Tonight, the Western Australian connection in Abbott’s slush fund – including the plot to destroy the WA Democrats through the Courts – featuring John Samuel, Harold Clough, David Churches, Noel Crichton-Browne and John Poynton. Then there’s Tim Fischer…
Antony Loewenstein’s first report for Webdiary on the players in the Abbott/Hanson saga was Who’s who in Abbott’s slush fund zoo. Tonight, the Western Australian connection – including the plot to destroy the WA Democrats through the Courts – featuring John Samuel, Harold Clough, David Churches, Noel Crichton-Browne and John Poynton. Then there’s Tim Fischer…
Our anti-democratic ‘democracy’
by Antony Loewenstein
Legal experts debate the rights and wrongs of the AEC not forcing Tony Abbott to disclose donors to his quaintly titled Australians for Honest Politics (AHP) while the players and the networks of influence behind it remain in the shadows.
There appears to be a feeling, articulated widely by the Murdoch press and echoed by certain Fairfax op-ed writers, that chasing Abbott is a waste of time and that mud will never stick. Perhaps most ominously for critics of the mainstream press, numerous commentators (mainly in the Murdoch press) have suggested there is a small cabal of campaigning journalists in the (mainly Fairfax) press, determined to strike collateral damage on the Howard Government, whatever the cost.
The Abbott case is important for many reasons:
1) As articulated by law lecturer Graeme Orr in Memo to AEC: why not let the Courts decide Abbott slush fund secrets?, there are serious questions about the performance of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). To suggest, as Abbott has, that he wasn’t asked to disclose the donors behind the trust and therefore everything is hunky dory, ignores the AEC’s emasculation in the last 10 years. Neither major party comes out of this looking fresh, hence the current silence in parliament and the media from any ALP front or backbencher.
2) Do certain sections of the establishment media really want true accountability and transparency from our elected officials? It seems we cannot assume that a truly open democracy is their ideal political model.
3) Why has the ALP been so weak in attacking Abbott over this issue? A lack of leadership is one answer, but it’s too simple an explanation. Crean and co know full well that they have obstructed reform to the AEC over the years, so when they gain power they can conduct business not dissimilar to the Howard Government. Heard any ALP members shouting for AEC reform lately?
4) Most importantly, what connections exist between the AHP and the cabal unleashed against the Democrats in Western Australia in the 1990s? A pattern is clearly emerging of powerful forces determined to litigate away any perceived threat. It’s the perfect neo-conservative tactic – PRE-EMPTION.
5) The relative silence of most sections of the media is an issue in itself. It’s hardly a coincidence that most of the Murdoch press constantly belittle the minor parties’ interventions in our political game. It comes from a belief that our system is designed for two big players. These Big Parties rely on varying press support depending on how favourably the Parties assist the Company. It’s brutal and simple and the destroying of One Nation in Queensland through the AHP is seen as a service to this ‘democratic’ model. Hence generally favourable report cards, most noticeably from The Australian’s Paul Kelly (Tony Abbott’s holey crusade).
Western Australia – The unholy alliance of Samuel, Clough, Churches Crichton-Browne and Elliott
Big shots litigating small players are nothing new. Tobacco companies have been doing it for years and patterns have emerged of similar behaviour by leading WA figures, namely John Samuel, Harold Clough andDavid Churches.
In 1994, the Democrats were on the rise with Cheryl Kernot as leader. In 1999, Fia Cumming reported in the Sun Herald that John Samuel was instrumental in gaining financial, moral and political support for the job of unseating the WA Democrats:
When Bruce Whiteside, founder of the Pauline Hanson Support Movement (PHSM), was seeking funding in December 1996 he spoke to a senior businessman with strong Liberal connections who hinted that large sums would be arranged.
“The money will be forthcoming, but it will not be used to directly assist Hanson,” Whiteside was told. “The money will be used to clear the blockage in the Senate.” The businessman said the result would be “the decimation of the Australian Democrats”, but made it clear he could not be associated with the plans.
Pressure on Whiteside to turn the PHSM into a political party was strongest from WA and one person, John Samuel. Before the 1993 federal election, Samuel bought the company name Australian Democrats WA Division, and tried to gain control of the party then led by Cheryl Kernot.
In the 1996 federal campaign, he used his legal action against the Democrats to try to minimise the party’s Senate vote.
Sound familiar? Tony Abbott undoubtedly knew of Samuel’s pedigree and that he could rely on the businessman for discretion, money and access.
It has been suggested that John Elliott, then a highly successful Melbourne business identity and potential Liberal leader, was involved in raising money to litigate the Democrats out of existence. At the time a Supreme Court action was on foot designed to destroy the then leader of the Dems, Cheryl Kernot.
In 1996, SMH journo Paul McGeough wrote a profile on the WA political scene outlining the importance of the state in deciding the upcoming federal election. A quote by Democrat Andrew Murray rings particularly true today:
“There was no vision, no philosophy or values. They [the opposition parties] all showed themselves to be issue-or opportunity-driven. They have no views on what Australia or WA should be like in the future.”
McGeough painted a picture of an intolerant political environment where opportunists and financial heavyweights could exercise almost total control. John Samuel and stockbroker John Poynton became involved in the attempted purchase of the WA Democrats, an unsurprising move from two men used to buying, and usually getting, whatever they wanted. As McGeough wrote: “With a State election only weeks away, it was expedient to hijack an existing party rather than set up their own structures.”
Interestingly, in 1996 the WA Electoral Commission never recognised the Samuel tilt at ‘ownership’ of the Dems.
A 1998 report in The Australian portrayed Samuel as a “political agitator”, and a man whose motivations needed to questioned at every turn due to his seemingly constant involvement in litigation against any political party who threatened the vote of the Liberal Party.
Chip Le Grand and Leisa Scott wrote:
He (Samuel) has made a formal complaint to fraud squad detectives that hundreds of One Nation members, predominantly from the disbanded Peel branch in Western Australia, were “duped” by the party’s unorthodox administrative structure, in which all branch dues flowed straight into the Sydney-based company Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Ltd. As with Mr Samuel’s past high-profile forays, his motivation has come under immediate question.
One Nation national director David Ettridge yesterday told Perth radio station 6PR Mr Samuel had never been a member of One Nation and had sought to endear himself to its parliamentary leader Pauline Hanson to build a power base within the Peel branch for his own political reasons (Ed: When and how did Samuel’s relationship with Abbott begin?). In Brisbane, Ms Hanson said Mr Samuel and former Peel branch executives were themselves being investigated by police for their refusal to return $2500 in campaign donations. Mr Samuel said he was directly involved in withholding the money, but denied aspiring to hold office within One Nation.”
Within four years, Samuel had switched from a Democrats ‘supporter’ to a One Nation ‘supporter’. Samuel’s role remains unclear, but his real allegiance seems increasingly obvious. This kind of role clearly requires a pay-off (in his mind), politically, financially or for his businesses. His continued scuttling of alternative parties would surely be looked at favourably by the Howard Government.
But let us not forget Harold Clough, one of Australia’s richest men, a major power broker in the Liberal Party, and a donor to the HPT. Earlier this month, Senator Andrew Murray revealed that Clough was one of the major supporters behind Samuel and David Churches’ litigious campaign against the Democrats in the mid 1990s. Senator Murray said it appeared that a pattern was emerging, and that along with the Abbott trust fund, the Liberal Party appeared to be using the courts to eradicate potential threats.
“I think the purpose in both cases was political, not moral. It was about damaging the competition. In trade practices terms, it was anti-competitive activity,” Senator Murray said.
Back in 1996, Churches claimed that no political party funded the litigation against the Democrats, but this must now be in question. When a major donor like Harold Clough donates money to your fighting fund, how separate is he from the Liberal Party? What does he expect for his donation? And what rules of disclosure should apply to this kind of ‘transaction’?
On last Sunday’s Insider’s program Barrie Cassidy asked Senator Murray about recent revelations of the links between the WA Democrats litigation and the Abbott slush fund.
There’s a consistent pattern of behaviour. I’m less interested in the personalities, although they point to the connections, than the issue of disclosure. In the Electoral Act it says two things – under gifts and under associated entities – that if a registered political party is likely to benefit from the actions or donations of others then those donors should be disclosed. Now it is quite clear in the case of the Hanson episode that the demise of One Nation or a lower vote for One Nation, would benefit other political parties and in those circumstances, to me, it is straightforward – the donors should be disclosed.(Call for names of donors to ‘honest politics’ fund)
Another player in this saga is Noel Crichton-Browne, disgraced WA Liberal power broker and former Senator. Paul McGeough reported in early 1996 that Crichton-Browne was a key player in a political landscape where financial favours and backroom deals were order of the day. Was he involved in litigation against the Democrats?
But the Liberals still are going into this Federal election campaign with Chilla Porter as WA campaign chairman. Porter is a close associate of the disgraced Liberal powerbroker Noel Crichton-Browne, but he’s also a professional fund-raiser, through his company Controlled Marketing.
The company’s efforts on behalf of a local charity and the Coalition State Government’s tardiness in tightening the regulation of fund-raisers have angered WA charities.
Now the Government of Premier Richard Court suffers daily from revelations on what has become known as Wanneroo Inc – an emerging web of corruption and sharp business and political practice involving key Liberals in Perth’s far-flung northern suburbs.
More interestingly, Crichton-Browne was reported in 1996 as spending a disproportionate amount of time with Pauline Hanson. An odd couple to say the least. In 1996, the SMH reported the curious pairing:
The final mystery is the former WA Liberal power broker expelled from the party last year, Senator Noel Crichton-Browne, a frequent visitor to Hanson’s office. John Pasquarelli claims him as an old friend, but refuses to answer questions about what NCB is doing there. (Margo: Crichton-Browne wrote Hanson a letter detailing his blueprint for the structure of One Nation for Hanson. It was largely followed.)
Crichton-Browne was not unique in showing favour to Hanson after her infamous maiden speech, but his previous deep involvement with the Liberal Party opens up some intriguing questions:
1) Was he acting on his own when dealing with Hanson?
2) What involvement did he still have with the Liberal Party?
3) Did any of his observations end up having any connection to the eventual litigation against One Nation?
4) What was, and is, the relationship between Samuel and Crichton-Browne, and the relationship between Abbott and Crichton-Browne?
The fact that the AEC is still refusing to force Abbott to release all the names of the donors to his slush fund means it’s hard for the Australian people to get a clearer understanding of how widely the Liberal Party used litigation to destroy its political opponents.
One possibility ignored in the eastern seaboard media is whether Tim Fisher was involved in the Abbott slush fund. WA ABC reported on August 27 that an ex-One Nation member Paul Trewartha claimed that Tim Fisher rang him in 1998 to offer support for a court case brought about partly due to the Abbott Trust Fund. Fisher denies the claims, but it suggests that National Party involvement cannot be discounted and should be further investigated (Tim Fischer denies involvement in anti One Nation campaign).
One thing is clear. We need to start asking our elected officials the tough questions and holding our so-called democratic institutions, like the AEC, to account.
It’s no longer good enough to be told, as politicians (including Howard) and some media commentators do, that it’s all part of the game. We shouldn’t accept that the Big Parties have carte blanche to squash little competitors who are ‘obstructing’ their agendas.
Democracy is not founded on principles of deception, lack of transparency and lies. Depressingly, we may well have reached a stage in liberal democracies around the world where the general public no longer believe politicians’ claims or accusations. There has always been players pulling the strings of power in Australia, and perhaps there will always will be, but we shouldn’t accept it as a given, and we need to believe we have the power to demand accountability and change.
Many have suggested that the Howard Government is one of the most private and devious of modern times. Perhaps, but let us not be under any illusions that a Federal ALP Government would have acted any differently. The virtual silence that greeted news of the Abbott trust fund in 1998 is telling. Were Beazley and his frontbenchers demanding transparency? Hardly, as the Liberals were doing the work the ALP were only too happy to support. When the Big Parties are threatened, watch the bipartisan love affair emerge.
The ability of the general public to demand greater accountability presupposes that we live in a democracy. These days, who really believes that we do?