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Eric Abetz ...

First published March 6.

Recently I read that the Tasmania’s Chamber of Commerce wants the Prime Minister to re-appoint Liberal powerbroker Eric Abetz to Cabinet, as Tasmania now has no representative in Cabinet and Senator Abetz is “very passionate for our state.” (Mercury, 17 January, 2017.

I wondered why they would want that, given some recent misjudgements by Eric, but when this plea was backed up by a Mercury Editorial (18 January) I felt a letter coming on. It was this:

Letters, 26/1/17 Why back Abetz?

What puzzles me is why the business lobby would want Eric Abetz in Cabinet (Editorial, 18 January). He has shown shocking judgment when Minister for Forestry in the Howard Government with his Managed Investment Schemes (MIS), which allowed 100 per cent tax offset to businesses for buying good farmland for plantations, which now uselessly litter the Tasmanian countryside, had cost taxpayers billions in tax losses and the downfall of several companies including Timbercorp and Great Southern amongst others. That same mind insisted that Richard Colbeck be placed well down the Senate list because he had voted for Turnbull, thereby handing a Senate seat to the Greens. He himself was elected only because his name was #1 on the Senate ticket (who decided that?). It is a mystery to me why the Tasmanian Liberals not only put up with him but allow him all this power. Abetz is the best thing going for Labor and the Greens. 

Shortly after that was published, Abetz replied:

Letters 1/2/17 Off the mark

It seems that John Biggs’ factless and nasty letter writing will regrettably continue unabated in 2017. For the record, management investment schemes existed prior to my entering Parliament so they were hardly mine.

Further, Mr Biggs is 100 per cent wrong to assert that the schemes allowed 100 per cent tax write-off for the purchase of land. But can I remind him that it was the Greens that sought generous tax concessions on plantations.

Also for the record, it was not only the Liberal Party that placed me on the top of our Senate ticket but the Tasmanian people through their vote which graciously ensured I was the first Tasmanian senator elected in 2016.

Now that letter is Abetz as his disingenuous best. He first of all asserts that I am factless and nasty. One of my alleged post-facts is that I said MIS schemes in general were his idea. I did not, but MIS schemes as applied to plantations were surely his idea that he implemented when Forestry Minister under Howard.

I slipped in saying 100 per cent tax write-off applied to “buying” land; it also applied to planting and maintaining the plantations, as he admitted on Four Corners.  So I was only a teensy bit wrong, not 100 per cent, and certainly not “factless”.

Next bit of disingenuousness: The Greens might have at one stage sought tax concessions on plantations but it was the Liberal Government with Abetz as Forestry Minister that actually implemented them. The Greens were never in majority government so how could they have legislated for their tax-write off status? 

Finally, his “not only the Liberal Party put me on top of our Senate ticket, but the Tasmanian people graciously through their vote …” Of course with voting above the line Abetz was in that case the first Tasmanian senator elected. That’s the way above the line works. In terms of personal votes, Colbeck was way ahead of Abetz. 

What I wrote was substantially true and in good faith, but Abetz pounced on minor lapses of focus to destroy the whole picture. Unfortunately, I was too eager to reply and dashed off a longish letter as follows:

Letter (2/2/17) to Mercury: Unpublished

I apologise to Senator Abetz if I am wrong in saying that MIS schemes allowed 100 per cent tax write off. However may I quote his responses to a question on this very subject by Chris Masters on Four Corners (9/4/2007). CM: “Can you explain the commercial rationale for this very generous 100 per cent tax allowance?” EA: “It is the 100 per cent tax deductibility … for anyone involved in an agricultural pursuit ... the difference with forestry is that … you might be looking at a three-decade turn around. But by absolutely securing for them (forestry investors) the 100 per cent deductibility that will provide assistance.” So it looks like Eric does agree that I am 100 per cent right in asserting that MIS forestry investments allow 100 per cent tax write off, not only for the purchase of land but including conversion to plantations.

MIS schemes in general certainly did exist before Abetz entered Parliament but when he was Minister of Forests he greatly encouraged their expansion into plantations with the result that, for several reasons, both MIS investors and the Tax Office lost a lot of money.

Senator Abetz’s first placement on the ticket, with above-the-line voting, of course ensured he was the first Tasmania Senator elected. Likewise, his placing of Richard Colbeck fifth ensured that Colbeck was not elected.

So, are my letter writings factless, as Eric says? Only if Eric got his facts wrong on Four Corners. Are they nasty? That depends on the point of view of who is reading them. Certainly they are not as nasty as what Senator Abetz’s party is doing to legitimate asylum seekers and to the hapless clients of Centrelink.

Two weeks passed: no publication. However I had replied in haste and thought my letter must have been too long; also, I had missed some points and rambled on others. I phoned David Killick, Opinion Editor, to ask if I could submit a shorter version. Killick said he can’t publish all the hundreds of letters received. Of course, I replied, but in this case I said Abetz has got some things wrong and I should have right of reply, so I sent a pointier letter:

Second reply to Abetz (sent 12 Feb):

Senator Abetz has accused me of being “100 per cent wrong to assert the (MIS) schemes allowed 100 per cent tax write off the purchase of land.” (1 Feb).  When the land purchase includes establishing plantations, my assertion is 100 per cent correct. Abetz admitted so when interviewed on Four Corners (9/4/2007), in which he stated that when MIS schemes are applied to forestry “you might be looking at a three decade turnaround … (so that) a 100 per cent tax deductibility … will provide assistance.”

He also said I was wrong in saying the idea of MIS schemes were his. Certainly   MIS schemes existed before Abetz entered Parliament, but applying such schemes to forestry was a decision of his when he was Forestry Minister in the Howard Government. They were a very expensive failure as we now know.

Senator Abetz accused me of “factless and nasty letter writing”.  The above assures the reader that my letter writing is far from factless, and to say that I am not telling the truth when I am is nastier than anything I have written about him. 

Not published

I emailed Killick saying inter alia that several people had asked me why I hadn’t replied to Abetz’s attack. My reply was “I have, twice, but neither has been published.” I continued:

… I think we are getting into serious territory when a senior politician can publicly accuse a private citizen of lying when he is not, and the press does not publish the accused’s rebuttal.

I must ask you to please publish my letter of 12 Feb. I reproduce it below if it has somehow got lost in the system …

I received the following email reply:

Thanks for the note. As you know, we receive dozens of letters a day and can only print a small number. In the interests of giving as many people as possible a chance to have their letter published, I’ve decided not to run a continual back-and-forward exchange between you and Senator Abetz,

regards,

David

I was unhappy with this as I felt strongly that having been accused of lying I had the right to set the record straight. After couple of weeks thinking about this I replied to Killick:

Hello David,

I have thought about your reply of 17 Feb in which you effectively refuse me right of reply to Abetz’s accusations that I am a liar and a nasty person. These comments by a senior politician about a private citizen exercising his right to comment on current events cannot go unanswered. If you still insist on not allowing me this right, I shall see what the Australian Press Council thinks about the matter.

Mentioning my intention to go to the Press Council was probably not wise, for Killick got in first: 

Thanks for your note. I had a quick look in our archive. You had letters published which were critical of Senator Abetz in February and November last year and in January this year. Senator Abetz has had a single response published. As I said in my previous email, I am unwilling to turn the letters page of the Mercury over to an endless series of back and forth exchanges between you and Senator Abetz.

I have spoken to the Press Council this afternoon. They are expecting your complaint. It might assist you to refer to the Council’s guidelines on the topic which you can access via the link below:

http://www.presscouncil.org.au/document-search/guideline-adequate-response-may-2009/

The key feature of these guidelines:

a. Editors are not obliged to publish letters on demand. It is their responsibility, guided by fairness, balance and the public interest in the views submitted by correspondents to select and, where necessary, edit letters for publication.

Of course an editor can’t publish every letter, but in their discretion they are to be “guided by fairness, balance and the public interest.” Fair enough, the essence of my complaint is that not having the right of reply was unfair to me, leaving the status quo lacking balance and the facts of tax write-offs for investing in MIS plantations are of course in the public interest. So I launched my complaint to the Press Council with some confidence, with the preamble:

“It is true that I have criticised Abetz’s policies and actions in the past, which is my right as a citizen. However that is irrelevant to the present matter, which is that I have been publicly named and accused of lying and being “nasty” by a senior politician and The Mercury is refusing me my right of reply. That is the substance of my complaint to the Press Council.”

The council asks that a complainant quote any of the Council’s Standards of Practice that the complainant thinks have been breached.

Yes, I replied Number 4: “… where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply …”

I also sent copies of my correspondence with Killick, as requested by the Council.

The Australian Press Council replies

The Complaints and Governance Officer replied:

After careful consideration, the Executive Director has decided not to proceed further with the complaint. In reaching this decision, we have taken into account that your concern “is not about what Abetz wrote, but that the Letters Editor denied [you] right of reply”. In this regard, we note the Council’s Advisory Guideline – Letter to the Editor, which states, in relevant part:

“Editors are not obliged to publish letters on demand. It is their responsibility, guided by fairness, balance and the public interest in the views submitted by correspondents to select… letters for publication”

As such, the selection of letters and articles for publication is generally considered to be a matter of editorial discretion and does not usually concern the application of the Press Council’s Standards of Practice.

We have also taken into account that the letter’s statement “factless and nasty” refers to your letter only and not to you personally. In any event, we consider that both you and Senator Abetz have been afforded the opportunity to voice your opinions on the subject.

Although we are not proceeding further with the complaint, the publication will be informed of your concerns about the article …

The crux of the issue

There are two kinds of rights involved here: the right of reply to an adverse attack, and the right of opinion editors to refuse publication, guided by fairness, balance and the public interest.

In this case, the Australian Press Council has ruled that editorial rights outweigh the rights of reply by private citizens to unfair, unbalanced attacks, in this case by a senior politician. 

Ironically, on the day that I received the Press Council’s reply, the Mercury ran an Editorial (3 March, 2017) entitled “Attack on free speech”. The editorial, à propos of the Education Department forbidding a child development expert to mention school starting age in a talk he was contracted to give, went on to say how important free speech is in a democracy.

Congratulations, Mercury, I entirely agree. It’s just a pity this sentiment seems not to include right of reply to a personal attack made in your pages.

Finally, for the benefit of future letter writers, let me share some lessons that might be drawn from this incident:

1. Make sure your contribution is nit-pick proof, even when it is substantially correct.

2. Don’t flag your intentions of Taking Matters Further.

3. Don’t expect an easy victory when dealing with bureaucracies.

*John Biggs is a frequent contributor to the Mercury and to other media (including the epitome of free speech the Tasmanian Times) on matters that inflame his concern about those public figures who appear from time to time not to be acting in the public interest.

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