Three Labor heavyweights have become embroiled in a subscriptions for comment scandal after taking up Hillary Bray’s offer to mention us in Senate Estimates.

Let’s see how this amazing story unfolded by first looking at what Hillary wrote in one of her columns in late January.

MPs offered bribe

Last year John Faulkner, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, was kind enough to put a few words about your columnist on the Parliamentary record.

Hillary, according to Faulkner, “does appear from time to time to be quite well informed about certain matters”. It was hardly a ringing endorsement, but what the hell. Crikey had only been up and running for a couple of months.

Now that we’re much better known – and with Parliament resuming this week – Hillary would like to invite all our Federal pols to participate in the Crikey Cash for Comment scandal.

Members, Senators – here’s how it works. All our you need to do is cite Crikey in the Chambers or a committee, e-mail through the relevant Hansard extract and we’ll give you a free subscription – leaving you with a spare 55 bucks in your pocket.

Your staff will love you.

ends

Well sure enough, it has happened and Crikey dished out free subscriptions to Senators Robert Ray, John Faulkner and Stephen Conroy after a hilarious exchange in the Estimates committee on February 20.

Subscriptions for comment: the evidence

Estimates – FINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION LEGISLATION COMMITTEE – 20 February 2001

Senator FAULKNER -I read something on the web at www.crikey.com.au.

Senator Abetz -A reputable source!

Senator ROBERT RAY -He used to work for the Premier, Jeff Kennett, but that is all I know about him.

Senator Abetz -That is the rumour.

Senator ROBERT RAY -No, he certainly did.

Senator FAULKNER -I am not commenting on the nature of the source at all. I was merely concerned to read it. No doubt you will be able to put any concerns I have at rest if there is nothing in it. According to the web site: All sorts of resources have been tipped into the seat-

I interpolate here that the seat is Ballarat, which is Mr Ronaldson’s seat; Mr Ronaldson has some responsibility in relation to the government members’ secretariat- to shore him up and the Government Members Secretariat-the Liberal Party’s taxpayer funded electioneering unit-has even `tested’ campaign techniques in Ballarat.

It would certainly be a misuse of the resources of the government members’ secretariat if it occurred. Wouldn’t you agree, Senator Abetz?

Senator Abetz -Let us see what the allegation is. But the allegation of shoring him up when he has announced his intention not to recontest the seat seems to me to be somewhat fanciful. Why would they be trying to promote Mr Ronaldson and shore him up in a seat when he advised the Prime Minister quite some time ago, before the public announcement, that he was not recontesting?

Senator CONROY -They are pretty slow in that unit, though. They might not have heard yet.

Senator FAULKNER -Someone may be trying to shore up the seat, as opposed to Mr Ronaldson.

Senator Abetz -The story, as you quoted it, said it was him. But I am not a believer in www.crikey.com.au.

Senator FAULKNER -Let us forget about whether Mr Ronaldson renominates. I do not know what he will do-I have no idea. But my concern was this comment-and you may be able to indicate whether there is any truth to it-that there has been testing of campaign techniques in the seat of Ballarat by the government members’ secretariat. If you can allay my concerns about that, that is fine. Let us not get hung up on whether Mr Ronaldson recontests the seat. Let us look at the substantive issue of an alleged misuse of Commonwealth resources.

Senator Abetz -That was the allegation that you put to me. Now you are putting a different suggestion to me. I will take that on notice.

Senator FAULKNER -You cannot give me an assurance that there has been no misuse of Commonwealth resources in this regard? Do you have to take it on notice?

Senator Abetz -As I said to you, I do not avail myself of the misinformation that is usually available on www.crikey.com.au. As a result, I was not aware of that story. As a result of your perusal of the web site and your advising me of its contents, I was made aware of it 30 seconds ago and I will look into it.

Senator ROBERT RAY -Do you realise that you have compromised yourself by that statement? In the last Crikey, they made the point that anyone who mentioned Crikey in the estimates process was going to get a free subscription. You just qualified!

Senator Abetz -I think Senator Faulkner has the first free subscription, and I will get the second.

Senator ROBERT RAY -Yes, both of you.

Senator CONROY -It is not always an accurate journal, though.

Senator Abetz -It is not when they have described me in unflattering terms from time to time.

Senator ROBERT RAY -There is a lot of commonality around there.

Senator CONROY -They suggested that I had perhaps been tired and emotional, at one point, at a party.

ends

It resumed later in the day over our story about Austereo’s airtime gifts to the Liberals

Senator FAULKNER -I see. I am surprised you have not had any of this material drawn to your attention, but we will deal with that at a later stage. This goes to the question of the value of in-kind or the gift of free air time, in this case to the Liberal Party. I have had the opportunity to peruse the donor to political parties annual returns; my question to you is whether in relation to Austereo you are satisfied that Austereo has properly disclosed its gifts of free air time to the Liberal Party.

Mr Edgman -With the disclosure returns lodged by donors, we have no power of audit, so to some extent we are in the same boat as everybody else in that we take their declarations at face value until such time as there is something drawn to or that comes to our attention that may lead us to believe that maybe there has been a misreporting. In such a case, if we had reasonable grounds for believing that is the case, we then do have the power to conduct investigations.

Senator FAULKNER -There are two issues, aren’t there? There is the question of the donor to a political party annual return, and then of course there is the political party’s own return. So I suppose I should ask you whether you are satisfied that the Liberal Party has properly disclosed receipt of those gifts.

Mr Edgman -We have not yet undertaken an audit of the Liberal Party for that return so, again, we only would have mounted an investigation if we believed that there had been a breach. Until we have audited the party returns, again we take it at face value.

Senator FAULKNER -The reason I raise this, Mr Edgman, is that I was reading in a document called Crikey the Whistleblower section-

Senator ROBERT RAY -That is two free subscriptions.

Senator FAULKNER -I do not know what you mean by that, Senator Ray.

Senator ROBERT RAY -Because in the last Crikey column, anyone that mentions it at Senate estimates gets a free subscription. Senator Abetz is already in the frame, I am because I commented on Senator Abetz and you are twice.

Senator Abetz -Not to mention that you will have to put it in the declaration of interests.

Senator ROBERT RAY -Correct.

Senator FAULKNER -You probably do not access this web site.

Senator ROBERT RAY -This is the one that refers to one of our valued colleagues as Senator George Washington Brandis. Very distinguished.

Senator FAULKNER -Did you see the 14 February Whistleblower article on www.crikey.com.au/Whistleblower/austereo.html?

Senator Abetz -That is for a free T-shirt.

Mr Edgman -I did not, no, Senator.

Senator FAULKNER -If you did not see it then I suppose I cannot ask you about it. Fair enough. It is not an easy thing to do, assessing the value of free air time that is given to political parties. That is one of the tougher things.

Mr Edgman -It is certainly a grey area-any sort of editorial comment. Obviously the act does not try to impose itself on normal editorial comment or, for instance, on satire programs. So it is an indeterminate area. You are right, Senator. It is not cut and dried, so it is something that we do have to look at.

ENDS

And this is what Hillary wrote to the senators in awarding their free subs and tee-shirts.

Hillary confirms subscriptions for comment

Senators

Hillary is a non-gender specific individual of his/her word. Many thanks for taking part in the Crikey Cash for Comment Scandal and referring to us in Estimates this week. Hillary is delighted to be able to forward your e-mail addresses to the Mayne Man for processing. With a free Crikey subscription, you now have $55 in your pockets that you won’t need to spend to get our unique insights into Australian political, media and corporate life.

Hillary was particularly pleased to see that you had your fun at the expense of Eric Abetz. While Erica did mention Crikey, Hillary isn’t going to give him a sub because he has a silly voice.

You are, of course, all very welcome to attend the Crikey fundraiser next Thursday night at 6pm at the Dendy Bar in Martin Place, Sydney. Demtel man Tim Shaw will be our MC for the night and Antony Green will be present and, no doubt, happy to read your tea leaves.

Hillary knows it’s a sitting day, but Senator Faulkner can call on that useful perk and get a VIP to take you all up for the evening.

Alas, Hillary will be toiling in some corner of the Min Wing and won’t be able to greet you in person, but is sure that you will find Stephen a generous host.

Regards, HB

ends

And this is the response we received from Senator Ray.

Get stuffed you gonzos

Dear Hillary and Stephen

What have I done to be punished with receiving gratis emails well into the future, or at least until Steve Price bankrupts you? Not only do I reject your T Shirt/s (in any event, you wouldn’t have one large enough), but I scorn your free subscription – “no free rides” is my motto (well .. most of the time …).

Parliamentary duties also mean that I will (regretfully) not be able to attend your fundraiser. Rest assured, if it weren’t for parliamentary duties, I’D THINK UP ANOTHER SPURIOUS EXCUSE TO NOT ATTEND!

I always enjoy your gonzo website – unless of course, I’m the victim of one of the barbs.

Kind regards, Robert Ray

ends

And finally, Hillary returns the serve.

Well said Senator Ray

Dear Senator Ray

Quite appropriate behaviour. Senior Members of Parliament should not be accepting freebies from ratbags.

As far as Hillary can recall, you have not yet rated a mention in the column. There was an e-mail about you following Lee Bermingham’s appearance at the Teenage Toecutter’s travelling circus, but that was on the decidedly defamatory side – even by Crikey standards.

Still, never say never is Hillary’s motto – or one of them, anyway – and Hillary looks forward to your first appearance in the column, and is sure Stephen shares this sentiment, too.

Regards, HB

Peter Fray

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