What is wrong with the Murdoch press when it comes to reporting conflict of interest stories involving the Howard Government? Crikey broke the story on 24 July about Peter Costello’s wife Tanya landing a six-figure job at the ANZ Bank – the $47 billion federally licensed bank which has delivered shareholder returns of more than 600% since our cartel-loving Treasurer took over in March 1996.

This cracking story about political ethics, conflict of interest and nepotism was ignored by the Murdoch press but The Smage followed it up the next day and then The Age’s Michael Bachelard put some serious flesh on the bones last Friday.

It now turns out that John Allen, the headhunter who placed Tanya Costello into the $150,000 a year role in ANZ’s business charity division has been “a good mate of Mr Costello’s for 20 years, is a senior figure in the Treasurer’s local Liberal branch, and remains a paid-up member of his electorate fundraising body.”

Even worse, the Howard Government has appointed Allen to two government positions, including the remuneration tribunal which sets pay rates for politicians. The whole situation stinks, yet the Murdoch press won’t touch the yarn, just like they ignored the tale last year of Alexander Downer’s daughter getting an extraordinary leg-up into a UK government funded Chevening scholarship despite falling short of the academic qualifications.

Campaign finance is a sadly under-investigated aspect of Australian political life and the Howard Government’s new disclosure laws have just made it a whole lot more secretive. However, surely someone will now look for a wider pattern here, starting with the membership list of Costello’s Higgins 200 Club, which includes Allen and another chap who scored a mention in this Christian Kerr story back in April:

One of the “guardians” of the Future Fund appointed by the Treasurer last week is a certain Jeffrey Browne. The Treasurer, it appears, knows what good work Browne can do with finances because, according to ALP research, he has given more than $17,000 dollars to Peter Costello’s very own Higgins electorate 200 Club, either in his own name or through Euromina Pty Ltd.

This is no way to run a government and we’ve probably only hit the tip of the iceberg. For instance, John Allen’s firm has also received plenty of work from the Howard Government over the years. In fact, we hear he was the headhunter who recommended that old Costello family friend David Knott be installed as chairman of ASIC. Knott retired two years early in 2003 just as BRW’s Adele Ferguson produced a cracking investigation on a past legal partner, although Alan Kohler thought the timing was a coincidence.

Political donations, government appointments and gongs seem to be inextricably linked under the Howard Government, but we just need some serious investigative journalism to put the pieces of the jigsaw together.

While it is pure speculation, I reckon the publicity about Tanya Costello’s ANZ job contributed to her husband’s decision to bat on. Can you imagine the publicity it would have attracted if suddenly Peter Costello was a humble backbencher earning less than his controversially promoted wife? The Howard forces were apparently pushing the story to start with and it would have been open slather if Cossie had declared war.

Instead, the Costellos should have no problems paying the school fees given the scale of the top end tax cuts since 2000 and the fact their combined pre-tax salary now exceeds $400,000.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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