The Prime Minister’s daughter has forgiven the “mistake” that exposed her almost free university education, and in doing so has completely missed the point.
Frances Abbott broke her silence on the scholarship saga to The Australian on Monday. Ms Abbott confirmed that Freya Newman, the 21-year-old former librarian at The Whitehouse Institute of Design who illegally accessed the college’s computer system, has “acknowledged her mistake” in an apology letter.
To accept the apology of the young woman who may be jailed for this “mistake” without acknowledging the questions her disclosure raised is galling.
The youngest Abbott daughter did not comment on allegations that the secret, $60,636 scholarship was not publicly available, had no official application process, was awarded to her after a single meeting, and had only one previous recipient – a relative of the private college’s founder. Or if she did, The Australian did not report those comments.
Instead, in her first public statement on the affair, Ms Abbott chose to denounce “hacking”, showing a disregard for the public’s right to know. It also displays a lack of insight – she studies almost for free while her father tries to hike tuition fees for thousands of less-privileged students.
I feel strongly about it because I am one of them. As I wrote here, I will have accrued almost $46,000 in debt at the end of my undergraduate education in journalism and law if tuition fees stay the same. After this year’s federal budget, this debt will have up to six per cent in interest added to it each year from 2016.
In effect, Ms Abbott was telling us that it was wrong for Ms Newman to risk two years in prison to tell Australia that the Abbott family had accepted a $60,000 gift from an organisation that may benefit if the then-Opposition Leader made it to the Lodge.
In Ms Abbott’s world, even a child would know it is never okay to peek at other people’s documents.
“To be honest, it’s just like as a small child you learn it’s not right to read someone’s diary,” she said.
Unless of course you are a Liberal politician.
Former Howard government minister Mal Brough admitted to 60 Minutes that he told a senior parliamentary employee to steal information from the diary of the Speaker of Parliament. We know this saga better by the names of those involved – James Ashby and Peter Slipper.
Of course, Mr Brough had a reasonable excuse. He believed Mr Slipper “had committed a crime” and “was defrauding the Commonwealth”.
This is almost the exact argument used by Ms Newman’s barrister when he argued against jail time for his client. In October, Anthony Payne SC told a Sydney court that Ms Newman sincerely believed she was acting in the public interest.
“A sense of injustice motivated Ms Newman, not greed or a desire for notoriety or to embarrass Ms Abbott,” Mr Payne said, as quoted by Fairfax Media.
The huge difference is that the powerful politician has escaped a full investigation, whereas on November 25 the young woman could be jailed.
If Whitehouse were a public institution, Ms Newman might have been protected under whistleblower legislation – not that this is likely to have changed Ms Abbott’s mind.
Brave whistleblowers like Ms Newman are integral to our democracy because it is fanciful to expect the rich and powerful to always scrupulously police themselves. When they fail, we have things like ICAC and whistleblowers to fall back on.
Mr Abbott had the opportunity to declare his daughter’s scholarship on his pecuniary interests register, but chose not to.
Both Tony Abbott and Whitehouse have insisted the scholarship was based on merit, despite never publicly congratulating its recipient on earning a scholarship awarded for only the second time in the private college’s 26-year history.
When I was a child, I was taught that hard work is how you make good, promises are kept, and fairness is important.
Last time I wrote on this topic, I was asked on radio if I thought Ms Abbott should repay the money. I said it would be commendable if she did, but that was the wrong answer.
Repaying the scholarship would be fair. Standing in court and asking the judge to spare Ms Newman from a jail sentence would be truly commendable.
Sadly, this is unlikely to happen. Clearly some members of the Abbott family see the concept of fairness differently to me.
The office of the Prime Minister, Freya Newman’s legal team, and Ms Abbott’s former landlord have all been contacted for comment.