View from The Hill

Day 18: Abbott reaches the right place on tobacco donations, for expedient reasons

Tony Abbott kissing Sister Jacinta became the viral photo of day 18, despite an important donations change. AAP/Alan Porritt

Occasionally, something spontaneously good happens in a campaign. That was the case today, when Tony Abbott, under strong political pressure, announced he’d told the Liberal party not to accept any more donations from tobacco companies.

The worth of this modest advance is not diminished by its arising out of a blend of expediency and cynicism.

It came about after Kevin Rudd tried to embarrass Abbott by pledging legislation to ban all parties accepting tobacco money. He could speak from the high moral ground because the ALP (admirably) stopped taking tobacco dollars in 2004. Since then the Coalition has received $2 million in donations.

Talking to Fairfax Media, Rudd also said he’d move to stop public sector superannuation funds investing in these companies. The Future Fund has already eschewed them.

Abbott hasn’t matched the latter undertaking. But he swiftly moved on the donations front.

It wasn’t with good grace, however (and the really cynical might say the opposition has probably already banked any such donations for this election). Abbott said he didn’t want Rudd to be able to run a distraction. “I don’t want furphies like this to distract people from the major issues of the campaign”.

And he challenged the PM to give back funding from a foundation with tobacco industry links that he received as a backbencher to attend a conference in Germany (Rudd has said he didn’t know of the link).

Asked whether he would return tobacco money already taken by his campaign Abbott quickly said: “No. … I will gladly ask the Liberal Party to refund the money from tobacco companies when Mr Rudd refunds the Health Services Union subventions to the Labor Party”.

The pressure on Abbott over tobacco donations began much earlier. Even before the election starter gun, Labor had an advertisement featuring clips of him defending them.

When Rudd and his Liberal opponent in Griffith, eye specialist and former Australian Medical Association president Bill Glasson, took part in a candidates’ debate at the start of the campaign, donations and other smoking-related issues came up.

Glasson supported the recent excise increase (while putting in a line that the government had only done it for the money) and said if he were in the Coalition party room he’d lobby against accepting tobacco donations.

Rudd chipped in: “So is Bill now calling on Tony Abbott today to stop taking money from tobacco companies? It’s the here and now that counts”. The debate moved on without the question being answered.

Abbott was asked soon after about Glasson’s remark. His first response was to have a go at Rudd over the German trip.

He went on: “Donors to the Liberal Party don’t buy us, they don’t buy our policy. When I was the health minister I put graphic warnings all over cigarette packets and as a result, in part, of the policies that I pursued as health minister, smoking rates in this country fell significantly.”

The Labor government has a good record in taking action against smoking. Even if its two big excise hikes were prompted by budget needs, they discourage people taking up a habit that will only do them harm.

Its plain packaging legislation was not financially driven and brought it hassles including a High Court challenge, which it successfully defended.

The opposition eventually supported the packaging legislation and is set to absorb the excise hike into its own costings (because it too needs the money).

But in doing things with poor grace, Abbott does himself a disservice - because he is well across the facts from his ministerial days and has a personal commitment to fitness.

This day after the second debate had a generally low key feel about it. Abbott’s health policy was “me too-ish”; Labor launched initiatives for small business.

But after getting some praise over his performance in Wednesday’s encounter, there have been a couple of sour notes for Rudd.

The debate’s make-up woman said on Facebook that Abbott had been lovely and engaged in genuine conversation with her; in contrast, she had never “had anyone treat me so badly [as Rudd had] whilst trying to do my job.”

Rudd said he had been “in the zone” before going on stage; anyway, “I’m not happy getting make-up put on the best of days”. Without knowing precisely what happened one shouldn’t rush to judgement, but the bottom line is the story was everywhere and reinforces negative impressions about how he behaves in private.

Then there is the home front. Just when Rudd was being criticised for withdrawing from a debate with Glasson tonight, out comes a Guardian Longergan poll that puts Glasson ahead of him in Griffith 52-48%.

There is a big poll margin of error; the seat is on 8.5%, and nobody would put money on the Liberals there. But with the tobacco announcement, the Rudd no-show and the poll, it was an all-round satisfying day for the Doc.