Andrew Wilkie: the operative word

Originally published on Upstart (19 April 2013)

In 2003, he resigned from Australia’s foremost intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments (ONA), in protest over the Iraq war. It was a bold move that unwittingly launched him from whistle-blower to political candidate.

While Wilkie didn’t leave the ONA with the intention of becoming politically active, he says Australia’s involvement in Iraq was to him a symptom of “a much bigger problem about poor decisions by politicians”.

In 2010, he began his first term in parliament by taking the hotly contested Denison seat from Labor, ending the party’s 23 year hold. Now, this time around, Labor is intensifying their campaign to win it back.

The last six months have seen Wilkie under increasing fire, both from Labor and the Greens. Most recently, his opponent for Denison, Labor’s Jane Austin, has accused Wilkie of taking credit for federal funding in his electorate.

Denison has the “joint efforts of the state and federal governments” to thank for the new addition of 900 million dollars, Austin said. Labor MP Carol Brown has also listed the federal government as the source of the funding.

“Well they would say that,” Wilkie tells Upstart. “The first the government heard of this was when I raised it with the Prime Minister personally not long after the 2010 election. It was a very difficult job to extract that money out of them. For them to suggest it’s not my work is just a boldfaced lie.”

It appears that Wilkie’s narrow victory over Labor in 2010, at just 51 per cent of the two candidate preferred vote, has the government hoping to snatch back the seat come September. During an ALP meeting in Canberra last month, the federal government declared Denison to be a key focus for investment during this election campaign, alongside around 30 other marginal electorates.

 “They didn’t want that money to flow into the electorate during this term of parliament because  a) they don’t want me to look good and b) they wanted to promise it themselves at the next election,” Wilkie says.

While he was among the key members to give a majority to the Labor government in 2010, Wilkie has since withdrawn that support.

“The Prime Minister reneged on her deal with me for poker commission reform,” he says now. “So in January a year ago I did what I said I would do and withdrew my support. Now I don’t have a formal agreement with anyone and I’m genuinely unaligned.”

Recent polling by EMRS favours Wilkie as a strong contender in Denison, with a sample of around 400 voters giving the Independent 23 per cent of their approval. This is a definite improvement on the 21 per cent he received just before his victory in 2010.

Indeed, right now it is parliament where Wilkie faces his toughest fight. The Independent is struggling to push through a Private Member’s Bill for whistle-blower legislation ahead of Labor’s new Public Interest Disclosure Bill.

Compiled with the expert advice of Dr AJ Brown from Griffith University, Queensland, Wilkie’s new laws will give public servants assured protection when revealing instances of corruption and maladministration to the media.

“It’s all to the end of giving people and journalists the ability to publicise official misconduct,” Wilkie says.

Neither the federal government nor the Coalition has so far agreed to back Wilkie’s bill.

“The government has made it quite clear that it will not support my bill and in fact in the most recently sitting week they tabled their own bill which I think is seriously deficient in a number of areas,” Wilkie says.

Having successfully passed legislation on Shield Laws for journalists in 2010, Wilkie believes the government may be dodging the real issue now on whistle-blower protection.

“I think it goes too far for this government,” he says. “I suppose governments don’t like public servants publicising government misconduct.”

Still, Wilkie remains satisfied he has upped the pressure enough to ensure something will be processed. “I get some comfort from the fact that at least it’s a first step,” he says.

And, despite rumours of a backstage deal between Labor and the Greens, Wilkie is coolly confident about the upcoming federal election in Denison.

“I think I’ve got a pretty good name around town nowadays,” he says. “I’ve been hoping through this parliament that people would see the value of having Independents. I’d like to think that people would see that Winsor, Oakeshott, myself, Cabott; we’re pretty solid men and we’re a helpful check on what is normally a monopoly of power.”

Unfortunately, in the wake of the hung parliament of 2010, federal Independents face a tougher battle than ever before to survive alongside the warring factions of Labor and Liberal.

Too often, Wilkie says, it dissolves into “unhelpful” personal attacks.

“It’s regrettable that both the Labor party and the Greens have, rather than seeking to campaign against me on the facts and on public policy, it’s regrettable that they’ve both resorted so quickly to such nastiness,” Wilkie says.

Greens senator Christine Milne hit a nerve when she questioned whether Wilkie had the “backbone” to stand up to Murdoch and the bullies of big business during a press conference on the recent media reform controversy.

“I think that to accuse me of being one to buckle in the face of Murdoch, given my track record, is a nonsense suggestion,”Wilkie says. “I think I’ve got a reputation for standing up to power.”

Formerly an Army lieutenant colonel, Wilkie has spoken out against Australia’s involvement in Iraq, frequently calling for a formal inquiry. His book The Axis of Deceit gives a detailed account of the instances where he believes intelligence from the ONA was overblown or misinterpreted for the sake of justifying an Australian presence in Iraq.

Most recently, Wilkie challenged former Prime Minister John Howard to apologise for our Australian involvement in the conflict during a speech commemorating its ten year anniversary.

And when it comes to policy, Wilkie seems just as determined. He was present in parliament on the 15th of September last year to second Adam Bandt’s motion on same sex marriage, despite having had his gall bladder removed just three days earlier.

Right now, Wilkie’s focus is on reform. “There is a need to ensure that the reforms of this parliament are bedded down,” he says. “For example, the Gonski education reforms are still before the parliament, we’re still to vote on them, we’re still to see money in the federal budget.”

But petty political squabbles could be getting in the way. In the lead up to the ALP leadership spill last month, Wilkie was reported to offer advice to the government – namely to get on with running the country.

“I share the community’s concern about all this self-indulgent carrying on within the Labor party,” Wilkie says. “The Labor party needs to get back to work.”

 Of the political atmosphere at present, he comments “it’s certainly a very toxic environment I find myself in and old timers tell me they’ve never seen it this bad. It’s become very personal and nasty and I think that helps to explain why the general public is sick to death of politicians and politics.”

After years of training to uncover truth as an intelligence analyst, Wilkie credits himself with “a reasonable ability to see the wood for the trees.”

And it’s a trait he hopes to see more of in parliament.

As Wilkie puts it: “In Canberra, where I expected to find the world’s best political operators and thinkers, I’ve sometimes been disappointed.”

By Sherryn Groch

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