Thursday, October 26, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

The government tripped itself up. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Yesterday, I wrote that the issue of who tipped off the media ahead of the federal police raids on the Australian Workers Union’s offices was a “fair question, but unlikely to go anywhere”. Oh boy, was I wrong.

Last night, Alice Workman at BuzzFeed did her best to break the parliamentary record for most Hansard mentions in a 24-hour period by reporting that “BuzzFeed News has spoken to journalists who claim they received a phone call from [employment minister Michaelia Cash’s] office an hour before the raids, to make sure there would be cameras outside the AWU offices in Melbourne and Sydney.”

That’s a big deal in itself, confirming that the government politicised a police raid. But it was an even bigger deal because Cash had spent a fair bit of time that day denying that she or her office had told journalists about the raid. Five times she denied it, to Senate estimates, which counts as parliament. Here’s a sample: “I am offended on behalf of my staff as to those allegations. They are very serious allegations … They are very serious allegations and I refute them.” Not what you’d call a gentle denial, is it?

Let’s get the obvious headline political point out of the way first. What an almighty, avoidable, dim-witted, humiliating pratfall from the government. Imagine turning a police raid on your political opponents into a massive embarrassment for yourself. Malcolm Turnbull et al are now merely hoping to get through until tomorrow so that the High Court judgement – which at times has threatened to bring down the government – will distract from the mess. It’s that bad.

Should it be that bad? Perhaps not. We are potentially talking about the actions of a single staff member here. Certainly, that is the government’s line. But political events are never seen without their context. The context here is the belief that Turnbull and his government are terrible at politics. It's the banana-peel aspect: that the government set up the Registered Organisations Committee, and made the referral, and got the police raid of their wildest dreams, and still managed to muck it up. For a prime minister well down in the polls for a very long time, the perception that he could be standing in the middle of Antarctica and still, somehow, find a banana peel to slip on, is unhelpful. 

Now, let’s get on to what we know, what we don’t know, and what seems strange to me.

After Workman’s story broke, Cash told Senate estimates that her senior media adviser had resigned at the dinner break, and had told her he had tipped off the media, acting on information from a “media source”. Cash returned to Senate estimates again this morning and confirmed that she had now spoken to all of her staff, and nobody else had briefed the media. She also said that her senior media adviser had earlier the previous day “misled” her, by saying he had not told the media, which is why it was only after the dinner break confession that she had been able to inform estimates of the truth. We also know that Senator Cash and her media adviser attended a briefing with the prime minister before Question Time yesterday, at which the PM asked her if she had briefed media, to which Cash said no.

The first big question is whether Cash is telling the truth. Misleading parliament is a sackable offence. Is it possible she lied? Of course it’s possible, but her denials were very strong, and if she knew they were wrong then she also would have known they could be easily contradicted. Cash strikes me as too canny to make that type of mistake. But, you know, I was wrong yesterday.

One really puzzling element of this story, for me, is the idea that Cash asked her senior media adviser yesterday morning if he had briefed the media, and that he lied to her. Of course he’s only human, and perhaps in some rapid interaction he didn’t think too hard and then the moment was gone. I suppose there’s an argument that he was trying to protect her from knowledge he didn’t think she should have. But … it seems odd, and unlikely. However, unless he comes out and contradicts the story, which seems even more unlikely, we’ll never know.

However, if all anyone can establish is that Cash misled the committee as a result of false assurances from her media adviser, then I can’t see why she should resign. I’m not sure what she could be expected to have done about that.

Some of you will doubt that a staffer would have even told journalists about a police raid without consulting with the minister first. This doesn’t strike me as highly unusual. A little, perhaps, but staffers, especially experienced ones, often act independently. They do have to make judgements of their own. It’s even what they’re paid for. 

But what remains strange to me is the idea that the staffer would not have told anyone – not that he was about to brief journalists, but that the raid was happening. Not his colleagues? Not more senior staff? Not the prime minister’s office – who might, then, have told the prime minister? Remember that we are talking about a parliamentary sitting day: everybody is in the same building. And as Michelle Grattan has pointed out, it is odd that Turnbull only asked Cash whether she had briefed journalists herself: he might be expected to know that that job would normally fall to staff.  

You should also know that as of this afternoon Cash said she has engagements tomorrow in Perth that will prevent her from attending another meeting of the Senate committee that has been questioning her. You should also know that she had not spoken to her adviser again before being questioned this morning, so there remain several unresolved questions. Finally, you should know that both Turnbull and Cash deployed the standard crisis operating procedure today, which is to give the same answer over and over again, regardless of the question. Everyone does this these days: it avoids giving your opponents other loose ends with which to tie you up.

What happens next is hard to say. Parliament is about to break for a fortnight. If Cash manages to avoid fronting the committee again, then Labor will find its case hard to prosecute. It will need new evidence to come to light, or for hard-nosed interviewers to trip up Turnbull or Cash – if indeed there are facts on which they can be tripped, which we do not know. Of course, part of the reason we do not know is because Turnbull and Cash are not very keen to tell us. 

Episode 8: The Global Economy
Renewable energy, euthanasia, community gardens. This week, Richard Denniss talks to ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, broadcaster Indira Naidoo and economist Chris Fry about the individual making choices and the fiction of the "global economy".


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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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