Taylor, the AFP and the 'Insiders'

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It's bad enough that fraud allegations against Angus Taylor are not being pursued, but why aren’t journalists angry? Dr Jennifer Wilson discusses the media's response.

LIBERAL DEMOCRACIES, flawed as they are under capitalism, cannot function without honesty and trust between all parties. Without those moral attributes, what we have is an empty shell of democracy, sucked dry of its meaty substance — its institutions still in place but co-opted for the benefit of the powerful.

The Australian Federal Police announced last week that it would not be pursuing an investigation into allegations of fraud levelled against Energy Minister Angus Taylor. Taylor launched an attack on Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s climate action credentials, using travel figures apparently pulled from a wombat’s bottom that bore no relationship whatsoever to the Sydney City Council’s actual travel costs.

The AFP stated that:

'The low level of harm and the apology made by the [Minister] to the Lord Mayor of Sydney, along with the significant level of resources required to investigate were also factored into the decision not to pursue this matter.”

Alleged fraud by a government minister is hardly “low-level harm” in any universe in which ethics and morals, honesty and trust, still hold sway. If Minister Taylor has committed fraud, we the people have the right to demand proper investigation and appropriate penalties. If he has not, we are equally entitled to know that his innocence has been reliably established.

Taylor is a minister of the Crown, and as such is invested with enormous power. We cannot award the exercise of ministerial powers to an individual who has allegedly committed fraud — and it is the job of the AFP to establish whether or not this is the case. To do otherwise, to refuse to pursue the matter, is to undermine our democracy.

Then there’s Taylor’s apology. When did an apology serve as a basis for the AFP declining to investigate criminal allegations? The alleged victim, Clover Moore, has not accepted Taylor's apology. Indeed, like many others, she is questioning the independence of the AFP and says she believes the agency never intended to investigate the allegations in the first place.

It was intriguing to hear on ABC Insiders on Sunday (9 February 2020), journalist Andrew Probyn comment, almost as an aside, that “the police were in an awkward spot” regarding the Taylor investigation. Guardian journalist Katharine Murphy agreed the police were in a “tight spot” over the matter. Both journalists seem to be acknowledging that it is difficult for the AFP to investigate a Coalition politician — particularly this Minister. It is difficult to interpret their comments in any other way. 

Why does a law enforcement agency find itself in an “awkward” and “tight” spot when called upon to investigate alleged wrongdoing by a politician? What is it that makes investigating Angus Taylor “awkward” and “tight”?

And most importantly, why do two senior journalists apparently assume that it is a given that the AFP would find itself in this dilemma when asked to investigate Taylor? Is this tacit acknowledgement that the AFP is controlled by this Government? Is it known among the Press Gallery corps that investigations into politicians’ alleged wrongdoing are different from investigations into the rest of us?

And if Probyn and Murphy are possessed of this knowledge, why do they accept it instead of challenging it?

A well-functioning fourth estate is essential to democracy. We require journalists to speak truth to power on our behalf. We look to journalists not to simply accept the way governments like things, but rather to challenge government, agency and institutional conduct when necessary.

That Probyn and Murphy so unquestioningly describe the AFP’s difficulties with the Taylor investigation as awkward and tight, without asking, on our behalf, exactly why the AFP is on the spot when it comes to this Minister, should ring very loud alarm bells for all of us.

Why aren’t these journalists angry? It’s not long since the AFP raided the ABC and the home of News Corp’s Annika Smethurst seeking evidence of alleged unauthorised leaks, and yet allegations of fraud against a minister of the Crown are too difficult for the agency to pursue?

In today’s political world, this example of the erosion of democracy is relatively small and that statement in itself ought to give us food for serious thought. It involves the elected LNP Government, a minister of the Crown, the Australian Federal Police, the public broadcaster and The Guardian. Government, police and media — three institutions essential to the success of democracy.

Laws must apply to those who govern as well as to the governed. It is the task of journalists to speak out when this is not the case. It’s not the task of journalists to protect agencies such as the AFP by sympathising with the “tight and awkward spots” the pursuit of a politician for an alleged crime may land them in. It should be of no consequence to the AFP that the person of interest is a cabinet minister. The fact that journalists acknowledge that this is not the case without questioning why it is not the case, is a serious matter.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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