That Senator Arthur Sinodinos was a no-show at yesterday’s Senate hearings of the Finance and Public Administration References Committee was unsurprising. But his absence did deprive us of much of the drama expected from the committee’s too-short-by-half inquiry into legislative oversight of associated entities of political parties. Sinodinos — and others — regarded the snap inquiry as a political stunt but, well, they would say that.

I’ll leave it to others to pick over the bones of the broader aspects of the hearings — the only witnesses left standing were the Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers and his Chief Legal Officer Paul Pirani — but of real interest to me and many in the NT was the continuing stoush between Rogers and Labor Senator Penny Wong over the “related entity” status of a so-called political slush fund closely related to the Northern Territory’s governing Country Liberal Party, known as Foundation 51.

Wong and Rogers had gone toe-to-toe over the AEC’s dealings with Foundation 51 in Senate estimates hearings in early February that ended in a nil-all draw, Wong beggaring belief that the AEC hadn’t acted against what she saw as a clear violation of the electoral funding guidelines, if not the law. Rogers gave as good as he got, holding firm on the line — repeated almost ad infinitum — that when disclosure had been achieved the prime purpose of the Electoral Act had been met.

As I wrote of Foundation 51 in May 2014:

“Foundation 51 is a $2 company established in February 2009 by Graeme Lewis, the eminence grise of the CLP, along with chief of staff to then Opposition Leader Terry Mills, James Lantry. …

“Lewis remained as Foundation 51’s sole director until mid-February 2013 when local transport executive Peter Hopton was appointed as a director. On 2 January 2014, Peter Maley, recently appointed as a local Magistrate and briefly a CLP MLA in the mid 2000s, was appointed to the board of Foundation 51 as a non-shareholding director.”

Maley resigned as a director of Foundation 51 in May 2014 and as an NT Stipendiary Magistrate in August of that year. Foundation 51 was de-registered in May 2015.

Of interest is the apparently differential treatment of Foundation 51 by the AEC and the NT Electoral Commission.

As Wong told the estimates hearings in February:

“The NTEC advised that an investigation had established possible breaches of electoral law. The breaches were referred to the Northern Territory Police for further consideration. There was subsequently a decision made [by the NT DPP] that it was not in the public interest to proceed.”

As Wong noted at the time, that decision was made “notwithstanding a prima facie case and a reasonable prospect of conviction”. Rogers responded that the purpose of the act was disclosure, a purpose that, in Foundation 51’s case, had been satisfied and thus required no further inquiry, absent further new information, by the AEC.

Roll forward to yesterday’s hearings.

Wong went over much of the same ground as in February’s estimates — and to similar effect — in testy exchanges with Rogers, and occasionally Pirani. Wong may be a patient and thorough interrogator but she cannot match the forensic interrogative skills of Labor’s bad cop-bad cop team of John Faulkner and Robert Ray, now both unfortunately retired from the Senate. I can only imagine how much fun they might have had with the commissioner’s mantra that disclosure equals compliance.

The differential treatment of Foundation 51 by the NTEC and the AEC is highlighted in this exchange yesterday between Wong and Rogers:

Mr Rogers: I am coming back to the evidence I gave when you asked me this question to start with. We looked at Foundation 51. They put returns in. We conducted a compliance review. They were responsive to requests we made, so we have decided not to pursue this matter. And let me go further, given the interest in this, I note that the Northern Territory Electoral Commission took a different course of action.

Senator WONG: Correct. It is amazing how the state and territory commissions seem to be much more proactive than you, Mr Rogers.

Mr Rogers: Well, it might be amazing, Senator, that their legislation is better than ours. That could also be–

Senator WONG: They are not deciding to leave things aside.

Mr Rogers: I am not leaving things–

We’ll call that a draw …

*Read the rest The Northern Myth