KERRY O’BRIEN: Welcome to the program.
A political furore has erupted over revelations that one of the Howard Government’s most senior ministers, Tony Abbott, set up a slush fund to pay for legal challenges to Pauline Hanson and her party, One Nation.
Despite repeated denials back in 1998, Mr Abbott last night acknowledged to the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ newspaper he’d raised almost $100,000 in an attempt to fund actions against One Nation.
While he and his colleagues were refusing to make any comment today, the admission is a setback for the Government.
It clearly suggests Mr Abbott did not tell the truth in the affair at the time, and has provoked government fears of a backlash from voters responding angrily to Pauline Hanson’s jailing.
Then, today, Mr Abbott’s stalking horse, One Nation dissident Terry Sharples, claimed that the PM was also aware of the machinations.
Heather Ewart reports.
HEATHER EWART: Pauline Hanson is wreaking political havoc once again.
The severity of her sentence handed down last week raised widespread public debate and was questioned by various politicians across all parties, from the PM down.
JOHN HOWARD, PM: Like many other people, I find the sentence certainly very long and very severe.
HEATHER EWART: But how the political wind can shift so quickly.
Now it’s turned to a desperate bid by the Liberal Party to fob off revelations today that one of John Howard’s most senior Ministers, Tony Abbott, had set up a $100,000 slush fund to ruin Pauline Hanson.
And the Labor Party is having a field day.
CRAIG EMERSON, OPPOSITION INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS SPOKESMAN: The PM has sought to gain the support of One Nation voters by expressing sympathy for Pauline Hanson and yet his senior minister was up to his neck in raising funds and disbursing funds to ensure that she was prosecuted.
PETER BEATTIE, QUEENSLAND PREMIER: I think everybody who’s had a hand in this, no matter how high or how low, if you like, should come clean.
HEATHER EWART: As the Federal Cabinet met in Sydney, Tony Abbott’s colleagues were refusing to buy into it, for obvious reasons.
REPORTER: What’s your reaction to the news Mr Abbott helped fund the trust fund behind the demise of One Nation?
PETER COSTELLO: Excuse me.
REPORTER: Mr Downer, any comment on Mr Abbott’s involvement?
ALEXANDER DOWNER: I know nothing about it.
POLITICIAN: I don’t know that it had been organised and I certainly didn’t have anything to do with it.
HEATHER EWART: And the man himself, Tony Abbott, was keeping an unusually low profile.
It was left to Justice Minister Chris Ellison to throw a few scraps of legalese.
SENATOR CHRIS ELLISON, JUSTICE MINISTER: As the matter now is subject to appeal, as Minister for Justice it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the merits or otherwise of the case or the sentence.
HEATHER EWART: The fact is the slush fund is now out of the bag, despite Tony Abbott’s previous denials of its existence.
And his admission last night to the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ that he had set it up is damaging for the Government.
Expressions of surprise at Pauline Hanson’s sentence now look disingenuous to say the least.
And a senior minister has been caught out not telling the truth.
At the centre of the furore is this man — Terry Sharples, a One Nation dissident who sought an injunction to block One Nation from receiving public electoral funds.
Back in 1998, Tony Abbott repeatedly insisted in this ‘Four Corners’ interview that he had not bankrolled Mr Sharples’ court action or indeed that there was any fund.
REPORTER, ‘FOUR CORNERS’, 1998: So there was never any question of any party funds or other funds from any other source —
TONY ABBOTT, FEDERAL LIBERAL MP: Absolutely not.
REPORTER: ..being offered to Terry Sharples?
TONY ABBOTT: Absolutely not.
REPORTER: He told us at one point a different story.
TONY ABBOTT: Really?
REPORTER: There were never any discussions about money?
TONY ABBOTT: Look, I was aware that Terry didn’t regard himself as particularly flush with funds.
REPORTER: Is there any possibility that the Liberal Party actually does have a special fund to push cases like this?
TONY ABBOTT: Look, if there is — and I doubt that there is — if there is, Tony, you should ask someone else.
HEATHER EWART: Now it emerges that Tony Abbott was the man to be asking all along.
He’s told the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ he did raise almost $100,000 for a political fighting fund named Australians for Honest Politics.
He said the job of Australians for Honest Politics was to fund court cases against One Nation.
But why the confession now?
PETER BEATTIE: Don’t think this is done because he’s a wonderful human being.
There were court documents and it was clear the truth was going to eventually come out and it has.
CRAIG EMERSON, OPPOSITION INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS SPOKESMAN: Tony Abbott needs to answer these questions.
Where did the money come from?
Who received the money?
And who made the decisions on who received the money?
HEATHER EWART: But those questions were not going to be answered by Tony Abbott today.
His office did not issue any denial of the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ report, but nor did they expand on it.
What has emerged from a check of the 1998 register of members’ interests is that the other trustees of the fund were Treasurer Peter Costello’s father-in-law, Peter Coleman, and a former Labor minister John Wheeldon.
And what we do have on the record from Tony Abbott at an impromptu news conference in Melbourne yesterday is this —
TONY ABBOTT: Everything I did in 1998 I did entirely off my own bat.
It was all my own work and, like the PM, I was shocked at the sentence she got.
Don’t forget that the matter that I was trying to promote back in 1998 was a civil action, a civil action to try to stop the payment of $500,000 to Pauline Hanson’s party.
And, if the Queensland Electoral Commissioner back then hadn’t made that payment, a payment which was subsequently found to be unlawful, well, then, we would never have had the subsequent criminal case.
HEATHER EWART: And that brings us back to the case of Terry Sharples, who maintained late today that he met Tony Abbott in 1998 about his action against One Nation.
TERRY SHARPLES, ONE NATION DISSIDENT: The exact words he used were, “Right, we’re going to go ahead with this because we’ve been discussing a possible court action.
I’m going to put $20,000 into a trust account of a solicitor called Russell.”
HEATHER EWART: Later that year, Sharples says he struck a hitch.
TERRY SHARPLES: I started to get phone calls from a solicitor who purported to be acting for Abbott, purportedly offering to try and settle everything for $10,000, which was a nonsense because the court costs at that stage that had been awarded against me were significantly higher than that.
HEATHER EWART: According to today’s report, Mr Abbott admitted to the $10,000 figure as a commitment to Mr Sharples’ case.
Unhappy with that offer, Mr Sharples says he took his claim to the top, complaining twice in letters to the PM in September 1999.
TERRY SHARPLES: John Howard, through his private secretary Tony Nutt, wrote to me and indicated he regarded the matter between Tony and myself as a private matter.
But by that stage everyone was running for cover.
HEATHER EWART: That would appear to indicate that John Howard or his office were by no means out of the loop.
The focus for now, though, has been on Tony Abbott.
Perhaps no-one should be surprised that one political party would want to bring down another.
But, once again, this whole affair raises questions about political standards and truthfulness in public life.
And there’s no doubt that in both major political parties there’s sensitivity about an electoral backlash from those voters sympathetic to Pauline Hanson.