Tony Abbott, the AEC and the scent of corruption

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Managing editor David Donovan writes to the AEC asking for full disclosure of its investigations and dealings with Tony Abbott with respect to his anti-Hansonite slush fund.

(GIF: Matt Bissett-Johnson)

LAST THURSDAY, former Sydney Morning Herald “Webdiarist” Margo Kingston saw Tony Abbott criticising Julia Gillard about a slush fund she helped set up in the early 1990s as a lawyer for Slater & Gordon — I’m sure you’ve heard quite enough about that issue.

Margo described her reaction to Abbott talking about questions of character in relation to this fund as follows:

A QUESTION of character? My mouth fell open when I heard Abbott’s final flourish in Thursday’s speech denouncing Gillard as unfit for office. I remembered, suddenly, vividly, Tony Abbott’s very own slush fund. Could he too have forgotten?

I was in London at the time of this affair, but even I remember it, as I used to read Margo Kingston’s Webdiary religiously ― until it was unceremoniously axed in 2005 by then Fairfax bureaucrat Mark Scott — the former Liberal Party staffer who took over running the ABC in 2006.

On Thursday night, I was up working late when I saw someone retweet on Twitter a plaintive message from Margo, saying:

“Damn – the Drum won’t publish my Abbott slush piece. Anyone want to do so?”

(She was referring to The ABC’s The Drum online.)

Naturally, I contacted Margo and read the piece. It was a cracker. In disbelief that our ABC would turn down such an explosive piece from such an eminent Australian journalist, I stayed up until 3am putting it up on the website.
Proving my news sense – and making a mockery of the ABC’s – this piece has so far received over 61,000 pageviews and more than 17,000 unique visitors; it has been retweeted over 2,300 times and shared on Facebook almost 3,000 times. It is one of the most popular stories we have ever published.

[Read ‘Tony Abbott and his slushy character question’ by Margo Kingston]

It pays to be “Johnny on the spot” in the online world.

And no wonder it’s popular.

In the same way Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech exposed wall-punching sexist Tony Abbott for his sanctimonious finger-pointing about Peter Slipper, so Margo Kingston’s article exposed Tony Abbott for being an utter hypocrite for condemning Julia Gillard over a slush fund, when he had set one up himself several years more recently — and quite possibly committed a crime and subverted our democratic system in the process.
From Margo’s article:

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Mike Seccombe then reported that, in 1998, the Australian Electoral Commission asked Abbott to disclose his donors, as required by law. He refused, telling the Commission that before seeking donations:

‘I spoke with one of Australia’s leading electoral lawyers who assured me that the trust would not be covered by disclosure provisions.’ The AEC took him at his word and closed the file until forced to reopen it in 2003. Abbott had lied again! When I asked him on September 2003 why he took legal advice on secrecy before soliciting for donations, he said:

‘I didn’t take legal advice on disclosure till after I got the AEC’s letter. I sought legal advice and got oral advice from a senior lawyer.’ In other words, he lied to the AEC. Some would say that amounts to a criminal act under Section 137.1 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code (1992): the crime of providing materially false or misleading information in compliance with a law of the Commonwealth. Me, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. Except that in a later written statement to me, Abbott revealed that his lawyers had not even been briefed with the Trust document before giving advice, and refused to even name the lawyer. Not only that, he told me he wouldn’t disclose the donors because

‘….there are some things the public has no particular right to know.’ Much later, the Electoral Commission decided that Abbott did have an obligation to disclose his donors. Unfortunately, by this time, they could not legally compel Abbott to do so, because the Statute of Limitations has expired. So they asked him nicely. But he refused.

So, Abbott may have committed a crime, and when push came to shove, he refused to comply with the AEC — yet somehow he got away with it.
How did he get away with it?

According to Christian Kerr, writing in Crikey in 2004, it may have been the result of pressure applied by Abbott to the Electoral Commission:

The AEC hid behind confidentiality claims to refuse information on its decision making process on the legality of Australians for Honest Politics and Abbott’s actions under Commonwealth electoral law. And, after a leak, this tumbled out:

“The bloke who had decided to let Abbott off the hook was named Brad Edgman, I was told, the head of the AEC’s Funding and Disclosure branch… Brad Edgman does not have legal qualifications.” Say what? To use a good old phrase, they won’t get away with that in business. Not lawyers interpreting the disclosure requirements of the Electoral Act? All which makes today’s piece (Abbott blast scuttled inquiry) by two heavies from The Australian, Sid Maher and Michael McKinnon, even more interesting.

“An Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) investigation into whether a trust fund, which bankrolled legal action against One Nation, was linked to the Liberal Party, was dropped after Health Minister Tony Abbott objected,” Maher and McKinnon write.

“Documents obtained by The Australian under Freedom of Information laws show the AEC issued a demand to Mr Abbott in May requiring him to reveal the donors to Australians for Honest Politics, which backed legal action that ultimately led to the jailing of Pauline Hanson.

“But Mr Abbott wrote back to the AEC on June 8, objecting to the demand and describing it as ‘unreasonable’. The AEC announced it had dropped the investigation in July."

Hullo? Since when were Ministers above the law? Maher and McKinnon report “The documents show the AEC received draft legal advice in April 2004 suggesting there was sufficient evidence to issue a notice under section 316(3A) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act to require Mr Abbott to produce documents.” More than six months after Kingston had received her leak, note – and presumably after the AEC had had an attack of conscience. “A spokesman said Mr Abbott was on leave,” the Australian says. Convenient. “An AEC spokesman referred The Australian to advice on its July 14, where it announced the trust was not an associated entity and would not be required to disclose its donors under the Electoral Act,” it also says. I can't find any such document on the AEC.

Not surprising Christian couldn’t find the media release, because it appears have been only added to the 2012, according to the “Updated” date stampon the AEC page. I think we deserve to know what has gone on in this affair. Has Abbott, a then Minister of the Crown, used his influence to circumvent – or rather, short-circuit – a potentially devastating investigation by the AEC? If he did, then this is more than a question of character — this is corruption.
It also leads us to have doubts about the integrity of the body that governs our elections. It couldn’t have been put better than by the AEC itself, when its then Commissioner said in a statement:

‘Community confidence in the AEC is an important part of our democratic fabric.’

It is indeed. Once we start to lose confidence in the AEC, our trust in the fair running of our democracy starts to fall apart. Indeed, this affair, where a powerful well-connected politician, with unknown backers, looks to destroy a competitor – by fair means or foul – raises significant questions in any case.

Consequently, this publication has emailed the Australian Electoral Commission expressing our concerns and asking for answers. We would ask anyone with similar concerns to also contact the AEC. Feel free to use this message as a template — and do copy IA in.

To: media@aec.gov.au Cc: editor@independentaustralia.net Subject: Australians for Honest Politics Slush Fund Affair

ATTENTION: Australian Electoral Commissioner Ed Killestyn

In recent days, renewed concerns have been raised about the Australians for Honest Politics Trust as to its donors and whether its then administrator – now Opposition Leader – Tony Abbott, misled the Australian Electoral Commission by providing it with false information.

You can read more about these concerns in a recent article by former Sydney Morning Herald journalist Margo Kingston: http://www.independentaustralia.net/2012/politics/tony-abbott-and-his-slushy-question-of-character/.

There have also been grave concerns raised that Mr Abbott may have improperly used his position as a Minister of the Crown to influence your organisation in an effort to prevent scrutiny of his actions.

You can read more about that aspect in an article by prominent reporter Christian Kerr: http://australiansforhonestpolitics.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/tony-abbotts-unholy-dealings-with-the-aec/.

The fact that Mr Abbott may, in fact, have been successful in derailing a proper investigation by your establishment leads us to have significant concerns about the conduct of the Australian Electoral Commission and the potential for its corruption.

As your predecessor noted in a statement made in July 2004:

‘Community confidence in the AEC is an important part of our democratic fabric.’

Consequently, we would ask you to provide the full an open disclosure about the AEC conduct in this affair — something that was not provided in the following brief media release issued by your organisation in 2004: http://www.aec.gov.au/Parties_and_Representatives/compliance/AEC_Advice/honest-politics.htm

Due to the significant public interest in this matter, we would also urge that you promptly provide all the relevant information – unredacted and without charge – relating to the following Freedom of Information request from Margo Kingston: http://www.righttoknow.org.au/request/australians_for_honest_politics/new

We look forward to your timely response and speedy action in this important matter.

Yours sincerely,


David Donovan| Managing Editor
Independent Australia‘The journal of democracy and independent thought’
PO Box 260, Isle of Capri, Qld, 4217
Mobile: +61 403 237 880 | Fax: +61 7 5526 8217
Email: editor@independentaustralia.net | Website: www.independentaustralia.net
Twitter: twitter.com/IndependentAus | Facebook: facebook.com/IndependentAus


UPDATE: 7/12/12 (9.41AM) Margo Kingston informs me that Christian Kerr was incorrect and the AEC relevant documents were found by her on the AEC website.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License


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