Yesterday’s Laurie Oakes interview on Today made some news. During his interview with Tony Abbott, Oakes revealed that Liberal front-bencher Peter Dutton has bought BHP shares a couple of days after the supposedly industry-threatening super-profits tax had been announced. How big a problem is that for Abbott and the Opposition? That’s debatable. Wayne Swan jumped on it; the AWU’s Paul Howes said it “exposes the lies that have taken place by the Liberal Party”. Senator Bob Brown argued that Dutton was entitled to make his own investment decisions. Dutton himself has claimed that he took advantage of the fact that “Rudd’s reckless announcement of his new mining tax wiped value off good companies”.

The news of Dutton’s investment seems unlikely to cripple the Coalition’s position on the mining tax. But it seems to me that it says something about Dutton’s judgment – while he is certainly free to invest as he pleases, it’s hard to fathom that he didn’t foresee the embarrassment this decision could cause. Yet he took this opportunity for personal profit, either unaware or unconcerned about the political implications. It’s for readers to decide how important this information is, but there’s a reasonable argument that it is in the public interest.

Perhaps the most interesting reaction, then, has been from Glenn Milne (see also this “reporting” on the issue). In an astounding display of hypocrisy, Milne has reacted by accusing Oakes of running a grubby attack on behalf of the Rudd government and has countered by doing what he does best – running his own smear against Wayne Swan’s wife.

Milne’s approach seems to be to show Labor – and, presumably, Oakes – that he can throw muck around as well as anyone. Of course, we already knew that. What’s special about today’s column is that he does it while trying to take the moral high ground, lamenting the dirty road Labor is taking (with Oakes’ assistance) and calling on them to debate the issues.

Meanwhile, Milne spends a couple of paragraphs detailing some of Kim Swan’s investment dealings before assuring us that “no one is suggesting any compromising behaviour between Kim and Wayne Swan or that her decision to divest her Capital China Fund shares was anything but her own”. Of course not. But Milne goes on to recognise that his message will be (rightly) perceived as an attempted smear:

Swan will be justifiably furious his wife has been targeted. But he didn’t raise his voice in protest when the former foreign affairs minister, Gareth Evans, newly in opposition, went after Tanya Costello, wife of then-treasurer Peter Costello over her shareholdings in Telstra and Woolworths, claiming a conflict of interest.

It’s at this point that Milne has become completely divorced from the facts. Gareth Evans’s comments and questions about Tanya Costello came in October 1996 [PDF link to Hansard]; Wayne Swan had lost his seat in the March 1996 election and didn’t return to Parliament until 1998. I’m not sure how Milne believes Citizen Swan should have registered his protest about Evans’ behaviour, but it seems a bit dodgy to claim that Swan’s hypothetical present outrage is inconsistent with his imaginary involvement in a smear on Tanya Costello.

I could continue to point out the foolish and hypocritical defences Milne attempts to mount, such as the implication that Dutton’s investment matters little since it was “the princely sum” of $2,000. But it all boils down to this – however he came by the information, Laurie Oakes asked about an issue that raises legitimate questions about the judgment of a senior Liberal Party politician. Glenn Milne leapt to the defence of that politician – whom Milne has been trumpeting as a potential Liberal leader – by launching a grubby attack based on misrepresentation against anyone and everyone he could link to the allegations, all the while pretending to be defending the standards of political debate. On the Internet, Glenn Milne would probably be labelled a “concern troll”. In our media landscape, he remains a political commentator who is published in our nation’s flagship newspaper.

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