Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Today by Paddy Manning

Crisis, what crisis?
The PM’s don’t-you-worry-about-that schtick is unconvincing

Does anybody believe that a $3.8 billion cash splash on fast-tracked infrastructure spending, announced [$] today by the prime minister, will make much difference to a flagging economy? Surely not, although having called for the government to provide some kind of fiscal stimulus, it is hard to complain when they do. Today’s announcements, particularly the extra $1 billion for state road and rail projects, amount to a rounding error in a $1.8 trillion economy. Scott Morrison’s don’t-you-worry-about-that schtick on Nine’s Today this morning, an attempt to distinguish the “sensible and responsible” Coalition from Labor’s “economic panic merchants”, is meant to instil confidence that the government has a plan and is sticking to it. That confidence is undermined, however, by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg continually pointing the finger of blame elsewhere: yesterday it was the ageing population weighing on the budget, last week it was the inefficient federation, and a while back it was the RBA’s inflation target, which at last he decided to leave [$] intact.

Frydenberg’s jawboning is meant to distract from the fact that fiscal policy is a prisoner of the government’s blind political imperative to return the budget to surplus this financial year, and monetary policy is no longer having much effect. The RBA is likely to cut interest rates again early next year, particularly after unemployment rose in October – only by 0.1 per cent to 5.3 per cent, but it was supposed to be heading the other way, and promises continuing wage stagnation. The glass-half-full view of the economy, tipping a rebound based on recovering housing markets domestically and a possible resolution of Brexit and the US–China trade war, has become harder to sustain.

“A responsible and sensible government,” the prime minister will say in tonight’s speech to the Business Council of Australia, which was dropped to this morning’s newspapers, “does not run the country as if it is constantly at DEFCON1 the whole time, whether on the economy or any other issue. It deals with issues practically and soberly. The appetite for crisis popular amongst some these days, on so many issues, reflects an immaturity demanding urgent action regardless of the consequences. If there is a crisis, you don’t need to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Urgency takes over reason.”

This comes across as pure pretence, which belongs in the same basket of prime-ministerial twaddle as promising to burn for Australians every single day. Far from dotting i’s and crossing t’s, it is the Morrison government that continually finds itself on the back foot and scratching for policy, whether it’s on the economy, or climate and energy, or the drought, or aged care, or robodebt, or the Indigenous voice to parliament. Portfolio after portfolio is a muddle of burst thought bubbles, jerked knees and half-measures.

In contrast, Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter, who seems to have carriage of half the Coalition’s reform agenda, gave a decent speech today that made the government’s case for incremental advances on religious discrimination, the Commonwealth Integrity Commission and press freedom. Agree or disagree with him, Porter is at least coherent in his arguments and across the detail of his brief, does not resort to alternative facts or populist rhetoric, and is happy to take any or all questions. 

On the religious freedom can of worms, Porter confirmed the government legislation will allow church-run hospitals and nursing homes the same rights to discriminate as schools – which is as outrageous as it ever was – and that it will override state and territory laws, prompting a sharp rebuke from the Greens. Porter stood by the government’s inadequate model for an integrity commission, and attacked the model proposed by the Australia Institute’s National Integrity Committee (which prompted a quick response from them).

On press freedom, he endorsed the Moss review of whistleblower protections, conceded that freedom of information was in bad shape, and flagged a welcome defamation-law overhaul, saying: “Meaningful reform in this area needs to consider the introduction of a serious harm threshold and should also provide clarity in areas where the law failed to operate as jurisdictions may have anticipated. For example, clarifying that the cap on damages for non-economic loss sets the upper limit on a scale and applies regardless of whether aggravated damages apply. Likewise the NZ-style defence of responsible communication on matters of public interest is a worthwhile consideration.”

Finally, during questions, Porter defended the union-busting Ensuring Integrity Bill, committing to releasing his amendments shortly and conceding that the demerit points regime negotiated with Centre Alliance may have to be softened to get the legislation through. It is one portfolio area in which – rightly or wrongly – the government seems to be able to articulate what it is doing and why, and to be engaged in genuine consultation to achieve a result. 

“My office and I have worked constructively with a number of unions over recent months who have raised a quantity of genuine concerns about the original draft of this bill. I won’t stand for union bashing and therefore I won’t support the deregistration of organisations for misdemeanour offences like late paperwork submissions. I have, however, forewarned union bosses that bullying and thuggery must be stamped out in accordance with public expectations.”

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, in tandem with independent Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie, calls for the government to publicly release amendments to the Ensuring Integrity Bill, which would establish a demerit-point system to deregister unions. The attorney-general has since said the government would release the amendments “shortly”.

“I realise that my enthusiasm to return to parliament in the new year had gone and it’s time to move on with other aspects of my life and let others pick up the cudgels … In reflecting on my time in parliament I’m happy I always stuck to my principles and supported proven policy, rather than succumb to the siren call of the victimhood of populism.”

Liberal Party defector Cory Bernardi announces he will quit politics at the end of the year, giving the government an extra Senate seat.

The cabinet maker
Since becoming prime minister, Scott Morrison has stamped himself on the cabinet process. There will be more PowerPoints, and less debate about issues he sees as being routine. Karen Middleton on the new processes and how they work.


The number of times that Westpac breached anti–money laundering and counter-terrorism financing laws according to a court statement filed by regulator AUSTRAC today.

“The Marshall Liberal government is leading Australia’s transition to a reliable and affordable renewable energy system. The expansion of the Big Battery is expected to lead to significant savings by allowing South Australia to use even more renewable energy to lower prices in a secure fashion.”

The SA government has announced the expansion of Hornsdale Power Reserve, the world’s biggest battery, backed by grants of $15 million from the state storage fund and $8 million from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

The list

“Debate over the ownership of the land and its subterranean riches, the possible revitalisation of the Panguna mine, which closed amid violence in 1989, and even Papua New Guinea’s dominion over the region is reaching a new peak this month, as Bougainville finally gets its long-promised independence referendum. Delayed several times, it is set for November 23, with huge implications not just for the local peoples, but regionally and for a trickily positioned Australia.”

“Former Howard government adviser Geoff Cousins says the response of the government this week to those who talked about fossil fuel and climate change was straight out of the NRA playbook. But here’s the thing: the prime minister, who styles himself as the champion of quiet Australians, failed to make Australians quiet. People – not just the usual advocates of climate action, but also rural mayors, firefighters and fire victims – continued to demand the government acknowledge the causes of the disaster and commit to action.”

“It’s probably necessary for me to explain the maths behind it all, to explain how the government is averaging out the incomes of people working casual or precarious jobs in a way that has no bearing on reality, and then using it as the basis to accuse them of owing debts. You can follow along with a pen and paper. First, draw a picture of a rabbit with half its brain missing. Now imagine that you are being audited by the rabbit.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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