A Quiet Little Honest Politics Club

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This is the second of a series of edited extracts from Margo Kingston's 2007 book, Still Not Happy, John. Read the first extract here. Read Kingston on why New Matilda is running this material now here.

Pauline Hanson's jailing in 2003 for "electoral fraud" pinched a dangerous democratic nerve for our two Big Parties, and particularly for John Howard.

It triggered a re-examination of some recent political history that Howard hoped would stay buried, exposing his government's covert strong-arm tactics and the lame performance of our primary democratic watchdog, the Australian Electoral Commission, to greatly unwanted scrutiny.

It also gave us a chance to prise open the door on who really benefited from his regime — a door Howard desperately needed to stay closed to protect the myth that he governed "for all of us". The nerve pinched was the fair go: Australian society's traditional defining, non-partisan value.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the process that led to Hanson's conviction, an overwhelming number of Australians — including many who hated her policies and surprised themselves with their response — felt her jailing symbolised something rotten in our democracy. The little person who'd had a go without big money or big corporate or big union connections was in jail. The politicians with the dough, education, experience and clout had got away with blue murder.

Hanson was jailed — after an exhaustive, expensive pursuit — over a registration technicality: a ruling that paid-up members of her Pauline Hanson Support Group were not members of her political party. It was a differentiation that would have been easily avoided with good legal advice.

And as Bob Bottom wrote in the Bulletin on 12 November 2003:

"Even a cursory examination of other political parties … discloses different classes of members, who are all deemed to be part of the party. For example, the Liberal Party (Qld) specifies three classes of member: members, party supporters and corporate members."

The Big Party politicians were rabbits in the spotlight. Australians laughed, bitterly. Whatever one thought of Hanson's policies, her rise was a response to disillusionment with the electoral process, not the cause of it.

The Big Party politicians who had started the ball rolling bolted for electoral cover as Hanson went down for three. Howard immediately opposed the length of her sentence, and suddenly declared that he did not even agree with the law under which his protégé, Tony Abbott, had relentlessly pursued her in 1998. Abbott was "surprised" by the conviction and "shocked" by the sentence. Howard refused to answer all questions on whether he had approved Abbott's campaign in the courts.

Abbott said, "I don't know whether I specially discussed it with the PM, and when I might have done it."

The cartoonists told the story: Leahy in Brisbane's Courier-Mail drew Howard as a crying crocodile, begging Abbott, standing atop Hanson with money bags in his hands, to "Remember Tony, nobody told me anything, OK?"

The Libs' Bronwyn Bishop called Hanson a political prisoner and blamed Queensland Premier Peter Beattie. Labor's Craig Emerson blamed Abbott. NSW Premier Bob Carr thought the sentence was "excessive", while Australian Conservation Foundation Chairman Peter Garrett said he thought "Mr Abbott has actually done us a favour". Conservatives and progressives alike groped for the "right" response, while in Brisbane Beattie was unimpressed with everyone: "I have never seen so many gutless wimps in my life, running around like scalded cats trying to position themselves for political gain."

Some commentators called anyone who saw Abbott as less than a saint a hysterical conspiracist. Polls gauging public response to his behaviour suggested that if that were so, 70 per cent of Australians were loonies.

Although Tony Abbott's Australians for Honest Politics Trust had been briefly publicised back in 1998 in the broadsheet newspapers, very few Australians knew about it.

But dramatic shots of Hanson disappearing behind bars made people sit up, scratch their heads and say "Hang on a minute". They began asking questions and demanding answers.

Many more Australians now learnt what only Sydney Morning Herald readers who'd read a Deborah Snow profile in 2000 had known: that soon after writing his indemnity guarantee for Terry Sharples in the lead-up to the 1998 election, Abbott had lied to Tony Jones about it on Four Corners, and lied about it again to the Herald 18 months later — until Snow produced the document with Abbott's signature that exposed his dishonesty:

"When the Herald first put to him Sharples' claim that he'd promised money at the outset to be paid into a solicitor's trust account, Abbott said: ‘No, it's not correct.' But when shown his signed personal guarantee, Abbott recants: 'I had secured the agreement of a donor to provide up to $10,000, if necessary, to cover any costs award made against Sharples.' Challenged about the conflict between this and his denial on Four Corners [10 August 1998], Abbott initially replies: ‘Misleading the ABC is not quite the same as misleading the Parliament as a political crime.'"

Suddenly the public were hopping mad, and on 27 August they cheered the journalist for once when the 7.30 Report's Kerry O'Brien forensically dismantled Abbott's attempts to use every semantic trick in the book to avoid acknowledging his deceit.

Abbott then expanded his list of Australians not to lie to in an interview with Paul Kelly for the Australian:

"I shouldn't have been flippant about the ABC, certainly not to the Sydney Morning Herald."

Perhaps worst of all, for the first time we got to note the contempt he'd expressed to Deborah Snow in 2000 for the One Nation dissidents he'd so assiduously cultivated in 1998: "Do priests want to mix with sinners? Do doctors want to mix with people with terrible diseases?" People such as Terry Sharples and Barbara Hazelton were a pox on our democracy that brave Saint Tony had held his nose and endured for Australia's sake.

As the awkward truth about Abbott's behaviour began to crystallise in the national mind, John Howard washed his hands. Should Abbott be sacked for misleading the public, Prime Minister? "Abbott has answered for that, and you go and talk to Abbott."

Did the public have the right to know the donors to the Sharples legal action and the Australians for Honest Politics Trust back in 1998?

Of course. It was relevant information to voters casting an informed choice. Had the methods, motivations and individuals behind both legal moves been widely known, many One Nation voters might have suspected the sincerity of Howard's oft-stated empathy with their views. Other people might have thought the AHPT was a legitimate tactic, given the danger One Nation posed to their values, although as the belated outpouring of sympathy for Hanson showed, many voters might not have liked the idea of a rich, well-connected party using the law — an expensive and complicated business — to destroy a fledgling competitor.

Many might have reckoned that it wasn't quite playing by the democratic rules; that there were more honest ways to defeat One Nation.

When the scandal finally broke after Hanson's jailing, Peter Costello joined the Labor Party in espousing just that view while, unlike some colleagues, pointedly refusing to criticise Hanson's sentence out of respect for the legal process: "I don't think that the way to resolve political disputes is through the courts. I think the way to solve it is at the ballot box. It is a point that I have always made in relation to One Nation; I was always prepared to argue why its policies were wrong, and let's determine that at the ballot box."

Suddenly, with Hanson behind bars, democracy was beginning to look like a sick insider's joke, a quiet little "Honest Politics" club formed over a few lunches in an exclusive Sydney restaurant, headed by the same man who had just lied to the Australian people over Sharples; Abbott whipping up a cool $100,000 in less than three weeks from 12 anonymous donors whose identity he was determined to keep secret; Abbott courting One Nation dissidents in 1998; Abbott sneering at them in 2000; and now Abbott crying crocodile tears over the ultimate fruits of his own work.

There were deeper democratic questions, too.

When Abbott's AHPT had got that minuscule coverage in the broadsheets in August 1998, no reporter had thought to request its donors' identities, despite the implicit claim to transparency in its eye-catching name. That was disturbing in retrospect.

Why had no one checked with the Australian Electoral Commission about whether disclosure was required?

Why had no one queried the ethics of a wealthy party using its muscle to harass through the courts a new democratic entrant without disclosing its financial backers?

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

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