How Abbott Funded The Fight Against One Nation

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This is the first of a series of edited extracts from Margo Kingston’s 2007 book, Still Not Happy, John. Why is New Matilda running this material now? To prompt a discussion: Shouldn’t Tony Abbott’s slush fund be subjected to the same media scrutiny Julia Gillard has received over the AWU scandal?

Imagine this.

You’re a fly on the ceiling at Bistro Moncur, Damien Pignolet’s splendid French bistro in the fashionable Sydney suburb of Woollahra. How fashionable? Paul Keating himself lives not far away. The clientele on any day at Moncur might be as famous as its Sirloin with Café de Paris butter, which melts in your mouth. You can’t book a table — patrons must wait in the Woollahra Hotel bar for a nod from the staff.

They reckon it’s first come, first served — no "queue jumpers" here. Although being a Sydney MP known to be close to the PM probably doesn’t hurt.

From your position on the ceiling you can see that the table below is occupied by four stalwarts of the neo-liberal scene, including a couple of associates of its most influential intellectual forum, Quadrant magazine, published from another fashionable Sydney suburb, Balmain. There’s former NSW Liberal leader and ex-federal MP Peter Coleman, a Woollahra resident, father-in-law of Treasurer Peter Costello.

There’s former Whitlam minister turned economic ultra-rightist John Wheeldon. The third bloke, who’s just selected another bottle of crisp chardonnay, is the Daily Telegraph’s fervently pro-Howard columnist Piers Akerman. The last man is the Member for Warringah and Parliamentary Secretary.

The reason for this lunch — the first of several — is to create a new private trust. Its purpose? To nail Pauline Hanson through the courts. One Nation is riding so high on its recent Queensland election successes that it now threatens John Howard’s chances at the upcoming federal poll, and these neo-liberal power-players have decided upon a dual strategy: let John woo her voters in public while they destroy her party in private.

There’s at least two One Nation dissidents up in Queensland willing to go after Hanson with civil actions.

Abbott’s already convinced Terry Sharples to seek an injunction stopping One Nation getting the cheque for $500,000 in public funds due after her Queensland success, to deprive her of resources for the coming federal campaign. He’s given Sharples two top Liberal lawyers who’ll do the work for free, and a guarantee he won’t be out of pocket — but it’s getting messy and Abbott’s already misled the public about what he’s up to, as we’ll see.

He now wants a more formal arrangement to fund the injunction application of another dissident, Barbara Hazelton.

Some top Liberals down in Melbourne — Jeff Kennett, and even Coleman’s son-in-law Peter Costello — have been calling for the party to take on Hanson the honest political way: preference her party last while arguing the case against her policies out on the voting stump. Jeff even went north to eyeball her in a shopping mall during the Queensland election campaign. But John Howard isn’t having any of that democratic nonsense. "Speaking freely and openly" in public about "certain subjects" with Hanson voters?

No one at this exclusive restaurant table today wants that.

Instead Howard has long been publicly empathising with Hanson’s voters on the strictly social issues — land rights, refugees, family breakdown, law and order. And especially on the way our nation’s cherished fair go is being destroyed by those damned elitists — the kind of moralising lefty hypocrites who chatter on endlessly about doing good for the battlers, while enjoying an excellent steak and a crisp chardonnay in some flash restaurant in some fashionable suburb.

The trust’s money-men — there are 12 wealthy donors lined up, for the law is an expensive business – know that what they’re about to fund is just business as usual from the three-headed Beast of Australian politics: Big Party, Big Money, Big Media.

The details will come together quickly, but there’s an early snag: nobody can think of what to call this new trust. We imagine Piers — who, despite later claiming to crave "greater transparency" in politics, will not write a word about these lunches for five years — suggesting another bottle while they think on it some more.

Tony Abbott brightens. He’s got it! Three heads turn his way and Tony grins his trademark grin. You’re gunna love this, fellahs: let’s call it Australians for Honest Politicians.

Their laughter hasn’t stopped when the waiter arrives with the Moet five minutes later.

It’s just a silly, made-up conspiracy theory, of course. Or is it?

Let’s have a look at what actually happened.

13 October 1997
Pauline Hanson applies to register in Queensland a political party she calls Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. A major benefit of registration is that election costs are recoverable from the public purse. To satisfy Queensland electoral law a party without a sitting MP in the state Parliament must have at least 500 members. She lodges more than 500 names and addresses and the constitution of a very unusually structured and centralised party.

4 December 1997
The Queensland Electoral Commission, having confirmed the membership in the standard manner, accepts registration of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. John Howard’s party raises no objections.

10 May 1998
On the Sunday program Peter Costello states that One Nation will be preferenced last in his Melbourne electorate at the next federal election.

12 May 1998
John Howard argues in the party room against placing One Nation behind the ALP on Liberal how-to-vote cards at the federal election. He says he would prefer to work with One Nation than the Democrats in the Senate. Tony Abbott agrees, advocating the Voltaire approach: "I disagree with what she says, but I’m happy to defend her right to say it."

13 June 1998
After the Coalition in Queensland gives its preferences to One Nation above Labor, Brisbane liberals desert the Liberal Party for Labor, and One Nation decimates the Nationals’ vote, gaining eleven seats. The ALP wins office in Queensland.

Mid-June 1998
Tony Abbott begins attacking the legality of One Nation’s registration in Queensland. He tells the House of Representatives on 2 July, "I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that … One Nation, as registered in Queensland, does not have 500 members, it is not a validly registered political party, and it cannot receive any public funding". He personally lobbies the Queensland electoral commissioner to investigate One Nation’s legality. He travels around the country encouraging One Nation dissidents to take legal action.

7 July 1998
Abbott meets One Nation dissident Terry Sharples in the Brisbane offices of establishment solicitors Minter Ellison to nut out the legal and financial support needed for Sharples to launch a Supreme Court injunction to stop One Nation getting $500,000 in public funding due after its strong vote in Queensland before the impending federal election. Abbott brings with him two top lawyers with Liberal Party connections — one is Queensland Liberal Party President Paul Everingham — who will run the action for free.

Sharples later claims that Abbott tells him that any Liberal Party connection should be kept secret, but that he will financially underwrite Sharples’ intended civil action testing the legality of One Nation.

11 July 1998
Abbott gives Sharples a signed and witnessed "personal guarantee that you will not be further out-of-pocket as a result of this action". Sharples issues his Supreme Court writ for an injunction. Abbott has obtained the financial backing of someone — who he still will not name — to stump up $10,000 to meet that guarantee.

31 July 1998
Tony Abbott and journalist Tony Jones have the following exchange in an interview for an ABC Four Corners broadcast on 10 August.

Jones: So there was never any question of party funds —
Abbott: Absolutely not.
Jones: Or other funds from any other source —
Abbott: Absolutely not.
Jones: — being offered to Terry Sharples?
Abbott: Absolutely not.

21 August 1998
In the witness box during what will be an unsuccessful action for an injunction, Terry Sharples is cross-examined on his funding relationship with Abbott. Asked whether Abbott ever talked to him about "providing an indemnity for this action or any action you may bring", he replies "No, he didn’t."

(Later, on 11 March 2000, in an interview with Sydney Morning Herald journalist Deborah Snow, Abbott will recount his reaction to Sharples after the August 1998 cross-examination: "Terry, this thing is out of control … you should just terminate this action and there’ll be a costs order against you and I’ll look after it.")

Soon after 21 August 1998
Abbott disassociates himself from Sharples’ civil action.

24 August 1998
Tony Abbott establishes the Australians for Honest Politics Trust. Its stated objective is "to support actions to challenge the activities of a political party or association within Australia which is alleged to conduct its affairs in breach of the laws of Australia". First cab off the rank is former secretary and estranged friend of Hanson, Barbara Hazelton, who duly issues a Supreme Court writ also seeking an injunction against payment of the $500,000 before the federal election.

29 August 1998
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Marian Wilkinson reports Abbott’s Australians for Honest Politics Trust under the headline ‘Lib MP Backs Trust to Attack Hanson’. Abbott denies any Liberal Party involvement in AHPT, and says he is acting "as a citizen and a democrat, because One Nation is a fraud on the taxpayers and must be exposed". Hanson’s senior adviser, former Liberal David Oldfield, who’d worked for Abbott before defecting to Hanson, claims that AHPT "is a clear example of big business money being used to stop Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. It is the filth of the Liberal Party at its worst, and Abbott’s involvement in such nefarious activity is appropriate and understandable."

3 October 1998
John Howard is returned to government with a reduced majority. One Nation polls 8.4 per cent of the national vote, but only has one senator elected. The result earns One Nation about $3 million in public reimbursement.

20 October 1998
Tony Abbott’s response to a request from the Australian Electoral Commission on 18 September 1998 to disclose the trust’s donors is to say that he is not required by law to do so.

10 June 1999
The AEC writes to Abbott accepting his assurances that the trust is not an "associated entity" with the Liberal Party and therefore need not disclose its donors.

18 August 1999
Justice Roslyn Atkinson of the Queensland Supreme Court finds for the plaintiff in the Sharples civil action. (Barbara Hazelton had dropped her action.) She rules that Electoral Commissioner Des O’Shea’s decision to register Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was "induced by fraud or misrepresentation" because the people on the membership list were "supporters", not "members". One Nation is ordered to repay the $500,000 of public funds. A police investigation commences.

Although victorious, Sharples is considerably "out of pocket as a result of this action". He pursues Abbott to honour his indemnity pledge.

Late 1999
Abbott’s lawyer writes to Sharples asking him to accept $10,000 to call it quits, maintaining this is not "an admission of liability".

24 September 1999
In Victoria Jeff Kennett’s government suffers a stunning 4.5 per cent statewide swing against it, rising to 10 to 15 per cent in rural and regional seats, and is ousted. The backlash is attributed to voter anger after seven years of neo-liberal economic reform. Labor, which had made it its business to promise better services to regional voters, and Independents poll strongly in rural and regional seats. One Nation wins only 0.3 per cent of the primary vote.

January 2001
After extensive fundraising drives, Pauline Hanson finishes reimbursing the $500,000 owed by One Nation to the Queensland Electoral Commission under Justice Atkinson’s judgement.

10 February 2001
One Nation polls 10 per cent of the primary vote in the WA state election, and up to 30 per cent in some rural seats. Its decision not to preference sitting members is crucial in the ousting of Premier Richard Court’s Coalition government.

17 February 2001
One Nation polls 9 per cent in the Queensland state election in which the ALP is returned with a record majority and the Coalition Opposition is further devastated. Twenty-three per cent of Queenslanders abandon the main parties, mostly fleeing the conservative side to vote for One Nation, the One-Nation-derived City Country Alliance or ex-One-Nation Independents.

27 May 2002
Pauline Hanson is committed to stand trial on one count of fraudulently registering a political party, and two counts of fraudulently obtaining public funds.

22 March 2003
Hanson is narrowly unsuccessful in her bid for an Upper House seat in the NSW election.

15 July 2003
Hanson’s trial commences before Judge Patsy Wolfe.

20 August 2003
After nine hours’ deliberation, a jury convicts Hanson on all charges. Judge Wolfe sentences her to three years’ imprisonment, noting that the publicity surrounding the case has severely damaged any chance of her resurrecting her political career.

22 August 2003
John Howard tells Neil Mitchell on Melbourne talkback radio: "Like many other Australians, on the face of it it does seem [to me]a very long unconditional sentence for what she is alleged to have done. And you’re dealing here with a breach of a law which is not based on something which is naturally a crime … Can I talk generally about the issue of registering political parties? … I’ve always had some reservations about whether the requirement that you register political parties is justified as necessary …’

28 August 2003
In an article for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph Tony Abbott writes, "I’m sorry that Pauline Hanson is in jail. I believe that the sentence she received was too severe. But I’m not sorry for trying to expose the fact that One Nation was never a fair dinkum party. It was a company with three directors, not a party with 500 members."

6 November 2003
The Queensland Supreme Court upholds Hanson’s appeal and orders her release. Chief Justice Paul de Jersey writes, "The preponderance of available evidence points to the conclusion that the applicants for membership became members of the political party."

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was a fair dinkum party in Queensland, after all.

7 November 2003
Outside prison Hanson agrees with a Channel Seven reporter who suggests that the inmates with whom she has just shared 11 weeks have "obviously touched you deeply":

"The whole thing has. I’ve learnt a lot from it. I was a person that had my opinion and, yes, I thought I knew everything — as a Member of Parliament to go and look through the prisons you know nothing, and these politicians and bureaucrats that make the legislation have no idea. And, yes, it’s been a very daunting, distressing time. I could never explain what it’s done to me, but in so many ways I’ve learnt so much from it …"

15 January 2004
Hanson announces that she is quitting politics:

"I’m sick and tired of seeing people elected to Parliament who haven’t got the determination or the integrity, and who sell their souls to get their positions. I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m just really angry for the system we have, because I’ve seen the breakdown in many aspects of Australian life — education, the family unit, health, Australian ownership, even the Australian way of life.’

The Beast — Big Party, Big Money, Big Media — has finished off Pauline Hanson’s political career. Tony Abbott is being called an underhand thug by some and a future prime minister by others. John Howard has already moved on.

This is the first of a series of edited extracts from Margo Kingston’s 2007 book, Still Not Happy, John (Penguin). Read the second extract here.

Read Margo Kingston on why Abbott’s Australians For Honest Politics Trust merits the same attention as Gillard’s involvement with the AWU here.

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