Is it all over for the Nats?

Presumably it’s begun already – the Government dirt unit that isn’t is busily portraying Laura Tingle and Alan Ramsey as the Ma and Pa Kettle of the Press Gallery.

More on them and their reporting of the Tony Windsor “bribe” allegations later – but first the real reason why the episode is so significant.

Nationals’ leader John Anderson is a desperate man. He knows his party is dying – or is as good as dead. He is obsessed with his party’s identity.

That is why the Nats are perpetuating the lie that they won control of the Senate for the Government – where instead it was the Queensland Liberals decision to run split tickets in key marginals because the Nats are so on the nose that delivered it.

That is also why you won’t find Anderson or any other Nat fessing up to fact that they actually lost a House of Representatives seat – and a minister – when Larry Antony went down in Richmond.

That is also why they went in so hard at yesterday’s Dubbo by-election – and their loss there is yet more confirmation that the party had had its day.

An episode like this – any suggestion of corruption – is the last thing the Nationals need. And make no mistake. The matter stinks.

Anyone who has worked at a senior level for any party will tell you that successful businessmen who think they know all about politics and are serious players – but don’t really have a clue – are a common breed. They will also tell you that a key part of their role is making sure these idiots don’t cause any trouble. The Nats sure stuffed this one.

If Maguire isn’t stupid, the Nats have still screwed up. Let’s say he is a cluey bloke – a big man in politics as well as business. What was he doing? Playing Anderson and Windsor against each other to get support for the body he chaired, the National Equine and Livestock Centre? If that’s true the Nats have been taken for a ride. Either way they lose.

The Mayor of Tamworth, James Treloar, told the ABC last week that he had spoken to Greg Maguire, the local businessman at the centre of the bribery claims leveled Anderson, and that Maguire believed the whole kerfuffle was the “misunderstanding”.

Is Treloar the best witness the Nats can provide – given that only four years ago he was suspended from Tamworth Council by the NSW Local Government Pecuniary Interest Tribunal?

And look what happened last week. They mystery man at the centre of the allegations, Maguire, was emceed onto the stage by star intermediary Treloar – who eschewed the traditional “Mr Maguire will now make a statement…” for a “the comments of Mr Maguire were misconstrued… at no stage does he believe he was acting for John Anderson” pre-emptive strike.

It’s not too paranoid to see very careful attention to detail and thorough preparation here – particularly as Maguire was first silent and unavailable and then appeared with a very tight story about the words apparently actually spoken.

The affair now, according to Treloar, hinges on whether Maguire “believes” he was not acting for Anderson.

That’s virtually impossible to prove one way or another. But it’s also very symptomatic spin from the Howard Government. What’s the betting, for example, that the Prime Minister – just as he has every time since travel rorts – will defend his man to the end, but if (or when) it all goes sideways, will claim to have been misinformed? No wonder Dubbo voters – voters in what once was good National Party territory – preferred independent Dawn Fardell to Nat Jen Cowley.

Dubbo is part of Parkes – another northern New South Wales federal electorate, just one seat along from New England.

Tony Windsor is sitting pretty there. Remember It’s A Wonderful Life? The nasty – but overtly friendly – financier turns on Jimmy Stewart and calls in his loan to take over development rights in the whole town. Stewart despairs, almost tops himself, but finds to his surprise the people rally to him and raise the repayment in dollar bills.

Socialism? No. Just common decency.

Honesty wins, not cunning. And Windsor can only come out on top of this.

“Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson says he feels vindicated after a businessman at the centre of bribery allegations backed his version of events,” one report said last week. It sounds like the former New South Wales MLC Franca Arena and her defence of the outrageous claims she made under privilege. She wasn’t vindicated and it didn’t save her job.

Back to Ma and Pa Kettle. Laura Tingle and Alan Ramsey are a great pair of journos – but some of their comment has been a bit, er, idiosyncratic of late. Pity. It lets the Government smear their reporting.

Tingle said in the Fin on Friday:

“Eight weeks ago, the Australian Federal Police were asked by the Australian Electoral Commission to investigate claims of criminal behaviour by two people, now revealed to be Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and a NSW National Party senator, Sandy Macdonald.

“You might have thought it would have sparked some interest over at the AFP. This was, after all, the organisation that on the orders of Australia’s top public servant, Peter Shergold, sent five officers to raid a small indigenous newspaper at 8.30 am last Thursday. This was within 24 hours of it publishing embarrassing details of his advice to Prime Minister John Howard about the possible illegality of abolishing Atsic…

“It was the same organisation that Shergold said this week would now be called in as a matter of routine to conduct raids whenever confidential government documents appeared in the media.

“ ‘Some people seem reprised that I called in the police when government documents were stolen,’ he told a conference on Thursday night.

“ ‘They shouldn’t be. I always will,’ he huffed.

“ ‘It’s not just that theft is a criminal offence. It’s also democratic sabotage.’

“Some people may think that encouraging a sitting MP not to stand in an election is a form of democratic sabotage.

“It certainly is a criminal offence…

“It is an offence that carries potential fines and jail terms.

“Yet, despite the AFT interviewing the Independent MP for New England, Tony Windsor, weeks ago and going as far as forwarding material to the Director of Public Prosecutions on October 7, Anderson told the House of Representatives late on Wednesday night he had still not been interviewed by the AFP about the matter.

“Neither had the AFP interviewed a member of Anderson’s staff who was present at the meeting at which the alleged bribe was offered. Nor have they interviewed Macdonald.

“Why the police have not interviewed the trio is just one of the interesting questions that arises from this controversy, which has started the new parliamentary term on a depressingly familiar tone.

“Depressing because, whatever the truth or otherwise of the allegations, the AFP’s lack of action only reinforces the lack of confidence you will have to have that the issue will be taken seriously by anyone in the Howard government…”

And look at what hubby had to say in the SMH on Saturday. You can read it online here so we don’t have to quote so much, but look at this:

“The Prime Minister’s remarks two months ago [when the accusations first surfaced] do more than nominate an anonymous ‘clown’. They show he took Windsor’s accusation seriously enough to ‘make inquiries’ but not seriously enough to call in the police, even though Howard knew such an offer to an elected MP would be ‘perhaps illegal’. If, as he said, Howard thought Windsor’s accusation could just be an “election stunt”, surely, as Prime Minister, his only responsible action was to ensure the federal police investigated vigorously.

“Howard did nothing. Instead, it was the Labor Party which set the dogs loose…

“Only after Windsor, fearful it was being allowed to die, went into the Parliament three nights ago and related, with names, the detail of what he’d already told police seven weeks earlier, did the federal police respond. It issued a statement next morning, dated November 18, its first since Labor’s complaint eight weeks earlier. That statement said: ‘The AFP confirmed today it was investigating allegations made by Mr Tony Windsor. The matter was referred to the AFP by the Australian Electoral Commission on 21 September, 2004. The investigation has included interviews with a number of witnesses, and other inquiries. Materials relating to this investigation were passed to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for Review on 7 October. As this is an ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate for the AFP to make any further comment.’…

“A strange way, surely, to handle an investigation concerning a matter as serious as an alleged attempt to bribe a politician by the second most senior member of the Government. What, you wonder, is going on…

“Ignore the political claim Windsor named Anderson and Macdonald only under parliamentary privilege. He named them to police when they interviewed him before October 7. He would not have named them at all if he’d not felt, after eight weeks’ official silence, that maybe the whole affair was being buried.”

Too bloody right. This thing stinks, all right. It’s a typical Howard Government mess. Even if there isn’t a cover-up, there’s a suspicion of a cover-up because of their complete lack of openness and accountability – not to mention previous offences.

And Ramsey also knows just how desperate John Anderson is – even if the rest of the Gallery isn’t saying it.

“Keep the sick National Party itself in mind,” he writes.

“It is 85 years since the then Australian Farmers’ Federal Organisation endorsed 19 candidates who won 11 seats (in a House of 75) in the federal election of December 13, 1919. A month later, on January 20, the 11 new members decided the new party ‘will be known as the Australian Country Party and shall act independently of all other political organisations”.

“Eighty-five years, and 33 elections later, and the Country Party, now the National Party, is a parasite of the Liberal Party in clinging to 12 seats in a House of 150. Its popular vote in the last three elections has been its poorest ever – ranging between 5.3 per cent and 5.9 per cent – and its seat numbers have slumped a full third: from 18 to 12, including the loss of two seats formerly held by three National Party leaders (Doug Anthony, Charles Blunt and Tim Fischer). The Nationals are dying. Don’t think they won’t do whatever it takes.”

What are they? Dumb or dodgy? Or both?