It’s a line a day from the Opposition on the email affair, which is to their credit. If one doesn’t work, ditch it and try another.

Like a besieged force, they are trying desperately to work out which tactics will keep the invaders out, or at least hold them off long enough for General Winter — or perhaps the winter recess — to come to the rescue.

But unless they find the answer quickly it’s going to reach “fire at will” stage and then it will be everyone for themselves.

Yesterday it was an attempt to blame Wayne Swan for the forged email and clear the Opposition of any blame for it. The smoking and hapless Joe Hockey last night on Lateline was still trying to argue that the fact that there was a forged email contradicts the Prime Minister’s assertion that there was no email.

Note to Joe: I don’t know what you call an email, but if someone mocks up a message in Outlook and it never actually goes between the purported recipients, it’s a forgery, not an actual email.

This is in-a-hole-and-still-digging stuff.

Today’s line is two-fold. The first part relies on the word “crony”. John Grant is a “Labor crony”, according to Turnbull on Sky this morning (Turnbull refuses to front a Gallery press conference and has not done one now since 4 June). Not quite defamatory of Grant, although Grant’s lawyers may have a different view.

Tony Abbott this morning talked about “crony capitalists”.

We have such unambitious politicians and businessmen here in Australia. When the Indonesians and Malaysians did crony capitalism, it was in the tens of billions of dollars. Here it’s over an old ute, a faxed email and $0 in financial assistance.

And there I was thinking Manildra set the gold standard for benefit from being a mate of the Australian Prime Minister.

The other approach is to criticise the leaking of the progress of the AFP investigation, primarily, it appears, to the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann. This is an entirely fair call by the Opposition, or would be if it hadn’t benefited from similar judicious leaking by the AFP when it was in government. At least the Feds are non-partisan leakers.

Indeed there’s a decided air of hypocrisy about the Coalition’s outrage — or to use the fashionable term, “confected outrage” — about what Tony Abbott this morning called “a monumental exercise in spin … a ferocious display of the coercive power of government”, from the side of politics that exploited every possible resource to stay in power, including the use of AFP leaks in the Mohammed Haneef persecution.

The Coalition continues to insist that they have not used the forged email and relied only on Grech’s evidence to the inquiry on Friday afternoon. Indeed Turnbull said this morning that anything to the contrary was “a Labor lie”.

“We did not make any accusation against Mr Rudd until after Godwin Grech’s sworn testimony in the Senate, which contradicted what Mr Rudd had said in the House of Representatives. So this lie, this is a Labor lie, that we made a case against Mr Rudd based on an email, a fake email, is simply not true.”

But it appears it is Turnbull who is less than truthful on that. On 4 June, Eric Abetz suggested in Estimates that the Prime Minister should resign, and said “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.” That was before Godwin Grech even identified Grant or suggested there was a link between the Prime Minister’s Office and Grant, and weeks before last Friday’s hearing.

It’s hard to see claims to the contrary as anything other than deliberate deception.

After days of claiming — correctly — that the fake email was a distraction from the case against Wayne Swan, the Coalition have now themselves been distracted and are being lured into a battle the Government is only too happy to fight. Bill Heffernan has referred the investigation of Grech to the Senate privileges committee. Turnbull this morning repeated his call for a judicial inquiry (the sort of inquiries the Howard Government was only too happy to have when it was in office, you may recall).

All of this means Wayne Swan is off the hook. The Opposition only has two more Question Times to pressure the Treasurer, or hope that the Government’s own inquiries yield something untoward about Swan’s behaviour in coming weeks. It needs to refocus its public message on Swan’s treatment of Grant and re-build the case that Grant got favourable treatment, but it looks too late for that.

Which would mean the Opposition had failed in one of its basic duties, of holding Ministers to account.

Meantime, the AFP investigation will explore the links, alleged to be very strong, between Grech and the Coalition, and the offices of Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull in particular. Turnbull said in Parliament his office did not create the email or give it to News Ltd journalists. That leaves a lot of other possibilities.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey