The Zali Ballyhoo: dark days for an idealistic independent MP, but the soot won’t stick to Steggall

by | Feb 15, 2022 | Comment & Analysis

The Independent federal MP Zali Steggall has been forced to defend her integrity after revelations by Nine Newspapers that her campaign took donations from a coal kingpin. Mark Sawyer and Michael West have some free advice for the member for Warringah: no strings attached.

Mark goes first.

Zali Steggall might be claiming a ”media hit” over revelations that her campaign took money from a wealthy constituent and coal investor John Kinghorn and tried to conceal it from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). Whatever the truth of her complaint, she is certainly a step closer to being the politician that she claimed to never be.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. A politician took money from a wealthy donor! After all there are 223 others in the elected chambers of our Federal Parliament who, despite their protestations, might say, ‘’There but for the grace of God go I.’’. The things that unite our MPs and senators, at least where campaign funding is concerned, are greater than the things that divide them.

The question is: can the rookie MP who made a ‘’rookie error’’ embrace the change?

The revelations were painful, but the damage is likely to be short-lived. Steggall’s ”misstep” is unlikely to cost her the NSW seat of Warringah. She won it convincingly in 2019, and she remains popular. She is diligent, engaging, and gifted with a barrister’s conviction of argument. A perfect fit for a wealthy electorate: progressive in the right places – climate, integrity commission, money (ooops) in politics – and conservative in the other places – taxes, independent schools, house prices. 

The Liberals are resigned to her holding the seat at this year’s poll. A media balloon featuring a big-gun challenge from former premier Gladys Berejiklian was quickly popped.

After an extensive grilling from Radio National’s Patricia Karvelas on Tuesday morning there was still love aplenty for the politician in ABC listener land, amid dark mutterings about how the former Fairfax papers have been captured by the right since Nine took over in 2018.

It’s that damn media

The people of Warringah voted out an unpopular ex-prime minister who had been a roadblock to effective action by Australia against global warming. They voted in a candidate who promised to be a ”climate warrior” and ”climate leader”. That candidate took money from coal interests. 

But that last bit, well that’s a media hit, right?

If you take Sky News out of the equation, it was hard to find much ”hitting”.  At 10.25am on Tuesday the Herald homepage was still pursuing its scoop and rightly so. It ran an editorial headed ”Zali Steggall donation misstep fails transparency test”. Don’t be fooled by the tepid ‘’misstep’’. As was observed of The New York Times in a documentary about killer Robert Durst, that’s a screaming headline in the Herald (or at least it was until the click era).

The Australian had its editorial featured prominently on its homepage amid a slightly distracting photo gallery. The headline: ”Independent MP gives the nation a lesson in hypocrisy”. But the biggest selling title, printwise, took its jollies elsewhere. Quoth The Daily Telegraph: ”TV host’s sex pact: we hook up with others.”

As MWM has reported, Steggall has benefited from some pretty friendly media coverage since she entered politics three years ago. But not on ABC Radio National, not on Tuesday.

The interview from hell

Steggall’s interview with sometimes affable, sometimes acerbic ”PK” was painful listening, and I’m not just referring to the technical issues that plague more and more of the national broadcaster’s output.

Only the most rusted-on supporter could have failed to wince as Zali threw former campaign workers under the bus, and attempted to turn what she called her ”rookie error” into a ringing case for donations reform while professing ignorance of the biggest donation her campaign had received. 

PK: If there hadn’t been that audit, would this money still be concealed?

ZS: The money was never concealed, the money was always there and declared. The identity of the eight individual people, or the one if you want to, you know, when you’re looking it as the one, the identity would not be disclosed. but the amount of money received was always declared …

(And later).

PK: The donor delivered a $100,000 cheque, that’s how it started. If the donors chose to then split it, why did it start with a single $100,000 cheque?

ZS: Because it happens the other way around. Initially a – pledges are made. That is, from a paperwork point of view, the pledges are made, (PK: What does that mean?) then the amounts are received.

PK I don’t get it.

ZS: Exactly that. They make a pledge to make a donation. It’s recorded, that is, it’s then received. At that point it wasn’t identified that it was received in a different form to the way in which the pledges had been made and the receipts made. And when the accounting, the declaration from Independent candidates is made in November following the May election, and it was scrutinised, and audited.

The major parties don’t declare or disclose until the following February, and they don’t disclose amalgamated donations either, by the way, and following their declarations the AEC reviewed everything and came to us late in, I believe it was that year, to identify that they had an issue with it and audited the accounts –  so there really is nothing you know, not trying to be sneaky, not trying to be anything, absolutely [inaudible) we improve donation laws.’’

It was as painful as that. But perhaps worse was Steggall’s explanation that secrecy had been required for her donors because they ‘’were incredibly nervous about being targeted by the Liberal Party with recriminations’’.

She hinted darkly at Abbott’s ‘’$2.5 million war chest’’ and the power wielded by a former prime minister. In other words, and correct me if I’m wrong here, a campaigner for transparency regarding political donations was defending secrecy for her donors.

The grounds: their people, unlike her people, were nasty and threatening. ‘’People fear being targeted if they’re going to make a donation.’’ A handy get-out clause for any candidate, I would have thought. Then there was the media, and social media.

It was hard to not conclude that Steggall was arguing that the difficulties faced by independent candidates justified a little benign ignorance of the rules.

Embrace the powers that be

How will this affect Steggall’s political standing? Probably not much. As discussed in MWM, independents are usually good for two terms before the bloom comes off the rose, or more specifically, the realities of abjuring power in a system that is all about acquiring and wielding same, hit home and a sense of futility takes hold.

The alternative is to embrace power. There is a future for Steggall in the 2022 Parliament, as long as she embraces this ”rookie error” and accepts that politics is much more about deal-making that principled purity.

Zali the deal maker might be a refreshing change in Canberra. She and what may well be a half-dozen progressive ”climate Independents” in former moderate Liberal seats will likely be sitting down with a Labor prime minister who holds the most fragile grip on parliamentary numbers. What might they get done? If Labor does win, Antrhony Albanese has rejected any coalition or agreement with the Greens, but he would of course accept support for specific legislation.

This week may have killed off a political cleanskin, but seen the birth of an energetic political player.


Michael West responds to colleague Mark Sawyer on Steggallgate

I take a slightly more pious view than Mark on the failure of Zali Steggall to disclose donations from a “coal baron”, albeit that John Kinghorn founded RAMS Home Loans which was flogged to Westpac, so his wealth does not merely derive from coal.

While she has broken no law here – the major parties themselves are champions of hiding donations by staggering them beneath the disclosure threshold – it’s a fair story by Nine newspapers, busting Steggall that is for not practicing what she preaches.

Still, Nine Entertainment, which does fundraisers for the Liberal Party and whose political coverage is skewed in favour of the Coalition, boasts the moniker “Independent. Always.” emphatically on its mastheads. Therefore it too is guilty of hypocrisy, emphatic hypocrisy.

And as for Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News, which has also taken up the cudgels against the Member for Warringah, it is nothing more than a ranting propaganda machine for the Coalition so its views can be discounted entirely. That said, the issue is redolent of broader political machinations.

Disclosure failures are rampant and the AEC fails to police them adequately so the Steggall audit, and the leak, are strange. The vast majority of political donations are classed as “other”, rather than donations. Why is the AEC not auditing this? Why the hit-job on Steggall, suddenly leaked to an eager SMH to plaster on its front pages?


Indeed, where is the indignant, accusatory media coverage by Nine and the Murdoch press when it comes to revelations here at MWM that the donation laws are not only poorly policed but altogether shoddy and pathetic? That dozens of large corporations are indeed members of political parties? That only a fraction of the money in politics is even disclosed at all?

That democracy has been corrupted, and so millions of Australians are losing confidence in government?


The media kerfuffle over the Zali gotcha goes to a broader issue, far broader. It goes to the fact that the Coalition aligned corporate media which are making such a fuss are running a line straight from the PR playbook of the major parties (predominantly the Coalition parties), that is, that independents are bad because they constitute a vote for Labor or the Liberal Party, that they can’t be trusted, that their election will only result in chaos, a hung parliament.

In fact, they are far more representative of the people in their electorates than the major parties because they tend to be funded by the people in their own electorates rather than by large corporations. And the threat of these community based movements is rising. Look no further than the result of the weekend by-election in Gladys Berejiklian’s seat of Willoughby where a neophyte independent pulled a surprisingly large vote.

The message here? The couple of dozen independent candidates massing to have a crack at the impending federal election – including the most recent to announce, our most excellent correspondent on aged care Dr Sarah Russell who has been endorsed by the Voices of Mornington Peninsula to run for the seat of Flinders in Melbourne – pose, collectively, a significant threat to the political status quo. That is, two major parties bought off by corporate payments, stale in their policy, struggling to reform.

I was ambling down the Corso in Manly last weekend and bumped into Zali Steggall campaigning. We had a good chat. She is my local member and, in conversation, she seemed very comfortable with her campaign. She is popular here and there does not seem to be much threat to her incumbency. How did she think the other independents would go then?

She made the point, not only that local-specific issues made it tough to call, but also that, to succeed, they would have to do what she had done, that is, run the campaign effectively as a business. A successful campaign, taking on established party machines, would not only need decent funding but a dedicated team which knew what it was doing politically to operate the organisation. As we know, most start-up businesses fail, but it will be fascinating to see how the assorted independent movements go because, should enough of them be successful it may change politics in Australia for good.

It is for these reasons that we will see an onslaught in the corporate media against independents. They threaten an establishment overly influenced by multinational corporations which is in dire need of change. The black arts operators in federal parliament, the PR types who manufacture stories behind the scenes and “drop” them into the press will continue to work overtime to discredit the independents.



Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian weighed in this morning with wall-to-wall Zali coverage, labelling Steggall’s campaign contributor a “coal baron” when they should well know John Kinghorn made his big money by floating RAMS on the sharemarket for an enormous sum of money.

While Nine’s newspapers might be more nuanced in their propagandising for the Liberal Party, News Corp’s crew is full gonzo cheerleading with virtual pom-poms. They even conflated Steggall with Opposition leader Anthony Albanese, placing a pic of Albo above the hit-job on Steggall online amid a blancmange of stories trumpeting the government’s messaging that Albo is some sort of Chinese government appeaser (at best) and CCP agent (at worse).

These guys are truly the Pravda of Australian politics.

Michael West established to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. Formerly a journalist and editor at Fairfax newspapers and a columnist at News Corp, West was appointed Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences.

Mark Sawyer is a journalist with Michael West Media. He has extensive experience in print and digital media in Sydney, Melbourne and rural Australia.

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