The Politics    Thursday, October 25, 2018

Policy crumble

By Paddy Manning

Policy crumble


Senate Estimates feels like death by a thousand cuts

The demise of a government is not only tracked through opinion polls: Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s policy platform seems to be crumbling before our eyes. This week’s Senate Estimates hearings have nicked the government repeatedly, and the cumulative impression is damage control everywhere. A quick read through today’s live blogs leaves the feeling that the federal bureaucracy may be turning on a government it sees as a sinking ship.

A key moment came yesterday afternoon, when Defence Chief Angus Campbell confirmed it would have been better if the military had been told of the proposed relocation of Australia’s embassy in Israel before journalists. As Fairfax Media’s David Wroe reported, General Campbell was being grilled by Labor’s shadow foreign affairs minister, Senator Penny Wong, who came at the question a number of ways, before cracking him by simply asking: “Is it better practice for you to be advised before the media?” After a pregnant pause, Campbell answered: “Yes, Senator.”

As the hearings continued this morning, Wroe reports extraordinary exchanges have revealed the government decided to announce its review of Australia’s stances on Jerusalem and the Iran nuclear deal without consulting a single official from the departments of Foreign Affairs, Defence, or Prime Minister and Cabinet, and that Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, initiated a late-night flurry of angry text messages to Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, who was herself all but sidelined as the prime minister briefed media on the proposal.

Labor peppered the government with questions over the lack of process leading up to the Israel announcement in Question Time today, which the prime minister attempted to block with the “Canberra bubble” defence, while arguing that nothing had been decided yet: “We dared to ask the question or consider that Australia had a different position on this issue of the embassy relocation.”

It’s not just the embassy in Israel that’s causing the government pain, however. In a lighter moment, Wong asked John Geering, the First Assistant Secretary Ministerial Executive Coordination and Communication Division, what Defence Industry Minister Steve Ciobo had responsibility for. Geering had to take the question on notice! Marise Payne reportedly whispered to Campbell, “Fair to say I’m enjoying this.”

In another estimates hearing, reported in The Guardian’s politics blog, the Department of Social Services confirmed the federal government had scrapped a policy to medically review 90,000 people on the Disability Support Pension (DSP) after less than 2 per cent were found to be ineligible. The crackdown had been introduced in the 2016–17 budget when the government said it would conduct a medical review of 30,000 DSP recipients a year for three years, predicting 2300 people a year would have their benefits cancelled and 1800 would be moved onto a lower Newstart allowance payment. The projected savings were $61 million. Today, however, officials revealed that of the 30,056 reviews that had begun, 28,784 had been finalised, and only 555 people were found to be no longer eligible for the DSP.

Also this week we’ve seen confirmation that ABC budget cuts will affect programming, and that the process for appointing a new ABC chairperson has itself been politicised by the selection [$] of recruiting firm Korn Ferry, which is chaired by a former Coalition MP.

Outside Senate Estimates, The Conversation’s Michelle Grattan reported last night that a former Home Affairs officer who worked in the refugee area resigned on principle last week, and is calling for the resettlement to Australia of all refugees and asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus, arguing this could be done without putting at risk our borders. Shaun Hanns writes that the current system “relies entirely on boat turn-backs. This makes the continuing detention of those on Manus and Nauru not just tragic, but meaningless. I have struggled for some time with what to do about this belief. The events of the past few months led me, like many others, to genuinely fear we will see a child dying on Nauru and this has spurred me into action.” (Hanns has also written a personal account for the upcoming issue of The Monthly.)

With its own policies crumbling, the government may find itself having policy forced upon it. At a crossbench conference with the almost-certainly new member for Wentworth, Kerryn Phelps, the Greens’ Adam Bandt pointed out that there may be now be a majority in both houses of parliament to finally establish a federal ICAC. Phelps agreed it was “very achievable”.

All that’s not to declare the government has already lost the federal election. This week we have seen the ramp-up of a scare campaign against Labor’s negative-gearing policy, and this morning The Australian reported [$] the property industry was warning that the policy would worsen a softening housing market. And columnist Dennis Shanahan writes [$] it is high time for the Coalition to “go on the attack”. In Question Time, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg accused Labor of “a sledgehammer to the family home”.

since this morning

The Morrison government and Labor have failed to reach agreement on legislation protecting gay students from being discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality, The Australian reports [$], meaning action will be delayed until the end of November. Earlier, Coalition MPs were reportedly angry about being kept in the dark on the issue.

The Australian share market has fallen 2.2 per cent today, wiping out all its gains from the past 12 months, and has entered a technical “correction”, following a massive sell-off on Wall Street overnight.

Senator Fraser Anning is on the verge of being dumped from Katter’s Australian Party.

in case you missed it

Fairfax Media reports that the Morrison government could struggle to win crossbench support in its race to drive down energy prices. The Guardian reports that business, welfare, climate and energy groups have urged the Morrison government to put emissions reduction back on the table, warning a “global transition towards lower emissions and ultimately net zero emissions is both necessary and inevitable”.

The AFR reports [$] that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has intervened to spare NSW conservative Liberal MP Craig Kelly a certain preselection defeat in order to stop an outbreak of civil war inside the NSW Liberal Party and to improve his embattled government’s chances of holding the seat of Hughes.

The Age reports that preference whisperer Glenn Druery, a staffer to Justice Party founder Senator Derryn Hinch, faces allegations of interference in the Victorian state election, with the Reason Party formally complaining about his lucrative cash-for-votes operation.

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor at The Monthly and the author of Inside the Greens and Body Count.

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