Thursday, September 6, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Dutton’s open and shut case
The home affairs minister’s position has gone from shaky to untenable

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing his first acid test: is it okay for his ministers to lie in parliament? That’s the inescapable question arising from today’s revelations from the Senate inquiry examining former immigration minister Peter Dutton’s ministerial interventions on behalf of two European au pairs. Former Australian Border Force chief Roman Quaedvlieg has made a submission to the inquiry, a letter that may be released as soon as this afternoon, claiming that Dutton’s chief of staff contacted him to ask about the possibility of an intervention on behalf of a “mate” of Dutton, former police colleague Russell Keag. In March, when the story of Dutton’s intervention broke, Dutton told parliament that he could categorically rule out any personal connection or other relationship with the intended employers of the au pairs. Today shadow immigration minister Shayne Neumann reminded the prime minister that misleading parliament is a “sackable offence” and this case is as clear-cut as they come. There is no way around it for Morrison: if he wants to abide by the Westminster convention on ministerial responsibility, he must sack the man who only two weeks ago was his leadership rival.

It is common to observe nowadays that the standards of ministerial accountability are not what they used to be. But the relevant wording of the statement on ministerial standards has not changed at all – what has changed is the willingness of prime ministers to enforce it. Section 4.4 states that “Ministers are required to provide an honest and comprehensive account of their exercise of public office … in response to any reasonable and bona fide enquiry by a member of the Parliament or a Parliamentary Committee”. Section 5.1 states that “Ministers are expected to be honest in the conduct of public office and take all reasonable steps to ensure that they do not mislead the public or the Parliament. It is a Minister’s personal responsibility to ensure that any error or misconception in relation to such a matter is corrected or clarified, as soon as practicable”. Under 7.2, ministers are required to stand aside if the prime minister regards their conduct as constituting a prima facie breach of the standards.

Perhaps Dutton, who faces a motion of no confidence next week, can escape with a correction or clarification. Perhaps the government will simply ignore the uproar: former workplace minister Michaelia Cash kept her job despite misleading parliament five times, as I have moaned previously. Today, before the Quaedvlieg revelations emerged, Dutton tried to shoot the messenger, telling his friendliest radio station, 2GB, that there was an unnamed “disaffected former senior Australian Border Force official who leaks this information out … good luck to him, if that’s what he wants to do, he is obviously very close to the Labor Party.”

Whether that will suffice for the parliament will be tested on the floor of the House of Representatives next week, when every single vote will count, bearing in mind the government no longer has a majority to speak of.

But Dutton’s problems don’t end there. Fairfax Media revealed last night that Dutton’s “mate” Keag has been questioned over his role in the au pair scandal by the Ethical Standards Command – which found no evidence of misconduct – and the matter referred to the Crime and Corruption Commission, which has yet to report.

Perhaps most pressing of all, shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus has renewed calls for Dutton’s eligibility to sit in parliament to be referred to the High Court. Dreyfus’ calls follow the AFR’s revelation [$] last night of a letter showing that a child-care centre – in which Dutton’s family trust has an interest – had a funding agreement with the Commonwealth to enable the hiring of a special needs teacher. At a press conference this morning, Dreyfus was adamant: “This further document that has come to light makes it clear that there is an agreement between Mr Dutton’s child-care centres and the Commonwealth, and that’s why there is, we think it’s clear, a breach of section 44 of the Constitution.”

How many hits can the Coalition take over this one unpopular minister? Australia sure dodged a bullet when Dutton’s leadership attempt failed.

since this morning

The Guardian reports that the prime minister of Tuvalu said a country “starting with capital A” wanted qualifications made to a Pacific Islands Forum communiqué on climate change and emissions. Australia is the only nation in the Pacific to fit this description.

Malcolm Turnbull’s daughter, Daisy, has criticised the Liberal Party’s attitude towards women after former foreign minister Julie Bishop yesterday said that she has witnessed behaviour in Canberra that wouldn’t be “tolerated in any other workplace across Australia”. Assistant minister and Peter Dutton supporter Zed Seselja said he saw no evidence of bullying in the recent leadership spill.

The Australian reports [$] that the Victorian government is scrambling to contain the fallout of its decision to publish a trove of documents. It has emerged that the material from the previous government contained people’s private medical, personal and legal information.

An ongoing ABC investigation into sexism in the Australian Greens has revealed allegations by former staffer Liz Ingham against former Victorian leader Greg Barber.


Another Coalition leak, this time to Fairfax Media, has revealed that, in the days before the Liberal Party dispute over energy policy that helped bring down the former PM, Turnbull government cabinet ministers rejected draft plans for a one-off $1.6 billion bonus to help thousands of Australians pay their electricity bills.

The Australian has previewed [$] the first “headland” speech by Scott Morrison, to be delivered at a Menzies Research Centre forum in Albury today, in which he signals that he will embrace the principles and social values of the Menzies era in a bid to end the bitter divisions of the Abbott-Turnbull years. Meanwhile, columnist Niki Savva writes [$] that Liberal MPs are grappling privately with the real prospect that the party could cleave in Opposition if it loses the election.

Michael West reveals the local government area with the highest losses to pokies per household per year, and it is located in New South Wales, “the worst state for pokies in the biggest punting country in the world”.

by Joanna Di Mattia
Joaquin Phoenix mesmerises in ‘You Were Never Really Here’
The actor distils embodied trauma to its purest form in Lynne Ramsay’s genre-subverting thriller

by Richard Flanagan
Does writing matter?
The Nauru files are an indictment on a country that has lost its way

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?

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