How to get away with (political) murder – Crikey

Originally published on Crikey (14 December 2015)

Sherryn Groch looks back on some of recent history’s most memorable controversies and the survival tactics of the MPs at their centre.

What can one expect from Christmas drinks at Bronwyn Bishop’s house?

While there might have been less collateral damage in marble coffee tables than at a Tony Abbott post-coup party, the former speaker still had some surprises up her sleeve for guests at her Newport home Tuesday evening when she announced she would be contesting her seat of Mackellar at the next election.

Bishop said she felt she had now been exonerated from the infamous choppergate travel expenses scandal over which she resigned as speaker in August and that the “threat of terrorism” had compelled her onto another three years in the House.

From the longest serving woman in the parliament’s history, perhaps this final stand is no real surprise.

In that spirit, Crikey took a look at some of the parliament’s other great survivors and the tactics that keep them hanging on.

Denial

As demonstrated just this month by Mal Brough, the special minister of state caught up in the Ashby-Slipper fall out, admitting things is never a good idea. In fact, in Brough’s case, it can carry a two year prison sentence.

Named in an Australian Federal Police search warrant, Brough is currently under investigation for his part in the 2012 conspiracy that sought to damage former speaker Peter Slipper. Brough is said to have counselled the man at the centre of the controversy, former staffer James Ashby, to “procure copies” of Slipper’s official diaries.

The problem for Brough is that he has already admitted as much during an interview with 60 Minutes in 2014. When asked by Liz Hayes, “did you ask James Ashby to procure, um, copies of Peter Slipper’s diary for you?”, he replied: “Yes, I did.”

Brough initially insisted that the televised interview had been selectively edited. But when Nine released the raw footage of the interview, the Special Minister of State was forced to issue an apology (of sorts).

With the Prime Minister yet to call for his resignation, Brough just needs to sit tight and hope the whole thing fades away in a noggy Christmas haze before parliament resumes again in the New Year.

Refusing to apologise

Straight out of the Bronwyn Bishop playbook, the refusal to apologise is a risky but powerful stalling tactic.

When word broke that Bishop had chartered a $5,000 flight to Geelong to attend a Liberal party fundraiser, the speaker stoically faced down howls for her resignation by asserting she had claimed within travel entitlement rules.

She repaid the money but continued to resist pressure to make a formal apology. “I think the biggest apology one can make is to repay the money,” she said.

With a loyal PM at her back but more expense secrets leaking out, Bishop lasted another two weeks before at last making a reluctant apology. Days later, she would resign as speaker against the backdrop of a new review into entitlements.

But while most of her colleagues have since been engaged in very public retirement planning on her behalf, Bishop is already getting ready to fight off a potential challenge in her relatively safe seat of Mackellar from NSW MP Natasha MacLaren-Jones. Clearly, we haven’t seen the last of this frequent flyer just yet.

Wearing leather jackets

Malcolm Turnbull’s own survival strategy, which took him from the “arrogant” Opposition Leader deposed by his own party to the loveable rascal of Q&A to Kirribilli House in around six years, is definitely the most subtle (and stylish) yet.

Turnbull’s hold on the Opposition leadership came unstuck in 2009 when he wrongly accused then PM Kevin Rudd of seeking preferential treatment for a Queensland car dealer.

The claim relied on an email sent from a Prime Ministerial staffer to Treasury official Gordan Grech, who headed the Ozcar government assistance scheme at the time – an email Rudd said didn’t exist.

On June 19, Turnbull accused Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swann of using “their offices and taxpayers’ sources to seek advantage for one of their mates” and lying to the Parliament. But a police investigation into the affair confirmed that the email was in fact a fake and Grech later admitted to the forgery.

In a Newspoll published in The Australian at the time, Turnbull’s approval rating was said to have suffered the single biggest fall in the survey’s history.

Later losing the Liberal leadership to Tony Abbott, he considered leaving politics altogether. But a firm talking to from John Howard soon had him rebuilding his public brand – with the help of regular Q&A spots and a well-stocked wardrobe of leather jackets.

The Turnbull charm offensive has barely missed a beat since.

Stepping down

Expertly executed by Cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos in 2014 (and less so by Bronwyn Bishop in August), the resignation strategy offers the disgraced pollie a dignified march to the back bench with none of the finality of early retirement.

Facing off an ICAC corruption inquiry over his time at the helm of Australian Water Holdings, Sinodinos announced he would step aside from then his role of Assistant Treasurer to avoid “unnecessary distraction” from the “sideshow” of the investigation.

His fall from grace, as a former chief of staff to John Howard and a central figure in the Liberal executive, shocked parliament. But Sinodinos was patient. And perhaps just low-profile enough for the public to forget about. When he was later elevated to the new Turnbull ministry as Cabinet secretary, no one batted an eye.

Being inscrutable

Of course perhaps the greatest political survival story of all belongs to none other than the Father of the House, Phillip Ruddock.

While Ruddock has become almost as familiar a fixture around Parliament House as the Chesterfield lounges, in 2003 his time as Immigration Minister was called into question in the infamous cash-for-visas scandal.

Then shadow immigration spokesperson Julia Gillard accused Ruddock of granting a passport to Dante Tan, a Filipino man with a criminal record, in exchange for Liberal Party donations.

Labor linked three visas Ruddock granted to $110,000 in donations – as well as “an expensive gift of stamps”.

But a Senate inquiry eventually ruled there was no way to know if the donations directly influenced Ruddock’s decisions to grant the visas because they couldn’t vouch for his thinking at the time. The Father of House clawed back a place at the table.

Being a Liberal

While scandals in parliament have touched both sides of the house, a Crikey investigation found no Labour members involved in any of the most recent controversies still serving in politics at a federal level.

Of course, having just staggered free of the the trade union royal commission and now under fire for texting while driving, perhaps no one could learn more from these Liberal survival stories than Labor leader Bill Shorten.

By Sherryn Groch

 

 

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