Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Wentworth A-Go-Go: The Overington Affair

The intriguing battle for Australia’s smallest and wealthiest seat has rarely left the news since the election was declared. The inner eastern Sydney suburb seat of Wentworth contains the wealth and razzle of Darling Point, Double Bay, Rose Bay, Vaucluse, Bondi Junction and Kings Cross. Its sitting Liberal MP and Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull is a serious contender for the next Liberal leadership contest. But he is in great danger of losing his seat if the likely Labor landslide materialises. He is defending new boundaries on a slender margin of 2.5 per cent and his campaign has been bedevilled by the Tasmanian Pulp Mill decision. Labor candidate George Newhouse is a good chance to win aided by his former girlfriend Danielle Ecuyer. She is standing as an independent anti-mill candidate and is likely to direct her preference flow to her estranged boyfriend.

The complexity of this seat was turned up a another couple of notches this week. One issue was the legality of Newhouse’s candidacy which was challenged on a technicality. Under electoral law, a candidate must not be receiving payment from any government office for at least 24 hours before the formal declaration of a nomination. This morning the ABC reported NSW Fair Trading Minister Linda Burney saying she did not receive Newhouse's resignation until 2 November, the day of the nomination. The Liberals wanted this investigated. Later today Burney offered a correction saying she had accepted his nomination on 22 October though the letter was stamped 2 November. Allegations of 'smear tactics' have begun.

However for farce this could not compare with the story which was partially revealed by ABC’s Media Watch on Monday. It reported the extraordinary intervention of The Australian’s journalist Caroline Overington into Wentworth’s campaign. Overington had written several articles about the campaign commenting on the Ecuyer-Newhouse relationship as “the crashing of their feelings on the rocks of a federal election campaign” which “has become the talk of the white-hot electorate of Wentworth”. Overington also suggested the reason for the pair’s break-up may have been differences over the pulp mill decision. Overington had an ongoing email correspondence with Ecuyer throughout the campaign. In late October she emailed Ecuyer asking her who she was going to preference in the election. Ecuyer responded saying it was too early to tell.

Then Overington replied again to Ecuyer reminding her she had only four weeks to decide. Overington then asked her to redirect her preferences away from Newhouse and towards Turnbull. According to the email, Overington said “he’d [Turnbull] be a loss to the parliament and George – forgive me – no gain” signing off with a smiley emoticon. Ecuyer was not happy about the email and wrote to ABC's Media Watch saying she was “disgusted to have been lobbied by a journalist from The Australian for my preferences”. Ecuyer also said Overington offered her front page coverage if she gave her preferences to the Liberals.

Overington strongly denied she was trying to influence preferences and said the email was a running joke between her and Ecuyer. Ecuyer has failed to see the funny side and said yesterday she may make a complaint to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) According to yesterday’s rival Fairfax publication the Melbourne Age, Overington also said it was part of The Australian's "king-maker campaign" to play a role in the election of both Coalition and ALP candidates.

Today the Fairfax newspapers released more of Overington’s emails including ones to the Labor candidate George Newhouse. These emails showed Overington flirting with the Labor man saying “now you are single, I might even make a pass at you.” Newhouse cautiously responded that she had previously criticised him as "short, dark and Jewish" and besides, she was married. Overington upped the ante by replying “Not married, me. Separated five months ago. I might like short, dark and Jewish, you never know”. Later the exchange turns a bit more aggressive as Overington desperately sought an interview ending with “We're out the front of your house, and your office, just so you know”.

Overington's home newspaper, The Australian, quoted Malcolm Turnbull saying Overington was entitled to her opinion. "She's not part of my campaign team obviously," he said. Meanwhile writing in today’s Crikey, media commentator Margaret Simons found the whole affair “icky”. In Crikey Simons said there was “no excuse for her behaviour” and it was “out of line, and unethical”. When contacted by Woolly Days, Simons expanded on what she meant. “Although the correspondence with Ecuyer was the most legally significant,” she said, “I find the Newhouse e-mails more disturbing because of the use of sexual come-ons in the context of a relationship of power”.

Nevertheless Simons is a fan of Overington’s work. In Simons’ influential new book about the Australia media, “The Content Makers”, she wrote a substantial piece entitled "speaking truth to power", which praised Overington’s penetrative series of articles to expose the AWB Iraqi kickbacks scandal. “In 2005,” Simons wrote, “Caroline Overington held the government to account”. Overington went on to win an investigative journalism Walkley award in 2006 for her AWB stories. Now it is Overington’s turn to be held to account. Simons told Woolly Days “it gives me absolutely no pleasure to criticise her”. Despite the criticism, The Australian said it has no plans to stop Overington from writing articles about Wentworth. A News Ltd newspaper knows a good thing when it sees it: the seat of Wentworth is likely to remain a perpetual story-machine until election day.


Dr Strangeglove said...

Derek, nice piece. btw, I always thought wooloowin would have been better if spelled with a double "LL" as in Woolloowin -- better than woolloongabba or woolloomooloo infact. try sounding them out.

Ann ODyne said...

None of it matters at all, as the huge majority of voters have absolutely no idea beyond a headline on page one.

On election day my very elderly friend will be collected and driven to the polling booth by a Liberal Party volunteer.

VEF said to me "I never read the papers dear - there's nothing in them".

Australians are kidding themselves if they think our elections are any different from those countries where you get shot if you don't vote the way you are told.

Derek Barry said...

a bit pessimistic, Ann.

It certainly matters to me enough to want to write about it and explore the issues raised by it.

I'd like to think that discussing media practices is not an elitist exercise as they affect so many people. Certainly the likes of the Chaser here and US shows such as Colbert seem to reach wide audiences with their often caustic examination of the mass media.

Your VEF has a (mostly) good point about the newspapers, though!

Ann ODyne said...

I'm back from handing out HTV cards at the Camperdown (Vic)College polling booth.
Once again experiencing the obvious First-Time Voters who are too cool to take one.
Whatever do they make of the Senate ballot when they get in the booth?

Derek Barry said...

That senate voting paper is a bit of a worry. I folded mine twice and it was still too big for the box.

In this day and age, its ridiculous there is no online method of voting.