Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Today by Paddy Manning

A dry argument
Drought policy is tangled at the worst possible time

What a mess: the federal government’s response to Australia’s worst drought in living memory is starting to look shambolic. There is no shortage of fine words: Prime Minister Scott Morrison today put paid to any bipartisan “war cabinet” on drought, pooh-poohing the proposal from Opposition leader Anthony Albanese, saying the Labor leader “thinks he should be sitting in a cabinet making decisions on this side of the place”. The PM insisted the government had a comprehensive response to the drought, which would have “first call” on the budget heading into December’s midyear economic update, and the April report of the drought coordinator-general, Stephen Day, would be released in the “not too distant future”. Behind the rhetoric, however, is a distinct lack of substance. 

Senior Nationals, including Veterans Minister Darren Chester, were forced to hose down reports of a possible challenge to Deputy Leader and Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie, after a Monday party room meeting heard backbench concerns about her handling of the portfolio. “We are facing one of our biggest tests of government in this drought,” one backbencher told the ABC yesterday. “It has the potential to be a national disaster and needs our top minds in those positions of drought, water and agriculture. And right now, agriculture is the hot seat and we need her to do a better job.”

This morning there seemed to be blood in the water with McKenzie facing a string of uncomfortable questions in Senate estimates from Labor’s Murray Watt. How long would she continue as minister? Who held seniority, her or Water Resources and Drought Minister David Littleproud? 

WATT: Minister, you’re the senior minister in this portfolio. Why do you and other ministers, right up to the prime minister, continue to mislead drought-affected communities, about your drought package? Just be honest and say it’s about a two- or three-hundred million dollar package.

McKENZIE: The cost to the budget [of the Future Drought Fund] is $5 billion…

WATT: It’s not! It doesn’t get there for 10 years!

McKENZIE: …and that’s why we have a $7 billion drought package…

The argy-bargy drags on. In Question Time, shadow agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon asked why the government had kicked 600 farming families off the farm household allowance, and would kick another 500 families off the payment by Christmas. Morrison responded that the farm household allowance was now “the most generous it has been in its entire history”, with farming families entitled to $125,000 over four years out of every 10, topped up by a $13,000 supplementary payment. 

There are other inconsistencies, as when a drought-stricken area like Moira Shire in Victoria misses out on $1 million assistance because they fall 0.1 per cent short of the required 17 per cent rural employment participation rate, while Moyne Shire hands back its money because it doesn’t need it.

Then there’s the mystery over what former special drought envoy Barnaby Joyce actually delivered for the reported cost to taxpayers of $875,000. Last night Finance Minister Mathias Cormann took on notice almost every single question on that topic from Senator Jenny McAllister. How many texts did Joyce send? How many letters? Can we see copies? Cormann promised to get back to the committee, to the extent that was appropriate for advice that ultimately informed cabinet, but did offer this reassurance: “Barnaby Joyce worked extremely hard as Special Envoy for Drought Assistance and Recovery – very, very hard.” 


“We urge you to withdraw the claim, to settle any dispute without punitive measures, and to affirm the commitment of Murdoch University to academic freedom as an essential university value.”

From an open letter, signed by 57 professors, urging Murdoch University to drop legal action against whistleblower Associate Professor Gerd Schroder-Turk, who spoke to Four Corners earlier this year raising concern about international students.

“I would be disappointed if your suggestion is that a wife couldn’t be appropriately employed because of what may or may not be the activities of her husband … You are now going to allegations about a family member … of a staff member, which I think goes beyond what I am comfortable dealing with on the spot without properly informing myself of the facts.”

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann in Senate estimates yesterday responding to questions about the PM’s employment of the wife of a QAnon conspiracy theorist.

Restarting robo-debt
An error at the Department of Human Services caused the original robo-debt algorithm to restart, issuing thousands of unchecked debt notices. Royce Kurmelovs on how the program operates and why the government persists with it – in spite of its flaws.

The amount the federal government has spent housing four Tamil refugees, deported from the Queensland town of Biloela, at the reopened Christmas Island detention centre.

“The signing of Fiji Ports Corporation Limited, Samoa Ports Authority, Cook Islands Ports Authority, Lyttleton Port Company Ltd, and the Port of Napier comes as a massive step forward in connecting the ports and maritime sector across our region. As we continue building bridges between ports and various service providers on home soil, we look forward to bringing our overseas partners and their unique industry knowledge to the table.”

Ports Australia chief executive Mike Gallacher extols the virtues of a new deal with five Pacific ports, intended to provide solidarity for the region’s trade and maritime sector.

The list

“An hour until dusk, until the buses and Land Rovers set out from the light pollution of Broome for this more star-friendly site: a favourable dark neighbouring a crocodile park. Strips of astroturf have been laid over red pindan sand before a semicircle of three-tier stadium swivel-seating. A troupe of volunteers runs between tiers, whisking brushes over seats. This could be the staging for a bush prophet, and Greg Quicke, with his long silver hair and beard, his bluey and black jeans, seems to fit the frame.”

“New rules designed to ‘minimise’ the practice of physically restraining or doping elderly residents in nursing homes are so poorly written they will backfire and lead to a rise in the use of chemical control, experts have warned.”

“Just how quiet does Morrison want Australians to be? If the government’s troubling response to the federal police raids on journalists is any guide – avoiding ministerial responsibility and falling back on the familiar evasive strategy of not interfering in ‘operational’ matters – it clearly prefers Australians to be well and truly asleep.”

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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