We all know that political journalists rely on good contacts but for a monopoly paper like Brisbane’s Courier-Mail, the relationship between marginal Labor frontbencher Wayne Swan and CM political correspondent Dennis Atkins is just too close.
Dennis Atkins has just produced a very soft profile of Labor’s Wayne Swan as he attempts to recover from the cash for preferences affair.
In the article, Atkins traces the well-known Swan-Beazley connection back to Mick Young’s office in the ’80’s. True. But a character also around at the time, but not mentioned, is Atkins himself, who worked in Canberra and with Young around the time Swan was cutting his teeth as a political adviser.
Atkins says that Swan “masterminded” the win by Wayne Goss in 1989. This is pure political propaganda that Swan (and Kevin Rudd) have been putting around about themselves for years, although fewer and fewer people believe it. Most remember that while Labor did run a competent campaign (Swan was then State Secretary), the Conservatives were in a shambles after a little matter known as the Fitzgerald Inquiry had sealed their fate. Fitzgerald was not only the de facto “mastermind” behind the Goss victory, but he provided Labor’s blueprint for government – in fact it did precious little else but implement the Fitzgerald agenda. A running joke at the time was: How many Wayne Goss’s does it take to change a light bulb? Doesn’t matter how many, because Wayne Goss doesn’t change anything! Boom boom.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Immediately after the election, the faithful media flak to two Labor Opposition leaders, Joe Begley (formerly of The Australian), was consigned to the bureaucracy and a new spin-meister was brought in. His name: Dennis Atkins. Labor sources say Swan was instrumental in having Atkins appointed and they are still regarded as close Labor mates.
They worked very closely together during the Goss years. Swan stepped down as Labor secretary around the end of ’91 early ’92, but remained a close adviser and confidante of Goss and was one of the “boys-in-suits” seen to have been the cause of the Government losing touch with the hoi polloi and thereby losing office. He was certainly part of Labor’s behind the scenes campaign team in both the ’92 and ’95 State elections.
While Atkins mentions Swan’s role as a “mastermind”, he neglects to mention Swan’s role in the demise of the Goss Government after just 6 years (of Malcolm Fraser like do-nothingism), even if only as one of the advisers running the ‘don’t scare the horses’ line which resulted in the Goss Government doing three-fifths of five-eighths of bugger all. It certainly pissed off the left and many of Labor’s true believers hankering for change after the Joh years and therefore was a factor in Goss losing: some of these folk thought Goss was so safe in ’95 they could afford to give him a kick in the shins – unfortunately they kicked where it really hurts.
When The 7.30 Report last year dramatically recreated the Lee Birmingham cash payment that Swan authorised be paid to the Democrats in the 1996 campaign, The Courier-Mail responded in a very cautious and half-hearted way. However, the C-M did have most of the story on the morning The 7.30 Report went to air (see below). But when the Federal Police (not exactly the “Mounties” of the international investigation world) decided they would not be charging Swan over it (hardly surprising given the vagueness of the law) the Courier ran a front page piece on February 21 about this – written by Dennis Atkins.
The piece was a classic example of what happens to good journalism when Labor mates tongue kiss in public. Women’s Weekly stuff. There it was, complete with photo of Wayne and wife Kim, on the water’s edge, with the headline “Swan tells of the day it turned ugly”. From what Crikey can tell, The 7.30 Report’s original story appears to have held up well but Swan refused numerous interview requests while the fracas was boiling hot.
So what did the Courier’s fearless National Political Editor do with this exclusive “interview”? Turned in something a cadet should have been sacked for. Where did the money come from Wayne? Why pay the money in cash in an envelope? Was it, if nothing else, an error of political judgement (from a “mastermind”) to have shoved a wad of $50’s in an envelope at the height of an election campaign and have it paid to the official of an opposing political party. Especially when this official is able to do you a considerable political favour: recommend to Democrat head office that your seat be on the list of seats getting directed Democrat preferences (which he did – get the favour done and get the preferences). No, none of that: just how the world turned ugly. Why? Because he was subjected to public scrutiny (it goes with public office Wayne) because he shoved a pile of $50’s etc etc.
Instead we got an extraordinary piece of journalism by Atkins that was craven in the extreme.
But getting back to this latest piece. Crikey very much doubts that Swan will ever become leader because he lacks the personality and carries too much machine room baggage. He does know his political science but he’s too much of a head-kicker to go all the way and no-one else in the party appears to be talking him up as leader. Bob Carr and Paul Keating have told some media figures that Kerry Packer is very keen to have him as the next generation Labor Communications minister. That sounds about right. Wayne Swan is the next generation Graham Richardson.
But for Atkins to write this stuff about Swan certainly doesn’t hurt when you are running in a marginal seat in a tight election. (“Hey electors of Lilley, this could be a future Labor Prime Minister you are tossing out here.”) Remember, in spite of paying the money and getting Democrat preferences, Swan lost Lilley in 1996 and worked in Beazley’s office until he won it back last time around.
Swan’s past would not stand the scrutiny of being leader. He and Bill Ludwig have been the leaders of the AWU faction up here for years. Bill was the boss, although he tended to focus on the union and leave factional stuff to heavies like Swan. Now this tightly discipline faction was the one that was found by the Shepherdson Inquiry (another inquiry Swan likes to forget) to have been responsible for 99 percent of the electoral rorting done in Queensland. So many of Swan’s mates went down (Kaiser, Elder etc).
Crikey is curious as to whether Atkins ever asked Mr Swan anything about his role as AWU factional leader. “What did Mr Swan know and when did he know it” might be a good starting point?
Beazley is facing defeat in what a few months ago was Labor’s “unlosable election”. Labor’s strategy was do nothing, don’t scare the horses, make yourself a small target and we’ll stroll into the Lodge (does this sound familiar – it certainly cost Goss). If Beazley does lose it will in part be because of the Tampa and Sept 11 of course, but the suggestion has been that had Beazley stood for something, anything before all of this; if he had fashioned himself as a genuine Social Democratic alternative, he might have better weathered the current political storms. And at least he would have gone down fighting for something he believed in.
What is now shaping up? An ignominious defeat with Labor trying to be a populist as Howard. Surely Swan (the mastermind) has had some role in this, but not that you’d know it from reading Mr Atkins copy. And you might recall, on the same day this piece of Swan boosting ran, Glenn Milne had a piece in The Oz canvassing just this question, but attributing blame to someone other than Swan.
Finally, it should be pointed out that at no time has The Courier-Mail acknowledged the close connection between Swan and Atkins. Surely the reader has a right to know? And what if Beazley was elected? He whom is so close to Swan whom is so close to the National Political Editor of the only daily in Brisbanal? Should the reader know of this connection so as to better filter the Atkins copy.
Now, let’s have a look at the story the Courier-Mail ran on the morning that The 7.30 Report really gave the cash for preferences issues some serious national attention.
Democrats probe donation
By Chris Griffith
Courier-Mail reporter THE Australian Democrats struck a deal with the Labor Party to give preferences to its 1996 candidate for Lilley, Wayne Swan, in return for a $500 campaign donation, political sources have alleged.
Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett said his party would investigate how it allegedly received a donation from ALP organiser Lee Bermingham and Mr Swan, then the federal MP for Lilley, ahead of a preference decision in 1996.
Senior ALP sources last night denied the money was directly linked to preferences. Senator Bartlett, Democrats state campaign manager in 1996, said preferences were directed to Labor but the alleged donation had no bearing on the decision.
He said the Democrats’ preferences decisions were taken nationally and not by local campaign committees.
The Democrats nationally had directed preferences in about 10 seats: to Labor in Lilley, Bowman, Griffith, Dickson and Moreton, and to the Coalition in a handful of other seats.
Senator Bartlett said: “I would be surprised if it did (happen). That doesn’t mean you don’t investigate it.”
He said receipts and party disclosures to the Australian Electoral Commission would be among the material checked.
Michael Hipwood, who stood for the Democrats in Lilley in 1996, said he’d had “no input” into the allocation of preferences which had occurred in the last week of the campaign.
But he did indicate his campaign manager, TV documentary maker Ian Rowland, had declared a $500 donation in a return to the Australian Electoral Commission. Mr Rowland would not comment.
“The only statement I’m going to make is on subpoena to the CJC,” he said.
There is nothing unlawful about one political party giving money to another, provided the transaction is declared under the electoral law.
Support provided by one political party to another traditionally has included payment of printing costs and arranging people to give out how-to-vote cards at polling booths.
Mr Swan also declined to comment.
A few weeks after the story broke the Courier-Mail also ran this story:
Campaign manager alleges $1000 deal
By: Hedley Thomas
LABOR’S Wayne Swan agreed to pay more than $1000 to help secure a preferences deal with an independent candidate in a state by-election, according to a former campaign manager.
Jeff Sommerfeld, who ran the campaign for Tanya Wilde in the 1989 Merthyr by-election, said the money was for how-to-vote cards and was paid directly to the printer.
Mr Sommerfeld, who has worked for several political parties and is now a journalist at The Courier-Mail, said yesterday that Mr Swan agreed at a meeting to pay for the cards if Ms Wilde’s preferences went to the Labor candidate (Barbara Dawson).
Mr Swan has emphatically denied any impropriety over another alleged cash-for-preferences deal involving the Australian Democrats. On Monday Federal Opposition Leader Kim Beazley said it was not unusual for a party to provide assistance to another party after a preferences deal was made.
Mr Sommerfeld swore in an affidavit that Mr Swan had agreed to the payment. He said the voting preferences “would have gone that way regardless of the Labor Party paying for them — it was just a bonus for us”.
Queensland Electoral Commissioner Des O’Shea said the claims were serious and should be referred to police to see if offences were committed.
A spokesman for Mr Swan said last night: “Mr Swan denies completely offering any form of inducement in return for preferences.”
Mr Sommerfeld said the agreement with Mr Swan was made in an upstairs room of a corner store at Brunswick Street, New Farm.
“I asked him, if our campaign directed preferences to him, would the ALP be prepared to pay for Ms Wilde’s how-to-vote cards,” he said. Mr Sommerfeld said Mr Swan agreed and said the print bill should be sent to him.
“I am aware the printers for the campaign sent a bill to Mr Swan and it was paid,” he said.