The Politics    Monday, November 15, 2021

Scrutineering

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Sydney today. Image © Dean Lewins / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Sydney today. Image © Dean Lewins / AAP Images

The PM says the ABC is not “above scrutiny”, but his government seems to be

Tensions between the Coalition and the public broadcaster have escalated, as ABC chair Ita Buttrose continues her pushback against an extraordinary Senate inquiry into the broadcaster’s complaints-handling process. Buttrose, who last night released a withering statement accusing the government of “political interference”, doubled down this morning, telling RN Breakfast that there was nothing “regular” about the way this was being done, despite the PM labelling the process “business as usual”. The inquiry was announced last week, seemingly unilaterally, by Communications committee chair Andrew Bragg, whom the PM’s office reportedly “rapped over the knuckles” on the weekend for going beyond his brief. But when asked about Buttrose’s criticism in his latest electioneering press conference, the PM insisted the inquiry was a normal process. “There is nobody above the scrutiny of the Senate,” he proclaimed. “I don’t know why they would consider themselves an exception to business as usual,” said the leader of a government that regularly treats itself as an exception to the rule, and has done all it can to prevent scrutiny of its actions, ministers and policies.

As the ABC chair told Radio National this morning, there is something rather abnormal about this inquiry, not least because it “blindsided” senior Liberal Party figures, who are now looking to “depoliticise and de-escalate” the issue. The fact that it was announced without bipartisan agreement has also raised eyebrows. “I’m advised that it’s highly unusual for a government to use a legislative committee to specifically investigate one of its agencies,” said Buttrose. “Indeed, I’m told it’s so rare that when it does occur, it’s usually on a bipartisan basis,” she added, noting Labor senators had opposed the action, while Greens senators had been absent due to COP26. 

Speaking on RN later in the morning, committee deputy chair Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said she was not informed of the announcement in advance, and would be moving for the “witch hunt” to be suspended, labelling it an abuse of process. “I don’t know why this happened,” she said. “But what we do know is the track record of this government on attacking any public body or independent body that might hold them to account or ensure transparency.”

That well-known tendency to avoid accountability at any cost has made Morrison’s claim – that his government’s troubling inquiry into the ABC is simply about good old-fashioned “scrutiny” – all the more outrageous, and many are crying hypocrisy. This is the same government, after all, that would not even allow motions calling for an inquiry into allegations against former minister Christian Porter to be tabled in the Senate, and which later upended precedent to protect Porter from having his “blind trust” donation scrutinised by the privileges committee. It’s the same Coalition that makes Senate estimates as painful as possible, with a growing number of unanswered “questions on notice”, and often fails to have the appropriate representatives show up for questioning at all. And, of course, it vehemently opposes introducing a federal anti-corruption commission that could actually look into its most egregious instances of pork-barrelling.

In this past month alone, the government has made it as difficult as possible for anyone to scrutinise its net-zero “plan”, finally putting out its “stunningly irresponsible”, “comically flawed”, “modelling” on Friday afternoon (with the trash, noted economist Steven Hamilton in the AFR). And try as the international community might to hold leaders to their word with the newly signed Glasgow Climate Pact, which calls on countries to enact more ambitious short-term emission reduction targets, the Australian government has already released a statement confirming that it will not be increasing its 2030 targets. “There is nobody above the scrutiny of the Senate,” said the PM today. Unless, of course, you’re on the government benches.













Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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