The New Daily

Past lessons are haunting the PM of the present

ANALYSIS: Why the recent ministerial scandals pose a threat to Malcolm Turnbull’s re-election.

Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull's approval has hit a five month low. Photo: Getty

History has it that governments lose elections rather than oppositions win them. There’s no doubt voters wanted rid of the Rudd-Gillard circus even if it meant voting for Tony Abbott’s Liberals.

But there is a salutary lesson in all of this for the present government. The latest Fairfax-Ipsos poll shows the crown is slipping and the self-harm with ministerial scandals and policy waffle is taking a toll.

The week in the run-up to the poll saw the government stonewall as serious allegations were made against minister Stuart Robert for confusing public duty with private interest.

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Clearly the voters weren’t impressed.

At 52-48, the Coalition is still in a winning position but there is an eight-point turnaround in the past three months that has made Labor competitive.

Not content with the head of Human Services Minister Stuart Robert, Labor has now referred his controversial trip to Beijing for a business mate and Liberal donor to the police.

Labor’s Mark Dreyfus argues there is a case at face value of ministerial impropriety crossing the line into criminality.

Stuart Robert

Stuart Robert maintains it was a private visit, despite meeting with senior Chinese officials. Photo: ABC

In a bland statement from Malcolm Turnbull, we were told that an inquiry had found that Mr Robert’s private trip to Beijing had flouted the guidelines because he had shares in the companies of Paul Marks, the millionaire whom he went to help.

No mention was made of the fact that Mr Marks is one of the Liberal Party’s biggest single donors. He has given $2 million over the past two years.

There is no doubt that Mr Robert’s presence at a signing ceremony in China was to add credibility to Mr Marks’ efforts to attract millions of dollars of investment from a Chinese state-owned company for one of his projects.

Mr Robert’s problem now is, as a shareholder, he too would benefit from lending his official status to the sales job. What the Federal Police make of this remains to be seen.

But beyond doubt, the Robert affair points up the shocking inadequacy of Australia’s political donation regime. There is not enough accountability or transparency.

This situation was made worse by the Howard government in 1996 raising the donation disclosure threshold from $1500 to an indexed $13,000 with no real time disclosure as in the United States.

Jamie Briggs and Mal Brough

MPs Jamie Briggs (L) and Mal Brough stunned the Turnbull government. Photo: Getty

Attempts in 2013 by the Rudd Labor government to drop the threshold to $5000 in a compromise were stymied at the last minute by then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

It wasn’t the system that caught Mr Robert out. It was investigative journalism on the part of the Herald Sun in Melbourne with considerable backdoor help from the Labor Party and elements of the Liberal Party.

The Herald Sun also revealed Mr Marks asked Mr Robert to set up a dinner in Canberra for him and another billionaire Chinese businessman. The timing was in the run-up to the 2013 election.

Mr Abbott and Scott Morrison duly turned up and, along with others, received Rolex watches worth thousands of dollars from the businessman.

Nothing impresses the Chinese more than influence. Mr Marks was no BHP Billiton, so to impress investors he needed to show he had friends in high places. If it cost $2 million to facilitate access it would be small beer indeed compared to winning mega-millions of dollars for his developments.

Attracting investment is a good thing. Ministers of all hues lend their support to it. But one has to ask why did Mr Robert wanted to keep his trip secret? Did he flout the rules because the chances of being found out were slim?

Mr Marks told the Herald Sun it was being negative and not focussing on the benefits to the nation if his mining project went ahead.

In Queensland in the 1980s, I witnessed first-hand the “white shoe” brigade buying off ministers and even a Premier for huge gains. The Fitzgerald Inquiry didn’t buy their argument: “What’s good for me is good for the state.”

Neither should we.

Greater donation limitations and transparency are needed urgently to preserve the national interest from greedy vested interests.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

For more from Paul Bongiorno, click here


  • Arrrgghhh!!!

    The look on Turnbull’s face in the attached photo tells us that he is feeling more than a little deflated over recent events. The children are misbehaving.

    • RGG

      We were promised a government of Adults. Another broken promise.

    • mulga mumblebrain

      Turnbull might even be gone before the election. No ticker, you see, and I suspect Papa Doc Murdoch prefers Morrison, a real Ton Ton Macoute if ever there was one.

    • Bruce

      Do not believe any photo the media uses. Somewhere between a smile and a frown you can capture any mood you like on a persons face with a high speed camera or just use a different photo from another occasion. Do not get me wrong, I do not like Turnbull the talking head !

  • MickicM

    I’d like to know whether Abbott and Morrison declared the Rolexes, worth thousands, they received at the time.

    • An earlier story said they gave them back though when and why have not been answered, another matter to add to an RC into the Libs.

  • Brendan Kelly

    And what will happen nothing Australia will chew their grass like good sheep nothing will happen we need a royal commission then let’s see what goes on both state and federal Sides of the L and P

    • It really is time for Labor to run an RC into the Libs because they know the Libs do it to them every time they get elected wasting hundreds of millions each time.

    • mulga mumblebrain

      Them’s fightin’ words, Kelly! Sum my best frends are sheep!

      • Brendan Kelly

        A kiwi then sorry

    • Tony Peters

      We need a Head of State who acts as a watchdog to ensure the laws are kept and that those who flout them get punished. An active figurehead, not a passive/non existent one.
      We may as well have a statue sitting as Head of State for all the good the current one does.

      • JarOfCornRelish

        We need a federal ICAC

  • Samantha

    If you know there is corruption Paul, then you should publish it. You are obligated to do so.

  • RoydFissure

    What are the rules for public servants and gifts? Are they different for Ministers?

  • Dunkey

    There is a rotten stench here, but they will cruise to the next election and win. Why, because an huge slice of voters in the marginal seats will not even be aware of the facts Paul Bongiorno has written about in this article. Tell them about the ‘white shoe brigade’ buying off ministers in Qld during the eighties and there would be total ignorance.They will only be able to discuss something in relation to a TV show or a sporting event or some young ‘spunk’ they saw on TV.

    You can thank Murdoch, Jones, Hadley and the other ‘gurus’ who are able to ensure the dumb & dumber cannot comprehend this behaviour.

  • tony ridler

    The lesser a conflict of interest, the lesser an interest in conflict’-;#SaidAbrahamLincolnNever

  • Malcolm

    I’d suggest that any potential investors for the outback goldmine have a good look at how much astrology is involved before starting to dig a very deep hole. Happy year of the monkey.

  • Loco Lobo

    Across all state and fed governments in the last 24 months, 21 LNP MPs vs 3 ALP MPs have resigned or been sacked due to scandal. Read Alan Austin’s articles on the Independent Australia Website and you’ll see just how much worse the LNP really are.

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