Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Today by Sean Kelly

Fighting fires
Sam Dastyari makes an appearance

Labor senator Sam Dastyari will be deeply relieved that most voters experience press conferences via one or two soundbites played as part of a two-minute story on the television evening news.

If they had instead been forced to sit through the 22 or so minutes of the actual thing (if you have masochistic tendencies you can watch it here) then Dastyari would have found himself watercooler conversation tomorrow, and not in a good way.

After days of keeping out of sight, Dastyari held a press conference today, reportedly to answer all questions about the Chinese donations controversy. At some point in a scandal this becomes necessary. Having lived through a few of these by proxy when I was a press secretary, I can tell you that one of the keys is timing. Early on the protagonist will aim to deprive the story of fuel, by making themselves scarce. If that doesn’t work, then a press conference becomes necessary. But you can’t leave it too late, because at some point the fire will have burned beyond your control. I’m not surprised Dastyari chose today to pick up the fire hose. He needed to get it over with before parliament resumes next week. No new material had surfaced this morning to make his life more difficult.

So how did Dastyari’s fire-fighting efforts actually go? The short answer is: terribly. But the longer answer is a little more complicated.

Dastyari repeated himself ad nauseum. He’d gone in to the press conference with clear messages, and nobody who watched was going to die wondering what they were. He was sorry. He’d made a mistake. He should never have taken the money to pay for his office travel budget debt. He had learned his lessons: slow down, think before you act. He supports Labor’s position on the South China Sea.

They weren’t always the answer to the question being asked, and the repetition pretty quickly became painful. The press pack was furious, clearly immensely frustrated at Dastyari’s refusal, for much of the event, to move beyond his scripted responses.

He also had no answer to two important questions. The first is the simplest: why did he ask this particular Chinese company to pay his ($1600) debt in the first place? The second is what precisely was said at the election campaign press conference where, according to Chinese media, Dastyari expressed a position on the South China Sea at odds with Labor’s position. Dastyari today vaguely suggested that either he misspoke or he was misquoted, but nobody seems to know what actually occurred, which is bizarre. Other than the report, nobody seems to have a record of proceedings.  

So Dastyari looked bad today, and he’ll cop a walloping in the next phase of the media cycle, as he should.

Here’s where things become more complicated.

By not answering those questions, Dastyari has left the media a little room to keep pursuing him. But step forward a bit, and imagine that we actually get the answers. What happens then? Do they change the situation?

The likely worst-case scenario in relation to the transcript is that Dastyari was accurately quoted, in which case he’ll say, as he kind of did today, that he misspoke. It’s not a thorough explanation, but nor does it leave his opponents anywhere to go.

And as to the more important question – the issue of “Why?” – there is no answer beyond what Dastyari himself decides to say, if he ever does. Today he categorically ruled out having ever expressed any position for any other reason than the national interest, and expressly said he had never been asked for any quid pro quo nor offered one. In other words, on the question of whether he has done anything improper, Dastyari is adamant in saying “No”. Again, all this might be frustrating, but it’s also a locked box.

And so, however peeved the press might be with Dastyari, and however justified it might be in that, and however bad the next 18 hours will be for him, the likelihood is that that press conference did, however clumsily, the job it was supposed to do – which is allow him to move on and live another day. Shorten has not sacked Dastyari at this point. In the absence of new material emerging, he will find it difficult to explain a change in that position.   

Which brings us back, like clockwork, to the same place every person of any sense always ends up in when they write about this topic. The only way to rid ourselves of situations like this, and press conferences like today’s, is to fix the bloody system. Ban foreign donations. Put a severe cap on personal donations. Ban union and business donations.

The Coalition, by the way, are running around trying to draw a facile distinction between the personal payment of debt that Dastyari received and actual donations, so as to defend its indefensible position on allowing foreign donations. For a politician, in the current system, donations are lifeblood. Without them they are dead in the water: unelectable, without a chance of winning the job that will deliver them an income. That is worth a lot more to any MP than a $1600 debt paid. If the Coalition believes we are truly talking about different things, then there’s a fix: ban the acceptance of gifts from foreign companies as well.  


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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.


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