The Weekly Notebook – Politicians behaving badly

Politicians behaving badly

Luke Foley has resigned as NSW Labor leader after a right-wing Liberal MP named him in parliament over allegations of sexual misconduct with a female ABC reporter.

The incident occurred at a Christmas drinks party at a swish CBD wine bar just down the street from Parliament House in November 2016. The party-goers were mainly Press Gallery reporters, political staffers and a handful of politicians.

Sydney Morning Herald state political editor, Sean Nicholls, witnessed the incident but wrote nothing about it at the request of ABC reporter, Ashleigh Raper. He subsequently left Fairfax Media and now works as an investigative journalist at the ABC’s 4 Corners.

The day after the Foley incident at the 2016 Christmas party it became the source of gossip in the corridors of Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s Liberal-led government and in the Press Gallery. Ministers and journalists were holding their breath: who was going to break the story and when? But no one did. It remained a tightly held secret for two years.

Late last month Foley’s alcohol-fuelled folly suddenly emerged in “The Bearpit” in an accusation delivered under parliamentary privilege by David Elliott, MP for Baulkham Hills, and a former Australian Hotels Association CEO.

ABC reporter Ashleigh Raper

Foley’s leadership ended when Ms Raper issued a detailed statement of the event “to set the record straight”. She said: “Later in the evening (in November 2016), Luke Foley approached a group of people, including me, to say goodnight. He stood next to me. He put his hand through a gap in the back of my dress and inside my underpants. He rested his hand on my buttocks. I completely froze.”

In his brief resignation speech on November 8, Foley said he had consulted lawyers to launch defamation proceedings but didn’t specify a defendant. Was it Ashleigh Raper? Or David Elliott, NSW Minister for Corrective Services and Counter Terrorism? We still don’t know.

I suspect the threat of defamation action was merely a tactic to stem the sulphurous atmosphere within his family. His Irish-born wife, Edel McKenna, is a rabid Catholic and his twin sister, Bridget, is a highly respected professor specialising in journalism studies.

Arfur Daley, no Michael

When Labor’s Caucus met to select a new leader on November 10, MPs voted for right-wing solicitor Michael Daley, MP for Maroubra, who trounced his only rival, Chris Minns, MP for Kogarah, by 33 votes to 12. It was the wrong decision and Minns will now have to wait until Daley stumbles (as he will!) before claiming the top job.

Daley is a conventional, uninspiring numbers man. His first post-election press conference was a shocker. Instead of using the special occasion to launch his campaign to become premier on March 20 next year, Daley talked the valueless gibberish now disseminated by the political class.

There was no policy announcement and he said nothing to define the character of a future Daley government.

His predecessor Foley lifted Labor from the electoral wilderness at the State Election in 2016 when he won back a raft of seats to make the ALP competitive for the next election (in 2019). To satisfy his backbenchers, Sussex Street headquarters, Federal Labor and the Sydney media, Foley shifted from the left to the centre right. When he adopted the cause of the scurrilous greyhound industry many Labor supporters lost interest.

Contradictorily, however, while Labor supporters drifted away, swinging voters appeared to decide that a Labor government may be preferable to the current Coalition one which is driven by developers, private investors and real estate spivs.

In mid-year polling Labor and the Coalition were neck-and-neck and the ALP’s chances of returning to the Treasury benches began to rise. Then the Liberals lost the seat of Wagga Wagga in September to a little known Independent, Dr Joe McGirr. The swing against the Liberals was a devastating 30%.

And that was the precise moment, five months before the next State poll, that the Liberals decided to promote Foley’s past history of sexual misconduct under the cover of parliamentary privilege. They lit the fuse and then exploited the explosion in Labor’s ranks.

Earlier this year when “Glad the Impaler” was collapsing in the polls in Sydney and elsewhere, I asked a senior member of “Team Berejiklian” how they proposed to salvage her premiership. He replied: “We have a secret weapon. It’s called Luke Foley.”

How MPs abuse a privilege

In NSW Parliament in recent weeks, two MPs have used their parliamentary privilege to attack other MPs.

  1. In the Legislative Assembly, Liberal MP David Elliott, a Cabinet minister and leader of right-wing Tony Abbott faction, raised allegations of sexual impropriety against Luke Foley, MP for Auburn.
  2. Also in the Legislative Assembly,  Jenny Leong, Greens MP for Newtown, used the cover of parliamentary privilege to accuse Greens MLC Jeremy Buckingham, her factional opponent, of sexual misconduct.

Buckingham is now facing a torrent of calls to resign from parliament or not to stand for re-election next March.

Jenny Leong, Greens MP for Newtown

For me, the question is this: Should MPs use the protection of parliamentary privilege to launch character assassinations of their political opponents?

Parliamentary privilege provides a legal immunity for MPs to make statements on issues of public interest. They are granted protection against civil or criminal liability by speaking out on behalf of their constituents on issues that pertain to their parliamentary duties.

Another classic definition goes like this: “Parliamentary privilege refers to the right of MPs to speak freely to the House, without fear of being sued for slander or defamation.”

In NSW parliamentary privilege has been used sparingly by MPs. Its value is precious and therefore it is not used lightly. Those MPs who have chosen to use the protection of parliamentary privilege have focused their speeches on corruption, crooked cops, producing suppressed government reports and exposing land, development and local government rorts.

Dripping cynicism and hypocrisy, the press often refers to Parliament as “the coward’s castle” because of the ironclad protection of parliamentary privilege for MPs.

When Liberal MP David Elliott used parliamentary privilege to smear Labor’s Luke Foley and when Jenny Leong dished the dirt on her political rival Jeremy Buckingham – is this the correct use of parliamentary privilege? Or has parliament become “the coward’s castle”?

The truth of the matter is that desperate MPs will use any means, fair or foul, to destroy an opponent, and if that means using the protection of parliament to hurl unproven allegations against a fellow MP they will do so. Should they be allowed to?

Surely it’s time to establish proper processes to investigate all claims of sexual misconduct – assault, domestic violence, harassment and bullying – instead of the current parliamentary smear-mongering. In my opinion, parliamentary privilege has been politically weaponised by individuals who have no respect for legal or moral tradition.

Cricket no-balled

The Liberal Party room coup against Malcolm Turnbull bears striking similarities to the removal of Cricket Australia chairman David Peever.

Scott Morrison

None of Turnbull’s former Cabinet colleagues can explain why he was sacked, and none of Cricket Australia’s board members can give a coherent explanation of what Peever did wrong either.

There were 39 negative Newspolls for the Federal Coalition which were used to explain why Turnbull had to go, but he has recently produced internal polling to show that the Coalition had a fighting chance of winning the next Federal Election whenever it was called. As Turnbull himself has pointed out, he was preferred prime minister over Labor’s Bill Shorten by a wide margin. The change of leadership from Turnbull to Scott Morrison has not slowed the Coalition’s unpopularity. In this week’s Newspoll, Morrison’s Coalition sank further below Labor to 45-55 on a two-party preferred basis while Labor’s all-important primary vote hit 40%, the highest since February 2015.

Earl Eddings

The secret in-house review of the ball-tampering scandal by the Ethics Centre turned into a bucketing of the CA “culture”. The release of a redacted version of the report was aimed at “out of touch” CA board members; Peever got the message and after a few days’ hesitation he fell on his sword.

Another board member, former captain Mark Taylor, welcomed the report and publicly stated he would stay and fight to implement the unspecified “cultural changes”. Then he resigned as well. Why?

The acting CA chairman, Earl Eddings (who he?) bears an intriguing resemblance to Scott Morrison. He was a vocal supporter of Peever’s administration just as Morrison was of Turnbull’s. It follows that if Peever was wrong for the job, so perhapsis Earl Eddings.

I can’t help feeling that the public is only learning a fraction of the mess at Cricket Australia. For example, does anyone seriously believe that ball tampering occurred once – and only once – during the Test series against South Africa earlier this year?

The Ethics Centre did not ask any of the witnesses – “Did ball-tempering ever occur on other occasions?” – because it wasn’t asked to investigate that issue. It was deliberately not included in its terms of reference.

I happen to believe that Cricket Australia and the mainstream media are engaged in a gigantic cover-up. There are cricketers (batsmen and bowlers), commentators and administrators who know what was going on but they are remaining silent “for the good of the game”… and by that they mean a continuation of the obscene salaries, bonuses, special privileges, media circus, sponsorship deals, first-class travel and accommodation, free drinks, free gear and free clothes.

The turgid “explanations” from the cricket commentators are an insult to the game, its tradition, players and supporters.

ABC 4 Corners reports on ABC

Like millions of other ABC supporters I watched last Monday night’s investigation of the ABC by the ABC.

Justin Milne

The 4 Corners programme hosted by Sarah Ferguson attempted to unravel the furious debacle which led to the sacking of managing director Michelle Guthrie followed by the forced departure of chairman Justin Milne.

She delivered a version of events which carefully avoided offending anyone in particular. She had a difficult job, with lawyers, politicians and media commentators looking over her shoulder.

The simple truth of the matter is that Guthrie was Rupert Murdoch’s choice for ABC managing director and Justin Milne was Malcolm Turnbull’s choice for chairman. Guthrie was a long-standing FOR (Friend of Rupert) and Milne was a long-standing FOM (Friend of Malcolm).

With his corporate background at Ozemail, Telstra, BigPond, NBN, MYOB Group and Tabcorp, Milne became a professional director earning millions of dollars in corporate fees. He also became close friends with another “techie” squillionaire, Malcolm Turnbull.

They devised the so-called “Project JetStream” which became Milne’s abiding passion: Canberra would lend $100 million to the ABC over 10 years and then repay it in full. The extra cash would allow the ABC to fund an expansion of its TV and associated digital platforms.

Armed with “Project JetStream” (which Turnbull said he could get through the Cabinet if the ABC “behaved” itself), Milne single-mindedly whipped everyone into line, including Guthrie who later became decidedly unexcited about the project (probably because Rupert Murdoch was too).

From being an independent chairman with a charter mission to defend the public broadcaster, Milne became a political player on behalf of Turnbull’s Coalition. His position was untenable and his resignation was inevitable.

Michelle Guthrie alleges “inappropriate” touching

Guthrie’s 11th hour decision to defame Milne with allegations of “sexual impropriety” showed her character in the clearest light. She and her MeToo hashtag backers appear to believe that throwing mud at Milne is justified even if it means he spends the rest of life being known as a “groper” and “sexual predator”. Milne became Guthrie’s road kill when she dramatically introduced claims about his “sexual advances” when she had previously refused to raise an official complaint or seek any form of redress.

What member of the ABC board suggested this last-minute strategy? Who were the MeToo hashtagers behind the wanton destruction of Milne’s career?

Who wanted to smear Milne with Harvey Weinstein-type allegations when actor Geoffrey Rush’s defamation trial against Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph was getting under way in Sydney?

Both Guthrie and Milne claimed total innocence of the moves to sack Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn as well as the source of damaging leaks to the media.

I couldn’t help reflecting on the old saying: “A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.”

Whovians? No thanks

I hope that the “new”, post-Guthrie ABC reconsiders its promotion of the comedy show Whovians hosted by Rove McManus. McManus and his panel are too clever and talented to be lumbered with a show analysing episodes of the BBC series, Doctor Who.

Sheila Hancock in Dr Who

The only time I was interested in Doctor Who was in the 1980s during the reign of Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a kind of female Peter Dutton.

The then Doctor, Sylvester McCoy (1987-89) startled Home County Conservatives and private schoolchildren by none-too-subtly criticising Thatcher in the long-running series. McCoy cheerfully admitted: “We were a group of politically motivated people and it seemed the right thing to do. Our feeling was that Margaret Thatcher was far more terrifying than any monster the Doctor had encountered.”

In three controversial episodes Sheila Hancock OBE and CBE played the tyrannical Helen A who was overthrown in a rebellion incited by the Doctor.

God forbid that any of today’s ABC staffers would adopt a political stand, either subtly or unsubtly. If the shocking treatment of star reporters Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his successor Scott Morrison and Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper is anything to go by, ABC staffers will be keeping their heads down and clinging to their contracts.

If the Liberals and Nationals get away with this, it’s bye-bye to independent public broadcasting and welcome to government broadcasting.


A feisty reformer in parliament and outside it

Ann Symonds speaking at a Parliament House function in April

Ann Symonds fought for social causes until her dying breath. She was a noted political activist in a variety of causes that were dear to her heart – women’s rights, prison and drug reform, education and the arts.

The former NSW Upper House MP died in a Sydney hospital this week after a long illness. She was 79.

Elizabeth Ann Burley was born in Murwillumbah on the far North Coast of NSW. She was the eldest and only female in family where her mother was the dominant figure. Her father was a butcher, shopkeeper, proofreader at the local newspaper, pub singer and musician and larrikin storyteller.

Her upbringing was influenced by Roman Catholicism (her mother) and atheism (her father). In later life she once described herself as an “agnostic atheist”. She held her non-religious-beliefs with firmness, principally because another Laborite from Murwillumbah, Johnno Johnson, was such a Catholic bigot and tub-thumping anti-abortionist,

Symonds reckoned Johnson and his RC clique kept social reform off Labor’s agenda in NSW for more than 30 year by terrorising MPs over their pre-selections and their prospects of ministerial promotion. She bristled angrily when Johnson compared abortions in NSW to the Nazi Holocaust of Jews, socialists, communists, trade unionists, homosexuals, artists and intellectuals.

She attended a local Catholic primary school in Murwillumbah before being sent to a private Catholic boarding school in Sydney. It was the start of her social and political liberation.

She went AWOL from her boarding school to join a group of South Sydney footballers in a post-match celebration. Her favourite companion (and hero) was the Rabbitohs star Darrel Chapman (1938-1992) who played for NSW in 1959, for Australia on the Kangaroo tour of 1959-60 and captained the Bunnies on various occasions between 1961 and 1964.

Ann trained to be a teacher at Armidale Teachers’ College and the University of NSW. On 16 January 1965 she married Maurice (“Morrie”) Symonds, an artist and arts administrator from a well-connected Eastern Suburbs family. She cared for his three young children – his first wife had died – and had two more with him, Rachel and David.

In 1967 she joined the Labor Party and was elected to Waverley Municipal Council in 1974, becoming the first female deputy mayor in 1977.

She moved to Parliament House to work on the staff of NSW Deputy Premier Jack Ferguson and then was given the chance to temporarily take a “left” vacancy in the Upper House. In her inaugural speech Symonds broke with custom and tradition by assailing the Liberal Party saying its should never have been called “liberal” because it had never been on the liberal side of anything.

A trenchant Liberal MLC was so appalled by her speech he broke a long-standing tradition and walked out muttering his disgust.

Her part-term was so successful that Symonds was returned to the ALP Upper House ticket and stayed in parliament until 1998. Her farewell speech was another triumph; she lashed the Carr Cabinet for its worship of privatisation and the neo-liberal economics personified by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

She kept fighting on

Although Symonds left parliament, she never “retired” from politics. She became an activist, a networker and an extra-parliamentary urger. She wrote letters, made phone calls, visited jails and women’s refuges, always campaigning for greater funding and expanded training.

One of her finest moments was joining a team (of mainly women) to persuade Premier Carr and his Cabinet colleagues to open a safe heroin injection clinic in Kings Cross in 2001.

Ann Symonds with her children David and Rachel earlier this year

When the NSW Liberals came to office in 2011 Symonds was a behind-the-scenes voice campaigning against the ransacking of social reforms. She had witnessed the scale of social regression under Liberal Premier Nick Greiner who was elected in 1988 and she feared another round of CBD-driven monetarism. She was right.

David Clune, the former NSW Parliamentary historian, described Symonds as “a person of great decency, compassion and humanity”. He recalled a conversation with her when he asked what part of the Labor left she belonged to. Symonds replied: “I tried to start a faction called the Caring Left but no-one would join.”

For all her impatience and frustration with the ALP she remained a rusted-on True Believer of the “old school” when reforming social policies mattered.

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