Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Today by Nick Feik

Distraction action
Holgate-gate has exposed a government desperate for distractions from its own scandals

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking at a press conference today. Image via ABC News

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking at a press conference today. Image via ABC News

Scott Morrison has never faced a crisis he can’t hide from, a blame he can’t shift, an apology he can’t avoid.

In recent days we have seen him resort to Facebook to communicate bad news about the vaccine rollout, call for regular national cabinet meetings to share the responsibility (and blame) for the rollout with the states, and evade giving an apology to former Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate over his government’s appalling treatment of her.

There are two aspects to the Morrison government’s bullying of Holgate that remain underappreciated, and which the government continues to dodge. One relates to the timing, the second to the likely motivations behind it.

What has been somewhat lost in the mists of COVID-19 and endless other scandals is that Morrison’s snarling October 2020 attack on Holgate in parliament was coming on the back of several weeks of heavy criticism of the government over, in particular, the Leppington triangle deal. It had been recently revealed that the Australian government had paid almost $30 million for a parcel of land worth only $3 million, and, like so many other corruption scandals involving this government, this was generating much bad publicity and remained unresolved. (Was? It still is.) 

The Morrison government was desperate to find a distraction, a public target onto whom it could shift the “latest scandal” burden. Paul Fletcher was the minister for urban infrastructure at the time of the Leppington purchase (though he denied any responsibility for it), and as communications minister he is also one of the two shareholder ministers presiding over Australia Post. 

It was Morrison and Fletcher who, either directly or through proxies, insisted to Australia Post chair Lucio Di Bartolomeo that Holgate must stand aside – or else. Holgate was, in essence, their sacrificial lamb. She was conveniently expendable (or so they thought), and they didn’t hesitate to publicly humiliate her. 

In her dramatic Senate committee testimony yesterday, Holgate gave another equally chilling explanation for their possible motivation. She mentioned the existence of a secret report from Boston Consulting Group, commissioned by Fletcher in November 2019, to review Australia Post’s long-term strategy. This report, tabled for the Senate committee, was described by Labor Senator Kim Carr as “a blueprint for privatisation”, and reportedly would have seen as many as 8000 job cuts, the closure of 190 post offices, and serious reductions in delivery standards.

Holgate told the Senate committee that she opposed the recommendations, and was “silenced” over the report. She also said that, as a result of this opposition, she “wasn’t popular” with either the (Liberal-stacked) board or the government.

Put together, these facts suggest that the Morrison government, under immense pressure over its own Leppington corruption scandal, decided that the ideal distraction would be to destroy the career of the woman who was protecting Australia Post from privatisation. Which it then did without compunction. The perfect crime, until it wasn’t.

Di Bartolomeo yesterday acknowledged that Holgate had been treated abysmally, but he didn’t think Australia Post owed her an apology. No one from the government has apologised either. Morrison this morning stopped short of a proper reckoning with his role in Holgate-gate: “My language was very strong. I see that has caused some strong reaction from Christine (!) and hurt her deeply. That wasn’t my intention – and I regret that. But the issue is how taxpayer funds were used in a government-owned company.”

But is that really the issue? It is not. Holgate, on behalf of a government-owned company, was entitled to give out staff bonuses, and she followed all relevant processes. The issue is one of responsibility. Not hers but the government’s: Holgate was bullied and hounded out of her job, at the government’s behest, for no good reason. Who will take responsibility for this?

Dressed in his traditional hi-vis and stationed in front of some mining machinery for a press conference this afternoon, Morrison sought to return to the good old “we’re getting back to business” economic themes that he’s relied on in the past, but no one was fooled. Forced by journalists to address the Holgate matter, Morrison repeated the form of words he used earlier in the day (“My language was very strong and I regret any distress that would have caused”), but again stopped short of apologising or taking responsibility. No one, least of all Scott Morrison, is ever responsible for anything.  

“[Australia is a] uniquely hostile market.”

Behyad Jafari, chief executive of the Electric Vehicle Council, says Australia’s electric vehicle policies make its citizens look like “a bunch of gas-guzzlers”, and wants subsidies for EV buyers like those in the UK and Europe.

“We’ve gone a little bit woke.”

Liberal backbencher and former soldier Phillip Thompson backs comments by Assistant Defence Minister Andrew Hastie, who told military personnel their “core business” will always be the “application of lethal violence”.

Big government is back, but not in Australia.
Both the United States and the UK have recently announced policies to increase their tax rates, and spend the revenue on new social policies, as part of their economic response to the pandemic. But Australia is bucking the trend.

The estimated annual hit to the Australian economy due to international students being unable to return to Australia. Experts are warning the outlook is “mighty bleak” for those industries dependent on international visitors.

“Scott Morrison has flagged ‘mass vaccination options’ for Australians aged under 50 and says it may be possible that age group could be immunised by the end of the year.”

The PM indicates that mass vaccination sites, coordinated alongside the states and territories, are on the cards.

The list

“Trying to get a grip. That’s how I am when I read Edward St Aubyn. Vertigo threatens. No handrails visible. It’s been a decade since At Last wrapped up his Patrick Melrose series, and it was a relief to think there might be some acceptable solution in those anguished lives. With a fresh suite of characters, Double Blind jets through the updated urgencies and anxieties of nature and technology, but all the old interests in the state of being human – friendship, love, desire, drug use, psychoanalysis – remain.”

“Is the Coalition genuinely at risk of not being returned for a fourth term? Implied in the opinion poll trends – assuming they remain credible enough to talk about – is that the electorate is preparing to replace Morrison’s government with a Labor Party led by Anthony Albanese. Does anyone really believe that? Incumbency is powerful inertia, especially when the incumbent has blue stripes and the support of News Corp. The election of a Labor Opposition to the government benches requires more than mere Coalition scandal and incompetence.”

“I don’t have the answers to how police can change, or if this is even possible, but I know that police were designed by the colonisers, for the colonisers. As Aboriginal people, the oldest living culture in the world, the First Nations of this country, the traditional owners, we have our customary law/lore that we used prior to colonisation. We still practise this and there have not been any deaths in our custody.”

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.



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