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Abbott On Action Against Hanson: “I Was Acting Entirely On My Own”

This is the audio and transcript of Tony Abbott’s interview with Kerry O’Brien on The 7.30 Report on August 27, 2003.

It took place one week after Pauline Hanson and David Ettridge were found guilty of electoral fraud and sentenced to three years in jail.

Hanson and Ettridge were accused of falsely claiming that 500 members of a support movement were members of “Pauline Hanson’s One Nation”, enabling it to be registered as a political party and to claim electoral funding.

In August 2003, Tony Abbott was a cabinet minister in John Howard’s government. He was Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service.

Following the jailing of Hanson and Ettridge, the part played by Tony Abbott attracted attention because of his role in establishing a trust fund called “Australians for Honest Politics” which had helped fund civil court action against One Nation.

Hanson and Ettridge were released from jail on November 6, 2003, after the Queensland Court of Appeal overturned their convictions.

  • Listen to Tony Abbott interviewed by Kerry O’Brien (16m)

Transcript of Tony Abbott’s interview with Kerry O’Brien on The 7.30 Report.

O’BRIEN: Welcome to the program.

And again tonight we look at the storm over senior Government minister Tony Abbott, his involvement in trying to bring down Pauline Hanson through the courts back in 1998 and whether or not he lied to the ABC’s ‘Four Corners’ over a promise to fund a civil court action against Ms Hanson by One Nation dissident Terry Sharples.

The Prime Minister today defended his minister, but distanced himself from any role on Mr Abbott’s actions with regard to Pauline Hanson.

In fact, Mr Howard’s advice to the media today was to “take a shower”, advice he’s offered before.

But the Australian Electoral Commission has announced it will review its earlier ruling that the trust Mr Abbott set up back in ’98 to fund court actions against Ms Hanson was not associated with the Liberal Party.

Mr Abbott has kept a low profile through most of the past two days, but I interviewed him in Sydney earlier tonight.

Tony Abbott, when you established the slush fund to get Pauline Hanson politically, you called it Australians for Honest Politics.

Was that some kind of a joke, a bad joke?

ABBOTT: Of course it wasn’t and it wasn’t a slush fund.

It had three trustees — myself, two other distinguished Australians, one, Peter Coleman —

O’BRIEN: You count yourself as a distinguished Australian?

ABBOTT: Well, it had two distinguished Australians — Peter Coleman, former federal member for the Liberal Party, and John Wheeldon, who was a minister in the Whitlam Government — as its trustees and we had a perfectly honourable intention to fund legal actions to challenge the validity of the registration of the One Nation Party in Queensland.

Nothing wrong with that.

And ultimately a Supreme Court decision in Queensland vindicated the position we had.

O’BRIEN: There are a lot of people out there right now who would believe that you’re anything but honest in the way you’ve explained all this.

ABBOTT: Well, I think that I can live with my conscience.

I think it was very important to challenge the Hanson juggernaut back then in 1998.

The difference is, Kerry, that a lot of people who were angry with her then feel sorry for her now, and I suppose I do myself, because I think that there’s a sense in which the punishment meted out to her doesn’t really fit the crime, but certainly, at the time, the reality of her so-called party needed to be exposed and I was happy to try to do it.

O’BRIEN: We know you established that fund to use Terry Sharples as a stalking horse in 1998.

ABBOTT: No, that’s not right.

O’BRIEN: No?

ABBOTT: No.

I had dealt with Terry Sharples — I had dealt with Terry Sharples because he was the person who initially was going to bring this legal case to stop Des O’Shea from providing that money to One Nation.

Terry Sharples and I came to a parting of the ways and it was after that parting of the ways that I set up the Australians for Honest Politics trust.

O’BRIEN: But it’s not the first time you talked about money with Terry Sharples?

ABBOTT: Well, I promised that Terry Sharples would not be out of pocket.

O’BRIEN: Hmm.

Well, just on this issue, let’s briefly flash back to the interview you did with Tony Jones on ‘Four Corners’ which went to air on August 10.

You did that interview, I’m told, on July 31, ’98, where you denied any knowledge of any sort of fund for Terry Sharples.

We’ll just have a quick look.

TONY JONES: So there was never any question of any party funds —

ABBOTT: Absolutely not.

TONY JONES: Or other funds from any other source —

ABBOTT: Absolutely not.

TONY JONES: Being offered to Terry Sharples?

ABBOTT: Absolutely not.

O’BRIEN: And you’re saying now that wasn’t a lie — not just Liberal Party funds but any other funds?

ABBOTT: I had promised that he wouldn’t be out of pocket, but there’s a difference between telling someone he won’t be out of pocket and telling someone that you’re going to have to pay him money.

O’BRIEN: What’s the difference?

If you say to me, “Kerry, you won’t be out of pocket for this”, aren’t I entitled to assume that means you’re going to guarantee the funds for me?

ABBOTT: But the thing was that it was an entirely contingent matter.

Money would only have gone from a person who was willing to support this case to Sharples in what I thought was the then-unlikely event of a cost orders being made against him.

O’BRIEN: Let’s just look at precisely the question that Tony Jones put to you in ’98.

He said, “So there was never any question of any party funds —

ABBOTT: Party funds.

O’BRIEN: “Or other funds?”.

ABBOTT: Yes and as you’ll notice —

O’BRIEN: And you didn’t lie in your response when you said, “Absolutely not, absolutely not.”?

ABBOTT: And as you’ll notice, Kerry, he said “party funds”.

I started to answer the question and I went on to answer the question, but strictly speaking no money at all was ever offered to Terry Sharples.

Pro bono lawyers were arranged and someone had offered to stand a costs order, should a costs order be made, but, no, no money was ever offered to Terry Sharples.

O’BRIEN: When you put out your statement last night explaining your position, you were at pains to say that your answer only applied to the first part of the question, that is to Liberal Party funds, but it didn’t apply to the second part of the question — “or other funds”.

ABBOTT: And then I went on to say, strictly speaking no money at all was offered to Terry Sharples, and that’s correct.

O’BRIEN: Look, by your own admission now, you set up the fund —

ABBOTT: Yes, after — well after —

O’BRIEN: ..for the Australians for Honest Politics Trust —

ABBOTT: Well after that incident.

O’BRIEN: ..on August 24.

ABBOTT: That’s correct.

O’BRIEN: On August 24, 25 days after the interview.

ABBOTT: Yeah.

O’BRIEN: That’s not well after.

ABBOTT: Well, it’s after.

O’BRIEN: It’s three weeks.

ABBOTT: So I was supposed to say, Kerry —

O’BRIEN: But nothing was in train?

ABBOTT: So I was supposed to say, “Oh, and by the way, Tony, in a few weeks time I’m going to set up a trust fund that is going to fund a different legal action”?

Was I supposed to say that?

O’BRIEN: And you weren’t working on setting up that fund?

ABBOTT: No, because at that point in time I believe I may still have had some kind of an involvement with Terry Sharples, but after the Sharples matter wasn’t going to progress anywhere, or certainly wasn’t going to progress anywhere with my assistance, I then thought, “Well, it is really important to regularise this whole thing”, and that’s why —

O’BRIEN: So in the space of three weeks you got around all these other people and organised and set up a trust fund in three weeks?

ABBOTT: You’re amazed by that, are you?

O’BRIEN: I am.

ABBOTT: Well, get real, Kerry.

O’BRIEN: But you did?

You did all that in three weeks?

ABBOTT: Sure.

O’BRIEN: It must have been really urgent.

ABBOTT: Well, look, it was.

Think back, Kerry, to that time.

I mean, you were crying, as were so many other people, for someone to stop this terrible Hanson juggernaut.

O’BRIEN: I was asking questions.

I wasn’t crying for anything.

ABBOTT: If you go back, Kerry, to the parliamentary debate on 1 July, I think it was, of 1989 — 1998 — Labor speaker after Labor speaker were demanding, screaming, that the Government in general, but I in particular, do something to stop this terrible Hanson woman.

Well, I did.

O’BRIEN: What we’re focusing on was whether you misled the people of Australia —

ABBOTT: The ABC?

O’BRIEN: No, the public, the audience that watched the program.

ABBOTT: And I believe that my answers were justified.

O’BRIEN: Well, Terry Sharples says you had a meeting with him and others on July 7, ’98, where you offered him $20,000 to cover his legal costs.

ABBOTT: Well, see, I dispute that and I always have.

O’BRIEN: You did have the meeting though, didn’t you, on July 7?

ABBOTT: Yes, so what?

Big deal.

O’BRIEN: And the question of costs didn’t come up?

ABBOTT: Look, the question of how much it would cost, what would be the possible downside of a court case — sure, that came up.

O’BRIEN: So you did talk about costs with him and you talked about meeting the costs?

ABBOTT: Yes, but there’s a difference between offering to pay someone money — offering to pay Terry Sharples money — and supporting a legal case.

O’BRIEN: Where were you going to get the money?

ABBOTT: Well, I’m not going to tell you that, Kerry.

O’BRIEN: When you offered him the money where were you going to get it from?

ABBOTT: Kerry, I am not going to tell you that.

O’BRIEN: So you didn’t have a fund in mind?

ABBOTT: No, I didn’t.

O’BRIEN: You didn’t have a fund in train?

ABBOTT: No, I didn’t at that stage.

O’BRIEN: But you were confident that you would be able to find money for him, presumably not out of your own pocket?

ABBOTT: Not for him not for him — but for an action, for a legal action.

O’BRIEN: Let’s not split hairs.

Let’s not split hairs.

ABBOTT: Well, let’s not.

O’BRIEN: It was to fund his action?

ABBOTT: Yes, and there is a world of difference between funding an action or, at least, getting pro bono lawyers to act without charge and having someone who might stand a costs order in the contingency that a costs order might be made and offering him money.

I did not offer him money.

O’BRIEN: And then you offered to underwrite effectively his costs in a legal action.

That is money.

Costs is money, isn’t it?

ABBOTT: Well, I said that he would not be out of pocket.

O’BRIEN: Is costs money?

ABBOTT: Well —

O’BRIEN: When it really gets down to it, costs is money, isn’t it?

ABBOTT: What I said was that he would not be out of pocket.

O’BRIEN: He wouldn’t be out of pocket?

ABBOTT: That’s correct.

O’BRIEN: With money?

Money?

Cash?

Money?

ABBOTT: Well, I said he wouldn’t be out of pocket.

O’BRIEN: And on July 11 you met him again and you handwrote a guarantee, didn’t you?

ABBOTT: I had sent him a note, but this is not new news, Kerry.

O’BRIEN: No, but then on July 31 —

ABBOTT: All of this was on the record years ago.

O’BRIEN: But on July 31, you told Tony Jones — you gave him an “absolutely not” denial about any kind of funds going to Terry Sharples.

ABBOTT: I said that I had not offered him money and I stand by that.

O’BRIEN: You offered him costs?

ABBOTT: Well, I said that he wouldn’t be out of pocket.

O’BRIEN: That’s money!

ABBOTT: Oh, come on, Kerry.

O’BRIEN: Tony Abbott, that is money.

Let me hear it from your lips — that is money!

ABBOTT: Let’s move on.

I did not offer to pay Terry Sharples any money.

O’BRIEN: You offered to cover his costs.

ABBOTT: But I did not offer to pay Terry Sharples any money.

O’BRIEN: I think the audience understands that costs is money, so we’ll move on.

ABBOTT: Well, let the audience understand that it was very important that the illegality at the heart of One Nation be exposed.

It was demanded and I did my best to bring it about.

O’BRIEN: And on July 7 and July 11, you made clear to Terry Sharples that you were prepared to cover his costs, but on July 31 you told the ‘Four Corners’ audience that you were not involved in any funds to cover Terry Sharples?

ABBOTT: Well, I said that he would not be out of pocket and I subsequently set up the Australians for Honest Politics trust.

O’BRIEN: In your statement last night, you also referred to a ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ report on March 11, which I have here — March 11, 2000 — which challenged you on another conflict in the Sharples affair when you replied to the ‘Herald’, “Misleading the ABC is not quite the same as misleading the Parliament as a political crime”.

You acknowledged there that you misled the ABC?

ABBOTT: No, no, no.

It was a flippant comment and, as I said in that statement last night, I shouldn’t have made a flippant comment in response to the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ —

O’BRIEN: Where is it flippant?

You’ve said that you misled the ABC.

ABBOTT: Well, I appreciate, Kerry, that you might not have any sense of humour.

O’BRIEN: Oh, I have one.

ABBOTT: I thought it was a throwaway line, it was a flippant comment, and, of course, I should never be flippant about the ABC or about the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’.

O’BRIEN: These are your words — ‘misleading’.

Your word — “misleading the ABC”.

You have said there that you misled the ABC in that interview with —

ABBOTT: No, no, no, no.

O’BRIEN: Why isn’t it a lie?

ABBOTT: No, no, no, no.

O’BRIEN: You mislead someone, aren’t you lying to them?

ABBOTT: Oh, Kerry, look, I think I’ve made my position abundantly clear.

O’BRIEN: I’m not sure that you have.

You say it’s flippant.

Where is it flippant?

“Misleading the ABC isn’t quite the same as misleading the Parliament as a political crime.”

ABBOTT: That was a flippant comment.

O’BRIEN: Well, did you mislead the ABC or not?

ABBOTT: I don’t believe I did.

O’BRIEN: Well, why did you say you did?

ABBOTT: Well, I was making a flippant remark.

O’BRIEN: Ah.

OK.

You’re at pains to say now that the PM knew nothing about this back in ’98 —

ABBOTT: I’m not at pains to say.

I’ve said it.

O’BRIEN: Sorry, had nothing to do with this back in ’98.

But as you say yourself, the fund or the trust became public knowledge via the media in late August ’98.

ABBOTT: That’s correct.

A couple of days after it was set up.

O’BRIEN: That didn’t cause the PM or anyone else acting on his behalf to come to you and say, “Tony, what are you doing, what’s this about?”

ABBOTT: No, why should it?

I was acting entirely on my own.

It was all my own work.

O’BRIEN: You were a parliamentary secretary.

ABBOTT: Indeed I was.

O’BRIEN: You were a prominent member of his government.

ABBOTT: Yes, yes, and look, I do lots of things —

O’BRIEN: And he reads in the paper that you’re involved in a strange trust — you’re involved in a trust, he reads in the papers, to get Pauline Hanson, but he doesn’t try to find out what you’re doing?

ABBOTT: None of the Prime Minister’s ministers, none of the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretaries, are robots.

They do have independent minds.

They do do things from time to time that have not been discussed with the Prime Minister.

O’BRIEN: None of the other senior ministers dropped around to your office and said, “Tony, what on earth are you doing?”

ABBOTT: No.

O’BRIEN: No?

Really!

That’s splendid isolation you were operating in there.

ABBOTT: I was doing this entirely on my own.

O’BRIEN: So Mr Howard also certainly didn’t do anything then to stop your efforts to destroy Pauline Hanson?

ABBOTT: Are you saying that he should have?

O’BRIEN: I’m asking you whether he did or didn’t.

You’re saying he didn’t.

ABBOTT: And I’ve answered the question.

O’BRIEN: So he did nothing to stop you in your efforts to destroy Pauline Hanson through this trust?

ABBOTT: Well — and should he have, I put it to you, Kerry?

O’BRIEN:: Do you agree that a lot of people are now angry about the fact that Pauline Hanson is in jail for up to three years?

ABBOTT: Oh, yes.

I certainly understand that.

But you’ve got to understand why she’s in jail.

She’s in jail because the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions launched a criminal prosecution years after all of this happened, because a Queensland jury delivered a verdict and because a Queensland judge brought down a sentence.

It had absolutely nothing to do with me and absolutely nothing to do with any other politician — Peter Beattie or John Howard.

O’BRIEN: Do you agree it could damage the Prime Minister’s standing with many voters if they thought he had a hand in your efforts to use the courts to destroy Pauline Hanson politically?

ABBOTT: But this insinuation, Kerry, that I am somehow responsible for Pauline Hanson being in jail is just quite wrong.

Quite wrong.

O’BRIEN: People close to the Hanson criminal case have absolutely no doubt that her predicament today stems directly from the attempts to nobble her politically through the civil actions, that the investigation that has finally put her behind bars followed the outcome of the civil case?

ABBOTT: So One Nation people or ex-One Nation people are making these allegations?

O’BRIEN: No, I’m saying that people close to the case believe it.

People who have been a part of the case.

ABBOTT: What, the DPP has said this, the Queensland Attorney-General has said this?

O’BRIEN: I’m not going to identify people who’ve talked to me off the record.

But not politicians.

ABBOTT: Calm down, Kerry.

O’BRIEN: No, no, no.

Not politicians.

ABBOTT: You’re supposed to be an interviewer, not an advocate in all of this.

O’BRIEN: No, I’m answering your question.

What I’m saying is there was no politician who told me this.

I’m telling you people close to the case, who followed the case, have told me that there is no doubt that her predicament today stems from the initial civil action that found her guilty in a civil court.

ABBOTT: So you’re saying that the party was validly registered and it should have been given the half a million dollars?

O’BRIEN: No, I’m not.

But you are very keen now to distance your involvement in those early stages from the fact that Pauline Hanson has now been found guilty and put behind bars.

ABBOTT: What I’m saying is I have no influence whatsoever over the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions.

Neither does the Prime Minister, neither does Premier Beattie.

And the reason why she is in jail is because the Queensland DPP independently decided to launch a prosecution.

A Queensland jury, completely independently of any politician, brought down a verdict and a Queensland judge, completely independently of any politician, delivered sentence.

That’s why she’s in jail.

O’BRIEN: So your colleague Bronwyn Bishop is talking rubbish when she says that Pauline Hanson is a political prisoner and that the Beattie Government put her there, put her in jail?

ABBOTT: Well, I’m not going to comment on that.

I’ve commented on the issues that I have — it is alleged I have some responsibility for.

O’BRIEN: We’ll leave it there.

Tony Abbott, thanks for talking with us.

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