‘Where there’s smoke there’s fire’ might have been more apt as a title, but no one will mistake what ‘The old rusty ute’ is about. But as we know, it’s not really about the ute at all. Those who know the story well might wish to skip to the analysis at the end.
John Grant runs an Ipswich car dealership. He is a neighbour of Kevin Rudd, a friend and a political donor. He loaned the ute, said to be valued at around $5000, to Rudd for campaign purposes. Presumably it was used as a mobile campaign vehicle during the last election, and probably never since. Rudd declared this loaned vehicle on his parliamentary register of pecuniary interests before he became Labor leader. Malcolm Turnbull likes to describe this second-hand vehicle as ‘a valuable gift’, but his attempt to berate Rudd for accepting the loan on the grounds he could afford a dozen utes, sounds phoney. Of course he could, but if a friend offers electorate assistance in this way, why reject it? The pious, like Bob Brown and some journalists, say it’s ‘not a good look’. That simply means they don’t approve. So what?
The nub of the issue is whether Rudd mislead parliament when, in answer to a Turnbull question in QT, he said that neither he nor his staff had ever acted as an advocate for John Grant who had made enquiries about the OzCar scheme created by the Government at a time when GMAC and GE pulled out of financing car dealerships in Australia. In a piece in today’s Australian, Canberra chat no longer safe: John Grant, Grant says “...dealers didn't know what was going on, the government came up with a package, and vehicle dealers wanted to know what was happening with it.” He went on to say: “I did ring to find out what the program was about and I found out that it couldn't be drawn down by the dealers; it could only be drawn down by the finance companies and banks. They were the only people who could access the fund, so as a dealer I could get no favours at all. I didn't ask for any favours, and quite frankly I'm still with the financier I started with so nothing's changed for me in my life." Talking about Kevin Rudd, Grant said “He is my friend; I have not asked for any special treatment and I have not gained any special treatment. I never spoke to Kevin Rudd about it." Pretty straight forward.
But where there’s smoke there’s fire. The fact the Grant loaned a ute to Rudd and then made enquiries about a Government scheme to support car dealership finance, in the minds of Turnbull and his Coalition members fans the smoke into fire, which they hope will consume Rudd and Wayne Swan as well.
I was watching QT when the original question on this matter was asked by Turnbull. Rudd was surprised, astonished at this question from left field. Some say he was ‘rattled’. His answer was brief. He said he had no knowledge of the matter. Shortly after, then briefed by his staff, he vigorously denied that he or his office had lobbied on behalf of Grant, and berated Turnbull for turning the Coalition’s ‘fear campaign into a smear campaign’. Similar questions to Wayne Swan, and a week or two later to them both, signalled that the Opposition thought it was onto something. The barrister in Turnbull was clearly setting them up, and the smirk on the faces of Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey and other front-benchers pointed to the pleasure they were enjoying at Rudd’s discomfiture. They had information they judged detrimental to Rudd. One sensed they were waiting to go in for the kill at the Treasury Senate Estimates hearings.
The first hearing exposed a tentative witness, Godwin Grech, the Treasury official in charge of OzCar matters. He seemed unable to answer questions, no matter how straightforward, without interminable hesitation and rambling preambles. His second appearance, yesterday, was even worse. He was nervous, distressed, hesitant, almost in tears, and at time unwilling to answer. His state of mind might have been partly due to several conversations he had had the previous day with journalist Steve Lewis of The Daily Telegraph, who claimed to have a copy of a brief email to Grech from Andrew Charlton, economics advisor in Rudd’s office that implied that Rudd’s office had lobbied on Grant’s behalf, contradicting Rudd’s assertion that no such lobbying had occurred. It remains a mystery why Grech was so hesitant, so nervous, and so unforthcoming. He is said to have denied to Lewis that he received such an email, yet when the Coalition’s attack dog Eric Abtez specifically asked had he received the email he could or would not answer directly, saying instead "My recollection may be totally false but my recollection is that there was a short email from the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) to me which very simply alerted me to the case of John Grant, but I don't have the email,". He also intimated that he had the impression that Grant was no ordinary constituent. He was finally protected from further questions by his senior David Martine and the Estimates chair.
His painful performance, which I watched throughout, gave credence to the feeling that he was trying to hide the existence of the email, although he said he had denied this in his conversations with Lewis. Only the Auditor General’s enquiry, which Rudd established that evening, is likely to resolve the confusion. But his demeanour certainly fuelled ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’.
Let’s rewind a few hours to the revelation by Swan that at the Midwinter ball last Wednesday Turnbull had approached Charlton about the email, which Turnbull believed he had authored, and gave him fatherly advice not to lie about it or it could damage a promising career. Swan called it bullying. It was only when Charlton published his file note of the incident that we saw the interchange between them. Turnbull must have felt pretty sure Charlton was the author to conduct himself in the way Charlton portrayed. Of course Turnbull denied bullying, but the Swan announcement put him somewhat on the back foot. It’s hard to believe that Charlton would reveal his file note if he had in fact been the author. He’s a young man hardly likely to have the chutzpah to publically lie on this matter. As Bushfire Bill, blogging late last night on The Poll Bludger, says: “Why did Charlton go public yesterday after his run in with Turnbull? There was absolutely no reason to over-egg the situation if he knew he was guilty. He’d be running for cover instead. The whole thing rings of a setup.”
So what did this February 19 email actually say? According to Lewis, the transcript, without header, reads: "Hi Godwin, the PM has asked if the car dealer financing vehicle is available to assist a Queensland dealership, John Grant Motors, who seems to be having trouble getting finance. If you can follow up on this asap that would be very useful. Happy to discuss. A,".
Not much to hang your hat on there. And why doesn’t Lewis reveal the header? If it supported Charlton as the originator, wouldn’t that reinforce his case? BB has a view about how Lewis got the ‘email’: “It’s easy… Grech could have made it up and read the fake text to him over the phone. That fits Lewis not printing the header.”
BB went on to make this assessment: “What strikes me about the alleged email is that it’s just too pat. Starting out with “Hi Godwin…” and detailing every Coalition allegation like a tick-list is too much of a set-up. No-one in their right mind would send a dodgy request to a very senior public servant in that tone, and in fact would not send such a message in a permanent form like an email at all. If you want to put the fix in, and for there to be no record of it, you use the telephone or arrange lunch. Anyone who works or has worked in an office knows Outlook emails can’t be deleted. It’s Rule No. 1. You pick up your phone (or preferably someone else’s) and dial. It’s just too pat. I believe the email’s a fake.” BB adds: “And I’m fairly confident that someone suspected Grech was the Treasury leaker they’ve been looking for for months.” In another post he says: “And you have to ask yourself: would anyone at all be so stupid as to commit a request for special...treatment for a constituent in these circumstances to a traceable, un-erasable, fully auditable written medium?"
Sounds logical to me.
So from where did the email emanate? Having searched computers in his office, in Treasury and specifically Grech’s and finding no trace of it, Rudd labelled it a fake. Lindsay Tanner followed suit on Lateline, and today Swan is insisting that Malcolm Turnbull reveal the information he purports to have, how he came to see it, and where it came from. The Government is now asking if it is the product of the Liberal Party, forcing Turnbull onto the back foot in denial.
Having received many emails from banks, we all know that phishing, a criminally fraudulent process of attempting to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details by masquerading as a trustworthy entity, is rife, and many are deceived by it. So notwithstanding an email’s header, it can be from any computer and purport to be from another. Again BB, addressing the question of the authenticity of the email, had this to say: “There is actually quite a lot to suggest it’s a fabrication, to wit, two major searches - one of PMO and one of Treasury’s email records. Rudd is sticking to his story. Tanner has gone on the offensive claiming outright it’s a fabrication. Rudd too. A weaker pointer is that the Coalition has a habit of fabricating documents as evidenced by the recent SA scandal, and the fake dodgers in Penrith last election”.
Turning to Wayne Swan, some columnists, for example Lenore Taylor, sees him more at risk than Rudd, because of Grech’s evidence that emails on progress had been sent to Swan’s office, even to his home fax, seemingly contradicting that he did not now know the outcome of the referral of Grant’s request to OzCar. But sending faxes on this matter to Swan, even at home, does not assure that they were read. Swan has much more to think about that such trivia. Presumably they were sent to him by zealous public servants because Grant is a constituent of Swan, and doing so might curry favour. Swan, even today, insists he was not aware of the outcome.
All day today the ABC news has run the ‘fake email’ story and the Coalition as a possible source, complete with Turnbull denials. The papers are running it too, and despite a piece by Steve Lewis pushing his line in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, its banner headline read ‘Dirty Tricks’.
So where does this leave us? What are Turnbull’s tactics? It may be a coincidence, but since Peter Costello bowed out last Monday, Turnbull seems to be even more aggressive than usual, maybe feeling that without Costello looking over his shoulder, he can revert to his usual combative style. He harangued business leaders at a meeting of the Business Council earlier this week to support him over the ETS and not ‘cosy-up’ with the Government, and now he’s going full bore over the ute affair, arguing Rudd and Swan have mislead parliament. Turnbull has form on running interference in such matters. Annabelle Crabb in her Quarterly Essay about Turnbull Stop at Nothing, recalls that during the run-up to the Spycatcher case, Turnbull and his British colleague, suspecting that their phones were being tapped by British intelligence, “...devised complicated techniques to unnerve intelligence agencies and Mrs Thatcher’s government...They staged elaborately hoaxed discussions to keep spooks guessing.” She goes on to record some actual conversations. So we should not be surprised at any technique Turnbull uses to achieve his ends. He is prepared to ‘stop at nothing’.
Turning to Rudd, does anyone except rabid Rudd-haters believe that he or Swan would be stupid enough to give unfair advantage to a constituent over such an insignificant matter as referring them to OzCar, knowing that individual dealers were not eligible for funds from that scheme, and then deliberately lie to the parliament about their actions, and run the risk of the dire consequences? It just doesn’t make sense. In response to another blogger, BB has this to say on the issue: “...It comes down to whether you think Rudd is dishonest. ...I don’t think you’d say, in your heart of hearts, that Rudd is a dishonest (as in corrupt) type of person. He certainly would not risk everything he has worked for for the bribe of a second hand ute, especially as he is independently wealthy into the bargain. That is inconceivable.” I agree.
So we have Turnbull seemingly trying to have Rudd and Swan found guilty of misleading parliament and resigning. He knows that’s not going to happen, but he hopes that in the process of trying to nail them, some ignominy will stick and demean them both in the eyes of the electorate, diminish their approval ratings, and enhance his own. He runs the risk of that tactic backfiring, especially if the public gets a sniff of dirty tricks. The Government is hitting back hard and just now has referred ‘the alleged fake email’ to the Australian Federal Police, on the grounds that impersonating a person in public office (such as seems to be the case with someone impersonating Charlton) is a criminal offence. So far it looks like a nil-all draw.
But where there’s smoke there’s fire. There seems to be a lot of smoke emanating from both sides; the question is who’s going to get burnt.
What do you think?