By Christian Kerr
Source: Crikey
30th December 204

Has Tony Abbott been protected by some slip-shod work at the Australian Electoral Commission? Read on.

Yours truly is a friend of Margo Kingston’s, but when I reviewed Not Happy John in July I had the following to say:

“Margo pinpoints everything that’s wrong with the Howard Government – but, being Margo, wants to talk about more. Much more. Too much more.

“Eighty odd pages of brilliant polemic on matters ranging the corruption of the system supposed to protect the integrity of Australia’s electoral system downwards is obscured by 350 pages of tangents. It’s so Margo. Passionate, captivating and utterly infuriating all at once.

“Buy it and persevere. Yes, you’ll want to bin it at times. Skip some parts altogether – the Hanan Ashrawi peace prize folly chapter, definitely – but plug on. Read the damn thing.”

I don’t think Margo liked my remarks, but six months and an election later, I feel that they’re even more applicable – particularly after reading The Australian today.

Towards the end of Not Happy John there’s a fascinating chapter called “Australians for Honest Politicians”. It’s lengthy and impossible to summarise adequately here, but is perhaps the most comprehensive journalistic investigation of the campaign Tony Abbott conducted against Pauline Hanson under the Australians for Honest Politics banner. It’s also scary as all hell. And – surprise, surprise – it got completely buried by the hype and hyperbole surrounding much of the other material in the book.

The chapter makes some serious allegations about the truthfulness of Abbott’s public statements about Australian for Honest Politics.

More concerning, it also examines the legality of Abbott’s activities in his campaign against Hanson – and, remember, whatever you think of Margo, she is a lawyer by training.

Margo looked in detail at the way in which the Australian Electoral Commission – the supposed guarantor of the integrity of the way in which the elections that are fundamental to our democracy are run and the integrity and propriety of their participants – dealt with Australians for Honest Politics.

Given its subject matter, it deserved to be higher up the book. Much of its contents, alas, were obscured in Margoisms, too. The key conclusion, however, was unmistakeable.

Margo found the AEC did as good a job examining and regulating Australians for Honest Politics as they did getting out the postal votes at the last election (I’m still waiting for mine, Mr Becker).

The AEC hid behind confidentiality claims to refuse information on its decision making process on the legality of Australians for Honest Politics and Abbott’s actions under Commonwealth electoral law.

And, after a leak, this tumbled out:

“The bloke who had decided to let Abbott off the hook was named Brad Edgman, I was told, the head of the AEC’s Funding and Disclosure branch… Brad Edgman does not have legal qualifications.”

Say what? To use a good old phrase, they won’t get away with that in business. Not lawyers interpreting the disclosure requirements of the Electoral Act?

All which makes today’s piece (Abbott blast scuttled inquiry) by two heavies from The Australian, Sid Maher and Michael McKinnon, even more interesting.

“An Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) investigation into whether a trust fund, which bankrolled legal action against One Nation, was linked to the Liberal Party, was dropped after Health Minister Tony Abbott objected,” Maher and McKinnon write.

“Documents obtained by The Australian under Freedom of Information laws show the AEC issued a demand to Mr Abbott in May requiring him to reveal the donors to Australians for Honest Politics, which backed legal action that ultimately led to the jailing of Pauline Hanson.

“But Mr Abbott wrote back to the AEC on June 8, objecting to the demand and describing it as ‘unreasonable’. The AEC announced it had dropped the investigation in July.”

Hullo? Since when were Ministers above the law?

Maher and McKinnon report “The documents show the AEC received draft legal advice in April 2004 suggesting there was sufficient evidence to issue a notice under section 316(3A) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act to require Mr Abbott to produce documents.”

More than six months after Kingston had received her leak, note – and presumably after the AEC had had an attack of conscience.

“A spokesman said Mr Abbott was on leave,” the Australian says. Convenient.

“An AEC spokesman referred The Australian to advice on its website, posted on July 14, where it announced the trust was not an associated entity and would not be required to disclose its donors under the Electoral Act,” it also says.

I can’t find any such document on the AEC website under Media Releases.

There is a lengthy Statement from the Australian Electoral Commissionerdated July 30 that covers a very broad range of topics. It begins:

“A federal election will occur in the next six months and with it the call to the polls for more than 13 million Australian voters. It is a time of energy, anticipation and a wide-ranging discussion of issues.

“Community confidence in the AEC is an important part of our democratic fabric. It is for this reason that I wish to address some comments made this week on a Brisbane radio station. In this session a range of unsupported claims were made which may give rise to concerns in the wider community…”

In it, Electoral Commissioner Andy Becker devotes less than 50 words to Australians for Honest Politics:

“CLAIM: That the AEC procrastinated in finalising the Australians for Honest Politics matter.

“FACT: Like any legal matter which requires thorough consideration, this was a complex issue. Once the matter had been finalised, the AEC put its conclusion on the public record.”

Becker may well have woken up today to an almighty hangover. Here’s hoping. Community confidence in the AEC is an important part of our democratic fabric, as he says. It needs a hell of a lot of shoring up at the moment.

I’ve never voted for a minor party in the Senate in my life – but while we still have a genuine House of Review, can we have an inquiry into this sleazy mess. Pretty damn quick.