It’s been a difficult morning in court for Joe Hockey, who is showing himself to be an underwhelming witness. The federal Treasurer can’t recall very much, keeps interrupting the questioning from Fairfax QC Dr Matthew Collins and appears irritated and defensive.
When saying he doesn’t recall something, he often refers to the fact that he is the Treasurer of Australia. But isn’t it his job to remember where sums of money go? And by the way, shouldn’t he be doing the job that we pay him to do, which is to present a federal budget that can actually be passed through the Senate?
It’s almost as if he has forgotten that he has brought this particular problem upon himself. When Hockey sued Fairfax Media for defamation over an article linking him to the fundraising activities of the Liberal-linked North Sydney Forum, he opened a Pandora’s box of money flows, political access and influence-peddling that reinforces the commonly held view that when it comes to politics, money talks.
It’s been said publicly that the Treasurer, not the Liberal Party, is paying his own legal fees, which, judging by the size of his legal team including top defamation silk Bruce McClintock, must be a small fortune. If he loses the case, it will cost him several hundred thousand dollars in fees. Even if he wins, does he really want a Federal Court judge to put a financial figure on the worth of a politician’s reputation?
And at a time when the government is sinking in the polls and still struggling to get its first budget through the Senate, this is both an unnecessary distraction and a pointed reminder that the connections between political donations and access to policy-makers is a strong one.
The case concerns an article in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times linking the Treasurer to the North Sydney Forum, the membership of which paid $22,000 a year.
Hockey says that he was devastated by the article, the headline of which was “Treasurer For Sale” and claims that the implication was that he was corrupt.
The website for the North Sydney Forum, which is still online, states that “by joining the North Sydney Forum you will have the opportunity to participate in a regular program of events including boardroom lunches with Joe Hockey, focused on key policy areas that are nominated by Forum members”.
In a breakout quote on the website from the Treasurer, he is quoted as saying that “one of the challenges (of public life) is keeping in contact with business and community leaders. That is the task I have set for the NSF — deliver me a program of relevant and in touch policy dialogue whilst at the same time developing a sustainable financial base for us going into the next crucial Federal election.”
Although Hockey presents the NSF as being comprised of small businesses based in his electorate of North Sydney, Collins this morning asked him about member organisations from all over Australia. These include transport giant Asciano, the Bus Industry Confederation, grocery conglomerate Metcash, banking giants Deutsche Bank and UBS, the Financial Services Council and the Institute of Public Accountants.
If they are paying $22,000 a year to the North Sydney Forum for access to the Treasurer, then that should be publicly disclosed to the Electoral Funding Authority.
It’s not all tension in the court — there have been a few moments of levity, including Hockey referring to being in the “dock” instead of the witness box.
The hearing continues.