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OzCar - blinded by a mole?

By Jo Page - posted Friday, 3 July 2009

Before the OzCar email scandal sinks into the morass just below the surface of living memory let us consider whose interests the "fake" email has served. Apart from providing the Prime Minister with his Triumph of the Will and discrediting Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull, the scandal has exposed the tenuous relationships between politicians and public servants.

A senior public servant has been openly accused of colluding with the Opposition and of being a mole for the Liberal Party over several years. This moved Public Service Commissioner Lynelle Briggs to make the bizarre claim that public servants generally had no reason for making contact with Opposition MPs. She made no distinction between public servants generally and those most senior public servants whose contact with the Opposition often takes the form of giving evidence to various Parliamentary Committees. In this case, some commentators have asked us to believe that a senior public servant colluded with the Opposition to fabricate the evidence on which he was expecting to give evidence on oath to a Senate Committee.

There is of course no evidence to support those claims - unless one adopts the definition of “evidence” used by Barry Cassidy when interviewing Tony Abbott MP on ABC Insiders on Sunday, June 28. “There is evidence” said Cassidy, “the allegation is out there and hasn’t been denied”.


Who could possibly have faked an email with a view to implicating the Prime Minister? Indeed who had the inside knowledge that a representation from the PM would probably come in the form of an email from senior adviser Dr Andrew Charlton to senior Treasury official Godwin Grech - the one-man band dealing with representations from 240 car dealers who urgently needed refinancing?

In advance of the Australian Federal Police findings, we don’t know the answer to these questions. But Finance Minister Tanner was already telling Sky News and the Parliament in the week of June 22, 2009 that the “fake” email originated from the Treasury system and was therefore concocted by someone in Treasury, perhaps even by Grech. Later that week in Parliament Tanner refused to tell Julie Bishop (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) what the source of his information had been. As she pointed out the only AFP media release dated June 20 said that:

“Preliminary results of those forensic examinations indicate that the email referred to at the centre of this investigation has been created by a person or persons other than the purported author of the email.”

It went on to state: “a 42-year-old Calwell man has been interviewed by the AFP in relation to this matter and it will be alleged that the interview is consistent with preliminary forensic advice.” Even without Tanner’s elaboration the AFP already seemed to be pointing the finger at Grech.

What could possibly have motivated a very senior public servant of 20 years experience to produce any such fake? The only explanation so far made public by innuendo from the government and media commentators is that Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull together with Senator Eric Abetz “muscled” Grech into faking the email and using his recollection of that fake email to give false testimony to the Senate.

That claim does not stand up against the known facts. The first indication that the Prime Minister may have sought to give an advantage his friend John Grant, the Ipswich car dealer, came with evidence Grech gave to the Senate committee examining Treasury estimates on June 4, 2009. At that time “… I have had representations from the Prime Minister's Office and from the Treasurer's Office, who have simply been seeking to refer dealership cases that they have become aware of. They have simply referred those people to me to try to help them.”


Questioned further in the same hearing Grech said, “The Prime Minister’s Office certainly made representations which have basically involved their alerting me to a situation confronting particular car dealers”.

And again, responding to further questioning Grech said he thought only one case had been received from the Prime Minister’s Office. He agreed also that of two cases referred from the Treasurer’s Office one was the same as the PMO representation. But none of this should be regarded as irregular because Grech stated “the representations that were made by both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Treasurer’s Office were professional and consistent with what I would expect from a relationship between a ministerial staffer and a public servant”.

That same day Malcolm Turnbull “surprised” Prime Minister Rudd with a question in Question Time about whether anyone from his office had made representations on behalf of John Grant. Rudd said the only representation he could recall was a representation from a car dealer he received while attending a fund raising event in the electorate of Bennelong. Before Question Time ended the PM informed the House that neither he nor any member of his staff had intervened on behalf of John Grant. For his part Senator Abetz followed up Grech’s evidence to Senate Estimates by submitting questions on notice and almost immediately made a formal Freedom of Information (FOI) request for relevant papers.

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About the Author

Jo Page is a former public servant with experience of sitting alongside senior officers at Senate Estimates hearings.

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