The Politics    Thursday, March 3, 2022

Electoral sandbagging

By Rachel Withers

Image of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce during Question Time last month. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce during Question Time last month. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The Deputy PM doth protest too much

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was this morning extremely indignant at suggestions from Labor that the government was prioritising Coalition electorates when it came to flood recovery assistance. The allegation – coming from Griffith MP Terri Butler, as well as shadow emergency management minister Murray Watt, shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers and Moreton MP Graham Perrett – is that Services Australia staff who have been deployed to help flood victims apply for disaster payments on the ground have been unfairly distributed to LNP electorates, while some of the hardest hit electorates (held by Labor) are ignored. In an interview on News Breakfast (in which the one-time NZ citizen bizarrely likened Russia invading Ukraine to Australia invading New Zealand), Joyce said Butler’s claim was “ridiculous”. “I don’t think for one second there’s any parochialism when it comes to how we look after people … It is ridiculous to think that we would differentiate one Australian from another Australian in how we help them,” he said, adding that it was poor form from Butler. “I think that’s really below her.” The idea that the government would discriminate against Australians based on their seat is far from ridiculous, of course: the Coalition has been found time and time again to have done exactly that, even when it comes to disaster relief. Whether Labor’s current claim is true or not, what’s truly farcical is Joyce’s suggestion that the Coalition wouldn’t do such a thing, as it gears up for another election campaign backed by billions in rorts.

It’s still unclear how accurate Labor’s allegation is – but it’s doing its best to push the narrative. As Perrett noted when Services Australia’s initial list of placement sites dropped, there were no locations listed in Moreton or Griffith, which contain some of the suburbs most affected by the flooding of the Brisbane River, but three in the marginal seat of Longman alone. (The in-person assistance is hugely important right now, with many areas having lost internet and phone connections.) And, as Watt soon pointed out, there were also no locations in the Labor-held seats of Oxley or Rankin, despite huge damage there. “Is Morrison using colour coded spreadsheets to choose where he’s sending disaster support teams?” Watt asked. “I’ve tried to avoid partisanship in this disaster, but come on,” Butler added.

Government Services Minister Linda Reynolds has since accused Labor of “playing cheap politics”, with her office telling Guardian Australia that staff were simply being directed to evacuation centres, the locations of which “are determined by state authorities”. Her office said that staff would today be deployed to a centre in Chalmer’s electorate of Rankin, and had yesterday attended one in Oxley, although if Labor is correct in its claim, this could be a rushed response to having been caught out. A colour-coded map of Brisbane put together by the ABC today suggests that Labor seats are not the only ones that have missed out (although, as it notes, not all areas have been affected by flooding), while Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen reiterated that the agency does not make the call on where evacuation or recovery sites are placed.

The suggestion that Services Australia might be used during a disaster in the manner described by Labor is deeply disturbing. But unfortunately for the government it’s rather believable because it wouldn’t be the first time Services Australia had been used dubiously by the Coalition. The agency was famously responsible for the robodebt scheme and, more recently, the Department of Social Services (which is responsible for Services Australia) was warned by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal that it was “not above the law”, when the department tried to ignore its order for Centrelink to reinstate a man’s JobSeeker payments.

It’s also remarkably easy to accept that the Coalition would be willing to “differentiate one Australian from another” based on their electorate during a disaster. After all, the NSW Coalition was willing to do just that when it came to bushfire relief, with the state government accused of giving the vast majority of its $177 million recovery fund to Coalition-held electorates, with Labor-held seats receiving just $2.5 million. (Some heavily affected electorates, including the Blue Mountains, said they weren’t even told about the first round of funding.) As then deputy premier John Barilaro said at the time, pork-barrelling is “what elections are for”. There is no shortage of other examples of the Coalition’s pork-barrelling – and what timing for Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to this afternoon announce that the government would be abandoning $65 million worth of car parks promised in his seat as part of the 2019 election, long accepted to be a blatant rort.

As Lilley MP Anika Wells tweeted following Joyce’s denial this morning, such electoral sandbagging “hasn’t matched my lived experience”. She added a screenshot of a recent report revealing that Peter Dutton’s neighbouring Queensland electorate had received 47 times the amount of federal funding that Lilley had.

It may become clearer in time whether the government was prioritising its own marginal electorates for flood recovery assistance, or whether this is just a Labor beat-up. Either way, help now seems to be arriving in those affected Labor electorates.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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