About yesterday’s item in Crikey, “How long before tax rats trap a polly?” about moles inside the ATO has a precedent.
In 1977, Gough had been sacked for two years and was fighting what was to be his final election. Things were not going well for the ALP. An Australian electorate, so enamoured with Labor in 1972, and only slightly less so in 1974 (when Billy Snedden made his grab for power threatening to block supply), thought the ALP was definitely on the nose. Australia had tired of their experiment with social reform.
At the election to be held on 10 December 1977, Labor was heading for a hiding. Mungo McCallum had been suggesting that Labor was travelling so badly that Malcolm Fraser was considering rejecting his own supply bills so he could call a double dissolution and get back with an increased two house majority.
Late that year a set of circumstances landed in my lap. I was at a neighbour’s party (the neighbour is now a Sydney silk) also attended by a senior member of Gough Whitlam’s staff.
Around that time in Victoria, land deals with a whiff of insider trading were uncovered by The Age. It appeared that windfall profits were being made by developers with prior knowledge that land was to be acquired by the state government for public housing. An enquiry uncovered all sorts of unpleasantness.
The person from Whitlam’s office suggested that interests associated with Phillip Lynch, then Federal Treasurer and Deputy Liberal Leader, may have enjoyed a beneficial interest in some of the land deals. They desperately needed mud to use during the election campaign. I mentioned that I knew of someone — a true believer — who was working close to a section of the Australian Tax Office that dealt with the tax returns of prominent people. In those days, tax returns were prepared on A2 forms and lived in filing cabinets that were not always locked.
The upshot was that a very anonymous meeting was arranged. It was probably highly illegal. I don’t think anyone introduced themselves by name. During the meeting some documents relating to the tax affairs of the Federal Treasurer were sighted by someone from the office of the Leader of the Federal Opposition. I have no idea what was seen. In those days there was no capital gains tax, so I don’t believe the alleged profit of $74,000 needed to be declared. But I gather it became clear that the Federal Treasurer may not have been totally frank in his tax returns.
A day or so later, I was to meet Whitlam, but I was instructed not to mention the tax man or even the Treasurer. I was told that Gough could not know of the meeting.
I’m not even sure what the guy from Gough’s office did with what he had seen, but suddenly — in the middle of the election campaign and three weeks before polling — Malcolm Fraser requested the resignation of his Treasurer.
To the surprise of most, Fraser pulled someone from outside the cabinet, the Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs, to become Treasurer. John Winston Howard had only been in parliament since 1974 and a minister for less than two. Howard retained Treasury after the election.
Within five years Howard was Deputy Leader and following the loss of the 1983 election, he became Liberal Party leader. My memory is that he was Leader of the Opposition in all the odd numbered years for more than a decade with Andrew Peacock taking the gig in the even numbered years, but I could be wrong on that.
The tax man went on to very senior office within the ATO and may even still be there. The man from Gough’s office also rose to senior government and diplomatic roles, and John Howard went on to become the second longest serving Prime Minister.