Gladys Liu controversy holds a potent reminder for Scott Morrison, but is he listening?
Updated Sat 14 SEPTEMBER 2019
It has been dark days for the Labor Party since the federal election; physically getting through the shock of a loss, trying to absorb just what message the election result gives it for where it goes next.
Everyone has advice for the new leader Anthony Albanese about what he should be doing, or not doing.
And if that wasn’t hard enough, there is the spectre of the ICAC hearings in NSW, with all the seedy revelations about money in plastic bags, and people with dodgy recollections of events.
A smug Government went into that rarity of 2019 — an actual parliamentary sitting — this week boasting of how it was going to wedge Labor.
“I like to set them tests when we come back to Parliament,” the Prime Minister told the NSW Liberal state council last weekend.
“Because I’m just trying to help. I know they’re struggling to work out who they are and what they’re about, so I just thought I should ask them a few questions every time we come to Parliament.”
The obsession with Labor must have looked good on paper; kick ’em while they are down, throw out a few “values” messages along the way about dole bludgers and being tough on sex offenders.
When as a government you don’t have a huge agenda of your own, and the economy is wobbly, the strategy might make sense.
But whatever the flaws of our Parliament, it rarely allows best-laid plans to play out as intended.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.VIDEO: Scott Morrison lambasts Labor over Gladys Liu questions (ABC News)
Money-maker turned MP
The week ended with not so much focus on Labor’s problems as the thorny issues surrounding Government MP Gladys Liu — with her past associations with organisations linked to the Chinese Communist Party and her staggering capacity to raise funds for the Liberal Party.How the ABC first reported Gladys Liu’s links to a secretive Chinese influence network
Ties linking new Federal Liberal MP Gladys Liu to a secretive international influence arm of the Chinese Government were uncovered by the ABC earlier this year.
While the spectre of Chinese interference raised by Ms Liu’s past connections raises troubling issues, the extraordinary amounts of money she was able to raise from the Chinese community for the Liberal Party should not be overlooked amid the frisson about intelligence agency warnings and national security questions.
You don’t have to look further than Ms Liu’s own sales pitch to the Liberal Party for evidence of that fundraising capacity.
On Thursday, the ABC published extracts of Ms Liu’s preselection application to the party.
In the application, Ms Liu claimed to have raised more than $1 million for the Liberal Party by organising functions or bringing guests to fundraising dinners.
At a function in October 2015 she said she supplied guests for five VIP tables at a total cost of $50,000. Those guests then bid for auction items, which Ms Liu said helped the dinner exceed its estimated revenue by $400,000.
At an April 2016 federal election dinner, Ms Liu said she supplied 10 VIP tables that raked in $100,000 for the Liberal Party and “introduced high-value business and community leaders”.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.VIDEO: Ms Liu says her name may have been added to records without her knowledge (courtesy Sky News: The Bolt Report) (ABC News)
Victim or operator?
Apart from anything else, Ms Liu’s job application shows her at the least as a more than competent and determined political operator — and a long way removed from the picture of a victim who had overcome obstacles being painted of her by the Prime Minister at the end of the week.
There are plenty of other anecdotes about other big fundraising events, though the mystery is always how you tally them against the much more benign-looking formats of disclosure on the Australian Electoral Commission website.
Apart from anything else, of course, the spectre of oodles of political donations— even if legitimately documented and recorded — raises the question of what people think they are buying with such huge amounts of money.
And in turn, that makes the underlying question of what has been happening in the Liberal Party in Victoria not all that different from NSW, even if there have not been Aldi plastic bags full of cash involved.
And here we are, once again, back at the point where both major political parties are compromised and a federal integrity commission is still not a first-order issue.
A different worldview
It may not come as a surprise to you to discover that politicians see the world differently to the way you do. They see different opportunities. They see the power of imagery and tactics differently too.
Nowhere is that more true than on the floor of the Parliament.
So when Mr Albanese asked the Prime Minister a question on Tuesday about the Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, and his apparent failure to declare that he was representing his own private interests when lobbying the Environment Department on an issue, Mr Morrison unleashed on the Opposition Leader.
“Not only is every assertion that he’s just put to this place totally and absolutely false, but the Liberal Party and the National Party will not be lectured by someone who used to work in the NSW branch of the Labor Party”, he yelled.
“He had a desk in the office in the Sussex Street headquarters of a party that stinks of corruption, where they get money in plastic bags and count it out on the table.”
“With the number of Labor Party members from the NSW division who used to serve in Senator Keneally’s former government that are in jail, you could establish a branch of the Labor Party at the Silverwater prison”, Mr Morrison continued.
The conversation across the table between leaders amid such uproar is usually unheard or recorded, but is always enlightening.
Yes, Mr Albanese did work at Sussex Street. But he was the assistant secretary from the ALP Left, in an organisation which has seen the party’s Right in all its most unattractive forms, dominate for decades.
Just surviving that experience sets you up for almost any other form of bruising political encounter and Mr Albanese just egged the Prime Minister on as he yelled in the House of Representatives the other day.
“You really want to do this,” was the import of the message, “because we are better at this than you are”.
Labor counts it as a win
From Labor’s perspective, Mr Morrison’s outburst was a win. The images of an angry, snarling Prime Minister were a rare break in the dorky dad image he has worked so hard to cultivate.
The next day, it chose to ask a series of questions about Ms Liu which it knew would be ruled out of order, and therefore not answered, but which put some of the allegations against the Liberal MP on the parliamentary record.
It was all brutal tactics, just much more savage than Mr Morrison’s unwisely telegraphed wedges.
When the odds are stacked against you, you fight where you can. This week has shown the Prime Minister learning that whatever Labor’s many woes, he is up against one of the sharpest parliamentary tacticians of recent times.
And the pressure over Ms Liu not only consumes oxygen and blurs distinctions but is a potent reminder that his majority in the Parliament is not as large as the Coalition’s post-election hubris would suggest.
If only the Government had something of actual substance to talk about.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.