Monday, March 2, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Artless dodgers
Avoiding accountability is hard work

© Lukas Coch / AAP Image

It has been observed often enough that Prime Minister Scott Morrison is increasingly Trump-like in his refusal to be held accountable to the parliament or media. But dodging accountability is hard work, and Senate Estimates hearings today showed that it takes a veritable army of MPs and officials who are prepared to set scruple aside and cover, delay or gaslight for the boss. It means, for example, that the rural and regional affairs committee chair, Senator Susan McDonald, decided that the word “rort” is unparliamentary. It means AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw took on notice almost every question in today’s legal and constitutional affairs estimates. It means head of the public service Philip Gaetjens is prepared to do a report on the sports rorts affair without talking to anyone in the PM’s office, as we learnt in the finance and public administration estimates.

Some of the clips out of today’s Senate Estimates hearings are farcical, and make for excruciating viewing. Take this tweet from Labor senator Murray Watt, who wanted to ask questions in rural and regional affairs estimates about the Regional Jobs Investment Packages, the Building Better Regions Fund, the Drought Communities Programme – Extension and other programs, and threw in the observation that “the reality is that pretty much every program in this area has been rorted”. It led to this exchange:

Chair Susan McDonald: Senator Watt, could we have a private meeting to discuss parliamentary language?

Senator Watt: Is “rorts” unparliamentary?

Senator McDonald: It is–

Senator Watt: Who says?

Senator McDonald: –since right now.

In this two-minute clip from the legal and constitutional affairs committee, tweeted by Labor senator Kristina Keneally, AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw opens his evidence by admitting that at his last appearance he set a record for the number of questions he took on notice, and would try to do better this time. Kershaw then goes on to take 15 questions on notice, leaving us to believe that he is in staggering ignorance about the AFP’s investigation into the doctored City of Sydney annual report given to The Daily Telegraph by the office of Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor, including having no idea who they interviewed, or what conclusion they reached about it. One question he did answer definitely was to make clear the case would not be reopened, “full stop”.

As Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy has been reporting live today, Labor’s Penny Wong went head-to-head with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann over an inability to get straight answers about the secret report into the sports rorts affair by the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Philip Gaetjens, a former chief of staff to the prime minister. Gaetjens’ report found the government had no case to answer over its administration of the Community Sport Grants Infrastructure Program, notwithstanding the findings of Auditor-General Grant Hehir, which raised questions. Frustration boiled over, with Wong blasting the process as “corrupt” – Cormann asked her to withdraw, and she did.

Dodging accountability is a pattern that is becoming endemic under the Morrison government. Ministers who refuse to resign after misleading the house. A house leader who constantly moves that the Opposition be “no longer heard”. An outgoing department secretary who destroys notes.

This afternoon, the ALP member for Lalor, Joanne Ryan, put the following question to the prime minister: “Today the prime minister’s own department told the Senate that Mr Gaetjens wasn’t aware of the 136 emails and 28 colour coded spreadsheets that passed between his office and the office of Senator McKenzie and further didn’t interview anyone in the prime minister’s office. Isn’t his defence of the corrupt sports rorts scheme based on an ill-informed sham report by his former chief of staff?”

The prime minister had a one-word answer to that: “No.” It’s an easy, short answer from the PM, which necessitates a lot of long-winded, painful defending by everyone else around him.

“More than one million energy customers’ privacy [is] at risk because Scott Morrison did not do his job. Instead of looking after YOUR privacy he was looking after his own political interests (trying to become the next PM).”

Labor senator Deborah O’Neill lays blame at the feet of the former treasurer, who is now the PM, after a joint investigation by Nine Media and ABC TV’s 7.30 revealed the personal information of 1.1 million Australians may have been jeopardised by Chinese firm Chow Tai Fook, which purchased Alinta.

“You have to continue to focus on those big cost areas … invest in high-quality cost content, try and get efficiencies in low-quality costs – printing, distribution, big output deals like AAP.”

Nine Entertainment chief executive Hugh Marks, speaking last week, ahead of a meeting today with joint AAP shareholder News Corp, which could decide the future of the wire service and its 180 journalists.

The town without abortion
A consortium of powerful religious doctors has made it impossible to choose a surgical abortion in one of Australia’s largest regional towns – even in the public hospital there.


The number of asylum-seeker boat turnbacks since the Coalition launched Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013. A boat carrying eight people was intercepted off Western Australia today.

“We will be changing the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines to make sure every procurement undertaken by a Commonwealth agency considers environmental sustainability and use of recycled content as a factor in determining value for money.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces the first of a series of measures to build demand for recycled products, in a speech at the National Plastics Summit at Parliament House today.

The list

“Infectious diseases physician Rupa Kanapathipillai describes her meticulous routine in the hospital and at home: ‘I still avoid having any contact with my baby before I have changed all my clothes and showered.’ As a relatively new father myself, I can relate to the fear that our jobs could have enormous consequences for our families. Behind our masks, these are things neither of us want to think too much about.”

“ASIO boss Mike Burgess was praised last week for his bravery in making his first Annual Threat Assessment address to an audience including the media in Canberra – but in fact few if any beans were spilled. There were hints of daring deeds in the murky backwaters of espionage and intrigue, teasers of close escapes from dire threats to the safety of a complacent public. But no revelations to curl the hair of his eager listeners were made. Hardly surprising, of course – when you live in the secret world, secrecy is always the default option.”

“With hindsight it becomes clear that Rowan Baxter’s conduct is an exemplary case of the law’s inability to deal with dangerous and escalating behaviour constituting coercive control.” 

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 Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


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