Senator Abetz and his odd date with the star chamber
Last night the Senate voted in favour of referring Senator Eric Abetz to a special committee over his role in the Utegate affair and things are about to get a bit awkward for all parties involved.
For starters a fellow Liberal Senator George Brandis will be in charge of the inquiry, which is bound to make people wonder whether this is going to be a fair dinkum examination of Abetz’s role in the fake email/Utegate/OzCar affair.
On the other side, Labor Senators on the privileges committee that will be questioning Abetz’s role in the shonky Godwin Grech testimony (specifically his handling of the email and whether it was a manipulation of the Senate committee) will have to be pretty careful about who and what they start demanding from the Liberal Senator - especially if it comes to calling public servants and journalists in front of the committee.
To update those who haven’t been following this saga Liberal Senator Eric Abetz will be investigated by the Senate Privileges committee over his questioning of Treasury official Godwin Grech in front of the Senate estimates committee.
Basically the claim is that Abetz colluded with Grech on questions to be asked and was briefed on the notorious fake email prior to the Senate Committee that was examining the OzCar grants.
He is being investigated for deliberately misleading a Senate committee - which as a senator is pretty serious stuff.
Labor leader in the Senate Chris Evans has said in a letter to the Senate President that one of the main points of the investigation will be:
“An agreement between Mr Turnbull, a Senator and a witness to create inquiry specifically tailored for the purpose of delivering predesigned questions and answers in order to bring about a predetermined outcome”.
There will be a small army of Labor MPs and staffers rubbing their hands at the prospect of Eric Abetz squirming before a Senate committee.
Abetz is known as the Liberal toe cutter in Senate hearings and there won’t be many tears shed over his being subject of the Senate Privileges Committee that looks into all things Parliamentary and pure.
But before Abetz is put behind bullet-proof glass and paraded in front of the world there are a couple of things to remember.
Firstly a Liberal Senator, George Brandis, will be chairing this committee which casts the thing in an interesting light.
George Brandis – that’s Brandis QC mind you - will be casting himself as the Atticus Finch, holding back the mob and running this inquiry to the letter of the law.
What makes this dynamic interesting is that there is no real love lost between Brandis and Abetz.
Brandis is a sopping wet small lib and Abetz a driza-bone Liberal righter who, among other things, was opposed to gay law reforms that Brandis championed and that the Rudd Government recently rubber stamped.
Still, it’s unlikely that Brandis will hang his own party out to dry, especially given the implication is that everything Abetz could’ve done Turnbull did better.
The rest of the committee is made up of four Labor Senators and two more Liberals, giving Labor a 4-3 split advantage.
But what are they really going to be able to do? Well perhaps they don’t want to do too much.
Both Labor and Liberal sources have told The Punch that there is a real likelihood that Abetz won’t even be called before the inquiry.
The committee will soon ask for submissions, and while no doubt it is likely to attract a treatise demanding answers from the likes of iamanutter.com.au/blog, the only people who can shed more light on this are unlikely to appear.
Firstly the Committee has no right to call Malcolm Turnbull in front of it as he is a member of House of Representatives.
Secondly, it’s extremely unlikely that they would call Godwin Grech before the committee as it is generally not a good look for a Senate Committee to be grilling somebody live via satellite from the local mental institution.
At any rate he may just say no and it’s unclear whether they have any right to compel him to talk.
Senate Liberal leader Nick Minchin argued last night that if Grech doesn’t appear then the you can’t have an inquiry.
Then there is my colleague Steve Lewis who Grech claims he spoke to about the email at the behest of Abetz and Turnbull.
Once again Lewis may just say he’s not coming, and even if they can compel him to appear the question will basically come down to this: “Mr Lewis who gave you the email, what did they tell you, when did you learn of it and what was your dealing with Senator Abetz?”
To which Steve, as a journalist, is likely to say, “Get stuffed” - or something to that effect.
So in the end Labor’s options are attacking an unstable man, asking a journalist to reveal his sources and not being able to get Turnbull to appear before the committee anyway.
That leaves Abetz.
He would be hard to contradict because of the lack of key witnesses so he’ll stick to his apology and this statement that he gave to the Senate:
“At no stage did I script the evidence, coach the witness or suggest what the answers might be . . . I would point out to the Senate that talking to witnesses before they give their evidence is common practice. There was not improper influence.”
The Government are also going to take into consideration just how over the whole thing the public are and whether the potential scalp of Abetz is worth the look.
They might still gun for Abetz but I like the way Barnaby Joyce summed it up:
“It’s just a complete and utter stuff up.”
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