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article imageOp-Ed: Call it Utegate or Tailgate, Australian politics hits a new low

By Paul Wallis     Aug 4, 2009 in Politics
This story comes from the soggy end of politics, called "Utegate". An allegation was made of preferential treatment to a car dealer friend by the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, picked it up. Then things got ugly.
It was dramatic while it lasted, but the allegation was quite false. It’s now cost millions to find that out. The informant in this matter was one Gordon Grech, a Treasury official, who was reputed to be a Liberal sympathizer in the higher echelons of the Canberra bureaucracy. Nobody’s calling him that now.
To give some idea of the level of frenzy this caused in the Australian media, the Daily Telegraph's Steve Lewis who broke the story, has an insider article telling the tale of how the story started and developed, which is well worth a look. The entire media pack went after it like dogs after a lamb chop. The headlines just didn't stop. Now, we have a fizzle that few people could have seen coming. Lewis obviously isn't too impressed. Neither is anyone else.
Grech passed on information to Turnbull regarding alleged preferential treatment being given to the car dealer, Ozcar, in the form of an email as evidence. The email suggested that the PM was directly involved. There were also allegations of misleading Parliament. A Senate inquiry was held, and referred the matter to the Auditor General for investigation. The email, it was later discovered, was found out to have been composed by Grech. A fake, from start to finish. The Government is now calling for the resignation of Turnbull and a Liberal Senator over the allegations.
Unfortunately, a Senate inquiry, investigating the allegation made to Parliament by Turnbull, has now also been said to have been scripted. A Liberal Senator is accused of setting up questions and agreeing questions and answers with Grech during the hearing. That’s a particularly serious allegation, and the political tide has come back as a tsunami over the Opposition.
Grech confessed, and said he was “under pressure”. From whom, under what circumstances, we don’t know. Admittedly coherence doesn't seem to be Grech's strong suit.
A mess, obviously, but there are several uncovered areas. The Australian media has been focusing on Grech, and not getting too much in the way of a profile, or much else.
There’s a lot missing from the story:
1. This is something Australian public servants are not supposed to do. There’s a list of Commonwealth Public Service regulations and policies which is literally as long as the Sydney Harbor Bridge on this subject, in A4 sheets. Why would a senior public servant even bother to do all this?
2. Senior Australian public servants aren’t idiots. Canberra is easily as vicious as place to work as DC or London, in terms of bureaucratic backbiting, as well as political. This is not the sort of situation even a novice public servant in their right mind would want to even consider. It’s career suicide to get involved directly in anything political at this level. These things are supposed to be done at arm’s length, preferably somebody else’s arm. Martyrdom is not a popular career move the in Commonwealth Public Service.
3. Turnbull is famously a non-idiot. The sheer transparency of this bogus email thing had no chance of success. It couldn’t stand up to any level of scrutiny, when investigated by anyone who knew how to investigate it, which unfortunately doesn't seem to include the Senate. It doesn’t make any sense that he’d be enthusiastic about a total fiasco in the making, if aware of it.
4. Somebody must have dreamed this up. The fact remains that somehow this idiocy penetrated to the top of the Liberal Party as a working proposition for a statement in Parliament by Turnbull. It’s plausible that Grech, as a “sympathizer”, might have some credibility as a source of information, but that doesn’t excuse the failure to check out the information before tying it around Turnbull’s neck as a DIY albatross. Either there are rats in the ranks, or someone’s a complete buffoon at a very high level in the party, to have allowed this load of drivel through to Turnbull.
5. Turnbull actually did his job as Opposition Leader, by raising the matter. If it had been proven correct, Australia could well be now looking for another Prime Minister. This would have been real abuse of position.
6. The supposed method of doing someone a favor would also have been quite out of character for Rudd, who’s also notably not an idiot. He’s a highly experience politician, and a diplomat to boot. If he wanted to do someone a favor, he wouldn’t do it like that. The misreading of Rudd is a black mark against Turnbull, but by the same token, if you’ve got information like that, what are you supposed to do with it? Use it as a Christmas decoration?
7. Senators aren’t supposed to be idiots, either. Why would an experienced Senator script a witness before a Senate hearing? Why is it even a credible allegation? If that’s true, or even believable, the Liberal party needs to do some IQ tests when checking out Senate candidates.
Australian politics has exposed a serious weak point in itself. This thing should never have flown, at any level. It was tacky, ill-conceived, and lacking in any chance of success. If the Liberal minders had done their jobs, Grech would have been sent off to a nice clinic somewhere.
Parliamentarians, of all people, should know that most of what happens is behind the scenes. If they want to do commercials, they should hire an advertising agency. If they want to create conspiracies, they should construct them well away from any possible connection with themselves.
My suspicion is that Grech was always a bit too good to be true. A senior public servant, acting as an informant to a political party, is about as reliable as a rabid rat in a kindergarten. In business, when you buy something that turns out to be a liability, it’s called a “poison pill”. That, I think, is what this will prove to be.
Either way, Australian politics has tailgated itself with unmistakable proof of vulnerability to insiders who can do tremendous damage. If Canberra wants to play safe, some strict editing of who’s allowed where in party politics is required. It would save a lot of time and public money, if nothing else.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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