Wednesday, 5 April 2017

One Nation: political 'sins' like chickens come home to roost

On 3 March 2017 ABC Television ran a Four Corners program titled “Please Explain”.

It opened with presenter Sarah Ferguson stating:

Welcome to Four Corners.

Nine months ago, Pauline Hanson was riding high. Elected to the Senate, along with 3 of her One Nation colleagues, she created out of thin air a powerful new block on the crossbenches of the fractious upper house.

It was an extraordinary comeback for a woman whose first venture into politics more than twenty years ago ended in ignominy, dumped from parliament, and jailed after a conviction for electoral fraud that was later overturned on appeal.

Last month, in the Western Australian State election, Hanson's One Nation Party won three upper house seats but polled far lower than predicted.

Bitter party infighting in Western Australian and Queensland has seen former One Nation powerbrokers and disgruntled candidates come forth to condemn the woman they'd supported and pinned their hopes on.

It was this kind of internal division that helped pull One Nation apart in the late 1990's.

And just like 20 years ago there are claims that a powerful advisor has too much sway over Pauline Hanson - her chief of staff James Ashby.

So are the wheels coming off the One Nation wagon?

Reporter Caro Meldrum-Hanna ventures inside One Nation for tonight's report.

Then well into the broadcast this went too air:

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Ian Nelson, a 20-year party veteran was the State President, and also the Treasurer. He resurrected Pauline Hanson in 2014 and returned her to politics.
But after her election success, both he and Saraya Beric were left without a job.
The losers of a bitter internal power struggle that's now split One Nation.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Why are you no longer working for One Nation?
IAN NELSON: Basically, James Ashby, two words, James Ashby. He couldn't have me around, I was warned, I was warned months before it happened, so James Ashby couldn't have me around and he just poisoned Pauline against me.
SARAYA BERIC: I'm very disappointed in the person he turned out to be.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: James Ashby seen here on election night, became Pauline Hanson's right hand man very quickly.
To understand his meteoric rise, you have to go back to late 2014.
When Ian Nelson says James Ashby rang him out of the blue, with an irresistible offer: Cut price professional printing for federal and state election campaigns for the entire party.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Did you run any checks or . . .
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: On who James Ashby was?
IAN NELSON: No. Everybody could blame me for that, no I didn't, I just thought what a kind offer, I've had you know, I have offers simular but this one was a bit funny.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: A quick online search would have revealed James Ashby is no stranger to controversy.
In 2012, he accused his then boss, speaker of the house Peter Slipper, of sexual harassment.
Ultimately James Ashby didn't pursue the case, but it was one of the ugliest political scandals in recent times.
IAN NELSON: I was there to watch Pauline's back and, when I had time I was going to vet people, before they get too close to Pauline but I absolutely failed miserably on that one.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: You failed to vet James Ashby?
IAN NELSON: Yeah. Had I have known what I know today, there was no way I would've put him in, let him anywhere near her.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In early 2015, James Ashby was appointed to the party's executive.
SARAYA BERIC: James was looking at different ways to promote Pauline and the party and he came up with the idea of getting an aeroplane, a little plane that she could get around logistically, and you know he said the media will go for it, it was a bit of a gimmick and I actually agreed with him.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: How the party managed to pay for the extravagant purchase has remained shrouded in secrecy.
PAULINE HANSON, 19 JANUARY, 2017: We have never received huge donations from anyone in all the time. Our donations come from the small people.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: One of the party's biggest recent donors is wealthy Victorian property developer, the director of VicLand Corporation, Bill McNee.
Four Corners has obtained emails revealing how he contacted One Nation offering financial support.
One Nation's head office responded in February 2015.
EMAIL, 27th February 2015: Pauline ... would like to meet with you if you are still able to travel to QLD. May I also ask for your phone number to pass on to Pauline?'
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Bill McNee wrote back:
EMAIL, 27TH February 2015: 'I would be delighted ... I would like to become a major financial supporter of your party...Let me know when suits for me to come up and meet with you all.'
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Bill McNee followed up again two weeks later, keen to meet:
EMAIL: 16 March 2015: Sorry to be pushy...I'm so eager to offer support to a party that has the courage to stand up for ordinary Australians and give us a voice.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: They met one month later on the 11th of April 2015 at Pauline Hanson's home for a roast dinner. Ian Nelson was there.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Did James Ashby ask Bill McNee for a plane?
IAN NELSON: He just kept saying I'm a pilot, you know w- we should be flying Pauline around and and then Bill said, 'Well, we'll have to get you a plane then'. That's how that conversation went.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Two days later James Ashby wrote this text message to a party official:
TEXT MESSAGE, 13 April 2015: We need to talk to Bill about funding it.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The official responded:
TEXT MESSAGE: 5 May 2015: 'We had a good chat with Bill. I think Pauline's going to go for the plane'
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Eight days later, donor Bill McNee sent this email to Pauline Hanson and James Ashby:
EMAIL, 13 May 2015: 'James we will sort out the plane tomorrow as well.'
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: And after that message was sent between James Ashby and Bill McNee did a plane arrive?
IAN NELSON: Yes, very shortly afterwards, brand new Jabiru.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: How was that funded- the purchase of that aeroplane?
IAN NELSON: Well, after Bill McNee said, 'Yes we'll have to get you a plane', to my understanding that means, well all right, I'll buy you a plane. But as it turns out, Bill McNee didn't buy the plane, but as I understand it, he transferred the funds to James Ashby, not the Party, not Pauline, but to James Ashby.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Bill McNee has denied funding the purchase of the plane.
He's told Four Corners: "There has been no financial support or assistance to any political party outside what is publicly disclosed and already well known."
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Ian Nelson, the party's state treasurer, says he asked Pauline Hanson to explain how the purchase of the plane had been funded.
IAN NELSON: I said where's the plane, there's no evidence of it anywhere, whose plane is it and she said it's my plane, I said fine, okay, well then, you've got to declare it and she said, 'No, don't worry about it, don't worry about it'. I said 'Well, did Bill McNee buy that plane for the party, did he buy it for you, or did he buy it for James Ashby, and she just looked at me and walked away.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Four Corners has obtained a copy of these 2015 insurance documents for the Jabiru plane.
They confirm the plane was insured in James Ashby's name. It's listed purpose? Business.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What is the primary purpose or use of that plane?
IAN NELSON: The One Nation Party. To ferry Pauline around, to the little towns and properties.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Was that gift declared?
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Under the rules, should that have been disclosed?
IAN NELSON: If I did it, yes I would've. If I'd had anything to do with the transaction. I said, 'Yes disclose it for heaven's sakes, because it's been used to ferry Pauline Hanson around the state, so it's really a party matter, so it should've been disclosed.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The acquisition of the plane wasn't the only thing to worry party Treasurer Ian Nelson.
In 2015 Bill McNee's company, VicLand Business, made donations totalling almost $70,000 to One Nation.
When it came time to declare them, Ian Nelson says James Ashby rang him, questioning the way he'd declared the donations to the Queensland Electoral Commission.
IAN NELSON: You know, he said this is confidential, all these matters are confidential and ah they they're for our business only and I said no, that's not quite right, the rules and regulations state that we have to declare any amount of money over a thousand dollars, we have to declare it, and he said well can't you just put 'anonymous donor'? And I said, no, you can't do that, I'll end up in jail.
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: To be clear, James Ashby asked you to list a donor as anonymous instead of declaring the name?
CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Rather than disclosing who it is, in contravention . . .
IAN NELSON: In contravention of all the rules and regulations, yes. Later on, Pauline had a bit of a go at me about the same thing.
I said, 'You've got to declare everything', and she just kept calling me an obstructionist, you know, 'Why are you doing it like this?' They just don't understand, and now they're running a party, so God help them all.
And the chickens began flying back to the roost.

On Tuesday, Labor Senator Murray Watt wrote to Australian Electoral Commission head Tom Rogers to investigate whether the matters raised on the program should be referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

"The program contained serious allegations that PHON, Pauline Hanson and her Chief of Staff, James Ashby, may have breached financial disclosure obligations under the Commonwealth Electoral Act," Senator Watt said in his letter.

"In the broadcast, former party treasurer Ian Nelson alleges that PHON failed to declare a significant donation from property developer Bill McNee, which the party used to fund the purchase of a Jabiru light aircraft. According to the manufacturer's website, the cost of a new Jabiru light aircraft can exceed $100,000."

Senator Watt said the allegations were "very serious".

"As you are aware, a breach of financial disclosure obligations under the Act may be a criminal offence," he said.

"Furthermore, any attempt to subvert these critical measures, which seek to ensure transparency and accountability in campaign financing, threatens to undermine public confidence in our system of democracy.

"I ask you to investigate these serious allegations, and refer them to the Director of Public Prosecutions, if appropriate."

A spokeswoman for Special Minister of State Scott Ryan said he had spoken to the AEC about the program but had not yet requested an investigation.

Senator Ryan will hold a follow-up conversation with AEC officials over coming days, she said. 

Activist group GetUp! has also sent a separate request to the AEC to investigate the matter.


Following a request on Tuesday from Labor senator Murray Watt, an AEC spokesman said: "The AEC is aware of allegations made on Monday evening's Four Corners  program and through other media outlets.

"This information is now being reviewed in the context of the disclosure provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918."

The spokesman said the AEC undertakes regular compliance reviews and would consider "information placed in the public domain" as part of its inquiries.

* Cartoon by Pat Oliphant

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