Bravo, Kerry O'Brien, bravo 7.30 Report, bravo, Aunty
In Howard's Australia, the media is not independent but it supports his neo-conservative policies. In Howard's Australia, the Senate is not an independent House of Review, Unions have ceased to exist, alternative medicine is marginalised to a trickle of second-rate goods, the National Gallery in Canberra only reflects a view of history endorsed by the government, and the ABC is The Official Government Media Outlet.
Howard's almost there, but not quite. As Kerry O'Brien of the ABC 7.30 Report recently showed. SMH Web Diarist Robbo, or Jack Robertson watched it. Below is his take on things.
Note: Jack Robertson's comments appear as indented sections.
The ABC of journalistic precision
By Jack Robertson
A New Millennium Master Class in television political interviewing, by Kerry Green Pen' O'Brien and our ABC. Excerpts from last night's 7.30 Report contribution to the Australian Public's new millennium defence of our secular liberal democracy.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Tony Abbott, when you established the slush fund to get Pauline Hanson politically, you called it Australians for Honest Politics. Was that some kind of a joke, a bad joke?
A typically 'biased' anti-Howard ABC start? Absolutely not. Read the letters pages. Listen to talkback radio. Read Fairfax's online 'Your Say' comments regarding the name: 'Australians for Honest Politics'. O'Brien - paid by the PUBLIC - is simply given PUBLIC proxy-voice to the common response of millions of wryly-gobsmacked Australians of all stripes. To start with, this dig (to the man who set up the trust and coined the name) is not remotely biased. It's pure observation. It's also funny.
TONY ABBOTT, EMPLOYMENT & WORKPLACE RELATIONS MINISTER: Of course it wasn't and it wasn't a slush fund. It had three trustees - myself, two other distinguished Australians, one, Peter Coleman -
Here's the Macquarie definition of 'slush fund': 'A fund for use in campaign propaganda or the like, esp. secretly or illicitly, as in bribery.' ABC bias or apt description? You decide.
KERRY O'BRIEN: You count yourself as a distinguished Australian?
Masterly journalistic footwork; instinctive Australian larrikanism at its fertile best, too. In seven timely and laser-guided words, O'Brien has got right to the heart of the Hanson-to-Liberal voter switcheroo of the last few years. Politicians like Abbott, being mainstream, get away with so much more than fringe-dwellers like One Nation simply by dint of the presumed respectability that comes with main party status. O'Brien isn't copping it. But not out of ideological spite (that is, not as a matter of bias); instead, he allows Abbott the fair chance to hang himself, to make fully explicit at last, entirely of his own volition, the way in which that fundamental Australian assumption about Liberal (and ALP) politics has been so powerfully exploited by this in fact very radical government. Seven cheeky words getting right at the meat of Howardism's success. Thank God for instinctive Australian tall-poppy lopping and scepticism, I say.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, it had two distinguished Australians - Peter Coleman, former federal member for the Liberal Party, and John Wheeldon, who was a minister in the Whitlam Government - as its trustees and we had a perfectly honourable intention to fund legal actions to challenge the validity of the registration of the One Nation Party in Queensland. Nothing wrong with that. And ultimately a Supreme Court decision in Queensland vindicated the position we had.
O'Brien has deftly got Abbott to place the lying triple core of his own Hanson hypocrisy AND the fundamentally dishonest inner-workings of John Howard's version of the 'political mainstream' on full display. One - my trust fund included the mainstream respectable anti-Hansonite Righty Peter Coleman! cries Tony. Read Coleman's transparent attempt in today's Australian Op-Ed pages to flesh out the thrust of his involvement: that the 'distinguished' Liberal Party was simply trying to be perfectly honourable and counter the socially divisive rise of Hansonism all along. Rather than the dirty truth, which is of course that they wanted to knee-cap her in private while simultaneously dog-whistling her voters into their camp, by publicly indulging their nastier whinges and adopting some of her more superficial policies. Though certainly not her flailing anti-globe economic ones, which of course Libs like Abbott (and Lib-benefactors like Dick Honan) are never going to ditch, even though these are what truly drives Hansonism.
Two - my trust fund included the mainstream respectable anti-Hansonite Lefty John Wheeldon! cries Tony. With monstrous gall he even squeezes in dear old Gough's name, in the usual pre-emptive attempt to neutralise any objections from mainstream Lefties; the Federal ALP, say. (Margo: Wheeldon is now a right-winger linked to radical-conservative magazine Quadrant.)
Three - Abbott laughably invokes the third in his triumvirate of sanctifying political respectability: that bastion of the Oz civic mainstream, which his Liberal Party of course positively despises and which Bishop and Howard and even he himself (in the very same breath!) undermine with their public comments querying the sentence, anyway - those pesky old 'separation of powers' Courts.
These three dishonest appeals to the 'mainstream' in Abbott's answer (the Liberal, Labor and Legal establishments), so beautifully teased out by one tart comment from O'Brien, are all critical components of what is the broader Liberal Party defensive move now: trying to cover their grubby tracks by resort to what Abbott (Liberal MP and Minister of the Crown) thinks is still his automatic right to presumptions of political distinguished-ness. This is the core factor in understanding the enduring mainstream electoral tolerance of John Howard's government of opportunist grubs, even after its embrace of many hitherto fringe-dweller policies. If Hanson The Ratbag says: Turn the boats around by force! she's a socially divisive fringe-dweller. When Howard The Distinguished Lib deploys the ADF and does just that, why, he's simply responding sensibly to legitimate mainstream concerns. When Hanson The Ratbag cries: Stuff land rights and bugger the Wog Boat People! she's a racist. When Howard The Respectable Lib tears Wik to bits and shouts kids overboard, he's sensibly preferring to focus on practical reconciliation, or voicing mainstream concerns about uncontrolled immigration. It's all a matter of language and tone and context, isn't it. Hanson The Ratbag spruiking from the back of a ute in Longreach is a divisive fringe threat to mainstream social cohesion. Howard The Distinguished Lib orating at the Sydney Institute is relaxed and comfortable, reaching out to the respectable Australian mainstream.
The things you can get away with when you wear a nice shiny suit and talk posh, eh?
Except that Kerry O'Brien, with that one superb interjection, coldly reminds Abbott that he and his Party are suddenly, on matters Hanson, as suitlessly, stark-bollocky naked as the wriggling little grubs they have long been. That in the end all the retrospective 'noice' talk is just so much self-deluding bullshit. That ultimately, it's what you've DONE (to the country) in your time at the helm, the policies you've embraced, that will determine your historical place on the political spectrum. The Libs know it, and a whole lot of the younger, slightly-wetter and more idealistic types who still have long careers ahead of them, are starting to wonder just what Hard-Right Social Policy life might turn out to be like, once Howard himself has triumphantly retired, taking his sanitising sheen with him. Phil Ruddock going to court to KEEP five-year-olds in detention? Our black-clad SAS lads terrifying refugees FROM Saddam? Remove the wholly-manufactured political fiction that is dear, reassuring Mainstream Honest John himself, and it all looks rather excessive, nasty and un-Australian, doesn't it. Could it be that Howardism without Howard will turn out to be just a little bit rat-bag fringe-ish, a tad mainstream voter-lonely? Yikes! Man the retrospective 'respectable' battle-stations, Tony Abbott and the Oik Exploiters Team!
KERRY O'BRIEN: There are a lot of people out there right now who would believe that you're anything but honest in the way you've explained all this.
Watch now as Tony tries to stitch his shredded suit back together.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, I think that I can live with my conscience.
(Read: Trust me, mainstream Australia - I'm still The Honourable Member! Honest!)
I think it was very important to challenge the Hanson juggernaut back then in 1998....
(Read: Trust me, small-l Boomer Liberals and mainstream Boomer Whitlamites: I was on your bleeding heart side all along! Kennett said we should challenge the Hanson juggernaut, too - in public. Like honest gutsy leaders would.)
....The difference is, Kerry, that a lot of people who were angry with her then feel sorry for her now, and I suppose I do myself, because I think that there's a sense in which the punishment meted out to her doesn't really fit the crime, but certainly, at the time, the reality of her so-called party needed to be exposed and I was happy to try to do it.
(Read: But if we Libs had done it Jeff's way and approached Hansonism honestly and healthily in cooling, defusing public debate - that is, if we'd GENUINELY 'exposed the reality of her party' IE to open debate - well, her supporters just wouldn't have voted for us, would they!? And unless we can continue to maintain our hypocritical duality on poor/nasty, hard-done-by/socially-divisive Pauline Hanson now, as I've just tried to do here, then they won't vote for us tomorrow! Certainly not now they've found out that the Oik Exploiters Team was nutting her all along!)
KERRY O'BRIEN: We know you established that fund to use Terry Sharples as a stalking horse in 1998.
TONY ABBOTT: No, that's not right.
Stalking Horse: Macquarie definition 2: "Anything put forward to mask plans or efforts; a pretext." Alstonian biased language, or acute linguistic precision? You decide.
KERRY O'BRIEN: No?
TONY ABBOTT: No. I had dealt with Terry Sharples - I had dealt with Terry Sharples because he was the person who initially was going to bring this legal case to stop Des O'Shea from providing that money to One Nation. Terry Sharples and I came to a parting of the ways and it was after that parting of the ways that I set up the Australians for Honest Politics trust.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But it's not the first time you talked about money with Terry Sharples?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, I promised that Terry Sharples would not be out of pocket.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Hmm. Well, just on this issue, let's briefly flash back to the interview you did with Tony Jones on Four Corners which went to air on August 10. You did that interview, I'm told, on July 31, '98, where you denied any knowledge of any sort of fund for Terry Sharples. We'll just have a quick look.
In a small stroke of production genius - 7.30 Report supervising producers are Clay Hichens and Phil Kwok - we're treated to an inset box monitoring Abbott's death-roll expression, as he is hoist slowly on the petard of his own rank historical lies. A grand use of real-time technology to help give us, the Public, a better chance of grasping the Public Truth. Pictures tell a lot of stories, and for us to be able to watch Abbott's facial contortions in the next few seconds, which represent a veritable War and Peace of duplicity and deceit, is fabulously civically-inclusive. Abbott's discomfort? Well, it's as if we're rubbernecking on a younger Tony being caught red-handed behind the bike-shed with a dirty magazine by some bruiser Jesuit Brother.
* * * * * *
TONY JONES: So there was never any question of any party funds -
TONY ABBOTT: Absolutely not.
Oh dear me. I bet John Howard - Master Obfuscator - has nightmares about that answer for years. Chortle.
TONY JONES: Or other funds from any other source -
TONY ABBOTT: Absolutely not.
I believe the appropriate Spin Doctor post-mortem is: 'Bugger'.
TONY JONES: Being offered to Terry Sharples?
TONY ABBOTT: Absolutely not.
Poor pious Tony, three times the denier. Perhaps he can find post-political career grace in a seminary? We segue back in on O'Brien, in very best icily-controlled killer mode now. And just how nail-gun precise is this next question - he knows he has to contemporaneously re-pin Abbott to this 'ancient' history for it to 'matter'.
* * * * * *
KERRY O'BRIEN: And you're saying now that wasn't a lie - not just Liberal Party funds but any other funds?
Check. Abbott's got two choices: a) just admit that it was a lie back then and brazen it out, or b) try to waffle around it. You can imagine Howard's spinners positively screaming at the TV at this point, urging him to cut his losses now. Abbott, like all arrogant cooked gooses, takes the fatal second option.
TONY ABBOTT: I had promised that he wouldn't be out of pocket, but there's a difference between telling someone he won't be out of pocket and telling someone that you're going to have to pay him money.
Check-mate, give or take a few days or weeks. It's all over. Abbott's just dug his political grave. O'Brien keeps handing him the tools: shovel, pick-axe, crow-bar...
KERRY O'BRIEN: What's the difference? If you say to me, "Kerry, you won't be out of pocket for this", aren't I entitled to assume that means you're going to guarantee the funds for me?
TONY ABBOTT: But the thing was that it was an entirely contingent matter. Money would only have gone from a person who was willing to support this case to Sharples in what I thought was the then-unlikely event of a cost orders being made against him.
...dynamite, hammerdrill, bobcat...
KERRY O'BRIEN: Let's just look at precisely the question that Tony Jones put to you in '98. He said, "So there was never any question of any party funds -
TONY ABBOTT: Party funds.
KERRY O'BRIEN: "Or other funds?".
TONY ABBOTT: Yes and as you'll notice -
...excavator, steam-shovel, nuclear-powered diamond-driller...
KERRY O'BRIEN: And you didn't lie in your response when you said, "Absolutely not, absolutely not."?
Daffy old Tony Abbott seems to be on the way to bloody China!
TONY ABBOTT: And as you'll notice, Kerry, he said "party funds". I started to answer the question and I went on to answer the question, but strictly speaking no money at all was ever offered to Terry Sharples. Pro bono lawyers were arranged and someone had offered to stand a costs order, should a costs order be made, but, no, no money was ever offered to Terry Sharples.
It's true that O'Brien is working with an apparently-willing feed man now, but his professional control and focus and precision is supreme. Watch this methodical filleting unfold now. It's fantastic television journalism; a towering example of how this medium, in the hands of skilled and experienced professionals operating via a public broadcaster, can help pull down the contemporary firewalls separating the public from the powerful, giving us ALL a chance to see for ourselves the massive, self-serving self-delusions and polite fictions that people like Abbott sustain in their own (respectable, mainstream, pious!) consciences, such that their own dirty, amoral backroom machinations won't cause them too many sleepness nights.
KERRY O'BRIEN: When you put out your statement last night explaining your position, you were at pains to say that your answer only applied to the first part of the question, that is to Liberal Party funds, but it didn't apply to the second part of the question - "or other funds".
TONY ABBOTT: And then I went on to say, strictly speaking no money at all was offered to Terry Sharples, and that's correct.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Look, by your own admission now, you set up the fund -
TONY ABBOTT: Yes, after - well after -
KERRY O'BRIEN: ..for the Australians for Honest Politics Trust -
TONY ABBOTT: Well after that incident.
KERRY O'BRIEN: ..on August 24.
TONY ABBOTT: That's correct.
KERRY O'BRIEN: On August 24, 25 days after the interview.
TONY ABBOTT: Yeah.
KERRY O'BRIEN: That's not well after.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, it's after.
KERRY O'BRIEN: It's three weeks.
TONY ABBOTT: So I was supposed to say, Kerry -
KERRY O'BRIEN: But nothing was in train?
TONY ABBOTT: So I was supposed to say, "Oh, and by the way, Tony, in a few weeks time I'm going to set up a trust fund that is going to fund a different legal action"? Was I supposed to say that?
KERRY O'BRIEN: And you weren't working on setting up that fund?
O'Brien's hoping for a solid denial, because he knows that he and other journos can go on and check this out. He gets it. Another groan from the Spin Doctors, I'll bet. Abbott's toast - if there's still such a thing as Public Truth, that is.
TONY ABBOTT: No, because at that point in time I believe I may still have had some kind of an involvement with Terry Sharples, but after the Sharples matter wasn't going to progress anywhere, or certainly wasn't going to progress anywhere with my assistance, I then thought, "Well, it is really important to regularise this whole thing", and that's why -
KERRY O'BRIEN: So in the space of three weeks you got around all these other people and organised and set up a trust fund in three weeks?
TONY ABBOTT: You're amazed by that, are you?
KERRY O'BRIEN: I am.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, get real, Kerry.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But you did? You did all that in three weeks?
TONY ABBOTT: Yeah, yeah, sure. Sure.
KERRY O'BRIEN: It must have been really urgent.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, look, it was. Think back, Kerry, to that time. I mean, you were crying, as were so many other people, for someone to stop this terrible Hanson juggernaut.
KERRY O'BRIEN: I was asking questions. I wasn't crying for anything.
The desperate Abbott having a go at him personally now, but O'Brien's in masterly control. ('I was asking questions.' Priceless.)
TONY ABBOTT: If you go back, Kerry, to the parliamentary debate on 1 July, I think it was, of 1989 - 1998 - Labor speaker after Labor speaker were demanding, screaming, that the Government in general, but I in particular, do something to stop this terrible Hanson woman. Well, I did.
KERRY O'BRIEN: What we're focusing on was whether you misled the people of Australia -
TONY ABBOTT: The ABC?
KERRY O'BRIEN: No, the public, the audience that watched the program.
Priceless. Absolutely priceless. We're here, all right. We watched. Man, are we watching what you do now with Tony Abbott, Prime Minister.
TONY ABBOTT: And I believe that my answers were justified.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, Terry Sharples says you had a meeting with him and others on July 7, '98, where you offered him $20,000 to cover his legal costs.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, see, I dispute that and I always have.
KERRY O'BRIEN: You did have the meeting though, didn't you, on July 7?
TONY ABBOTT: Yes, so what? Big deal.
Take a shower, Tony? The last Liberal Party defence: public apathy. I s'pose it might work yet again.
KERRY O'BRIEN: And the question of costs didn't come up?
TONY ABBOTT: Look, the question of how much it would cost, what would be the possible downside of a court case - sure, that came up.
KERRY O'BRIEN: So you did talk about costs with him and you talked about meeting the costs?
TONY ABBOTT: Yes, but there's a difference between offering to pay someone money - offering to pay Terry Sharples money - and supporting a legal case.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Where were you going to get the money?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, I'm not going to tell you that, Kerry.
KERRY O'BRIEN: When you offered him the money where were you going to get it from?
TONY ABBOTT: Kerry, I am not going to tell you that.
KERRY O'BRIEN: So you didn't have a fund in mind?
TONY ABBOTT: No, I didn't.
KERRY O'BRIEN: You didn't have a fund in train?
TONY ABBOTT: No, I didn't at that stage.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But you were confident that you would be able to find money for him, presumably not out of your own pocket?
TONY ABBOTT: Not for him not for him - but for an action, for a legal action.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Let's not split hairs. Let's not split hairs.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, let's not.
KERRY O'BRIEN: It was to fund his action?
TONY ABBOTT: Yes, and there is a world of difference between funding an action or, at least, getting pro bono lawyers to act without charge and having someone who might stand a costs order in the contingency that a costs order might be made and offering him money. I did not offer him money.
KERRY O'BRIEN: And then you offered to underwrite effectively his costs in a legal action. That is money. Costs is money, isn't it?
So where are we finally at? Well, O'Brien has coldly, relentlessly, irreversibly and brilliantly manoeuvred Abbott into that rock-and-a-hard-place where many of us, probably since about kids overboard, or maybe 'never-ever GST' times, or maybe even ironic 'Honest John' days, have wanted the Howard Government to be: publicly and unambiguously forced to argue that black is white and two plus two equals five. Read and enjoy (the endgame bold highlights are mine):
TONY ABBOTT: Well, I said that he would not be out of pocket.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Is costs money?
TONY ABBOTT: Well -
KERRY O'BRIEN: When it really gets down to it, costs is money, isn't it?
TONY ABBOTT: What I said was that he would not be out of pocket.
KERRY O'BRIEN: He wouldn't be out of pocket?
TONY ABBOTT: That's correct.
KERRY O'BRIEN: With money? Money? Cash? Money?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, I said he wouldn't be out of pocket.
KERRY O'BRIEN: And on July 11 you met him again and you handwrote a guarantee, didn't you?
TONY ABBOTT: I had sent him a note, but this is not new news, Kerry.
KERRY O'BRIEN: No, but then on July 31 -
TONY ABBOTT: All of this was on the record years ago.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But on July 31, you told Tony Jones - you gave him an "absolutely not" denial about any kind of funds going to Terry Sharples.
TONY ABBOTT: I said that I had not offered him money and I stand by that.
KERRY O'BRIEN: You offered him costs?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, I said that he wouldn't be out of pocket.
KERRY O'BRIEN: That's money!
TONY ABBOTT: Oh, come on, Kerry.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Tony Abbott, that is money. Let me hear it from your lips -- that is money!
TONY ABBOTT: Let's move on. I did not offer to pay Terry Sharples any money.
KERRY O'BRIEN: You offered to cover his costs.
TONY ABBOTT: But I did not offer to pay Terry Sharples any money.
KERRY O'BRIEN: I think the audience understands that costs is money, so we'll move on..
You bet your toasted political arse we do, Tony.
* * * * * *
If John Howard won't sack Abbott then John Howard presumably believes that court costs are not money, too. That, of course, is a matter for the Liberal Party and its supporters to address. Though a Minister of the Crown who truly believes such a thing, and says so right out there in public, should, I submit with some embarrassment, more properly be regarded as occupying a place on the Australian political spectrum some considerable way beyond the conspiratorial fringe of even we Lunar Lefty Greens and Redneck Righty Hansonites.
Certainly not in the 'respectable mainstream', anyway. Then again, I'm not an economist, and don't fully understand Tony Abbott's new-fangled Market Theory ways.
But it does pay to remember, when reflecting on this fine piece of Public Broadcasting, that the 7.30 Report specifically, and the ABC more broadly, is under considerable attack from such Ministers right now. (If Abbott can't grasp that court costs are money, then what on earth would he make of a more complex fiscal concept like ABC funding!?) And if Australian Citizens think that programs that enable interviews like this one are worth defending in the Australian Public Interest, then maybe you should drop the show an encouraging line at guestbook.
Where-ever you stand politically, I think that this sort of work is an incredibly important check-and-balance component of our threatened secular liberal democracy, and as such deserves our strongest possible support. The ABC has its shortcomings just like every other part of the Australian Public Polity, but when it works - and it mostly does - then it works for nobody but us Australian Citizens. Bravo, Kerry O'Brien. Bravo 7.30 Report. Bravo, Aunty.