John Howard is rewriting history in a desperate bid to regain control of the political agenda. He’s lying – yet again – to do it.
John Howard pandered to Hanson and her supporters in public while simultaneously endorsing a high-powered, big-money, clandestine Liberal Party campaign to destroy her party through the legal system. The exposure of his duplicity to the masses since her jailing threatens to swamp the perception with the reality. And that could mean the disintegration of the unusual constituency he has so painstakingly weaved together to blitz Australian politics.
From the moment of his historic third term win, he’s appeared younger, smoother, softer, stiller. A statesman, comfortable in his skin, basking in his popularity and the collapse of his opposition. He brushes inconvenient questions away like flies, and journalists feel it’s inappropriate to push hard. He deserves respect. He commands it.
Last night’s footage of Howard’s AM interview post The 7.30 Report Abbott debacle showed a frowning, hectoring, aggressive John Howard facing a reporter willing to persist in asking the questions he evades. The delicacy of his position means that every tactic he employs has a downside. All of a sudden the public want journalists to get the truth out of him, and the public backs them when they push Howard hard.
Here’s extracts from the AM interview yesterday, where Catherine McGrath tries to pin Howard down on just how close he was to Abbott’s plot to destroy One Nation and exactly when he knew about it. Before that, an extract of a doorstop interview he gave last Friday where he denied ANY knowledge of the covert legal sting. This transcript, alone of all Howard’s transcripts since the Hanson sentence, does not appear on the Prime Minister’s website:
Q: What about the allegation that the Liberal Party may have … bankrolled the campaign against Pauline Hanson?
PM: I’m not aware of the basis of that allegation. I’m sorry.
Q:Does the Liberal Party have anything…
PM: The Liberal Party to my knowledge, and bear in mind there’s a lot of people that represent the Liberal Party, but I’m not aware of anything of that kind…
EXTRACT OF ‘AM’ INTERVIEW, THURSDAY, AUGUST 28:
McGrath: After Howard has persistently avoided the question … Can I ask you though, going back to that initial question – Tony Abbott (in 1998) said the juggernaut should be stopped. Did you think that too?
PM: Well I thought One Nation should be exposed politically. I believe that it was perfectly legitimate to pursue a belief, as Tony did, that there was something improper or invalid about the partys registration. But that was in no way the prosecution for a criminal offence of Pauline Hanson.
(after more avoidance)
McGrath: So can I ask you though – if you thought back then that One Nation should be exposed politically, when you read it in the media in late 1998 that Tony Abbott had set this up and when he disclosed it formally to you, what did you think? Did you think, oh good on you Tony, that’s the way to go?
PM: Well I knew that he was pursuing it but –
McGrath: What did you think about it?
PM: Well Catherine I had a lot of things to think about then. I was trying to remake Australia’s taxation system. I was trying to make sure that we weathered the onslaught of the Asian economic crisis. I was worried about jobs for people and I was worried about a burgeoning difficulty in East Timor with Indonesia. I think it was the end of 1998 that I may have written a now famous letter to the then President Habibie. So I had a lot of other things on my mind. I mean, let’s keep a sense of perspective. This wasn’t the most important thing on my radar.
McGrath: No, I’m not suggesting it was. I guess I’m just giving you an opportunity to explain to our audience who’d probably like to know, did you think ‘Good on you Tony?’
PM: Well look Catherine, Tony was pursuing this. I was broadly aware of what he was doing. It was in the papers. And for the Labor Party or anybody in the media now to turn around and say that this is a dramatic new revelation that demands explanation, I mean that isse the vernacular, give us a break.
McGrath: Well I’m trying to focus in on you really rather than Mr Abbott.
PM: Yes I gathered that. I’m quite aware of that.
McGrath: I guess people would like to know what you thought that this was really going to … you know, for example Peter Coleman (Honesty in Politics trustee, Peter Costello’s father-in-law, Liberal party elder) says this morning that one of the problems was that the more you argued against One Nation, the stronger they became and the backlash was very strong. So fighting them this way could really do them some damage.
PM: Well Catherine, in fact one of the criticisms that was made of me at the time was that I didn’t attack them enough. One of the reasons I didnt attack them a lot was precisely that, and I think the judgement and the vindication of time and history is that that approach was correct. But I recognise that there are a lot of people in the community and amongst the [inaudible] who didn’t agree with me and criticised me for it and held it against me, and so I think there was a range of views even in my own party as to how to deal with this. It was an important issue historically and both now. A range of people in my own party may have disagreed. But that only underlines the fact of how hypocritical it is for people to now turn around and in effect say you attacked them too much. I mean you can’t have it both ways, can you? (Margo: No you can’t, John.)
McGrath: And further to that, you explaining that you stood back a little bit for that reason, did you also –
PM: No, stood back is your words. I just stand by what I described as my reaction.
McGrath: Yes. But did you also to some extent feel this action, this involvement of Tony Abbott will have some effect as well?
PM: Look Catherine, its five years ago. I had a lot of –
McGrath: But you must have had a thought about that.
PM: A lot of thoughts, and I’ve given you a lot of them. Let’s move on to something else.
Indeed. He had a lot of other things on his mind at the time, did he? The record shows that the One Nation threat was at the top of his political agenda – the very top. He considered it crucial to his government retaining power at the 1998 federal election. It is blindingly obvious reviewing the record that Howard chose a two pronged strategy – love her in public, destroy her through frontpeople in the Courts. As the biggest threat to his reelection, he must have known and approved Abbott’s strategy from the very beginning. And that’s why he’s desperate to fudge the timing and refuses to discuss his involvement.
During the 1996 federal election Howard expelled Liberal candidate Hanson for not withdrawing racist remarks. Six months later, 12 days after her famous maiden speech, he told a Liberal gathering:
One of the great changes that have come over Australia in the last six months is that people do feel able to speak a little more freely and openly about how they feel. In a sense, a pall of censorship on certain issues has been lifted … I welcome the fact that people can now talk about certain things without living in fear of being branded as a bigot or a racist.
I in November that year, amid strong criticism that Howard was not arguing the policy case against Hanson, Abbott wrote in The Australian:
If Howard were to answer Hanson point-to-point – rather than just repudiate her views – he would be further elevating a maiden speech that was a mixture of error, exaggeration and truism… Howard’s approach of “I disagree with what she says, but I’m happy to defend her right to say it” and “hate the sin but not the sinner” sits ill with journalism’s tendency to reduce everything to the simplicities of a 1950s western where goodies and baddies can be identified by the colour of their hats.
One Nation was established in 1997. Neither Howard or Abbott were interested in its structure that year or the first half of the next, let alone queried its legality. Howard’s strategy was to contain the One Nation threat – and turn it to his political advantage – by sympathising with Hanson supporters and preferencing One Nation above Labor. He told his partyroom he’d prefer working with One Nation in the Senate to working with the Democrats.
The first half of 1998 was dominated by the Wik debate. Howard threatened to call a double dissolution race election on Wik if the Senate again rejected his ten point plan – which it did in April. Hanson exploited the turmoil by promising to abolish native title. The Queensland National and Liberals decided to preference One Nation at the pending state election.The result – on June 13, 1998 – changed everything. My book Off the rails, records:
One Nation’s Queensland election result greatly exceeded poll predictions and rocked the nation. One Nation attracted a whopping 23 percent of the vote and won eleven seats with the help of National Party preferences. Labor picked up Liberal seats in Brisbane partly due to voter’s disgust with their party preferencing One Nation.
One Nation’s federal support ballooned instantly, and the political establishment was on fire with panic. If Howard called a double dissolution election, the prospect loomed of One Nation snatching a swag of Senate seats at the National Party’s expense and gaining the Senate balance of power. In the rural NSW seat of Gwydir, held by deputy National Party leader and Primary Industry Minister John Anderson, private party polling showed an incredible 49 percent of voters intended to vote One Nation.
Within days John Howard rushed into action. He backflipped on preferences, now pushing for the Liberals to put One Nation last in the impending federal election, and began talks with independent Senator Brian Harradine to reach a compromise on Wik, after having pledged never to amend his ten-point plan. He flew to the Queensland federal National Party seat of Wide Bay, where all three state seats including Maryborough had fallen to One Nation, to be met with antagonism at public meetings and a line-up on new One Nation MPs.
I travelled with Howard on that trip, and he was consistently sympathetic to the One Nation voters who packed his public meetings. He sought to soothe, to explain, to convince. He then flew back to Canberra and backed down on Brian Harradine’s four sticking points on Wik, thus eliminating native title as an election issue for Hanson.
Tony Abbott described the Liberal Party’s post-Queensland strategy switch in the book Two Nations: The causes and effects of the rise of the One Nation Party in Australia (Bookman, 1998), in which commentators including myself wrote essays analysing the Queensland result:
The Queensland pattern suggests that a strong One Nation vote presents the Coalition with two alternatives: conceding government to Labor (by directing preferences against One Nation); or creating a credible rival for the conservative vote (by putting Labor last)…
Obviously, rather than take a high One Nation vote for granted, the only viable Coalition strategy is to find ways of undermining support for the Hansonites. This is no easy matter, given the general fascination with what many still find hard to take more seriously than a political freak show, plus One Nation’s ability to excuse even the most bizarre revelations as beat-ups by the limp-wristed leftie press.
The Coalition could have argued the case, of course – as Jeff Kennett did. It could have softened its treatment of the Hanson underclass, or made more generous transition arrangements for people in dying towns. But Howard wanted to publicly woo the disaffected – and turn them away from Labor – through pandering to prejudices, while destroying One Nation on the quiet.
Within three weeks of the Queensland election, on July 1, Abbott began a parliamentary attack on the structure of one Nation, and really got stuck into it on July 2 (see australianpolitics). His immediate concern was crystal clear – that One Nation would get money in the bank for the first time through public funding. He wanted to stop the money flow so it would be less able to fight the federal election:
One of the key questions is the fate of the $500,000 worth of taxpayers’ money to which it has always been assumed One Nation is entitled in the wake of the Queensland election result. To receive public funding, a party must be registered under the relevant act. …
On July 7, less than a month after the Queensland result, Abbott was in the Brisbane offices of solicitors Minter Ellison with Terry Sharples nutting out a legal subsidy – lawyers supplied for free, out-of-pocket legal expenses guaranteed – for Sharples’ civil case to deregister One Nation. According to Sharples, Abbott said the Liberal connection needed to be kept secret. Important enough, as it turned out, to tell a bare faced lie to Four Corners when it interviewed him on July 31, and to lie again to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2000. He told the truth only when the Herald produced a signed guarantee:
That agreement, a copy of which has been obtained by the Herald, was handwritten by Abbott and promised “my personal guarantee that you will not be further out-of-pocket as a result of this action”. It was witnessed and dated July 11, 1998. (See Tony Abbott’s dirty Hanson trick – and he lied about it, of course)
Note that Abbott omitted to disclose his plot in his book chapter.
Why the need for secrecy? Pretty obvious really. How could Howard woo One Nation voters to preference the Liberals and Nationals above Labor if they knew his Party was soliciting disaffected One Nation members to launch legal action against the Party with the promise of legal funding? The two positions don’t mesh. They are irreconcilable.
According to Abbott on The 7.30 Report, the Sharples arrangement fell apart soon after the Four Corners interview in which he lied about it, and in less than a month he’d set up his Australians for Honest Politics Trust to talk former Hanson staffer Barbara Hazelton into launching legal action against One Nation.
So where does that leave Howard and Abbott? With widespread public outrage across political lines at Hanson’s treatment by the system in comparison to its treatment of sophisticated, moneyed dirty operators like Howard, Abbott and co, they’re in a tight spot. We’re seeing delicately spun spin unravelling under the pressure of its own contradictions. Everytime Howard comes up with a line to back Abbott and distance himself, he proves the case against them both. Mark Twain once said that you never had to remember what you said if you always told the truth.
For example, Howard and Abbott claim Hanson’s jail sentence was too severe. In other words, the party was evil enough to destroy by fair means or foul, yet Hanson didn’t do anything really wrong. Last Friday on Neil Mitchell’s 3AW radio program, Howard even said he disagreed with the party registration requirements which brought Hanson down:
And you’re dealing here with the breach of a law which is not based on something which is naturally a crime. I mean, we have created the offences of because we’ve created a law which requires the registration of political parties – years ago we didn’t require that in this country but I cant really comment on whether the conviction was justified. You’d have to have sat through the hearing. And Im not really making an observation on that. But if you ask me, like many other people, I find the sentence certainly very long and very severe…
Can I talk generally about the issue of registering political parties? Can I just put aside her individual circumstances? I’ve always had some reservations about whether the requirement that you register political parties as justified as necessary, but we’re stuck with it now and I’m not suggesting for a moment that it be changed. And because we have public funding of political parties, there has to be proper accountability in relation to that. But some people would see the law as being somewhat technical because after all people who donated to her political movement were donating to support a particular cause, and they probably felt that they were supporting that cause rather than a particular formal expression of that cause. (transcript)
Tony Abbott’s self-righteous steam and fury at One Nation’s structure was a sham. And so is John Howard.