Roxon Story All Smoke, No Fire


Only a few hours after I had finished praising Nicola Roxon yesterday, reports emerged from the ABC that in the mid-2000s she had solicited donations form the tobacco industry.

The story, by the ABC’s Hayden Cooper, reported that Roxon had written to tobacco industry executives in 2005 asking for $1,500 for a seat at a fundraising dinner. According to Cooper, "in 2005, in opposition, she wrote to three executives from Philip Morris, asking for them to support her re-election by attending a $1500 a table fundraiser. The new MP, Peter Garrett, was the star attraction."

The ABC led with the story on much of its TV and radio bulletins last night and today, complete with outraged criticisms from Coalition politicians. "Well this just blows the Minister’s credibility," claimed Liberal Health spokesman Peter Dutton, emerging from a long media slumber to make the obvious attacks. "People don’t like politicians who are hypocrites, and Nicola Roxon has been an absolute hypocrite when it comes to this matter." Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop was also crying peridious hypocrisy on Lateline last night.

But how big a story is this really?

The letter was sent six years ago. There was no cover up. Roxon immediately admitted the letter was sent, owned up to being embarassed by it, but also confirmed that no tobacco representatives attended and that no money was donated. That’s right: no money was donated.

Nor can there be any suggestion of undue influence on the Minister. Roxon is of course trying to implement some of the world’s toughest cigarette packaging laws.

Nor has the ABC bothered to reveal to its audience the source of the letter, which must strongly be suspected to be Philip Morris itself. One equally valid angle on the story is that big tobacco corporations are intimidating Australia’s elected health minister. That’s how international news bureau Reuters reported it: "Australia health minister accuses tobacco firms of smear".

But such is the antipathy for the Government in the Australian media right now that the "gotcha" moment was what counted for the ABC and the other outlets that reported this non-story. In effect, the national broadcaster has preferred the spin of large corporations with the most naked self-interest to the straight bat of a Minister trying to implement legislation that will save lives. It’s poor judgment by the ABC’s news editors and yet more confirmation of the difficulties that politicians face when trying to talk about policy rather than tactics or empty political spin.

We can discount anything the Liberal Party has to say on this issue — it continues to openly accept many tens of thousands of dollar of party political donations from the tobacco industry. While Roxon (or more likely someone in her electorate office) sent this letter in 2005, in terms of actual monies received, the Australian Labor Party has not accepted tobacco donations since 2004. 

In my article yesterday I praised Roxon for her tenacity. She’s showing some more of it today by sticking to her guns, in the face of insubstantial attacks from journalists and politicians with plenty of hypocrisy of their own.


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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.