The ABC’s panel gabfest Q&A has defended itself against allegations of impropriety in the wake of an appearance from Gunns spin doctor Sue Cato on Monday night’s program.

Over an hour of extended chatter, Cato and Q&A host Tony Jones failed to disclose that Cato’s firm has been taking cheques for two years from Tasmanian logging conglomerate Gunns Limited, despite several references to its planned controversial pulp mill and its apparent centrality to the Apple Isle economy.

While Cato protested yesterday that “everyone knows that we work for Gunns”, Q&A executive producer Peter McEvoy told Crikey neither he nor Jones were aware of Cato’s connection before she was booked on the program.

McEvoy said Cato was drafted in the wake of the South Australian and Tasmanian elections but admitted a declaration of interest would have been appropriate.

“People bring along their personal opinions … while I think that her comments represented her sincere point of view, it would have been good for her to disclose the connection,” he said.

Cato appeared as a sparring partner on the panel alongside Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim. A quick check of the federal government’s lobbyist register reveals her firm, Cato Counsel, has acted as Gunns’ chief spin doctor.

Monday night’s episode included numerous references to the pulp mill, with Cato going into bat for the Tasmanian economy and linking the pulp mill to jobs — the same line Gunns CEO John Gay has repeatedly trotted out when confronted with criticism over the plant.

In a discussion on the prospect of a hung parliament, Cato changed the subject, deciding instead to put her “hand up for the Tasmanian economy”.

Cato: …I mean, we’ve now got a hung parliament. We’ve got the Greens who, if you look at — what is it? The $300 million Walker Development and the pulp mill. You’re against that. How do you actually create…
McKim: We might come to that a bit later, I hope.
Graeme Richardson: I hope we do.
Cato: I mean, I suppose I look at people in Tasmania who actually also want to be employed. And while — can I tell you, I’m probably Greener than a lot of my comrades. I mean, the simple fact is people have got to be employed in Tasmania and in this last campaign, you know, you guys were campaigning on other issues, but what happens now to the economy of Tasmania with a hung parliament where there are no decisions being taken?

Gunns maintains the controversial mill, which is unlikely to go ahead due a lack of financial backers, will create hundreds of permanent jobs. But the Greens say that will almost certainly be outweighed by the hundreds of job losses caused by pollution, especially in tourism and fishing.

Then, later on, there was this:

McKim: Well, it depends on any negotiations that might occur, and I can’t hypothesise about that.
Cato: But, guys, hang on. The Liberal Party and the Labor Party are both supporting the pulp mill.
McKim: That’s right.
Cato: So it’s not like you’re going to get your repeal bill up and I suppose my question is…
McKim: Well, we won’t have the numbers to do that.
Cato: So, okay, so what you’re saying then is it’s a non-issue. But my big question is, does that mean we’re going to have incredible boring government because no one is going to do anything interesting or exciting or show leadership?

McEvoy said it was “absolutely not the case” that Cato was brought on as a pro-business foil for McKim, who has been vocal in his objections to the pulp mill. Instead, Crikey understands the double act came about due to a last-minute withdrawal by Tony Abbott, exhausted after Sunday’s ironman outing.

Cato told Crikey this morning the media reaction to the episode had been “kind of wacky.” She refused to blame Q&A for not disclosing their connection.

“I don’t blame anyone for it,” she said. “People know that I work for Gunns, I was there to talk about a larger political issue; 100% of what I said was my own view.”

Cato was former Telstra chairman Donald McGauchie’s spinner and has held a number of controversial gigs over the years. In the late 1990s she famously proclaimed there was a “late rush” for the Sydney Olympic Stadium float when in fact it was among the biggest flops ever.

Peter Fray

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