Since the election of the minority Gillard Government in 2010, LNP-friendly commentators have continually attempted to smear and intimidate the Independent MPs (Andrew Wilkie, Rob Oakshott, Tony Windsor) providing support to the ALP. In this way they hope to discredit the Independents in the eyes of their electorates and so aim to scare the Independents into withdrawing their support from Gillard.
One skein of this campaign of mud-slinging has been to claim that Wilkie asked Abbott for $1 Billion for the Hobart hospital but that Wilkie then rejected Abbott’s agreement to the offer once forthcoming, so that Wilkie might be seen as a trickster, liar or bad-faith negotiator who never seriously engaged with Abbott in the minority government negotiations. An alternative form of the same traducement of Wilkie claims that Wilkie asked for a Billion dollars then feigned shock and disgust at Abbott’s profligacy when receiving that very offer.
Gerard Henderson, in uncharacteristically lazy form, recently gave this Hobby Horse another whirl in his SMH article, Gillard the Ace Negotiator Deals Labor into trouble Again.
Following Wilkie’s appearance on Q&A, ‘Live From Hobart’ on 2 April 2012, Henderson wrote:
It seems clear Gillard never needed to do a deal with Wilkie in the first place. On the Q&A program on April 2, the Liberal Party leader in the Senate, Eric Abetz, put it to Wilkie that, in the negotiations concerning the formation of a government, he asked Abbott for $1 billion to revamp the Hobart General Hospital. Abetz added that when Abbott agreed to the proposal, Wilkie rejected his offer. The allegation was not denied. This is further evidence that Wilkie was always going to back Gillard over Abbott.
Contrary to Henderson’s assertion that Wikie did not deny receiving a Billion dollar offer from Abbott, Wilkie quite plainly said that Abbott effectively offered him nothing. Wilkie said that Abbott’s offer of $1 billion was conditional on the Tasmanian government providing a matching $600 million, which the Tasmanian government didn’t have. So effectively Abbott did not offer one cent.
If I had accepted the $1 billion from Tony Abbott, we would have ended up getting nothing because it would have relied on the Tasmanian State Government contributing 0.6 of a billion dollars to finish the job and we now know the Tasmanian State Government doesn’t have two bob to rub between its fingers, let alone $600 million.
The salient part again:
If I had accepted the $1 billion from Tony Abbott, we would have ended up getting nothing
Wilkie contrasted Abbott’s non-offer with the far more sensible and credible offer from Gillard which was unconditional apart from boilerplate funding governance provisions.
the sorts of commitments [Gillard] could make, they certainly were more credible and I had more confidence they would be delivered. For example, she offered $340 million towards the rebuilding of the Royal Hobart Hospital..
Wikie’s reference to ‘credibility’ is important. Wilkie, along with the other Independents, had received Treasury advice that Abbott’s budget costings were in deficit by approximately $9 Billion. Abbott had told Wilkie that the hospital revamp would be paid for out of the supposed ‘budget savings’ listed in those costings. Since Treasury had determined those ‘savings’ were non-existent. Abbott’s offer was unfunded.
Here is Andrew Robb on Lateline, 2nd September 2010, soon after minority government talks had concluded in late August, stating that the Hospital revamp would be paid for from those non-existent savings:
TONY JONES: So where exactly was the money, the $1 billion was going to come from? You say it was going to come from savings, but of course they are under threat from Treasury, saying you have a $7-11 billion black hole?
ANDREW ROBB: That hospital, and in fact any concessions that we seek to make to the various independents who are considering who they would join to make up a government, all of those would be paid out of savings that we have identified through this budget process.
To summarize thus far: Abbott’s offer of $1 Billion for the Royal Hobart Hospital revamp was not a credible offer because it was:
1) Conditional on a known impossibility (Tasmania providing a matching $600 million)
Since Abbott’s offer was not credible it amounts to a non-offer.
It is unusual for Henderson to be so lazy with the facts and to be so overt with his misrepresentation of Wilkie. Henderson is by no means beyond misrepresenting his opponents but he usually does so in a much more crafty way, as in his comments on the Balibo Five and the Australian film Balibo.
But here, Henderson simply asserts that Wilkie did not deny on Q&A that Abbott offered him $1 Billion, whereas Wilkie actually said that Abbott’s offer was not credible and amounted to a non-offer.
Wilkie has portrayed Abbott as reckless, even desperate, in his willingness to throw money and other inducements at the Independents in order to secure government, a charge which is supported by Tony Windsor and even inadvertently by those inicimal to Wilkie (See Abbott’s additional offer of a Sports Centre in Wiklie’s electorate of Denison in ‘Hospital sting leaves Coalition nursing wounds’, by Tony Wright in the SMH.
Did Wilkie Ask For It ?
A key plank in the alternative accusation that Wilkie was trying to trick or trap Abbott was that it was he, Wilkie, who asked for the Billion and not true that Abbott offerred the Billion unilaterally as a means of bribing or pork-barrelling Wilkie into supporting the Coalition.
Unfortunately for the Wilkie-smearers in the commentariat, Andrew Robb, the LNP Finance spokesman detailed the Abbott-Wilkie negotiations on Lateline 2nd September 2010. Robb makes it plain that while Wilkie indeed sought funds for a new hospital he merely stated that the cost of such a hospital could be up to a Billion dollars. Wilkie did not ask for a Billion dollars. He was asking for a contribution towards that amount. Abbott decided to provide a blank cheque for the whole amount for the purposes of electoral bribery. From the transcript Andrew Robb states how Wilkie described the project and total cost…
Andrew Robb: It was Andrew Wilkie who said to Tony Abbott, ‘we need a new hospital. The State has not got any money and we could need up to $1 billion to produce that hospital’ and then he proceeded to provide all the arguments why it should be spent there as a priority and not elsewhere in Australia.
..and then Robb goes on to describe how Abbott took the decision to offer the $1 Billion:
TONY JONES: So you’re saying the $1 billion figure came from him and you just accepted it as face value did you, is that how it worked?
ANDREW ROBB: We said up to $1 billion so, obviously…
TONY JONES: So you said, ‘well, you can have a billion in that case’?
ANDREW ROBB: No, we said, we said that whatever it costs, up to a billion dollars.
Later in the same interview Robb again confirm that the Coalition tabled the $1 Billion:
TONY JONES: there is every possibility evidently. Does that offer of the $1 billion for the Hobart hospital remain on the table? I mean is that a commitment you’ve actually made to the people of Hobart, or is it just a bargaining chip for an independent?
ANDREW ROBB: No, that was a decision that we took to put on the table win or lose, win or lose office.
From Robb’s Mouth
From Robb’s mouth then:
Wilkie said ‘we could need up to $1 Billion’
The Coalition: ‘that was a decision that we took to put [$1 Billion] on the table’
Describing the cost of a project is not the same thing, no matter Robb or Abetz’s protestations, as a demand for funding for the full amount.
Nowhere did Wilkie say ‘I want a Billion dollars’. Nor did he expect an offer of a Billion dollars. He was asking for a Commonwealth contribution, not the blank cheque produced by the Coalition. He was shocked and disgusted at Abbott’s profligacy and naked bribery, especially in the context of Abbott’s fraudulent ‘budget’ spreadsheet which was contained a $7 Billion to $11 Billion black hole. Clearly, Abbott was not a person who could be trusted to produce honourable financial commitments. And the supposed $1 Billion offer was based on conditions that Abbott knew were impossible for Tasmania to fulfill.
Abbott offered nothing to Wilkie. Hence he was rejected.
Abbott perhaps misread Wilkie’s description of the cost of the revamp as a request for the whole amount whereas Gillard understood Wilkie was just asking’ for a contribution. As Wilkie said on Q&A:
[Gillard] read her interlocutors, I think, much more effectively
As for Henderson, he has wilfully or lazily misprespresented Wilkie in a manner not consonant with his usual standards. I would guess that Henderson is so confident of an LNP victory he no longer feels the need to honour facts when discussing those not in his camp.
I asked Gerard Henderson for his comments on the above and was somewhat shocked by the calibre of his reply. Henderson says Wilkie did demand the $1 Billion because senior Liberals told him Wilkie did (Argument By Name-Dropping).
He said that I had no grounds to adjudge the credibility of Abbott’s offer, so therefore if Abbott says his offer is credible then it is (Argument From Faith In Speaker). Of course, in coming to a view on the credibility of Abbott’s hospital offer I, like Wilkie, relied on the objectivity of Treasury and their costings. Henderson, showing straight-forward bias, simply elides Treasury costings from the discussion in order to establish incomplete grounds for evaluation of Abbott’s offer.
Henderson also elides Robb’s Lateline interview of 2nd September 2010 on the ludicrous basis that Robb’s comments were made after the minority government negotiations were completed in late August. This is simply dismissal of contrary evidence i.e. bias.
Finally Henderson said that since Wilkie had not objected to his article then Wilkie must agree with it which is Argument From Silence.
Frankly I expect better from our public intellectuals than that.