The Week In Politics — And A Message To Readers

WHAT A WEEK in Australian politics: the scandal of former Liberal state director Damien Mantach has percolated odiously, whilst moral outrage merchant Sarah Hanson-Young has been shown as no better than anyone else when it comes to wasting taxpayer money on travel. The union Royal Commission lingers in limbo, whilst so-called Operation Fortitude debased good sense and decency. I’ve been missing: and we will touch on that as well.

First things first, lest anyone thought I’d disappeared: the medical issue I alluded to nearly three weeks ago now — causing my Brisbane-Melbourne flight to be diverted to Sydney, and imposing a hospital stay on me at that time — recurred this week on my flight back to Brisbane on Tuesday morning, and whilst medical opinion now agrees the likely cause is totally harmless (an easily treated ear condition, of all things) I spent Wednesday and Thursday driving back to Melbourne via the Newell Highway, and for unavoidable logistical reasons 1,100km of that ghastly 1,700km trek fell on Thursday.

As readers will appreciate, even after three days back in Melbourne I still feel shattered, and the reason no comment has been forthcoming from me since Tuesday morning should now be readily apparent. It is greatly heartening that in round terms, there is nothing wrong with me at all; but the overall episode is something I can well do without, for it will continue to interfere with my activities in the short term. My weekly Tuesday trips to Brisbane are temporarily suspended, so I will be around a little more, but for those who think I’ve missed a big week I will make some remarks on a range of issues this afternoon.

And the first thing I want to talk about — which has been proclaimed as “a mistake” and a misunderstanding and all kinds of other euphemisms for “fuck-up” — is the so-called Operation Fortitude that was supposed to be rolled out in the Melbourne CBD on Friday, targeting everything from immigration fraud to outstanding traffic warrants, and I can only say that even though the “operation” was aborted in the face of rent-a-crowd protests enacted by the militant Left there is no place in Australian society for the stop-and-search undertaking this abomination was apparently contrived to constitute.

We will never know with certainty whether this really was intended to be the illiberal and Stasi-like activity that has been sketched out in the breach, and the government agencies involved — from Victoria Police to the Australian Federal Police and to the Australian Border Force — are going to have to be given, with great reservations, the benefit of the doubt.

It is interesting to note that the government agencies reportedly involved fall under the jurisdiction of state and federal governments controlled by both major political parties, and if anything, this tends to reinforce the suggestion that the whole thing was a misunderstanding: it is difficult to see the Victorian ALP in cahoots with the Abbott government on something as distasteful as this, even if for no better reason than Labor’s penchant for gleeful seizure on anything offering point-scoring opportunities against the Liberal Party these days.

Certainly, Prime Minister Tony Abbott claims that he and his government had no knowledge of the Gestapo-style crackdown, which would in effect have seen law enforcement officers stopping people in the street and demanding to see visas or documentation substantiating residence, citizenship, or the right to be in Australia at all.

The discriminatory and racist overtones of such an endeavour are clearly — and totally — unacceptable.

Yet if some good can come of the operation that wasn’t, it takes the form of a reminder than in a liberal democratic society, the line between freedom and authoritarian excess is a fine one: and once crossed, and the genie of stifling freedom is out of the bottle, it is very difficult to put it back.

Less ambiguity surrounds one of this column’s most detested figures, however, when it comes to moralising hypocrite and outrage fabricator Sarah Hanson-Young; the child Senator was reported during the week as having accrued almost a million dollars in travel expense payments between entering the Senate in 2008 and December last year.

Inexplicably, Hanson-Young and another Communist Greens Senator — Scott Ludlam from Western Australia — each racked up more in travel at taxpayers’ expense than their former leader, the pious, sanctimonious Christine Milne.

Milne, who is now in retirement where she belongs, at least had an excuse as the leader of the minor party; and whilst Ludlam is a lightweight of little interest to this column, Hanson-Young — a crusader seeking trouble wherever she can stir it up, and mud wherever it is able to be kicked into the faces of conservative politicians — is no more than a dangerous pinko using public money to attract attention to herself.

It has always amazed me that as members of a supposed party of environmentalists, Greens MPs have little apparent reticence about extensive air travel; utilising fossil-fuelled, chauffeur-driven cars; furnishing themselves at cost to taxpayers in well-lit offices heated and cooled by (mostly coal-generated) electricity; and travel internationally in the name of obscure events that bear little or no relevance to their duties as members of Australian Parliaments — such as Hanson-Young’s jaunt to the Mediterranean earlier this year to observe asylum seeker movements into Europe.

International air travel, of course, is the most pollution-intensive form of travel — and it speaks volumes that the Greens’ worst offender just happens to be their most vocal, outspoken, and sanctimonious of all (the recently departed Milne notwithstanding).

Nobody can mount a reasonable defence of former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s excessive and (ethically) indefensible use of the taxpayer dollar for “official” travel.

But the likes of Hanson-Young, like Labor’s Tony Burke, are every bit as culpable.

It speaks volumes for the utterly defective communications and strategy apparatus that underpins the Abbott government’s political activities that it simply can’t lay a glove on the pair, in spite of the fact both should be forced into resignation, like Bishop; but it also speaks to the utter lack of sincerity and integrity that the likes of Hanson-Young and Burke can throw stones at someone like Bishop, raising merry hell and causing political trouble for the Liberal Party, when each is just as culpable for precisely the same reasons.

And continuing to speak volumes this week for the utter deficiency of the way the Liberal Party is run has been disgraced former Victorian state director Damien Mantach; the scandal — see here and here for a couple of more recent pieces since I looked at this disgrace last week — is representative of just about everything that is wrong with the executive management arm of the party, and the most despicable thing is that because the Liberal Party is effectively run these days as a club by a tight, insiderish crony network, the excesses that have come to light in regard to Mantach taint the party in at least three states and federally.

Now, it appears taxpayer money was misappropriated by Mantach in a kickback scandal that is additional to the original revelations of siphoning money out of party coffers in Melbourne, and anyone who had knowledge of Mantach’s past misdemeanours when in charge of the Tasmanian division and who was subsequently involved in recruiting him to the Victorian division in 2008 must be booted from the Liberal Party altogether.

It is not good enough that a volunteer organisation that depends on donation monies and membership dues has been pillaged by a hand-picked lieutenant of that crony club, whilst its members continue on in other (paid) roles within the party even after Mantach has been disgraced, and whilst this column makes no accusation of culpability or wrongdoing on the part of any individual, those who were associated with the Liberal Party in senior management capacities in Victoria at that time — then state director (and now NSW division chief) Tony Nutt and federal director Brian Loughnane foremost among them — have questions to answer that to date have not been satisfactorily answered at all.

Were they and/or any other relevant office bearers at that time aware Mantach had pocketed some $48,000 from the Tasmanian division of the party? Were they aware that when this was discovered, Mantach’s immediate resignation (read: sacking) had been sought and received in early 2008? Had they, or any other personnel connected to the subsequent recruitment of Mantach as assistant state director in Victoria later in 2008, been forewarned about the misconduct it is universally accepted Mantach had engaged in during his time with the party in Tasmania, as has been suggested this week?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” then any or all of those persons, if they remain in the employment of the Liberal Party anywhere in Australia, must be summarily dismissed for gross incompetence and expelled from the party as members under the party’s discipline and dispute resolution mechanisms.

It’s not as if the Liberals would be losing all that much; Loughnane in particular ran the Victorian division as campaign manager and state director in 2002 when the party suffered its worst ever state election defeat, and followed that up as federal director in 2007 by presiding over the defeat of the Howard government — a dubious dual achievement that appears increasingly likely to be emulated next year, again on Loughnane’s watch, if the Abbott government is beaten after a single term.

As we have discussed too often in this column — and as has been amply borne out almost weekly in (accurate) press reporting of the party’s endless goings-on — most of the Liberal Party’s current woes are entirely self-inflicted, through incompetence, poor judgement, misdirected resources and non-existent strategic and tactical expertise; the Mantach episode is emblematic of the fact that the same people (broadly speaking) have mismanaged the Liberal Party across the country for years, and if any good can come of the Mantach debacle at all it is the prospect that some of these people might be kicked out of a good organisation that has been let down and badly served by the very people charged with the stewardship of its best interests.

The mismanagement in the Liberal Party has been like a cancer, and must be cut out. Regrettably, though, even the prospect of a first-up election loss and a return to opposition through their own stupidity is no guarantee these people will finally be shown the door next year and told to tell their stories walking.

And this brings me to the Royal Commission into the union movement and the application before Commissioner Heydon to recuse himself from further proceedings; the outcome of that application is apparently set to be delivered tomorrow, but I reiterate the point made a week ago that were it not for some fucking idiot at the NSW Liberals deciding Heydon would be a suitable guest at a Liberal function in the politically super-charged climate surrounding the Commission, this tawdry and opportunistic manoeuvre by Labor and its militant, violent union mates would have been impossible to attempt in the first place.

All in all, it has been a bad week for the Liberal Party.

That’s not to say the ALP is deserving of any particular acknowledgement, or any credit at all; just yesterday its “leader,” Billy Bullshit, was framing one of his typically fatuous fringe “arguments” that whilst Labor wasn’t averse to a free trade agreement with China in principle (in a sop to those accusing him of dishonouring Labor’s Hawke-Keating economic management heritage even further than he already has), it was important to get “the best deal” which meant ALP and union criticism of the agreement was warranted (which boils down to a childish petulance that were it Labor negotiating the agreement it would be good, but because it’s the Liberal Party doing so, it’s actually very bad indeed).

How Labor might perform in government is unknown and, as far as I am concerned, the prospect is cause for great alarm indeed.

But for those contemplating restoring it to the Treasury benches, Bill Shorten is providing exactly zero reasons to justify their votes: and again, whilst I hate to say it, Shorten’s unhindered conduct is a salutary reminder that the Liberals need to get their shit together — and to gather that execrable substance very quickly indeed.

 

Missing Millions A Symptom Of Liberal Party Problems

THE REVELATION this week that the former state director of the Victorian division of the Liberal Party, Damien Mantach, allegedly embezzled up to $2 million from party coffers is an outrage, and the impending prosecution warranted; even so, the episode raises serious questions about governance within the Liberal Party both in Victoria and nationally, highlighting a deeply entrenched insider culture that must be smashed and terminated.

Like thousands of other disgusted, betrayed, and increasingly angry Liberal Party members in Melbourne, I found out on Wednesday about the story that broke publicly on Thursday — that former state director Damien Mantach had allegedly helped himself to somewhere between $1.5 and $2 million of the party’s funds between 2010 and 2014 — and my first response (as some would have seen on Twitter) was, quite bluntly and unapologetically, “fuck him.”

After all, it’s not the sort of news one would reminisce over with a glass of Chardonnay.

First things first: for those who’ve missed the media coverage of this issue to date, a selection of articles may be accessed here, here, here and here, and I would point out that before the Fairfax press gets too complacent in its sanctimony over this issue, it might serve interests of balance for that moribund behemoth to apply the conveniently rigorous scrutiny it deems appropriate in this case to the ALP’s record of fiscal management in government — and to pull its head in if unprepared to do so.

And whilst I’m aware Mantach was also outed yesterday as being on the hacked list of members from infidelity website Ashley Madison, we’re not going to dwell on that either: his wife, I’m sure, will deal with that particular issue all by herself.

Mantach has apparently admitted to taking the money, which is why he can be freely named in media; there seems to be some doubt over the quantum of funds involved, but with $1.5 million sitting at the lower end of the numbers being bandied about, it’s certainly serious enough.

Allegedly, the money was spent on paying down a mortgage, acquiring a share portfolio, and “lifestyle factors” — not that any or all of these uses justifies or excuses the act.

There are a lot of very, very angry Liberals in Melbourne and Victoria this weekend: from Mantach’s colleagues at 104 to the party’s state and federal MPs, and from beaten candidates in under-resourced marginal seats to the loyal rank-and-file membership who campaigned fruitlessly on their behalf at last year’s state election debacle.

There might be some room for sentiment had Mantach amounted to any tangible kind of political asset, but setting aside the kind of sentiment personal knowledge among friends and colleagues invariably engenders he was, objectively, nothing of the sort.

The campaign for last year’s state election was a strategic and tactical abomination; its messages turgid and poorly communicated; its grasp of the campaign initiative repeatedly usurped by the ALP and — reprehensibly — the violent, militant unions who poured money and resources in on Labor’s behalf, and who weren’t actually standing at all.

As “campaign director,” blame for all of these failures must be sheeted home to Mantach.

Now it has emerged that a solid seven-figure amount has been drained off the Victorian Division over a four-year period, the realisation has dawned on many of those angry Victorian Liberals that last year’s state election (which this column resolutely maintained was winnable until the end — and I still believe it was) might have produced a different result despite Mantach’s ineffective stewardship had it been better resourced. It turns out the means with which to resource the campaign were at hand. The only problem is that the “hand” helped itself to a five-fingered discount.

I’m not going to dwell on the nature of Mantach’s alleged crime, for despite reports he is “contrite” and made a full admission when confronted by state President Michael Kroger on Wednesday, great care should be taken to ensure that the coming prosecution is not compromised, for any punishment meted out by a court seems well indicated and should not be jeopardised or pre-empted.

But where all of this becomes relevant for the Liberal Party in the wider sense starts with the circumstances of Mantach’s recruitment to the Victorian Liberals, and ends with the insiderish cabal that runs the Liberal Party around the country, whose members mostly do not comprise the best available people to steward the party’s interests or the aspirations of the millions of Liberal voters their roles charge them with advancing.

It does not matter, for example — as media late this week have excitedly trumpeted — that Mantach’s father was a long-serving director of the Tasmanian Liberals before Mantach himself filled the post, or that his uncle Rob was also a stalwart of the Tasmanian party: dynasties for their own sake are unjustifiable.

The hard, cold fact is that as state director of the Tasmanian Division of the Liberal Party, Damien Mantach presided over one of the worst state election defeats the party has ever suffered on the Apple Isle in 2006 — winning just seven of 25 lower house seats — and followed that up by overseeing a clean sweep of the five federal seats in Tasmania by the ALP the following year, including the loss of marginal seats in Bass and Braddon.

And the financial scandal he now finds himself enveloped in arguably had its genesis in Tasmania, where he was dismissed after helping himself to some $50,000 from the Tasmanian Liberals — an amount that all parties concur was repaid in full.

Even so, questions must be answered by current Liberal federal director Brian Loughnane — his predecessor in the Victorian role, and who played a key role in recruiting the disgraced Mantach following his departure from the party in Hobart — over what he knew, and when, of Mantach’s misdemeanours in the Tasmanian post.

To date — aside from making it known he was aware of “a minor overclaim involving credit cards” — Loughnane has stoutly refused to comment. That, simply, is not good enough.

Nobody is suggesting impropriety on Loughnane’s part or, indeed, on the part of any other Liberal Party employee. Even so, were it to emerge that Loughnane was fully aware of the circumstances surrounding Mantach’s departure from the Tasmanian Liberals, his present position at the head of the party federally would become untenable.

And this brings me to the problem that bedevils the Liberal Party nationally — and of which the Mantach revelations are a mere symptom.

The Liberal Party, for too long, has made an artform of recycling the same handful of people through a procession of executive employment roles around the country; a failed state director in one state suddenly reappears in another, or people who have underperformed disastrously in one of the states suddenly pop up at the Party’s federal secretariat in Canberra.

Many of the people who work in Liberal secretariats across Australia are related to MPs, longstanding senior employees, powerful grassroots figures, or are ostensibly hired on account of internal connections they have; the practice is so widespread that arguments about merit are pointless: the senior echelons of the party are a clubhouse, when what is required is a powerhouse.

At the apex of the structure are the same people who have done the same things the same way for years: the Loughnanes, the Credlins, the Nutts, others like them, and the band of loyalists they have accrued over the years: all of whom owe something, and to which newcomers are not admitted unless they know someone, or owe something, or boast some kind of connection.

You can add Mantach’s name to the list, for any objective justification in keeping him on the payroll — a sorry use of hard-won donation monies and membership dues, even before any charge of embezzlement or fraud is considered — had already expired when he was given the boot in Tasmania in 2008.

Yet Mantach’s departure only came in March of this year — seven years later — and after more political damage was inflicted on a Victorian division that ranks among the most poorly run and least professional of all the Liberal state divisions.

Since I started writing this piece yesterday, veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes has weighed in, with an article in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph that notes, among other things, that Mantach was due to go to Perth next week to “help” on the by-election campaign for the vacant federal Liberal seat of Canning: the fact this manoeuvre was contemplated at all, let alone certain to occur but for the revelations that have been made public this week, shows that those in charge of the party just don’t get it: for once again, a political failure was being recycled into a sensitive strategic political battlefield despite little evidence to suggest he had anything meaningful at all contribute.

Who knew what about Mantach’s pilfering from Liberal Party coffers is a question that will be answered conclusively in the fullness of time; if it transpires Loughnane was fully aware of Mantach’s earlier transgressions in Tasmania then the party must summarily dispense with his services — for there is no justification in recruiting someone with that particular track record, and the consequences of taking such a risk have now been laid bare for all to see.

What is encouraging is that there is at least one razor-sharp, shrewd operator in the Liberal Party’s ranks — Kroger — whose correct instinct that funds had gone missing in Melbourne proved that years of complacent blindness or ineptitude on the part of those around Mantach (or, more worryingly, who were charged with providing rigorous financial checks) was an exacerbating factor to a forseeable crime that characteristic bad judgement on the part of Liberal office bearers had not only enabled, but perhaps invited.

But for the most part, those charged with the effective management of the party behind the scenes are not worth the money it pays them.

If there is any good that can come from this despicable episode, it should be a root and branch shake-up of all the Liberals’ state and federal offices; there is too much deadwood soaking up salaries their performance does not and cannot warrant, and this is an extravagance and an indulgence that the party — chartered to represent Australians from all walks of life, and expanding the horizons for opportunity and choice and reward for endeavour — can’t afford.

It is not inconceivable that the Liberal Party, this time next year, will be out of power everywhere except New South Wales and Tasmania, and on shaky ground approaching a re-election attempt in WA, but that terrible prospect should not be allowed to materialise before action is taken.

Perversely, Mantach may have done the party a favour. The torpid mismanagement is like a cancer, and needs to be cut out. The wrong people have discharged their obligations to the party poorly for too long and have been handsomely rewarded for their efforts. Yet even after a federal election defeat, some of them will survive, or even be promoted.

But nobody would argue the Liberals have “won” the politics of the past ten years nationally, and in the prevailing conditions the fault for that lies squarely with the people the party has entrusted with jobs they arguably did not and do not deserve. The markers of the malaise are everywhere.

In this sense, the Mantach debacle — whilst rightly destined to end in a prosecution — should also signal the point at which the Liberal Party’s back offices are overhauled, and parasitic time-servers rooted out.

There are those who believe Kroger is a divisive figure in the national organisation, but to date he is the only key player to have exhibited a shred of nous or sound judgement in identifying an alleged fraud that, unforgivably, was perpetrated over years and under the very noses of others who should have recognised something was seriously wrong.

If anyone is capable of instituting  root and branch reform of the party, it is Kroger. The party’s other jurisdictions across the country could do worse than to open their divisions to the Victorian President. The price for doing nothing is a potential decade in opposition. The Mantach disaster need not be for nothing. Now is the time to act, and to act broadly.