Malcolm Turnbull is running hard from the faked email. He can run, as they say in the classics, but he can’t hide.

Let’s put aside his claim that the faked email is Wayne Swan’s responsibility. What did Keating used to say? “More front than Mark Foy’s”. Is he telling the truth?

This is Turnbull this morning on AM.

LYNDAL CURTIS: But did you have the text of the email when you were asking the questions in Parliament or any time before the Senate hearing last Friday and if you did have the text, did you do anything to verify it?

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, Lyndal, I don’t want to go into details about the circumstances in which we became aware of this matter. We will provide all of that information to the police inquiry.

I am very, very troubled by the thought that there was an email forged or faked or concocted, whatever you want to call it, in the Treasury but let me just say this, let me just say this, we received information as you do and we ask questions as you do.

We made no accusation against Mr Rudd, none, until after Godwin Grech had given sworn evidence in the Senate on Friday.

This directly contradicts what happened on 4 June in Senate Estimates when Eric Abetz first grilled Godwin Grech. At around 1.45 that afternoon, Eric Abetz said this in the Economics Committee to Nick Sherry:

Minister, can you also take on notice for us whether the standards of ministerial ethics include in paragraph 2.17:

Ministers shall ensure they do not come under any financial or other obligations to individuals or organisations to the extent that they may appear improperly influenced in the performance of their official duties as Minister.

I would have thought that might apply even more so to the Prime Minister. Given that Mr Joel Fitzgibbon has just done the right thing and resigned his ministerial commission —

Abetz is then interrupted, but the exchange continues:

Abetz: Can I ask whether the same standard is going to be applied by the Prime Minister to himself?

Sherry: There is a distinct difference when a letter… is sent to a backbencher’s office and a minister’s office, including the Prime Minister’s office, and then that request is passed on to the appropriate public servant. That is very different.

Abetz: Other than it has the status of the Prime Minister’s office attached to it.

Sherry: I am sure the Prime Minister receives thousands of letters on a whole range of things…

Abetz: He only responds to some, like people that give him a private car.

Abetz was immediately asked to withdraw that allegation by the chair but refuses because the fact that Rudd has a private car is “undisputed”. He goes on to say:

All I know is that the Prime Minister does not respond to literally thousands and thousands of his fellow Australians who write to him. If it transpires that the Prime Minister’s office did not make representations on behalf of John Grant Motors or a company associated with that business empire, then I am willing to come in, correct the record and apologise…

Abetz then withdraws the allegation to enable the hearings to continue. Abetz’s office said today “if, by the time the Senate Economics Committee next sits for (Supplementary) Estimates from 19th-22nd October, and all relevant inquires have concluded that there were no representations whatsoever by the PMO to Treasury regarding Mr John Grant, then of course, as indicated, Senator Abetz will willingly correct the record and apologise.”

What was the context for the allegation made by Abetz that day? What had Grech said to provide a basis for it?

Abetz clearly had the email, or the contents of it, on 4 June. Prior to the exchange above, Abetz had an extended discussion about the OzCar policy and its details with Grech, before changing tack and leading the discussion on to the issue of MPs’ representations re OzCar. Abetz — whose work on this issue, incidentally, has been very, very good — then leads to the questioning on to contact from the Treasurer’s and PM’s offices, and then onto emails until, having elicited from Grech that he received one contact from the Prime Minister’s office, asks whether it related to John Grant.

But the critical issue is that Grech declines to answer because he can’t remember and doesn’t want to identify specific dealers. Abetz nevertheless goes on to allege, as per above, that the Prime Minister has made representations on behalf of John Grant Motors.

Because he has prior knowledge of the email, Turnbull has become confused over at what point the Opposition should have known about the Grant-Rudd link if they were relying solely on Grech’s evidence. But Abetz goes ahead and makes the allegation anyway without Grech even identifying Grant.

So it appears Turnbull has made another “mistake” about the timing of his use of the email, similar to the one he made yesterday, and admitted last night to Kerry O’Brien, about Abetz’s use of the email in Friday’s inquiry hearing.

The mistakes are starting to pile up. Now Joe Hockey has stated that, after downplaying his relationship with Grech, who was a putative Chief of Staff to him a decade ago, he called him on the weekend.

It is testament to the good feeling with which Hockey is known in this place that his claim that he merely wanted to wish an old acquaintance well has been accepted at face value.

Other sources indicate Grech’s Liberal sympathies were well-known and Grech didn’t disguise them. “He’s a bit weird but at least he’s one of us,” was one quip from the conservative side about him before the OzCar matter blew up.

But if indeed, as the AFP statement yesterday suggested, Grech was somehow involved in the crafting or dissemination of the email — and that hasn’t even been formally alleged against the man at this point — his motivation would be unclear. However, he is known as a workaholic, and he has been working on a high-profile, difficult issue involving frequent contacts with senior ministers and their staff for months. Remorseless workplace pressure can be a source of massive, even life-threatening stress.

The connections between Grech and the Coalition are a matter of speculation and innuendo at this point. Should they harden into something more substantial than the half-baked rumours, however, there’ll be a new Opposition leadership, and so there should be.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey