By Margo Kingston,
24 August, 2013
Wondering who will be in the Abbott Government’s club? It took a while, but back in 2003 Webdiarists and I worked out who Howard invited to his barbecue with George Bush. Believe it or not the guest list was a secret, and there’ll be many more of those, folks. Paul Ramsey of Ramsey Health Care was there, along with other big Liberal donors. Paul will also get rewarded by Howard’s political son Abbott. Mike Seccombe revealed this week that Paul keeps giving the Libs bucketloads of cash. This is the opening chapter of Still not happy, John: Defending our democracy (Penguin, 1997).
Disclosing John Howard’s Elite
Beware of he who would deny you information, for in his mind he dreams of being your master
Message on a computer game
John Howard personally chose the Australians invited to the Lodge for a barbecue on Thursday, 23 October 2003. We paid the bills – as we should have if this were a government function and not a private party. John Howard’s guest of honour was none other than George Bush, President of the United States of America.
I was interested in John Howard’s invitation list because this was the only function in George Bush’s one-day stopover where he could meet real Australians. All else was staged, choreographed, ritualised – a speech to Parliament, a wreath laying at the War Memorial – and cocooned by oppressive security and the meticulous masking from the President’s eyes of any sign of protest, any indication that Australia was not united behind the war on Iraq.
It was a thank-you visit – a special treat to reward a loyal ally. So who would Howard choose to represent us? In 1996, when we chose him to lead us, he promised to govern ‘For all of us’. That was his slogan. So what did that mean when it came to the nitty-gritty of choosing the Australians to meet the President?
The first big shock was that he didn’t want to tell us. Pardon? On the morning of the Bush visit to the capital, I was back in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Canberra bureau, where I’d worked for so long before moving to Sydney, when our political correspondent Mark Riley put down the phone.
‘Howard won’t release the list,’ he said.
‘What?’ I replied. ‘But this is basic public information – this is a state visit by the President of the United States. The public has a right to know.’
That’s when I found out that actually this was not a state visit, although neither Howard nor the press gallery had bothered to tell the Australian people that. A state visit is one by a foreign government’s head of state to Australia. It’s above politics – a visit to all of us – and that’s why our head of state, the governor-general, is host and escort. Strict protocols apply. But for this visit John Howard was host. The visit was a partisan political one dressed up as a solemn ceremonial occasion.
Still, surely the Australian people had a right to know – we were paying for it, after all. Anyway why wouldn’t Howard want us to know?
‘Don’t worry, if we press hard they’ll probably change their mind by the end of the day,’ Mark said. ‘It happens all the time. That’s the way they play.’
‘What? How long has this been going on?’ I asked.
Since Howard had won a third term in 2001. Nothing without pressure. Nothing unless and until John Howard’s minders believed that continued blocking would produce a story sufficiently embarrassing to necessitate disclosure. High-stakes journalism, that, for something so basic. Why get the PM’s office offside over something like the barbecue list?
Clever, John. Clever.
Bush’s one-day stopover was frenetic: a day of chaos, of incredible stories and unprecedented difficulties in getting them. I wondered if anyone would keep making the calls to get the guest list, or whether this information would ever reach the people. Howard’s office had released the menu without a qualm – why wouldn’t he want the public to know who ate the food? What possible justification could he have for secrecy?
OK, I thought, which reporters were attending the barbecue as observers to report the event to the Australian people? I’d ask them to note the faces they recognised.
Sorry, Howard had banned all Australian reporters and photographers from the event. Only American reporters would be there, and detailed arrangements had been made to ensure there would be no contact between Bush’s media and our own.
What? Only Mark Riley, on 21 and 22 October, had bothered to report this unprecedented shutdown of media access, let alone the discrimination against the Australian people’s reporters in our own country. The Sydney Morning Herald’s readers were flummoxed by Riley’s revelation and started getting a bit toey over what was going on in Canberra – and the heat finally started rising among the media – so Howard gave, just a little, on the day of the visit. One photographer and one reporter for the whole press gallery, he decreed.
I had one other lead. Only one press gallery reporter, Jason Frenkel of Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper, had smelt a story in the guest list, and he’d spent the day before the Canberra visit ringing around to uncover some guests. He’d scored a couple, and also reported that Sydney radio talkback host John Laws, Westfield billionaire Frank Lowy (whose companies gave the Liberals $312,300 in 2001–02), Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh and former Liberal Party treasurer Ron Walker had been invited but declined due to prior commitments.
Our media and telecommunications writer Cosima Marriner kept pushing Howard’s people and finally, after deadline, they faxed a page of names listed alphabetically without titles or positions. It would have taken research to get the titles right, and it was too late for that. Nothing ran in Friday’s papers. The story was gone. The parliamentary address of President Hu of China was the story of the day, a day filled with its own shocks, its own extraordinary parliamentary precedents.
Howard’s tactics had worked.
Blow that, I thought. On Monday, 27 October, I asked around about the names I couldn’t place and did some internet checks, but to be sure I’d got the list right I phoned the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to check a couple of mystery names and get their titles. That’s what you did when I worked in Canberra – you checked with departments for the facts, and with ministers for policy and politics.
Not any more. The switchboard operator transferred me straight to the Prime Minister’s office, where I discovered that one of several Howard press secretaries, former Sydney Daily Telegraph press gallery reporter David Luff, didn’t want to help at all.
‘Why don’t you do a Google search?’ he asked accusingly, as if I were wasting his precious time.
I put to him the names of a couple of people I thought were in the American contingent and he said he didn’t know, making it clear he wouldn’t try to find out either. So I asked for the name and number of a public servant who would know. He said he’d ring back. He didn’t.
So Howard’s press secretaries now saw their job as preventing the flow of basic information to the Australian people – as information blockers, not information providers? It had taken only two years to get to this: Australian taxpayers paying the salaries of people whose job it was to make it as difficult as possible for them to be told the truth – about just about everything, it seemed.
I was too proud to call the American Embassy to find out who went to a barbecue in our country hosted by our Prime Minister, so I published the list on Webdiary with question marks and asked readers for help. They dived in, supplying details and weblinks. We’d cracked it.
I got a huge surge of hits on that story, and many emails from readers nonplussed that only Webdiary had published the info. To my great surprise and concern Webdiary had a scoop!
Mark Riley made good use of it. A couple of days later, when he got a little spare time, he researched the Australian Electoral Commission’s donations records and found that, between them, the companies of six invited businessmen had donated more than a million dollars to the Liberal Party’s 2001 election campaign.
So that’s how you got an invite – you paid for it! Money politics.
No wonder you wanted secrecy, John.
The next twist made me feel physically ill. Mark had a page-one story, no doubt about it, but in Sydney the paper’s editors decided not to run it. ‘Tight for space’ was their call, and that was true enough, although for quite a while many of us had noted a growing editorial reluctance regarding political news. Our bosses seemingly prefer lifestyle content and glossy supplements to sell advertising. Fairfax isn’t the worst offender – the merging of news and advertising and the crunch on news space is a clear and dangerous anti-democratic trend across the media.
You ain’t got democracy if the public doesn’t know what’s going on, but Fairfax journalists and editors have been fighting a losing battle to convince our Chief Executive Officer, Fred Hilmer, that our newspaper performs any function apart from making money by exploiting our readers through advertising. Content is king, I’d argued fruitlessly. Give readers information and they’ll buy us. Think about circulation, not just advertising bucks.
Fred – the mastermind behind the last Labor government’s National Competition Policy – thinks of our readers as mere consumers, not citizens. He believes that newspapers are ‘advertising platforms’ and that journalists are ‘content providers’. In two weeks in Canberra after the Bush and Hu visits I saw first-hand the large number of important stories dumped for space, never to be read. Like the Bush barbecue guest list, important records of Australian history in the making were never published.
Mark’s story finally ran as a filler three days later, buried on page 13 of Saturday’s paper, on 1 November. If it had run earlier and more prominently a journalist might have asked Howard a question, or a minor party or Independent senator might have taken up the cudgels.
You wouldn’t have expected anything from the Opposition, of course – both Big Parties solicit Big Money from Big Corporates, and both lend their ears to those who’ll pay. ‘A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said the people invited were a cross-section of the Australian community who had each made a contribution to Australia in different ways, and that the Prime Minister made no apology for inviting any of them’, Mark wrote. ‘Opposition Leader Simon Crean’s office declined to comment. Most corporate invitees also donated large, if lesser, amounts to Labor at the last election.’
Mark pointed out that ‘The presence of major party donors would not have been a surprise to George Bush. The US has a system of declaring the contributions of corporate leaders seeking “face time” with the President. A certain amount buys a plate at a White House dinner, a higher amount a sleep-over in the Lincoln Room.’
He concluded that ‘The system is less formal in Australia but money can still buy access – 20 corporates paid
$4000 a head for dinner with Mr Howard at a fund-raiser for Employment Services Minister Mal Brough at Brisbane’s Treasury Casino on October 2.’
You can imagine the blow to morale in our Canberra bureau when bosses burn great stories. They’re great journos and they’re brave, too. They cop heaps from Howard’s boys for asking questions he doesn’t want to answer – for doing their job, in other words – and to be spiked at the other end of the story chain is not easy to take. Still, we’re better off than journalists on most papers.
As is so often the case in our democracy, the Senate was the Australian people’s last chance to get some information about the barbecue. This time it was through a regular Senate Estimates hearing, when politicians get the chance to question our public servants about how our money is being spent. Senate Estimates is the only real accountability there is to Australians for what the government is doing, and how and why. Any senator’s got the right to ask questions, and lots do, on matters big and small, many of which affect individual constituents. But not government senators: they ask nothing, except when another senator is uncovering something awry – in which case they act as attack dogs and work with the minister sitting beside the public servants to control questions. No representation of voters there.
So on Tuesday, 4 November, I watched Labor Senate leader John Faulkner quiz the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet about the barbecue.
I learnt a lot that day. For a start, John Howard had personally decided that while President Hu of China would get a state visit hosted by the Governor-General, Bush would come on ‘a working visit’ with Howard as host. His officials could recall no precedent for a foreign head of state not being hosted by our head of state.
Never believe John Howard when he says he’s a conservative, a respecter of tradition.
No way. He’ll bend rules, trash proprieties, even downgrade the head of state he so ardently supported in the Republic debate.
Howard wanted to meet, greet and escort Bush and make sure he was in every picture with him, come what may. This was no visit to Australia. This was a visit to John.
The downside, if it were ever reported, was that he had personal responsibility for the decisions made and the tricks pulled to suit his politics. If the media did its job Australians would get a pretty good idea of John Howard’s values, priorities and style by the end of the visit. But the media didn’t do its job: partly because Howard made it too hard to do so in the time available, and partly because the media has forgotten its core job in a functioning democracy.
I learnt in Senate Estimates that the official term for the barbecue was ‘an informal lunch hosted by the Prime Minister’. John Howard had decided who to invite, without input from his public servants. He personally decided the seating plan.
Howard chose not to invite our head of state or to make the function bipartisan by inviting the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean. Indeed he did not invite any politician who represented the roughly half of Australia’s voters who did not vote for the Coalition.
In Howard’s public service, after long and bitter experience, public servants know not to raise queries or make suggestions about such things, or anything really. They didn’t this time either, despite the expertise of the Ceremonial and Hospitality Unit on such matters. The deputy head of Howard’s department, Andrew Metcalfe, explained: ‘We worked on the basis that it was an informal luncheon and that the invitations were being prepared in the sense of people being identified by the Prime Minister’s office. We were not asked for advice, and we gave none.’
It was a rush job – John Howard loves demanding the impossible, or else, from a public service he’s slashed to the bone. The initial list of seventy-two guests landed on the department’s desk less than a week before the barbecue, and the menu – personally chosen by John and Janette – even later, with a demand to get Howard’s ‘wine consultant’ to tell him what booze to serve. The department had to call in staff from other sections to get the marquee, ramps and lighting erected, hire casual luncheon staff, print the place cards and menus, organise transport, do the flowers and decorations – all of it. And guess who paid for what the Prime Minister’s office described as ‘a private function’ to justify not inviting Crean? The cash-strapped department, of course. It didn’t even go on the Prime Minister’s expenses tab.
I wasn’t surprised when the department refused Faulkner’s request in Senate Estimates for a copy of the guest list. Metcalfe wasn’t sure if Howard had released it, and if Howard hadn’t he sure wasn’t going to. Liberal Senator George Brandis couldn’t resist: ‘It was in Margo Kingston’s Webdiary in the Sydney Morning Herald.’
Metcalfe would say no more, so Faulkner tried Defence Minister Robert Hill, who was at the barbecue. They usually get their lines straight, Howard’s loyal ministers, and Hill was no different.
‘It seemed to me to be a reasonable cross-section of the Australian community,’ Hill said, parroting Howard’s line.
Any journos invited?
‘I am not sure that they would want me to dob them in,’ Hill said.
And the gift?
‘A Wallaby jumper was presented to Mr Bush,’ Hill replied.
Metcalfe added, ‘My understanding is that it was half- Wallaby and half-American.’
After the Senate lunch break Metcalfe handed the list over. ‘I have now been advised that that guest list was publicly released on the day. We have a copy with us and we are happy to make a copy available.’
Stuff-up time: it wasn’t the bare-bones list Howard’s office had given us, it was the official list in all its glory.
So here it is: John Howard’s ‘cross-section of the Australian community who had each made a contribution to Australia in different ways’. Disclosed donations from invitees to the Liberal Party’s 2001 election campaign are given in square brackets, along with their disclosed donations in 2002–03.
Luncheon in honour of the Honourable George Bush, President of the United States of America, and Mrs Bush The Lodge, Canberra
Thursday, 23 October 2003
The Honourable John Howard MP
Mrs Janette Howard
The Honourable George Bush
President of the United States of America
Dr Condoleezza Rice
National Security Adviser
Mr Andrew Card [Jr]
Chief of Staff
Mr James Kelly
Assistant Secretary of State
Mr James Moriarty
Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Asian Affairs
Ms Andrea Ball
Chief of Staff to the First Lady
His Excellency Mr Thomas Schieffer Jr [sic]
Ambassador of the United States of America
Mrs Susanne Schieffer
The Honourable John Anderson MP
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services
Mrs Julia Anderson
The Honourable Peter Costello MP
Mrs Tanya Costello
The Honourable Mark Vaile MP
Minister for Trade
Mrs Wendy Vaile
Senator the Honourable Robert Hill
Minister for Defence and Leader of the Government in the Senate
Mrs Diana Hill
The Honourable Alexander Downer MP
Minister for Foreign Affairs
Mrs Nicky Downer
Defence Chiefs [sic]
General Peter Cosgrove AC MC
Chief of the Defence Force, Department of Defence
Mrs Lynne Cosgrove
Departmental Secretaries [sic]
Dr Peter Shergold AM
Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
Ms Carol Green
Ambassador Michael Thawley
Ambassador, Australian Embassy, Washington
Mr Rob Gerard AO
Chairman and Managing Director, Gerard Industries Ltd [Gerard Industries donated $244,806 for the 2001 election campaign and $187,000 to the Liberal Party
in 2002–03, after which the government appointed him to the Reserve Bank board]
Mrs Fay Gerard
Mr Mark Leibler AO
Senior Partner, Arnold Bloch Leibler, Solicitors and Consultants [also a director of Coles Myer, which donated $132,000 for the 2001 election campaign and $133,000 in 2002–03]
Mrs Rosanna Leibler
Mr Kerry Packer AC
Chairman, Consolidated Press Holdings
Mrs Ros Packer
Mr Donald McDonald AO
Chairman, Australian Broadcasting Corporation [an odd entry under ‘Business’]
Mrs Janet McDonald [AO]
Mr Harry Triguboff AO
Chairman and Managing Director, Meriton Properties Pty Ltd [Meriton – $278,000 for the 2001 election campaign and $150,000 in 2002–03]
Mrs Rhonda Triguboff
Mr Terry Campbell
Chairman, JB Were [JB Were – $163,000 for 2001 election campaign. JB Were is one of two contributors to the Cormack Foundation, an ‘associated entity’ of the Liberal Party, which gave $1.8 million to the Victorian branch in 2002–03 and can be used to funnel anonymous donations]
Mrs Christine Campbell
Mr Leon Davis
Chairman, Westpac Banking Corporation
[Westpac – $142,000 for the 2001 election campaign,
$118,000 in 2002–03]
Mrs Annette Davis
Mr Kerry Stokes AO
Executive Chairman, Seven Network Limited
Ms Christine Simpson
Professor Susan [sic] Cory AC
Professor of Medical Research, University of Melbourne [Suzanne Cory is best known as the Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research] Professor Jerry Adams
Mr Paul Ramsay AO
Vice–Chancellor, University of Sydney [sic: Ramsay should be in the ‘Business’ category as head of Ramsay Health Care (Ramsay Health Care – $275,000 for the 2001 election campaign, $165,000 in 2002–03); the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, Professor Gavin Brown, was not invited]
Professor [Emeritus] Geoffrey Blainey AO
Author and Historian
Mrs Ann Blainey
Mr John Eales AM
Former Captain of the Australian Rugby Union Team
Mrs Lara Eales
Mr Lleyton Hewitt
Australian Tennis Player
Mr Mark Taylor
Former Captain Australian Cricket Team
Mrs Judy Taylor
Former Ambassadors [sic]
The Honourable Andrew Peacock AC
President, Boeing Australia Limited
Prime Minister’s Office
Mr Arthur Sinodinos
Chief of Staff
Mr Tony Nutt
Principal Private Secretary
Mr Peter Varghese
Senior Adviser (International) [now head of ONA]
Mr Tony O’Leary
Mr Richard Howard
Prime Minister’s relatives
Mr Timothy Howard
Prime Minister’s relatives
Mr Steve Irwin
The Crocodile Man [The Crocodile Hunter]
Mrs Terri Irwin
Mr Rowan McDonald
Prime Minister’s relatives
Mrs Melanie McDonald [Melanie Howard]
Brigadier Maurie McNarn AO Director General, Personnel, Army
Mrs Richenda McNarn
Professor Fiona Stanley [AC]
Australian of the Year, Founding Director, TVW Telethon Institute for Child Health Research
Professor Geoff Shellam
Dr [sic] Jackie Huggins [AM]
Board Member, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
Mr Alan Jones AM
Radio Broadcaster, Radio 2UE Sydney [sic: Jones is at 2GB]
Mr Malcolm Farr
President, Parliamentary Press Gallery
Mr Neil Mitchell
Radio and Television, Current Affairs Commentator
It’s a cosy circle, isn’t it? Howard’s family and his work family are all in.
For all of us, eh? Well, how come the invited guests (minus partners) are an all-white (bar Huggins), overwhelmingly male group who predominantly live in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra?
Howard’s cross-section of Australia is Big Party, Big Business, Big Media – and Big Sport. Sports stars are greatly over-represented – that’s the connection with the ordinary Australians he wants to get by association.
And, of course – representing the battler perhaps? – the millionaire ‘Crocodile Man’, Steve Irwin, who just happened to say publicly seven weeks before, when Howard visited his Queensland zoo, that Howard was ‘the greatest leader Australia has ever had’ and ‘the greatest leader in the entire world’. We learnt a few days later in Senate Estimates that, months before, the government had paid Irwin
$175,000 – $364 a minute – for a day’s work on a quarantine TV advertisement. Back in February the government had refused to disclose to Parliament Steve’s payment, despite the fact that it was our money they were spending to buy his sales job. I don’t want to be snippy, but surely Howard’s not venturing into buying personal endorsements with our money, is he?
Never again, though – not after John’s mate Steve thought it was cool to feed a 4-metre crocodile in one hand with his baby son, Bob, in the other? We all know John doesn’t want parents like that in our country, don’t we?
Included in the massively over-represented Big Business and Big Media invitees – his backers or perhaps his real bosses? – are Kerry Packer, Australia’s richest man, with fingers in lots of pies requiring government largesse and protection, including the Nine Network; the other important Australian TV network owner, Seven’s Kerry Stokes; Alan Jones, Howard’s favourite Sydney talk-show host; and Neil Mitchell, his favourite Melbourne talk-show host. Malcolm Farr, Rupert Murdoch’s chief political reporter for the Daily Telegraph, represented the press gallery. The numbers from Big Business and Big Media overwhelm Australians from the pillars of our democracy: the Parliament (none), the law (one – Leibler is a tax expert), the public service (one), the defence force (two) and the universities.
Who specifically is excluded from John Howard’s Australia? Artists – not a novelist, painter, actor, dancer or creative person apart from Blainey (the historian who invented the term ‘black armband’ view of history and who backed Howard in the 1980s when he wanted Asian immigration reduced). Australians from non-European ‘ethnic’backgrounds. Religious representatives, although Mark Leibler is a leading figure in the Zionist movement. Women – only three are there in their own right, not as partners or Howard’s relatives. There’s also no non-medical scientist, farmer, small businessperson, community worker or volunteer, workers’ representative, judge or university vice-chancellor.
The reality behind the perception. Us and them. With me or against me.
Kylie Russell was not on the list. By rights she should have been the first invited, for Kylie is the Australian most deeply affected by the wars we fought at the request of George Bush after September 11. She’s the Australian you’d think would have been most on Howard’s mind as he prepared the welcome mat for George Bush, coming to thank us for our loyalty and sacrifice in those wars. Howard had said waging war was the gravest decision a leader could make – sending Australians to possible death for their country is a big responsibility to shoulder.
Kylie’s husband, Andrew, an SAS sergeant, was killed in Afghanistan in February 2002 when his truck ran over a landmine. He was 33, and the first Australian casualty in combat since Vietnam. Their only child, Leisa, was born eleven days before Andrew was killed.
John Howard didn’t invite Kylie to the Bush barbecue. In fact he didn’t invite her to Canberra to hear George Bush speak of the cause for which her husband died. The Australia I love would have remembered Kylie. John Howard’s Australia didn’t.
Postscript: 200 businessmen paid $8,250 each in June 2007 to ‘observe’ the Liberal Party’s Federal Council meeting and attend a delegates’ cocktail party at Kirribilli House. Howard tried to keep the latter secret, as official residences, which belong to the people, are not for party-political events, let alone ones where people pay to get in. Howard claimed taxpayers were ‘fully reimbursed’ ($5,186 for food and drink for 225 people, nothing for venue hire).
Gifts to a political party must be disclosed by law, and the Australian Electoral Commission’s Director of Funding and Disclosure, Kevin Bodel, told the Australian’s Samantha Maiden, ‘it does seem a gift in kind of a venue . . . there could well be a disclosure issue’. Special Minister of State Gary Nairn contacted AEC Commissioner Ian Campbell that night. Bodel then told Maiden, ‘Basically I’ve been told to shut up.’ The next day an AEC statement rejected Bodel’s remarks and denied government pressure. It was ‘examining’ the issue. Within six hours another statement: ‘on the facts available’ the taxpayers’ donation of Kirribilli House was not a gift to the Liberal Party and there would be no investigation. Two top QCs disagreed, as did Australia’s leading electoral law expert, Graeme Orr, now at the University of Queensland.
Kevin Rudd has promised to quarantine official residences from ALP events if he becomes PM.