“On 13 February 2006, Mr Lindsay Tanner MP, the Member for Melbourne, alleged that Australian’s for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM) had “engaged in a brazen tax scam” and that the association between ACM and the Constitution Education Fund Australia (CEF-A) was a “fraud on Australian taxpayers,” according to Hansard, 4 September, 2008.
“He offered no evidence nor had he contacted either ACM or CEF-A beforehand.
“ However he urged ACM ‘to make use of their right of reply in parliament’ to provide an explanation of the circumstances.”
“In referring to me as the national convenor of ACM, there was an implication that the allegations Mr Tanner made applied to me in a way that adversely affected my reputation.
“The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) conducted a comprehensive and lengthy audit of CEF-A, and substantial costs were involved in satisfying the requests of the ATO.
“The audit resulted in no finding of any breach of the tax laws. Although requested, Mr Tanner has not withdrawn his allegation.”
This is the text of a negotiated right of reply which was included in a report from the Privileges and Members’ Interests Committee received by the House of Representatives on 4 September, 2008 and thus incorporated in Hansard.
In moving the report be agreed to, the Committee Chairman, Mr. Brett Raguse ( Forde, ALP) said:
“The report I have presented relates to a request from Professor David Flint for a right of reply in relation to references to him made by the now Minister for Finance and Deregulation in the House on 13 February 2006.
"The committee has considered Professor Flint’s submission and has recommended that a response in the terms included in the report I have just presented be incorporated in Hansard.
"In recommending the response be incorporated in Hansard, the committee emphasises that, as required by the right of reply resolution, it has not considered or judged the truth of any statements made by the member in the House or by the person seeking a response.”
…..right of reply requested…
As you can imagine, my original reply was, shall we say, somewhat firmer. The Committee’s first suggested reply was essentially in the final form, but with one crucial omission.
This was the sentence: ” He offered no evidence nor had he contacted either ACM or CEF-A beforehand.”
The point is Mr. Tanner made the allegation based on no evidence whatsoever. In my view, Mr. Tanner was reckless in making this allegation which is defamatory but absolutely privileged because it was made in Parliament.
Granted under the Bill of Rights, 1689 assented to by King William III and Queen Mary, this privilege is accorded for good reason, but it should never be abused.
The allegation was against a large number of eminent Australians. It was widely reported, and resulted in a major tax inquiry.
No breach of the law, even minor, was found.
…a Minister of the Crown…
Piers Akerman described Mr. Tanner’s intervention as a “spectacular attack under parliamentary privilege on a body named the Constitution Education Fund Australia which had gained deductible gift recipient status in June, 2003, the year it was set up as a bipartisan organisation to educate the public on the role of the Australian Constitution.
”The report, in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on 4 October, 2007, said that in a lengthy speech the MP had made “bold claims” of a “conspiratorial link” between CEFA and Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, which then shared the same Sydney address.
The reason the two organisations shared the same address was because ACM decided to do something about educating Australians about their constitution, and did so with minimal funding which we raised.
The republican movement had said it was wanted Australians to know more about their constitution. But they did nothing about it. ACM did – and even made it non-partisan.
Piers Ackerman said that Mr. Tanner had “referred darkly to CEFA and the ACM's accounts, and tried valiantly to paint a picture of collusion and worse before making the claim:
“Only one conclusion can be drawn from these facts: The ACM is engaged in a brazen tax scam with the direct connivance of the Howard Government.
“CEFA is simply a front organisation which exists solely as a filter through which donations to the ACM can become tax deductible . . . it is little more than a shell.
“This is nothing less than a fraud on Australian taxpayers. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax which would otherwise be payable by ACM donors has been evaded by the use of this elaborate sham.’
…"disgraceful conduct…many defamed…
Acknowledging it was “theoretically possible that there is some innocent explanation", Mr Tanner said,
“I find it very hard to conceive of one,” he demanded the immediate cancellation of CEFA's tax deductibility and an explanation for “this outrageous scam."
Piers Akerman says that when the Australian Tax Office obliged with a confidential tax audit of CEFA, the story was leaked to Jason Koutsoukis of The Sunday Age, a clear breach of the taxation law.
He continued:”Before revealing the outcome of that audit, it must be remembered that Tanner is held up as one of the most experienced and more responsible members of the Rudd team, a man of integrity, a man to be trusted.
"When he accused CEFA of being a "shell", and being a front for "a brazen tax scam", he was attacking a number of highly respected and honourable Australians including the wounded war hero and RSL chief Major General W.B. "Digger" James, the noted historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey, the arts benefactor Kim Bonython, Justice Lloyd Waddy, a former chief justice of NSW, Sir Laurence Street, the highly successful mining executive Hugh Morgan, Sir David Smith, the widely-respected historian associate professor Greg Melleuish, and the matriarch of Australian philanthropy Dame Elisabeth Murdoch.
"He was also attacking fellow republicans Professor Greg Craven (vice chancellor of the Australian Catholic University), the widely-published historian Dr John Hirst, and the frequently-quoted professor of constitutional law Professor George Williams, who also sat on the CEFA Foundation council at the time, and such distinguished trustees as Sydney constitutional law professor George Winterton, the former Sydney University Chancellor Dame Leonie Kramer, the former Tasmanian governor Sir Guy Greene, and the Honourable Justice Barry O'Keefe.
"Oh, and his blanket claims would also have covered CEFA's patron-in-chief Governor-General Michael Jeffery and the former Australian Test captain Steve Waugh, who was the public face of civics promotion body.”
Observing that Mr Tanner “certainly knew how to hit the biggest possible target when he launched his serious spray” Piers Akerman made the important point that had any of his claims been accurate criminal prosecutions would have followed.
“Unfortunately, and I bet you guessed the sad end to this saga, when the ATO completed its comprehensive secret audit in June it found absolutely nothing awry.
"Not a single breach of the Tax Act. Not that it wasn't a thorough investigation, a number of tax officers were involved and CEFA had to divert its resources from providing charitable educational activities to assist them in their fruitless task.
"Tanner's witch hunt cost the Australian taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. It sullied the reputations of people of principle who have earned nationwide admiration for their contributions to public life.”
“But,” Piers Akerman asks,“ Has Tanner paid them the courtesy of an apology? Has he submitted a small mea culpa to Hansard? Has he expressed any shame for his disgraceful conduct?"
No. He has not even replied to letter from the national convenor of the ACM, Professor David Flint, sent in June, in which Flint said:
" (The) inescapable conclusion is that you made your allegations of criminal conspiracy without any evidence whatsoever, and without any inquiry. It seems these allegations were made with reckless indifference as to whether they were true or false. An apology would be gracious, your minimum obligation is to retract."
It was hoped that he would have accepted that what he did was wrong and that he would have at least retracted his statement in the House. This would have brought the matter to an end. But Mr. Tanner did not reply. Accordingly, a letter was been sent to the Speaker, the Hon. David Hawker, asking that an appropriate statement by way of reply to the attack be incorporated in Hansard.
"In the meantime,” Piers Ackerman wrote ” a visit to the website of the Constitutional Education Fund-Australia will demonstrate that the Fund is undertaking marvellous work in constitutional education.
"A glance at the membership of the board of trustees and the foundation council should assure anyone that it could not be anything but non-partisan, and completely unaligned politically."