If trust is at the centre of this election campaign, then journalists are looking for it in the strangest places. The 7.30’s Leigh Sales finds it in the ‘knifing’ by both leaders, Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull, of a former Prime Minister or, put more prosaically, that both supported a change of leadership and therefore of Prime Minister – Shorten supporting first Gillard and then Rudd, and Turnbull supporting himself. Either way, ‘knifing’ bears a tenuous connection to matters of political trust which, in the context of an election campaign, largely concern delivering on election promises. And yet the simplistic personal pejoratives of ‘knifing’, ‘political assassination’ and ‘lying’, bolstered by the inanities of the ‘gotcha’ moments that have peppered this campaign, have deflected from matters of substance that ought to be the subject of sustained investigative journalism.
There is no shortage of issues of real significance for questions of political trust which have been dealt with only in passing during this campaign, despite their obvious ramifications. These are the two sleepers of this election –– Parakeelia and the Panama papers. In the midst of an unexpectedly tight election race, Malcolm Turnbull was named in the Panama papers as a director of a company engaging in the complex web of tax avoidance headquartered overseas, and his party was then mired in the political donation scam of Parakeelia. It is difficult to think of a more damaging place for the Prime Minister to find himself just weeks out from an election than this and yet neither of these issues, both of which go to the heart of questions of political trust, has been given the attention they deserve.
Parakeelia is the software company operating out of the same building as the Liberal party’s Canberra headquarters, with the Liberal party’s federal director Tony Nutt and president Richard Alston among its directors and apparently 98% owned by former Liberal treasurer, Ron Walker, as ‘trustee for the members of the Liberal Party of Australia’. It supplies data services to Liberal MPs for $2,500 per annum, publicly funded through their electorate allowances, and it has in turn transferred over $1 million to the Liberal party’s coffers over the last 3 years, making it the Liberal party’s second largest source of funds last financial year. How much of their taxpayer funded allowances are headed in this round robin into the Liberal party is the critical question here for matters of political trust. Parkeelia appears to be engaged in a simple tax-payer funded rort or, in the words of John Adams a former advisor to Arthur Sinodinos, ‘it looks like a scam’: ‘When you pay a company and that company has surplus money to give back to a party, that seems like money laundering’.
As if this were not enough to make an incumbent Prime Minister feel rather nervous, Malcolm Turnbull was himself the Liberal party Treasurer for two of those years, and must surely have had some knowledge of the internal workings of a Liberal party owned company making such generous contributions to the party for whose finances he was responsible. Even worse for Turnbull is that, according to Ron Walker, Turnbull should have been a nominated 98% shareholder of Parakeelia during the years in which he was Treasurer of the Liberal party. Walker claimed that when Turnbull took over as Liberal party Treasurer in 2002, ‘he assumed all responsibilities I had on that day’. Walker believed that he had ceased to be a shareholder at that point and he had written a letter resigning his role as shareholder. ‘That’s impossible’ was Walker’s response to revelations of his continuing shareholding. The Liberal party now claims that the letter was never sent and that these details had not been disclosed to ASIC in the 14 intervening years due to a ‘clerical error’. The inconsistencies in these positions remain unresolved since Turnbull has not been tackled directly on it.
Clearly the Parakeelia round-robin payments, inaccurate reporting to ASIC, clerical errors and interlocking Liberal party financial and other resources, demand full investigation and the Auditor-General is now pursuing this. Not so our increasingly timid members of the fourth estate whose idealised role it is to ‘speak the truth to power’, to hold governments to account where secrecy in power is preferred. And so it was astonishing to hear the occupants of the Insiders couch, much chastised for fearing to go anywhere near Parakeelia in recent weeks, all in quiet agreement that perhaps there was something to look at in these revelations after all – but not until after the election. It was a remarkable and unashamed abdication of their professional responsibility. It is through those questions – tough, even perilous and yet so essential during this campaign – that we might really find out about political trust.
Jenny Hocking is Research Professor in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. An updated edition of her latest book, The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975, has just been released.