Michaelia Cash

Crikey has previously noted the absurdity that results when the two of the most bizarre forms of communication, politics and judicial proceedings, crash into one another. In this regard, Minister for Small and Family Business Michaelia Cash’s trip to the Federal Court on Friday was no different.

It was from then-employment minister Cash’s office that emerged one of the Turnbull government’s classic “half-smart” ideas. In October 2017, the Australian Federal Police raided the Australian Workers Union offices. This followed a letter from Cash’s office which called the nominally independent Registered Organisations Commission’s (ROC) attention to alleged impropriety over donations to GetUp during Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s time as AWU Secretary (which had been a decade earlier). The raid took place in the full glare of the waiting media, who had been tipped off by a member of Cash’s office. 

The saga had scuppered her progress as a minister (she lost the employment portfolio in the next reshuffle) and needled the government for months, producing such edifying moments as Cash’s Senate estimates meltdown — during which she, apropos of nothing, threatened to name “every young woman” in Shorten’s office about whom “rumours abound” — and Cash ducking behind a whiteboard to avoid the media, followed by a general sense that she had gone into hiding. In May last year, she was subpoenaed by the Federal Court to give evidence about her role in the raid.

There have, so far, been no repeat of the disasters of a year ago

Appearing in court on Friday, her brief appeared to be ‘don’t give them a headline’. Her performance was not about convincing anyone; all she needed to do was maintain some distance between herself and the tipping off of the media, avoiding handing over a smoking gun the AWU hasn’t been able to find.

As such, she enunciated her answers like a theatre kid and spoke slowly as if explaining matters to a child. “I’m. A. Liberal. Senator. For. Western. Australia,” she said early on, swooping her hands in front of her as if karate-chopping her sentence into slices. The performance bordered on maddening after a while; question after question followed by a furrowed brow, a long, heavy pause and then, “I’m sorry, your honour, I don’t recall.” 

The kicker of this was Cash’s narrow-eyed incredulity at the suggestion by the AWU’s counsel Caryn van Proctor that her actions — particularly in sending the ROC that letter — had been at all politically motivated. It had nothing to do with the fact that Bill Shorten had been in charge of the AWU at the time, it was merely Cash “discharging [her] duties as minister for employment, based on the facts”.

Worth noting, though, there was only one subject that seemed to activate her ministerial duties in this particular way:

van Procter: Were there any other matters you contacted the ROC about based on news reports?

Cash: Yes, there would have been.

van Procter: Could you give us an example?

Cash: Later that week, I notified them about a story alleging Mr Shorten had donated $25,000 from the AWU to his own election campaign.

van Procter: Any others?

[Pause]

Cash: No.

Still, the slow prodding questions never landed a knockout blow, and it felt as if the AWU’s lawyers knew early on they weren’t going to quite “get” Cash. This was partly on account of the number of interruptions from the commission’s lawyers — particularly the exquisite grump of Frank Parry — who audibly sighed as he rose to object.

There were long, long stretches where Cash was dismissed as the lawyers ground their way through the provisions of the Parliamentary Privileges Act. At that point, the courtroom, with its wood paneling and puke-green carpet, started to feel like an airport lounge with the air slowly leaking out of it. All in all, it was a strangely timid and lethargic performance.

Still, she stuck to her lines. She didn’t know about the raid before it happened. She could not, and did not, direct the ROC to do anything. She felt nothing about Bill Shorten in particular, and would have pursued a news story about a ten-year-old allegation of financial impropriety regardless of who was at its centre.

It’s a fairly transparent and unconvincing argument, but probably the best we could have expected from Cash given the sense of calamity that has followed her more or less non-stop since 2017. 

The tone of the day — circular, opaque, faintly irritable — was summed up by Cash referring to the letter she sent the ROC as a “form of words”:

I instructed one of my staff members to put together a form of words to notify the ROC.

Van Procter asked her to explain what she meant by that phrase. Cash replied: “a form of words”. And then she paused, and shrugged.

“A form of words.”