As the long election campaign grinds on, political dirt units remain the most reliable source of interest, leaking within parties and between them.

By Mike Seccombe.

Political dirt units defining elections

Four years ago, in 2012, Lucy Quarterman posted an advertisement for a nanny on the website Backpacker Job Board.

It said that a family of four was “looking for an extra pair of hands around the place to entertain the lads and help with cooking and general domestic duties”. The ad offered $150 a week, plus food and board.

This was four years ago. But it was not until last Thursday evening that it became news, when a story went up on The Sydney Morning Herald website, suggesting that Ms Quarterman and her husband, Greens leader Richard Di Natale, had underpaid their domestic help.

It was a peculiar story, saying at the top that the $150 wage amounted to just $3.75 an hour “based on a 40-hour week”, and that it equated to “a quarter of the national minimum wage in 2012 of $606.40 per week, or $15.96 per hour”.

But it also noted Di Natale’s comprehensive rebuttal: that the three au pairs subsequently hired by the couple had been required to work just 25 hours a week, not 40; that the terms of employment included food and board, notionally valued at $300 a week; that the family paid $37 a week PAYG tax on top of the $150; and that they sought advice on fair terms and conditions from an employment agency before hiring anyone. Thus the package was above minimum wage and apparently fully compliant with the tax office and fair work ombudsman rules.

The net effect of the story – and the follow-up stories and commentary in other media, as well as a couple of follow-up stories in the Herald – was to do reputational damage to the Greens leader without proving any wrongdoing on his part.

The publication was, shall we say, felicitous for the Labor Party. As the Herald story noted, Di Natale had recently been critical of Labor for refusing to support a call by the Greens to legislate to protect weekend penalty rates.

And now, three weeks into an election campaign in which the Greens are wooing Labor’s traditional union support base, the old au pair suddenly bobs up, suggesting the Greens leader is a hypocrite on the matter of workers’ pay and conditions.

The question is, where did the information come from? We will never know for sure, because reporters rightly protect their sources, but ask yourself the question: How likely is it that the reporter himself found a four-year-old job ad on an obscure website, an ad that was placed not under Di Natale’s name, but that of his wife?

1 . Motivations differ

Bruce Hawker, former chief of staff to New South Wales premier Bob Carr and a key strategist on numerous Labor campaigns, thinks it is not very likely at all. It looks to him like the reporter was “tipped off” by a political operative.

So it was the work of a political dirt unit, then?

Probably, says Hawker, as have been a couple of other damaging revelations, although he takes some issue with the term “dirt unit”.

“One person’s dirt unit is another person’s investigative journalism,” he says. “If it’s done by a party, it’s dirt-digging. If it’s done by the media, it’s judged as good investigative work. It’s judged by a different standard.

“The opprobrium attaches because it is motivated by political advantage rather than pure public interest. Of course, there are ethical issues about the motives of people who do the inside jobs, as against the higher motivations of the journalists who write a story breaking a scandal. But even if somebody, acting out of mala fides, reveals a crime or unethical act that would otherwise have gone unreported, then you have to say that notwithstanding the motive, the upshot was positive.”

The Di Natale story was felicitous for Labor, but even more felicitous for David Feeney, a very conservative member of Labor’s right faction who is facing the strong prospect of losing his left-leaning inner Melbourne seat, Batman, to the Greens.

Just a matter of days before the Di Natale story ran, the same reporter had outed Feeney for having failed to declare on the register of MPs’ interests his ownership of a negatively geared $2.3 million house. Coincidentally, a second element to the Di Natale story was that he, too, had omitted something from the register of interests: his family farm.

There is no mystery to the original Feeney story. It was an own goal, as his spokesperson explains.

“The reporter from the Herald rang and said he was doing a story on members who did not live in their electorates. And David said, ‘But I’ve bought a property in the electorate and I’m planning to move into it.’

“I guess the reporter then went onto his register of interests and couldn’t find it. And it all blew up from there.”

2 . Potential blowback

But back to dirt units and their worth. Hawker offers an example from his own dirt-digging days, when he worked for Carr, then NSW opposition leader.

The background is that the Liberal Party member for the state seat of Blue Mountains, property developer Barry Morris, had a longstanding hostility to the local council.

On March 3, 1992, a bomb exploded in the Blue Mountains City Council chambers during a council meeting. No one was injured but there was substantial damage done. The identity of the bomber was never established.

Subsequently, a phone caller to the local paper, disguising his voice with a bad Italian accent, warned that he was planning another bombing, designed to kill councillor John Pascoe, towards whom Morris was particularly antagonistic.

A tape of the message was passed on to the Labor Party by an unknown source, and Bruce Hawker and co started digging.

“I was very actively involved in researching that,” he says. “We checked it out, we verified it.”

Several highly charged weeks of questioning in parliament followed. The opposition revealed that Pascoe had received a number of death threats in the two years before the bombing and that another councillor had attempted to report a phoned threat shortly after it, but the report was not followed up.

The upshot was that the Liberal Party dumped Morris, who was later convicted over the threats and jailed for two years, later reduced to one.

No doubt Labor’s primary interest was damaging an opponent – and they succeeded, the Libs losing the bellwether seat and the election – but their digging undeniably served the public interest.

The example shows that political dirt-digging is often “appropriate and beneficial,” says Hawker, “so long as it’s not fabricated information”.

The dirt business requires fine judgement and we have seen a couple of spectacular cases of what happens when that judgement is lacking. Back in 2002, Liberal senator Bill Heffernan’s judgement was clouded by his homophobia when he used parliamentary privilege to claim a High Court judge, Michael Kirby, had used Commonwealth cars to procure young men for sex. In 2009 opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull alleged corrupt dealing by prime minister Kevin Rudd in the so-called Utegate affair. In both cases the claims were made on the basis of documents that were proved to be forgeries. The damage to the reputations of the accused was temporary; the damage to the accusers enduring.

There’s always the risk of blowback when one is spreading dirt, and an outstanding example of that occurred in late 2007. Fairfax reporter Jason Koutsoukis wrote an illuminating piece about how he was offered a dirt file on then Labor deputy leader Julia Gillard by a Liberal Party source.

He wrote of being invited down to an office in Parliament House to find “my source beaming behind two glasses of red and a fat manila folder” marked “Gillard”.

“Thumbing through the first 30 pages of musty news clips, old quotes, and a well-worn tirade aired in the Victorian parliament last century, I asked if there wasn’t at least the whiff of something new?” he wrote.

Instead he found the old, previously debunked allegations that “union funds were used to renovate Gillard’s house and buy her some personal items”.

Koutsoukis not only refused to play in the dirt, he wrote a savage piece condemning the “bankrupt” attempt to smear Gillard.

Of course, history records that the material was subsequently shopped to more compliant media and ultimately put before a royal commission. But in the end, Koutsoukis’s judgement proved sound. There was a great amount of smoke produced, but no actual fire.

3 . Internal attacks most destructive

All this is dirt used by one political party against the other, but at least as much is thrown internally, and often to more destructive effect.

Think of the travails of former Liberal Party member Peter Slipper, prosecuted for abuse of his parliamentary entitlements on the basis of information supplied by a former staffer, James Ashby, to former Liberal frontbencher Mal Brough. All parties have been damaged. The political careers of Slipper, Ashby and Brough have been trashed. A police investigation continues and those at the centre of the scandal have paid a huge price in both financial and emotional terms.

As Sir Winston Churchill once said: “The opposition occupies the benches in front of you, but the enemy sits behind you”. This election campaign has already thrown up a number of fine examples of this truism – two of them involving one federal electorate, Fremantle in Western Australia.

Both the Labor and Liberal parties have disendorsed their candidates for the seat. In the case of Labor’s Chris Brown, the stated reason was that he failed to reveal two convictions dating back 30 years, one for drink-driving and one for assaulting a police officer.

It was pretty tough, not least because Brown claims he had told the party. Furthermore, Brown had successfully applied in 2011 to have the convictions “spent”, or stricken from the record, and had lived a law-abiding life since he completed a 12-month good behaviour bond for “accidentally” hitting a cop during a fight when he was just 19.

“Fremantle was obviously an inside job,” Hawker says. “A classic example of the inside job.”

The case of the disendorsed Liberal candidate, Sherry Sufi, was an even more obvious factional play. First, leaked information indicated Sufi had embellished his CV. But the killer was a report in a local paper, the Fremantle Herald, about Sufi mocking his former employer, state Liberal member Michael Sutherland.

Sufi had mimicked Sutherland’s South African accent at a social function and described in graphic terms his alleged sexual exploits as a student at the University of Johannesburg. We know exactly what he said because someone took a video of it.

After he resigned, Sufi claimed he was dumped because of his conservative views on various social issues, including same-sex marriage. It’s hard to deny he would have been a weak candidate for a progressive electorate such as Fremantle. But fundamentally it was about factional or personal ambition.

“In seven out of 10 cases, particularly with dirt on backbench members, it comes from somebody who was inside the tent who is now outside the tent, and on the way took information with them in order to get revenge on the old boss,” Hawker says.

“You see it a lot with electorate staff who’ve been treated badly, or think they have. Then suddenly somebody’s under investigation for misuse of electoral allowances for stamps or something, or up before ICAC.

“It’s the stuff of politics. And most people dislike it when it’s done for ugly reasons, as a get-square. But I cannot see it changing, because it’s in the nature of political beasts to do these things.”

No doubt about it, political parties put a lot of effort into gathering and disseminating material that is damaging to their rivals – internal and external. The question is, how much notice does the electorate at large pay to it all?

“Actually, most of these things float by pretty quickly,” says Patrick Baume, of the media monitoring company iSentia.

The Di Natale stories are a case in point. “There was no traction whatsoever about the whole thing,” he says.

In part, this is because many people simply don’t pay attention. But among those who do, he suggests, judgements are formed on the basis of an accretion of impressions over time.

In other words, it takes a lot of dirt to leave a permanent stain. That is no doubt good news for Richard Di Natale, and also perhaps for politics in general.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Political dirt units defining elections".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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