On Friday, October 20, the pollies perks minister Senator Chris Ellison awoke to the Herald’s publication of an explosive document which raised yet more questions about his administration during the Reith Telecard blowout.
We obtained the document on Thursday, and on the same day, I wrote to him as follows:
Senator Chris Ellison,
Special Minister of State,
RE: PETER REITH’S TELECARD.
I request answers to the following questions by close of business today.
(1) When did you first become aware that present or former staff of Mr Reith had been using Mr Reith’s Telecard?
(2) What action did your take upon learning of this unauthorised use of Mr Reith’s Telecard?
(3) On what date were your first informed that the Australian Federal Police would be called in to investigate?
(4) On what date did you inform Mr Reith that police could be called in?
(5) On what date did you inform the Prime Minister that police could be called in?
Chief of Staff, Sydney Morning Herald Canberra bureau
That night, Senator Ellison replied through his media adviser that he would not answer any of the questions because federal police investigations had been reopened that the matters raised in my questions were “operational matters”.
Oh Really. The AFP are not investigating Senator Ellison’s behaviour, unless he is suggesting that he, too, could have been guilty of a criminal offence. Indeed, no-one is investigating government management of this scandal up until the day the Canberra Times blew the lid off the coverup.
The confidential memo shows that the Finance Department advised Ellison in September that a massive fraud had taken place, and that the AFP would investigate.
Are we to seriously believe that he advised neither John Howard’s office or Peter Reith of this nightmare? John Howard sacked David Jull from the ministry during the travel rorts affair because he had failed to advise him of a major discrepancy in Transport Minister John Sharp’s travel claims (a mere $8,000).
Yet Howard says he knew only in May (although he has not ruled out, yet, anyone in his office knowing earlier) and Reith says he knew of the fraud in April this year.
Reith says it was he who advised the PM, who then referred the matter to police.
So why the seven month delay before the police were called in, given that the September memo shows Fiance had got the basic information, including the fact that one user (Mr Y) had made 2,176 calls worth $13,949, that 700 calls were from overseas, and that two users were “former staff of Mr Reith”. Ellison won’t say, and when we asked Ellison for all Finance documents on the Reith Telecard he says to wait until our freedom of information application is processed.
The law states that Telecards must be used by the MP personally, and the memo reinforces this by revealing that Telecards and pins are delivered to each MP personally “sealed in a double envelope to prevent anyone but the senator or member seeing the number”.
So what did Ellison do when advised of this breach by Reith in giving his pin to former staff members? He won’t say.
When the memo story broke on October 20, lots of journos asked Ellison’s office lots of questions. Ellison – who’s cowardice has seen him hide behind his media adviser throughout this scandal – waited until after 7pm to reply, when just about everyone had gone home. He also locked his office door so noone could query the press release one of his minions distributed to the press gallery. Again, he answered none of the questions asked.
This is his statement:
The Department of Finance and Administration’s brief to me, dated 8 September 2000 (MARGO: It was September 1999) stated that there was an internal audit already under way, followed by a possible reference to the Australian Federal Police.
As you can see from the wording of the brief itself:
“It is proposed that the AFP will be provided with this information when it has been gathered with a view to ascertaining whether it will investigate this matter”. (MARGO: He underlined “when it has been gathered”.)
The Departmental brief did not recommend immediate reference to the police.
As is entirely appropriate, the Department rigorously conducted this investigation (MARGO: which Ellison rigorously refuses to publish) under the established procedures. It did so with my full support.
The very documentation that has been circulated by the Herald on its website gives lie to the allegations of a cover up.”
Wow!. How mindless. Let’s hope its not effective. This press release, by the way, has still not found its way onto Ellison’s Web site’s press release archive.
There are other questions, some of which I’d previously put to Ellison in writing.
Reith has constantly alleged that Finance told him it would have paid a $1 million bill on his Telecard without question. I asked Ellison and Finance chief Peter Boxall when this no questions asked policy began and on whose directions. Boxall failed to reply, Ellison claimed that this was all due to a Bolkus direction when he was the responsible minister in 1991. This is untrue. Bolkus directed – after pressure from now Liberal minister Bronwyn Bishop – that Finance not get the Telecard accounts, to protect MPs privacy. Instead, Finance got the total bill. The no questions asked mystery remains. The leaked memo increases then importance of this question being answered, as it revealed that Telstra had warned Fiance of the overuse of Reith’s Telecard on July 17 1998, a year before another Telstra office blew the whistle which triggered the investigation. Howard then claimed Finance had checked the account against Reith’s whereabouts and confirmed that Reith was in Western Australia at the time calls from WA were made. So why not saves themselves the hassle and give Reith a call instead?
Then there’s the revelation by John Howard that Finance had asked Peter Reith long ago to pay back the $50,000. They’d told Reith they would issue a debit notice. They didn’t. Why not, Senator Ellison, and why have Reith and Howard consistently claimed that Reith had no obligation to repay, when Finance clearly thought he did?
Finally, and here’s where Ellison’s administration gets seriously insidious, you’ll recall that after Miss X outed herself and made serious allegations of deficiencies in the AP investigation, the PM sent the new material back to the Solicitor-General David Bennett QC for supplementary advice on whether Reith and son had any civil liability to repay.
Bennett had previously opined that he believed Paul Reith, not Miss X. But Miss X revealed that the police had systemically failed to seek corroboration of her evidence. She also alleged that the AFP had failed to report that she had told them a person from the government called her flatemate Mr Y in 1994 telling her to stop using the card.
Bennett, in running a mile from his previous advice by stressing her was not responsible for the quality of the investigation, still came down on Paul Reith’s side, citing a minute from Finance that it had non record of such a call.
But the leaked memo revealed that far from the lack of a record bolstering Paul Reith and harming Miss X’s credibility, the opposite was true. It appeared that Finance may have deliberately misled Bennett, to bolster Paul Reith. I wrote to the Attorney-General, on October 20:
Mr Daryl Williams QC
Re: Reith Telecard
I refer to the Solicitor-General’s supplementary advice dated October 18. In maintaining his view that Miss X was not a credible witnesses, he relied in part on a minute from the Department of Finance concerning Miss X’s claim that a woman from the government had telephoned her home in 1994 to advise that the Reith Telecard should no longer be used.
That minute stated “no evidence of any such contact by the department was found” in Department records. “We have checked the available departmental files on hand and are unable to locate any evidence of such contact”.
Do you consider it a relevant omission in the Finance minute that Mr Bennett was not advised, as Finance had advised Minister Ellison in a ministerial briefing note on September 8 1999, that:
“We have sought to collect the relevant internal documentation from our files to understand the sequence of events. Due to the length of time that has elapsed since Mr Reith was first issued with a Telecard, some documents may be difficult to source or no longer exist.” The document can be viewed in its entirety on www.smh.com.au.
Will you consider drawing this omission to the attention to the Prime Minister with a view to further briefing Mr Bennett?
Chief of Staff, Sydney Morning Herald Canberra bureau.
Copy to Mr Bennett.
Williams refused to comment. So did Ellison. So did Finance.
Let’s hope Labor asks Ellison for answers in question time today.
It’s great to be back on line.
During my visit to the Newcastle young writers festival earlier this month, I asked one of the organisers to see if some young people would contribute an essay to webdiary. Here’s the first of them.
The Political Wanderings of a Youth
By TIM CRAKANTHORP, 30, a Newcastle local working for federal ALP MP Allan Morris
“Comrade, how do they treat Aborigines in Australia?”
This was the first question asked of me by a black school student in 1987. I must admit that it was a bit different from the usual questions I was asked about the Aussie Cricket and Rugby teams – after all I was in South Africa.
Seventeen, fresh faced and just out of year 12 from a NSW coastal town this was all proving a bit intense.
The year progressed and if I wasnt being indoctrinated about the “settlement” of South Africa by the Boers of Netherlands, then it was talk of those “stupid Kaffirs, who are only good for gardening”, from the boys in the other schools.
“Were they settled, or invaded?” I wondered.
After a year of travelling around Johannesburg, Cape Town, Elizabeth Bay and of course Jeffreys Bay (or J-Bay for the waxheads), it was back home and off to Newcastle University.
After a restless year in Newcastle I couldnt find home or re-settle. “Who am I? What am I doing here?” I kept asking myself.
“Enrol to vote! Get active!” I replied. “But why? How can I stand by when all of those South African friends are dying?”
My political identity had been stirred, all revved up with no place to go until they introduced HECS.
“What! Fees to study”, we yelled. Gough always promised it would be free.
The ALP charging fees. The Libs increasing them. The Dems, no where to be seen. And the Greens, whats education to a tree? I looked into Resistance, the Trogs, the International Socialist Organisation.
Fragmented and distraught, I pondered my stance. “Where to now?” As I stood there, I was struck by one of my first adult lessons. Life isn’t always black and white.
The Libs have always been slow on getting us to enrol. Now they are trying to pass legislation to shut the electoral roll when an election is called. They closed down the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition and replaced it with a Youth Round Table “keep those youngsters in their place”.
I went to check out the Youth Round Table in the big Parliament House. I looked at the list of speakers. Every person there had created an environmental, political or social experiment years ahead of their time, been patted on the back by the Minister and sent back to their respective box.
“What must the ordinary youth of today do to get recognised?” I thought. There were 50 students representing 2.7million others!* Thank you and goodnight.
So what do you do?
I thought back to my years of study, wandering and thinking. Again I ventured overseas, the next time to work. I believed I was going to “Save the World”.
I worked in an Environmental Education Centre in Java. The work was good for a whileuntil the paper that I was stuffing into the village chiefs “model” compost bin showed me Pauline Hansons tight and negative frown.
“Save the World, what about my own backyard!” I yelled as I ran barefoot out of the Chiefs compound. Within a week I was back in town.
You don’t have to search the world to find your own political party. Just have a good look around. Look at your life, look at your environment. What can you do to improve it?
Where you see an inequality then strive to fix it. Join a union or the ALP if you are being exploited. Join a green group if your bushland is being bulldozed. Join a volunteer group if you want to help people, penguins or perishing buildings. Get involved in one of the most significant youth cultural events in the national calendar, “this is not art” held in Newcastle every year! Join like-minded people and find strength and friends.
“But comrade, how do they treat Aborigines in Australia?” the black youth asked again.
“It depends my friend, it depends on the white persons own inner strength and security”
Now to READER FEEDBACK. It’s going through an angry and emotional phase, and on all sorts of topics. So Reith today, more tomorrow.
Get that smarmy smirk off Reith’s nasty face for good. Get him out of Parliament. He shouldn’t be let off the hook!
COLIN, “just a humble cabbie”
I always read your pieces and hear your banter with Philip Adams, and enjoy them, and alright, so I learn from them too – alright? I’d just like to suggest a scenario to you regarding the Reith phonecard affair.
You must know that the Telegraph have been on the case with a view to dislodging Reith. Why would they want to do this? Well, maybe Mr Murdoch wants to prove his power to Howard and the Liberal Govt in nice time before the next election. After all, Peter Reith really should have been called to account for his much more important misleadings and evasions and connivances in the waterfront dispute.
I know that it has such delicious elements for a tabloid, but I can’t help thinking that the Telegraph wouldn’t be running so hard on this if Rupert Murdoch didn’t see an advantage in destroying Reith. Anyway, I know nothing. I’m just a humble cabbie in Sydney.
By the way, I would rather Reith stay, not because I like him, but because, as a hopeful Labor voter, I want the stink to remain till the next election.
HELIX F UNION
A couple of years ago, the Swedish Justice Minister (Mrs Lejland?), whilst out of the country on government business, innocently bought 3 gifts for her daughter on a government credit card….intending to pay cash to make up payment on return from her trip.
Unfortunately for her she forgot.
There is some kind of procedural audit……this oversight is brought to light……without any hue & cry the justice minister resigns (taking the responsibility on the chin) much to the approval of the public, who applaud her integrity. The opposition make no political capital out of the situation & in theory her political career is intact.
Reith is on the backfoot now. Well done. Chardonnay ? You must be joking. We are all ready to plunge into a vat of neat gin .
Wring out the liver, back to the keyboard. We need you. How can we drive THEM to drink !~
PS:Yes Margo, the battlers’ friend is no such thing.
The Liberal government and some of their appointees have been exposed as arrogant and as awash with born-to-rule attitudes as ever.
They wooed middle Australia( with their mortgages) and bigoted Australia(with their racism ) with their “warm and comfortable party who knows how to balance the books” .
The gloves are off now. The curtains have been drawn back to expose a government that despises everything about Australians who are not born to privilege.
Two terms of government has gone to their heads and they will do whatever they like whether it be dogs on the wharves, hounding social security beneficiaries, abolishing funding to women’s groups , turning the universities over to extensions of big business or dismantling the ABC .
They are now going towards the next election with imaginary bubbles above their heads which ( in the minds of the voters) read “RORTS”.
All their own work.
I have been really busy lately so haven’t had time to participate in the earlier discussions but I need to say thanks to you and Mike Seccombe. I think you are doing a great job on uncovering the Reith stuff. It is really important that current (and future) politicians understand just how important accountability.
It has been a big problem for some time – I have found the current government particularly prone to double standards. Special rules for them and their mates and so hard on those who can’t fight back. I am so outraged – and once again Ruddock had the gall to suggest that refugees waste money given to them because they might dare to buy mobile phones (perhaps he would offer them his telecard). I just can’t understand why he wants Australians to think that this group is so undeserving and shouldn’t even want to get in touch with their families. grrrr
In regards to accountability I think I started to get particularly troubled when we heard that there were no minutes of Wooldridge’s meetings with the radiologists. It seems that all too often there is a lack of material evidence either why and suspicious events can neither proved or disproved. Do you think it has been a deliberate policy to ensure that there is no paper trail in this government? With the lack of sufficient records and the readiness to blame departments for poor procedures when it looks more like poor policy (look at the debacle with Bronwyn Bishop) there has been an enormous debasement of the Westminster system in recent years.
Of all the political scalps won by an opposition – surely Reith would be the biggest since Jim Cairns ?
Ros Kelly – not pm material
Carmen Lawrence – big, but toward the end of the Labor Gov.
Mick Young – hardly pm material in the age of Hawke
Reg Withers – once a toe cutter, never a PM
Phil Lynch – yeah right!
Rex Connor – too old
Given “society” Pete’s place in the leadership chain and vis-a-vis the other society Pete, its pretty huge. Shame if it doesn’t come off.
PS – I met and spoke with Ian McPhee the other day – he is an interesting one to put in the ex-Liberals now disenchanted with the party bag. He told me he is giving a speech to the Vietnamese community in Syd in Nov b/c they are Thanking the “Fraser Government” (his expression), for what they did for the boat people in late 70s. Johnny will love it!
Love your Reith work.
One thing that hasn’t been emphasised in anyone’s reporting is that telecards are not some special government thing. Anyone can sign up for one free of charge from Telstra or Optus. I have one myself. It costs nothing until I decide to use it when interstate or overseas, when the call costs are charged back to my home account.
Reith could have organised a telecard for Paul, to be charged right back to Reith snr. Then he might have noticed the $950 a bit sooner. The fact that you can do this to my mind undermines completely any credibility or sympathy for the Reith “emergency” defence – which Howard has used with some success to play down the importance of Reith’s original intentional fraud.
The failure of the DPP to act on such a clearly admitted case of fraud is simply amazing. Its also in breach of DPP guidelines which state:
(2.13) A decision whether or not to prosecute must clearly not be influenced by:
(a) the race, religion, sex, national origin or political associations,
activities or beliefs of the alleged offender or any other person involved;
(b) personal feelings concerning the alleged offender or the victim;
(c) possible political advantage or disadvantage to the Government or any political group or party.
We will have to wait until a private citizen ambushes Mr Reith with a private prosecution.
As a general rule any person has the right at common law to institute a prosecution for a breach of the criminal law. That right is recognised in the Crimes Act 1914 and is expressly preserved by section 10 (2) of the Act.
Watch out Peter and Paul, judgement day is coming
NEALE TOWART (not on behalf of Labor Council, but speaking personally)
If X and/or Y are to be prosecuted, as Mr Reith seems to want, then Paul and Peter Reith surely should be to. At school we were always told that ignorance of the law is no excuse. If you exceed the speed limit because you didn’t know it was 60 zone or an 80 zone, and the radar gets you, not knowing is no help in avoiding a fine.
Reith says he didn’t know it wasn’t allowed to be passed on. Emergency or no emergency, he should not have done it. $950 is a lot of emergency. If urgent contact was an issue, he could have organised a separate card. Paul Reith thought it should go to his fathers personal account. Ignorance again.
Also, why should we believe that X overheard or eavesdropped on Paul to get the card details any more than we should believe here view that he told her the number?
As you say, the buck stops nowhere. How much do Labor want to come out if their members have been doing the same thing?
Also Reith’s character can’t be suppressed can it? In the midst of this furore around himself, he starts putting the boot into a target. Not wharfies but X and Y this time. Weird guy.
I agree with you 200% about Howard’s “coverup” of the Reithagate affair. Why are you the only journo pushing this aspect??
Is big Kim not pushing it because they would do the same in similar circumstances? Surely not. They kept it from the taxpayer for 9 months.
To me this is like a partner being unfaithful in a marriage & then lying about it to the other partner. The betrayal of TRUST is at least as great as the deed of being unfaithful, don’t you think??
I wish other other news outlets would discuss this “coverup” aspect much more than they have. The money is important, as is giving the pin no. to the son, but why don,t they push Honest Johnnie on the “coverup”?? It’s really pissing me off.!!!
I predict that an examination of the details of some of the 11000 calls would show the AFP also playing the three monkeys game. why not put in an FOI application for them? the govt would then cite “privacy” concerns? (MARGO: I have, and they’ve refused, citing the reopening of the investigation.)