President Trump has arrived in Australia. Well, not physically but certainly in spirit. Throughout his term, Trump has traduced America’s institutions: the public service, the security agencies, the courts and, until the mid-term elections, the Congress – all put in place to curb the excesses of executive government. While Trumpism isn’t yet entrenched in Canberra, it has gained a foothold.
Among many recent examples, the most brazen is the behaviour of Tim Wilson MP, Chair of the prestigious House of Representatives Economics Committee.
The Treasurer gave a reference to the Committee for a parliamentary inquiry into an Opposition policy – specifically Labor’s policy on cash refunds for retirees for company tax paid on their share holdings.
Last year, a website in parliamentary colours was established, emblazoned with the Australian Coat of Arms and authorised by Tim Wilson in his parliamentary capacity as “Chair of Standing Committee on Economics.”
The website invites members of the public to attend the Committee’s hearings as it travels around Australia. That seems a democratic service. But until last week, to register for attendance by typing in their contact details, applicants were also obliged to click on a box saying: “I want to be registered for the petition against the retirement tax.” The website advised that clicking onto this field was required: no tick, no attendance. Supporters of the Labor policy and agnostics were not welcome.
Members of the public could attend, without registering, if they went to the actual website of the House of Representatives Economics Committee, but Wilson’s website is done up to look like the official site.
In truth, the Wilson website is not a parliamentary website at all. As admitted at 5.00pm last Friday evening, it is at least partly funded by another Wilson – Geoff Wilson, chair of Wilson Asset Management, a private firm that makes money out of the policy Labor plans to scrap.
That the two Wilsons happen to be related is no hanging offence. Nor is the politician Wilson owning shares in the businessman Wilson’s firm, as declared on his pecuniary interests register.
But the politician Wilson’s use of his taxpayer-funded position as Chair of the Economics Committee to disguise a Liberal Party campaign, run with financial assistance from a relative’s firm that would stand to benefit financially from defeating the Opposition’s policy, surely warrants a proper investigation.
Allegations have been made that businessman Wilson has stood to benefit even more directly from the campaigning activities of his politician relative. A voter in Wilson MP’s electorate has said he or she received two Wilson Asset Management newsletters after being contacted by the politician Wilson. Another reportedly replied "yes" to a robocall from Wilson MP, only to receive multiple emails promoting Wilson Asset Management funds.
Some have asked whether the politician Wilson provided website data to the businessman Wilson, enabling him to profit from prospective new clients. This was not necessary: the petition was actually operated by Wilson Asset Management. By clicking onto the box to register for a parliamentary committee hearing, members of the public unwittingly provided their contact details directly to the businessman Wilson unless they consciously unclicked the box automatically selected for the Wilson Asset Management petition.
Yet the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and Wilson MP’s Coalition committee members have backed in this behaviour.
If the perversion of parliamentary processes for political and pecuniary purposes weren’t worrying enough, last week we had written confirmation that Prime Minister Morrison’s announcement of a possible move of Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem had caused the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to warn overseas posts to take appropriate security precautions against possible violence.
In communications with its embassies, the Department noted that the Prime Minister had found “persuasive” the arguments for shifting the embassy to Jerusalem put to him by former Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, who was the Liberal candidate for the Wentworth by-election. Yet Mr Morrison repeatedly denied that his announcement was aimed at shoring up the Jewish vote for Mr Sharma in the Wentworth by-election.
The Morrison Government also claimed the embassy move would not affect the timing of the signing of the already-finalised free-trade agreement between Australia and the predominantly Muslim nation of Indonesia. That agreement, due for signature before Christmas, is still awaiting the go-ahead from Jakarta.
Also last week, the contents of a highly classified Department of Home Affairs brief on asylum-seeker policy were illegally given to News Corp newspapers with the purpose of damaging the government’s political opponents. To his credit, Home Affairs Secretary, Mike Pezzullo, has referred the leaking of the brief to the Australian Federal Police.
The Trump administration has systematically put the cleaners through the top and middle levels of the US public service. It has relentlessly attacked national security agencies, sacked the head of the FBI and co-mingled public and private money. Fortunately, Australia has not yet journeyed any distance along that path, but it is wise to be vigilant against a political culture developing that begins normalising what should properly be regarded as repugnant and dangerous political behaviour.