Monday, June 29, 2009

Compelling Viewing

Malcolm Turnbull went on Meet the Press on Sunday. It was a fascinating performance, even though the opportunity was missed for Steve Lewis to out his source that started it all.

Glenn Milne writing in the Oz this morning makes the point that Turnbull’s colleagues were wincing about his decision to go on Meet the Press. Apart from all the matters Milne lists, there are some other serious matters in his performance that raise questions.

The first is his attempt to suggest that his whole attack on the Prime Minister was based on the “sworn testimony” of a Treasury official. A minor point, but witnesses to Senate hearings aren’t sworn in. To give false or misleading evidence is a contempt of the Senate, but it is not perjury. This is barrister Turnbull, not politician Turnbull, speaking (more of which later).

His second error was to suggest that the evidence was clear and unequivocal and effectively was volunteered by the witness rather than a statement was dragged out of Mr Grech that he believed he’d seen a communication from the Prime Minister’s office. No one who reads that transcript, or who already by Sunday knew that Turnbull and Abetz had met with Grech and Grech had told them of the e-mail could be under any misapprehension than that the claim of the existence of the e-mail was made by Senator Abetz. To avoid the attempts by Treasury staff to stop Grech answering the question Senator Abetz asked "All right. The most appropriate official to answer this question: Mr Grech, to your personal knowledge, have you personally sighted any correspondence — email, note, memorandum or any type of documentation emanating from the Prime Minister’s office to Treasury — concerning Mr John Grant and the OzCar facility? and all Mr Grech said is that he believed it existed." This was not a Senator naively asking a question. (37 of the transcript).

Finally, Turnbull falsely restated the central charge. The charge is that Wayne Swan misled the Parliament on 4 June by stating that Mr Grant was treated the same as anybody else or that anybody else would have been treated. Turnbull changed the claim to a claim that Grant as a “mate” of the PM had received preferential treatment. As the Government pointed out in the end Grant got nothing from OzCar (a strange definition of special treatment), other car dealers did have their individual cases referred, Grant was the only car dealer for whom the referring member made the request that the Treasurer speak to them, and the decision to send information to the Treasurer at home was made by the public servant. There is no evidence that the Treasurer did anything as a consequence of receiving those e-mails.

The most telling part of the Grech testimony o 19 June was when he said “Senator, actually I have been in the public service now for 20 years, and I take my work very
seriously. When a Minister’s office — I previously also worked in Prime Minister and Cabinet — so when the PMO or the Treasurer’s office approach you with something, you give it priority. In the case of Mr Grant, the referral came from Andrew, and it was made clear to me that it was something that had to be managed and that is what I tried to do.” (page 23 of the transcript linked above). In other words, the idea that the referral from the Treasurer’s office was anything more than a referral because that is the right thing for an elected representative to do, came from Mr Grech. It is something Mr Grech claims to have learned over the twelve years of coalition Government you are supposed to do.

We learn a lot about Turnbull from all of this. His pride won’t let him drop it and it can only end badly for him. Every time he opens his mouth he adds to his credibility problem. On the weekend we got two more articles on his history, the first was Peter Hatcher with his recount of Keating's assessment to Rudd of Turnbull. That he is brilliant, that he is fearless....and that he has no judgement. Annabel Crabb meanwhile told us that it was not in Turnbull's nature to be cautious. She actually did a good job of analysing how the characteristics of risk taking in a businessman might not be the same characteristics for risk taking as a politician. he did err later in saying "Like the barrister he is, he leaves no point unaddressed." The reality is that Turnbull's career as a barrister was brief - or one brief I think. Spycatcher was, I think, his only case.

Peter Hartcher concludes that Turnbull is now weaker than he bagan. He notes that it was self-inflicted, it has a developed a huge scale due to the eagerness and because its repercussions are felt by all in the Liberal hierarchy, including supposedly some/many who counselled a more measured approach.

Finally, I find the please by Malcolm Farr and Kim Sawyer to protect "whistleblowers" misguided. Grech was not a whistleblower, he was a leaker. A whisleblower provides information that is politically damaging because it reveals maladministration, a leaker reveals information for political gain. A whistleblower provides accurate information, not fabricated e-mails.

Some commentators have tried to compare Turnbull's use of the Grech leaks to Rudd's use of the Wilkie ONA material. The latter may have been Austeo - but it also exposed that the coalition had lied about the nature of the intelligence advice they received on Iraq. That is a very bid difference.

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