Grattan / ICAC set to send more rumbles through the conservative side of politics

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By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

THE sticky paper of scandal and the politics of money are embroiling players across the spectrum, with claims and revelations guaranteed to further disillusion already cynical voters.

In the week that Julia Gillard is due to appear before the royal commission into union corruption, federal Liberal minister Arthur Sinodinos (now stood aside from his portfolio) will be back giving evidence at the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

The former PM is defending her reputation against allegations relating to the advice she provided, as a young lawyer, on a union slush fund.

Sinodinos, a year ago one of the bright hopes of the Abbott government whose political future now hangs in the balance, was NSW Liberal treasurer when donors and party figures were getting around a law banning money from property developers.

On another front, Monday saw Education Minister Christopher Pyne responding to claims about a meeting he had in opposition with James Ashby, who later brought a court action against his boss Peter Slipper, then Speaker, alleging sexual harassment.

Ashby claimed on Sunday’s 60 Minutes that Pyne had promised him a lawyer and guaranteed he’d have a job, federally or with the Queensland Liberals, while also warning that if the conversation got out he’d be forced to call Ashby a “pathological liar”.

Pyne, amid a fair bit of dodging, indicated that alternative employment and the desirability of good legal advice were canvassed in the context of Ashby feeling uncomfortable in Slipper’s office. But he said it hadn’t been his intention to offer either a lawyer or job security. And in warning about a leak he wouldn’t have used that sort of language.

He wasn’t suggesting Ashby was a liar – indeed he was “a courageous young man”. “Sometimes people misinterpret conversations.”

Pyne’s bottom line remains he had “no specific knowledge of the allegations” by Ashby and the first he knew that Ashby was suing Slipper was when he read it in the paper.

Getting to the bottom of Pyne’s knowledge of the James Ashby affair is like peeling a hard onion. A couple of layers came off this week – whether there are more to go remains to be seen.

Meanwhile at ICAC – which has cut a swathe through the NSW Liberals – the name of the Prime Minister’s right hand woman Peta Credlin exploded into headlines on Monday.

Last week some emails were suppressed after representations from Sinodinos’ lawyer about whether they would fall under parliamentary privilege. They involved Credlin who later said she had no objection to them being made public.

The emails were correspondence between the former chief fund raiser for the NSW Liberal party Paul Nicolaou and Credlin in 2011, about Brickworks – a big donor to the Liberals via the Free Enterprise Foundation – a company whose operations included development.

Credlin expressed interest in the opposition using in question time a line from the company’s chief executive Lindsay Partridge opposing the carbon tax, and she asked for his phone number to check out whether that was okay.

There was nothing wrong in what Credlin wrote, but it allowed the Labor opposition to allege cash for questions and once more put Tony Abbott’s high profile chief of staff into the news.

More interesting is that Brickworks sent money for both federal and state purposes to the Free Enterprise Foundation, an entity that provides funds for the Liberal party. The effect of this was to get around the state legislation that placed a ban on developers donating in NSW.

On the stand on Tuesday will be former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, who had to resign after giving wrong evidence to ICAC, and former deputy prime minister Mark Vaile. There are further revelations about the financing by Brickworks of a staffer in O’Farrell’s office.

Liberals wait anxiously to see how much more there is to come out about the funding roundabout. It won’t be pretty.

[This article was first published on The Conversation]

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