian Federal Police raided Godwin Grech’s house yesterday, and quickly determined that an email on his personal computer was indeed the email in question — and that it was forged. The email was a fake, just as Kevin Rudd said it was.

Suddenly, Malcolm Turnbull’s own position looked grave. The Opposition Leader had pressed his attack too far. Now everyone realised he had done so with falsified evidence. Last night, he was forced to admit he had never seen the fake email. This morning, he was forced to admit Rudd had no case to answer.

The scale of the Opposition’s overreach is staggering. On the basis of little more than a report of an email and one bad afternoon in Senate Estimates, Turnbull and his front-bench had called for the Prime Minster and the Treasurer to resign. The Government responded by calling for Turnbull to resign. Needless to say, that won’t happen either.

It’s worth discussing the Westminster convention of resignation briefly. In British politics, and in ours supposedly also, ministers who mislead Parliament are supposed to resign from their appointments. Of course, this rarely happens. In fact, it hasn’t occurred in Australian Federal Parliament in the last generation. Whether or not they actually lied, Peter Reith and Alexander Downer certainly "misled" Parliament over the children overboard and AWB scandals when they were the ministers for Defence and Foreign Affairs respectively. Both relied on weasel words and bureaucratic denial to tough it out. Neither resigned.

Wayne Swan’s misdemeanor, if he even did commit one, is far more minor. His contention that John Grant didn’t receive any "special treatment" is essentially true: Grant received no more attention than countless other party donors, big business lobby groups and special pleaders of all stripes receive every day in every government department in the land. At a time when billions are being given to foreign-owned car corporations, and billions more are promised to polluting fossil fuel companies, John Grant got his request followed up with a few emails. He hasn’t received a cent.

That doesn’t mean this scandal hasn’t hurt the Government, and particularly Swan. It has. But it has hurt Turnbull and his credibility far more. This kind of scandal blackens the name of all politicians. But it makes Turnbull in particular look grubby and cheap. It’s the sort of thing that reinforces the view of many voters that politics is a game played by shouting men over trivial matters. In sum, it’s bad for democracy.

The media is equally culpable. Although there are outstanding exceptions like the Australian Financial Review‘s Laura Tingle, as a group the Canberra press gallery seems unwilling — perhaps unable — to engage with policy particulars. This makes them all the more susceptible to reporting politics as a horse race or sporting event. The glee with which political journalists pounce an any "scandal" and attach the suffix "-gate" to it is a perfect example. Journalists for the Murdoch newspapers are merely the most visible enthusiasts for the trend; the flaw is collective and widespread.

For Turnbull and the Liberals, this is a disaster. If he had simply expressed concern and argued for a thorough investigation, Turnbull would be insulated from the blow-back he is now experiencing. It’s all the more puzzling given that the Coalition was starting to gain traction with its relentless attack on Government spending and debt, and had scared Labor enough to provoke personal attacks against Turnbull’s previous career as a lawyer and merchant banker. It’s tempting to conclude that Anthony Albanese is right when he argues that Turnbull has opted for the "low road".

What would principled conservatism in this country look like? It might start by acknowledging (as Turnbull has but his broader party has not) the scientific reality of climate change. Then the Liberals could work to shape a policy response framed by the principles of small government, economic freedom and personal liberty that they hold dear. For instance, the Opposition could be working to develop an emissions trading scheme far more transparent and less distorting than the one Labor has given us. A principled conservative opposition might also develop a suite of alternative policies to achieve Liberal goals, and a realistic alternative budget that could pay for them.

Unlike a nasty smear campaign, all this requires hard work. Until the Coalition is ready for this hard work, it will struggle to regain government.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.