I am hugely indebted to former Fairfax journalist Margo Kingston for most of this piece. She covered the issue in great detail on the Fairfax Webdiary ten years ago and in her 2004 book Not Happy, John! (Penguin), from which I have précised the Timeline.
She has assisted me in fact-checking and been invaluable in finding all the archived stories that would normally take days to find using the hilariously-named “Search” function on most news websites.
All of that is my way of saying it is mostly her work, but she is more than happy for The King’s Tribune to publish because, where the AWU “scandal” probably should go away but won’t, the following incident shouldn’t have but did.
I've put some links through the article and a link to the SMH archive at the end – to truly appreciate the AHP issue you’ll need to read more than I can realistically put on this page. Margo Kingston's book, if you can get hold of a copy, is the best resource on this - and other Howard government topics.
A lot has been made lately by the Opposition and its cheerleaders of what Julia Gillard may or may not have done nearly twenty years ago, before she entered parliament and while she was in a relationship with a man who used her and her employers for his own nefarious ends.
Whatever the case may be with the “AWU scandal”, the hypocrisy of Tony Abbott in pursuing “conduct unbecoming” by his opponent, before she entered politics, from over fifteen years ago is breathtaking.
For he was behind a cynical, secretive, Slush Fund of his own, three years after Gillard’s alleged misdemeanour, while he was a parliamentary secretary and later while Minister for Workplace Relations. A Slush Fund set up to bankroll court action (at deniable-enough arm’s length from the Liberal Party) against Pauline Hanson, whose party had just won eleven seats in the Queensland parliament and was costing the Coalition votes from Left and Right.
The Slush Fund was known as Australians For Honest Politics which, given the secrecy of its funding and the reason for its inception, would be hilarious were its purpose not so sinister.
Terry Sharples: Dissident One Nation member whose court action against Pauline Hanson was initially personally guaranteed by Tony Abbott.
Barbara Hazelton: Another One Nation dissident, a former friend of Hanson, who also took action (backed by AHP) and later dropped it.
Tony Abbott: Member for Warringah. Parliamentary Secretary and later Minister. Howard acolyte.
John Wheeldon: Former Whitlam government minister, a man whose politics and beliefs oscillated wildly – at the time of this incident leaning hard-Right (however he had described himself as a socialist decades earlier), occasional Quadrant writer, Chief Editorial Writer for The Australian from 1981-1995. Died in 2006.
Peter Coleman: Former NSW Liberal Leader, ex-federal Liberal MP, father-in-law to Peter Costello.
Special Guest Star, Piers Akerman: News Ltd columnist. Friend and regular lunch partner of Wheeldon and Coleman, giving the lie to Abbott’s protestations that AHP was not a Liberal Party factotum (because one of its trustees was a minister under Whitlam). Wheeldon was no longer an ALP member by the 90s and his friendship with Akerman (who would rather gargle scorpions than say anything complimentary of the ALP) indicates that he was no longer an ALP supporter.
13 October 1997
Pauline Hanson lodges the registration application for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party in Queensland. Election costs for a registered political are recoverable from the AEC. In order to register, a party must have 500 members – Hanson provides names and addresses of more than 500 members (of, it must be said, an unusually structured party) and a constitution.
4 December 1997
The Queensland Electoral Commission accepts the registration.
10 May 1998
Federal Treasurer Peter Costello states on Sunday that he will preference One Nation last in his electorate in the upcoming election.
12 May 1998
John Howard argues in the party room against preferencing One Nation behind the ALP, saying he would rather work with them than the Democrats in the Senate. Abbott agrees.
13 June 1998
As a result of Howard’s decision on preferences, coalition voters desert – Brisbane Liberals head to Labor, rural Queensland Nationals head further right, to One Nation, who gain eleven seats. The ALP wins office in Queensland.
Tony Abbot starts raising, in Parliament and elsewhere, his new-found concerns about the legality of One Nation’s registration. He personally lobbies the Queensland Electoral Commissioner to investigate and travels around the country encouraging One Nation dissidents to take legal action.
7 July 1998
Abbott meets Terry Sharples in the Brisbane offices of lawyers Minter Ellison, to nut out ways to stop One Nation receiving the (approximately) $500,000 to which it is entitled in election reimbursement. He brings with him lawyer and Queensland Liberal Party president Paul Everingham, who will run the action pro bono.
Sharples later claims that Abbott told him any Liberal Party connections with the action should be kept secret, but that he (Abbott) will financially underwrite any such action.
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 lodges his Supreme Court writ. Someone (Abbott himself, or someone he refuses to name?) has underwritten the ten thousand dollar guarantee.
31 July 1998
Abbott is interviewed by Tony Jones on 4 Corners. One series of questions relates to funding offers to Sharples. See below for coverage of this interview and Abbott’s later “Director’s Cut” version.
21 August 1998
Under cross-examination in his unsuccessful Injunction application, Sharples is asked whether Abbott ever talked to him about “providing an indemnity for this or any other action”. He replies “No he didn’t”.
(On 11 March 2000 with the SMH’s Deborah Snow, Abbott recounts his reaction: “Terry, this thing is out of control, you have perjured yourself, you should just terminate this action and there’ll be a costs order against you and I’ll look after it.”)
24 August 1998
Tony Abbott establishes the Australians for Honest Politics Trust with Coleman and Wheeldon. 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”. Barbara Hazelton duly issues a Supreme Court writ against One Nation.
29 August 1998
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Marian Wilkinson reports under the headline “Lib MP Backs Trust To Attack Hanson”. Abbott denies any Liberal Party involvement, saying he is acting “as a citizen and a democrat, because One Nation is a fraud on the taxpayers and must be exposed”. David Oldfield, who had worked for Abbott before defecting to Hanson, describes the Australians for Honest Politics Trust as “… the filth of the Liberal Party at its worst and Abbott’s involvement in such nefarious activity is appropriate and understandable.”
18 September 1998
Electoral Commission sends a letter to Tony Abbott, asking him to disclose the names of the Australians for Honest Politics’ donors
3 October 1998
John Howard is returned to government with a reduced majority. One Nation polls 8.4 per cent of the national vote, gaining them only one Senator, but about $3 million in electoral reimbursement.
20 October 1998
Tony Abbott responds to an AEC request to disclose the Trust’s donors by saying that he is not required by law to do so, saying “Before seeking donations to the Trust, I spoke with one of Australia’s leading electoral lawyers who assured me that the Trust would not be covered by disclosure provisions.”
10 June 1999
The AEC replies to Abbott that it accepts his assurances that AHPT is not an “associated entity” (of a political party) and therefore need not disclose its donors.
18 August 1999
The Queensland Supreme Court finds against Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and orders that it repay the half a million dollars it was paid after the Queensland election. A police investigation is launched.
Sharples is considerably “out of pocket” and asks Abbott to honour his indemnity pledge.
Abbott’s lawyers offer Sharples ten thousand dollars to finalise the matter, emphasising that “this is not an admission of liability”.
11 March 2000
The Sydney Morning Herald put to Abbott his indemnity letter to Sharples, which brought into question his “absolutely not” to Tony Jones. He replied “Misleading the ABC is not quite the same as misleading the Parliament as a political crime”.
Despite his later protestations that he was being “flippant” and his expression of regret for that flippancy, he misled the people who were watching that interview and reading that article. And he admitted it.
20 August 2003
Hanson is found guilty of electoral fraud and sentenced to three years’ gaol.
28 August 2003
In an article for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Tony Abbott writes “I am sorry that Pauline Hanson is in gaol. 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.”
He also writes the following which, in its relationship with facts, has an all-too familiar ring:
On the Four Corners programme broadcast on August 10 1998, I was asked: “So there was never any question of any party or other funds from any other source being offered to Terry Sharples?”. I replied, in response to the first part of the question: “Absolutely not”. No Liberal Party funds were at any stage offered or involved.
There’s some art in his assertion that he replied “in response to the first part of the question” – it was a pretty clear question, but here he is trying to say “oh, I just answered one bit, sorry about that, a mistake anyone could’ve made”.
Here’s a transcript of the actual interview from 31 July 1998 referred to above, however:
JONES: So there was never any question of party funds –
ABBOTT: Absolutely not.
JONES: Or funds from any other source –
ABBOTT: Absolutely not.
JONES: - being offered to Terry Sharples?
ABBOTT: Absolutely not.
I’ll just go with the theory that this is one of those times when he says things “off the cuff” that may not be entirely, completely true and we should only believe what he says when it’s written down for him - oh wait.
27 August 2003
Kerry O'Brien interviews Tony Abbott on the 7:30 report about the Slush Fund. The transcript is a litany in doublespeak and backpeddling and is absolutely worth reading in full.
5 September 2003
Margo Kingston asked Tony Abbot about the Trust:
KINGSTON: You said the donors did a good thing for Australia, so why did you design the trust to ensure the donors would remain secret?
ABBOTT: I didn’t design the trust so that the donors weren’t required to disclose. I set up the trust to support legal action
KINGSTON: So why did you take legal advice on secrecy before soliciting the donations?
ABBOTT: I didn’t take legal advice on disclosure until after I got the AEC’s letter. I sought legal advice and got oral advice from a senior lawyer
Even if you think Julia Gillard is being misleading and less than honest, you have to conclude that, in relation to his slush-fund past, Tony Abbott is too. If the PM has questions to answer - as the media has been telling us ad nauseum for months now - then so has Tony Abbott.
And more of the more interesting questions to come out of all of this - why have the media been hounding the Prime Minister about her alleged “conduct unbecoming” (which occurred before she entered parliament) and ignoring the actions, while he was a sworn MP, of the alternative prime minister?
SMH Archive: http://www.smh.com.au/specials/abbottaffair/