May 21, 2013
I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about the Coalition’s May 16 response to the revelation of its decision to refuse Labor MP Michelle Rowland a pair to be with her ill baby.
Christopher Pyne, the likely new head of government business in the House of Representatives, and Warren Entsch, the likely chief whip in an Abbott Government, made several false statements to the public about the matter which they have not withdrawn. Neither have apologised to Ms Rowland for relying on that false information to question her behaviour as a mother. Mr Abbott has not been questioned about their behaviour, and Mr Pyne has sought to erase his statements from the public record by failing to post the transcript on his website
I believe it is a baseline responsibility of political journalists to require that politicians tell the truth to the public. If they don’t, more politicians will lie more often, and the public will be more misinformed than they already are. It’s an accountability responsibility of the fourth estate which involves seeking to uncover the truth and insisting that politicians who have not told the truth correct the record and explain the reasons for their falsehoods.
Last Thursday, May 16, News Limited papers published the news that Mr Entsch had refused Ms Rowland’s request for permission to return to Sydney early to be with her sick baby.
Press gallery journos on morning duty outside the doors of Parliament House, and the gallery, led by Fairfax media, Nine news and ABC radio, did a strong job getting most of the truth and the lies on the public record. Due to Pyne’s transcript cover-up, the record of his doorstop was missing, and I published it after Fairfax online editor Tim Lester kindly sent me the audio feed available to the Press Gallery.
But hey, the issue blew up on budget reply day and Press Gallery journos moved on. Fair enough – there’s a lot fewer of them these days, and they have many more platforms to fill.
So there’s a gap that new media needs to fill. We can’t do the job as well, of course, because we aren’t backed by big media employers and thus don’t have the power to pressure politicians to answer our questions. But we can put on the record the fact that politicians who have misled the people have been asked to correct false statements.
My first step was to DM Ms Rowland asking her to write a piece detailing her version of exactly what happened. And that’s when I realised that there is yet another factor in play in the brave new world of public affairs that I hadn’t comprehended – the social media pressure on politicians not to pursue stories to protect themselves from harm.
Ms Rowland said she didn’t want to write about her ordeal because she had already been falsely accused of playing politics with her child and needed to move on. As a result of statements by Mr Entsch questioning the quality of her care for her baby, she said she had been bombarded with tweets and emails saying, among other things, that she was heartless mother and would be referred to DOCS (the NSW Department of Children’s Services). ‘I don’t want crazies to mess with my mind on this. I’m a first time mother and this is the first time my baby has been this sick.’
She was happy to give me the facts as she knew them, and I talked her into letting me quote her for this story.
So here we go.
Her daughter was ill when she was due in Canberra, and her husband stayed home to care for her for a few days with help from extended family on whom the couple rely. On Tuesday, she checked her baby’s health and how the arrangements were working for her care, and decided to seek a pair to allow her to leave Canberra at the usual time on Thursday evening. This would allow her baby to wake up to her Mum, her husband to spend a full day at his work on Friday, and relieve the other caregivers. If she had attended Mr Abbott’s budget reply speech on Thursday night, she would have had to stay in Canberra overnight.
‘Pairs‘ are a big deal in this Parliament because the numbers are so close. Procedures are strict, because if a pair is not granted, the opposition could win a vote of no confidence on the floor of House of Representatives if a Government MP was absent.
So a Labor MP applies for a pair through the Labor whip and the Liberal whip says yes or no by letter to the Labor whip.
Here is the paper trail:
Rowland leave application, Tuesday, May 21
Entsch refusal letter to Chief Government Whip, Wednesday, May 22
Ms Rowland told me Mr Entsch did not contact her to seek more information, and that she did not give the story to News Limited.
Press Gallery members on the early morning shift at the doors of the House of Reps closely questioned Mr Pyne, as the manager of opposition business, about the matter. Here is the audio.
Mr Pyne chose not to publish the tax-payer funded transcript of this doorstop, and @NoFibs proofreader @BumpyF has very kindly transcribed the relevant section of the audio:
From Doorstop with Christopher Pyne, Parliament House Canberra am 16 May 2013
PYNE: On the issue of Michelle Rowland … she applied for a pair on Monday morning to start at 5 o’clock on Thursday afternoon. She provided information that was, that she had an ill family member. Warren Entsch the chief whip quite rightly thought that if the pair which was applied for Monday morning started on Thursday afternoon at 5 o’clock, that he would like further information. He never heard from Michelle Rowland again. And then this morning in the Daily Telegraph, apparently we denied a pair for a mother with a sick infant. Well, if we were aware that Michelle Rowland had a sick infant on Monday, she would have been given a pair on Monday, so she could return to her child exactly as she should. What we are seeing here are political games from the Labor Party. I was shocked to hear Tania Plibersek this morning on radio, trying to link Michelle Rowland’s pair to the Paid Parental Leave scheme. How low will Tania Plibersek fall? How desperate will Labor become to be now using a sick child … as a political pawn to try and attack Tony Abbott.
INTERVIEWER: Are you saying that Michelle Rowland has used her own child as a political pawn?
PYNE: I’m saying that the Labor Party are trying to make politics, out of a pair for a sick child. Now if we knew that Michelle Rowland had a sick child on Monday morning she would have been given a pair to start on Monday, not Thursday at 5 o’clock. Er, now she didn’t come back and provide that information to Warren Entsch and so Warren Entsch was not aware, that she had a sick infant until this morning when he read it in the Daily Telegraph.
INTERVIEWER: But he knew it was a child on Monday… that it was…
PYNE: No we didn’t. She said that she had a, a, an ill family member.
INTERVIEWER: An ill family member. So there’s no mention of a child?
PYNE: No. None at all. If we knew that Michelle Rowland had a sick child on Monday morning, Warren Entsch would have said to her, you should go home today. Michelle Rowland’s a new mother with a young child and if she had a sick child and she told us on Monday, she would have been told by Warren Entsch, go home today Michelle, what are you doing here? That is exactly what we would have said.
INTERVIEWER: Family members are important whether it’s a child or…
PYNE: Well a family member could be one of any number of people… er as you would know David. So, it could have been a cousin, it could have been a grandparent it could have been … an uncle. But if we had known it was Michelle Rowland’s child, we would have given her a pair – and more importantly we would have said, why would you wait until 5 o’clock on Thursday to go home? You need to go home today.
INTERVIEWER: So a grandparent, an uncle or you know, a cousin isn’t as important as a child…?
PYNE: We’re not going to play the political games that Labor is trying to play today, to distract people from Tony Abbott’s speech tonight. Now, no the pairing arrangement, Labor tries to use. Let me give you another example. Mike Kelly applied for a pair. Er Chris Hayes told … Warren Entsch last night that his wife had been in hospital for 14 days and he needed to go to her bedside to be with her. And of course, Warren Entsch immediately said, well he should be going. At 5 o’clock today, that was when he applied for the pair, he should go. Mike Kelly broke the pair, to go and vote in the chamber – on superannuation laws. So, don’t assume that the Coalition is trying to do the wrong thing by pairing. We are parents. We are fathers and mothers too, and brothers and sisters. And if somebody has a sick child, if somebody needs to visit their wife in hospital, who’s been in hospital for 14 days, of course they’ll be granted a pair – but Labor is using pairing to make political points. That’s the point I’m making.
INTERVIEWER: Now that you know that there is a child is it not possible to grant…
PYNE: Of course she’ll be granted a pairing. Now that we know that that’s the case of course she’ll be granted a pairing. Now the mock outrage we’ve seen this morning at the doors and from Tanya Plibersek. Michelle Rowland wants a pair to visit her sick child, she can have one any time she likes.
INTERVIEWER: In the letter from Warren Entsch to the government it says, “due to a child being unwell” so it seems to indicate that Warren Entsch …
PYNE: Well I haven’t seen the letter I’m simply – that’s the information I’ve been provided by Warren Entsch this morning.
INTERVIEWER: Is it time to clear the rules up here, you know when people should be …
PYNE: Well, there aren’t any rules, this is the problem. Pairing is an arrangement between the major political parties and unfortunately because there are no rules, Labor is going to use it to make political points which I think is very unfortunate.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think there should be rules then…
PYNE: Er well I think people should apply the pairs in good faith and I assume Mike Kelly applied for it in good faith and he should have therefore been able to go and visit his wife last night and I don’t think he should have broken the pair.
PYNE: Well the way for Labor to stop using it as a political point scoring exercise is for them to grow up and act in good faith rather than try and use it to make political points.
(Pyne talks about Abbotts post budget reply, Craig Thomson/LNP latest accusations)
INTERVIEWER: … did Warren Entsch mislead you?
PYNE: Well that’s a matter for you to take up with Warren Entsch.
Mr Pyne made several false statements, including that Ms Rowland made her request on Monday, that she asked for leave to care for an ill family member, not a baby, and that Mr Entsch had sought further information on her request.
Ms Rowland says that by the time she got to work on Thursday morning she still did not have a pair. Fairfax had asked her to give an interview, which she did, then Fran Kelly and Channel 9 asked for interviews. Sabra Lane of ABC radio also asked her for a radio interview while she was in the Press Gallery, and handed her a press release from Mr Entsch which set out all the pair requests for the week and stated at the end that if Ms Rowland needed a pair she could have one. This statement does not appear on Mr Entsch’s press release page.
When the first division was called in the House of Reps that morning, just after 9am, Ms Rowland went into the chamber and asked Mr Albanese, the manager of government business, if she had a pair or not. No – she would only have a pair if the government and opposition whips agreed in writing. Entsch’s remarks were not a pair, they were a press release, he said. She would have to stay and vote.
So she stayed, and participated in two more divisions until the Labor whip advised her that Entsch had agreed to grant her a pair effective immediately. That was around 10am.
Entsch then did a World Today interview with Alexandra Kirk. Here is the ABC transcript.
EMILY BOURKE: The chief Opposition whip, Warren Entsch, says he granted Ms Rowland a pair, but he’s also labelled the MP’s leave request “a stunt”. He’s issued a statement saying if Ms Rowland’s “child is sick then she should leave the Parliament immediately and a pair will be granted”. He told The World Today he granted Ms Rowland leave when he read about the matter in this morning’s paper.
Mr Entsch spoke to Alexandra Kirk in Canberra.
WARREN ENTSCH: The issue of backbench pairs was raised with me first on a meeting I had with the new Chief Government Whip on Monday. Included in that was a request for Mike Kelly. He sought a pairing for a family medical matter and I said to him at that time send it over to me but there’s not a lot of detail there, I’ll need more than that to be able to approve it. There was also a request there from Michelle Rowland where she said due to her child being unwell and that she’ll be grateful if she could return home on Thursday night.
My comment to Chris at the time was that if the child is unwell, she shouldn’t be down here, she should be with her child. It seems rather bizarre to be putting in a request on Monday or Tuesday asking for a leave on Thursday night because a child is unwell. If it’s unwell now, she should be with it.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: But it may be that some other family member was looking after the child…
WARREN ENTSCH: No, no, no, no…
ALEXANDRA KIRK: …and maybe she needed to then look after it.
WARREN ENTSCH: …no, no you, you, that’s the information that she could have provided to me. You’re making those assumptions now. No other information was available to me and on the basis of that I said look, I can’t approve it on the basis of the information that’s been provided to me.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: Did you doubt that her child was sick?
WARREN ENTSCH: That was all I had was available to me and I had also said to Chris, if there is any issues or if there’s any other information that needs to be made available so that I can reconsider this, please don’t hesitate to bring it to me. That is the normal process.
Now later on he came back to me and he said to me that Mike Kelly’s wife was sick. She’d been in hospital for a couple of weeks and he needed to sit with her. On that basis I changed my position and approved that. At no point from that discussion until I read about it in the paper on Thursday morning had there been any further discussion to me or my office in regards to Michelle Rowland.
If it had been me and it had been my sick child, I would have been sitting with my sick child. I wouldn’t have been spending a week in the Parliament.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: You don’t know the circumstances of her family …
WARREN ENTSCH: In that case she should explain it to me.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: But what more information do you need than the fact that she has a sick child?
WARREN ENTSCH: Well, if the child is sick on Monday, she should be sitting at home with that child. She should be sitting at home with that child if it is sick on Tuesday or Wednesday. She never made any effort, any effort to explain the situation so, you know, it is normal procedure, this is in my view, pulled out as a stunt.
I actually gave her leave when I read about it in the paper and instead of grabbing the first flight home, which she portrayed being concerned, she sat in three divisions. She could have been halfway back to Sydney in that time.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: So do you doubt that her child was sick?
WARREN ENTSCH: I have no idea because she’s never discussed it with me. She didn’t say her child was sick, she said she had a child who was unwell and she would appreciate going home on Thursday at six o’clock at night.
Now it is Thursday morning. She could have talked to me on Tuesday, she could have talked to me on Wednesday, she could have talked to me today. At no point has she made any effort nor has anybody from the other side come near me and said look mate, this is a problem and so it makes you wonder, makes you wonder just how honest they are in relation to their applications or are they using a circumstance just to pull some sort of a political stunt.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: Having granted her a pair now after this blew up in the media, did you get any extra information from her?
WARREN ENTSCH: None at all.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: No, well why did you agree to a pair today…
WARREN ENTSCH: None at all, well, well and…
ALEXANDRA KIRK: … when it hit the fan when you don’t have any more information than you had previously when you said no.
WARREN ENTSCH: No, none of them have had the courtesy of coming over here but if they want to play that then if she wants to go home, I said I didn’t agree for a six o’clock, I said you go home and if what they’re saying in the media is correct, you go home right now. You don’t wait until six o’clock tonight.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: Are you concerned that this backfired on the Opposition…
WARREN ENTSCH: No, not at all, not at all.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: …and it blunts the message of the Opposition about being family friendly.
WARREN ENTSCH: Absolute nonsense, absolute nonsense. Like I said, if she’s got a problem with that child on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, at any time she could have come and I would have let her go immediately but to come in and say well, look I wouldn’t mind something in four or five days time, it’s a little bit rich.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: But you have granted her a pair not based on any extra information…
WARREN ENTSCH: No, because I read only in the paper that she’s got this very sick child, that’s the first I read about it, that’s the first I knew about it and so I said in that case she doesn’t wait until six o’clock, she goes now.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: But the point is that…
WARREN ENTSCH: No, there’s no other point. Thank you very much.
Extraordinary – false, nasty, judgemental of Ms Rowland’s performance as a mother without evidence.
To my knowledge, neither Mr Entsch or Mr Pyne have withdrawn their false claims or baseless smears or apologised to Ms Rowland, and Abbott has made no comment.
While some Labor and Greens politicians claimed that the debacle showed the Coalition was not serious about parental leave, to my mind the real issue was that two senior opposition MPs cared nothing for getting their facts straight and were quick to smear Ms Rowland without an evidentiary basis. The result was pain and suffering to Ms Rowland, who had done no wrong.
I sent the following emails last night.
Dear Mr Abbott,
I am writing a follow-up story to last Thursday’s events on this matter, and seek your response to the following questions:
1. Have you had any discussions with Mr Pyne or Mr Entsch on the refusal of baby leave to Ms Rowland?
2. In the light of Mr Entsch’s actions before and after he refused the baby leave, do you retain confidence in him as opposition whip?
3. Is there an official Coalition policy on the granting of leave to MP parents when their children are unwell during sitting periods, and if so, what is that policy?
4. Do you believe it is appropriate for Mr Entsch and/or Mr Pyne to withdraw any of their statements, and if so which ones?
5. Do you believe it appropriate for Mr Entsch and/or Mr Pyne to apologise to Ms Rowland?
Dear Mr Pyne,
I am writing a follow-up story to this matter and seek your response to the following questions.
1. What was the evidentiary basis for your claims last Thursday that:
• Ms Rowland had asked for leave for a sick family member, not her baby
• Ms Rowland had made her request on Monday
• the first Mr Entsch had known of the baby’s health was when he read that morning’s paper
• that Mr Entsch had sought more information from Ms Rowland.
2. Why did you choose not to publish the transcript of this interview on your website?
3. Have you publicly withdrawn the false statements you made in the interview, and if not why not?
4. Have you apologised to Ms Rowland, and if not why not?
5. Do you stand by your statement that Ms Rowland should have returned home earlier than the time she requested, and if so, why?
Dear Mr Entsch,
I am writing a follow-up story on this matter, and request your response to the following questions:
1. On what basis did you refuse on Wednesday Ms Rowland’s request for a pair on Thursday evening?
2. Do you stand by your statement that Ms Rowland made her request on Monday and that you made adverse comment about its merits to the Government whip?
3. What is your policy on granting leave to MPs to care for unwell or sick children?
4. Have you corrected the record since your interview last Thursday, and if not, why not?
5. Do you stand by your comments that Ms Rowland’s application was ‘a stunt’, and what was the evidentiary basis of this allegation?
6. Do you stand by your remarks that Ms Rowland should have stayed away from Parliament all week to care for her baby?
7. Do you believe Ms Rowland deserves an apology from you?
PS: Hat tip to Ms Julie Bishop, like Rowland a commercial lawyer before entering politics. She said simply that a mistake had been made and should not be repeated. If Mr Entsch and Mr Pyne had done the same the story would have been dead mid-morning and their reputations untainted. Ms Rowland: “When I was a commercial lawyer, every year we did an ethics update and were told that if you stuff up you own up. If they’d admitted they did the wrong thing and corrected it, I would have said thank you very much and gone on my way. But they didn’t.”