Friday, February 7, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

The Morrison government is not even pretending to be accountable

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Liberal member for Corangamite Sarah Henderson during the 2019 election campaign. © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

“Another day, another rort,” said shadow sports minister Don Farrell today, in response to a report in Guardian Australia that the Coalition spent almost $150 million of taxpayers’ money ahead of last year’s election campaign, in a federal program that was never opened to public applications. This news about the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream program follows this week’s revelations about the Stronger Communities Programme, and the saga over the Community Sport Infrastructure Grants Program, which cost the job of former Nationals cabinet minister Bridget McKenzie. There are now so many rorting controversies, they are combining to form one big mega-rort – a rort so big it is creating its own political weather. Remarkably, the response of the Morrison government to the emergence of these scandals, from the prime minister down, has been to assert the right to rort, on the basis that MPs know better than unelected bureaucrats what’s needed in their electorates. If they get away with that, then checks and balances are no more, and the Opposition and media may as well pack up and go home.

There were no rules at all in the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream program, as the ABC points out: “No guidelines. No tender process. No application form. Some recipients didn’t know they’d even been given money until they read about it in the local paper.” ABC’s 7.30 last night aired standing concerns about the administration of the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages, the Drought Communities Programme and the Building Better Regions Fund, under which 94 per cent of grants went to electorates held by or targeted by the Coalition at the last election. As the ABC’s political editor, Laura Tingle, said last night, while the individual grants involved in some of these programs are small, the collective amounts of money are significant. Other government grant programs have also attracted controversy, such as the Safer Communities Fund, the Commuter Car Park Fund, the Mutual Understanding, Support, Tolerance, Engagement and Respect initiative, and the Communities Environment Program.

The overlapping nature of the scandals makes it harder to expose each individual one; it paradoxically protects them. Consequently, the government is not even pretending to hold itself accountable. The prime minister and the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, are so keen to move on from the sports rorts affair there is already discussion of when, not if, Bridget McKenzie might be returned to cabinet. A Senate inquiry will be starved of key witnesses and documents. Freedom of information requests will be denied or delayed indefinitely. There has to be a circuit-breaker on this downwards spiral to ever-lower standards of accountability. A federal ICAC with real teeth is a minimum.

But wait, there’s more, because the apparent rorting of grants programs for party-political purposes is only part of the story. There is also the failure of the federal police to investigate what, on its face, seems an open-and-shut case of falsifying documents by the office of Angus Taylor, minister for energy and emissions reductions. Someone faked the City of Sydney annual report in question, provided by the minister’s office to The Daily Telegraph. Who? Is it beyond the wit of the federal police, so adept at investigating journalists, whistleblowers and members of the Opposition?

Don’t even mention the perpetration of the vindictive robodebt scheme on hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients, including raising a billion dollars of fake debts – which may have tipped vulnerable people into suicide, according to evidence before a Senate inquiry, and which turns out to be illegal, according to secret advice the government kept from the public.

Once it seemed that, for all its faults, Australian politics had avoided the post-truth, hyper-partisan excesses of Trump and Brexit in the US and UK. No longer. We’ve got the disease, and we’ve got it bad.

“I am shocked and disappointed the AFP will not further investigate the matter and shed light on a situation that has further eroded the community’s faith in the Federal Government.”

The lord mayor of Sydney, reacting to the AFP’s announcement it would not investigate allegations that a doctored document was used by Energy Minister Angus Taylor in an attack on Moore’s record on climate change.

“In the Nationals, you are not sacked if you cross the floor. The vote last Tuesday should not be a precursor to changing our party culture. Parties that change the threshold of a successful vote or change the threshold for access to the test for a vote on the false premise of cohesion are merely disenfranchising people with the same excuse as is always used. It works better for Russia when Vladimir Putin does not have an election.”

Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, going on the warpath and opposing a proposal to require a two-thirds majority of MPs to spill the leadership, and warning that he, George Christensen and Llew O’Brien would cross the floor against the government.

The potential hit to Australian universities from the coronavirus outbreak.

“The outlook for the Australian economy is for growth to pick up over the next two years, supported by accommodative monetary policy, a pick-up in mining investment and a turnaround in dwelling investment. GDP growth was lower than forecast in the September quarter and this partly explains the downward revision to the forecasts for year-ended growth over the next few quarters compared to those presented in the November Statement on Monetary Policy. The forecasts have also been revised a little lower in the near term to account for some effect from the recent bushfires and the coronavirus outbreak in China; beyond the near term, forecasts for growth are largely unchanged.”

The RBA today downgraded its Australian growth forecasts for 2019–20 from 2.5 per cent to 2 per cent.

The list

“Hailing ‘a promising new voice’ is a useful cliché of criticism, and one which Sean O’Beirne’s debut collection earns as literally, and as variously, as possible. What we have here are not so much stories as miniature monologues detailing a world somewhere between everyday and apocalyptic, and shaped with some of our lowest forms of utterance: political press conferences, YouTube comments, bucks night speeches. It’s rare to see a book so confident in its ability to convert the linguistic detritus of our era into something of lasting value.”

“I ask him during our interview last weekend at his Melbourne hotel if he is aware of the particular significance of this year. ‘The rat?’ he fires back. ‘The Year of the Rat, isn’t it?’ Which it is, according to the Chinese zodiac cycle, although the query was intended to be more tennis related. Specifically, the fact that it is 20 years since the centre court at Melbourne (originally Flinders) Park was renamed Rod Laver Arena.”

“I talked to Philip about this exercise in pairs where you work with people in coma states. One person lies on the floor, pretends to go into a coma – acting – and the other person works on trying to communicate with them, and afterwards you feedback on whether they were contacting you. But you’ve got to look for minimal signals: temperature change, colour change. Philip said, ‘Stop talking about it; just do it. Lie on the floor; I’ll try and contact you.’ So I lay on the floor, Philip sat at the piano, and he basically did Arnie Mindell coma work at the piano, and he wrote this extraordinary, beautiful piece of music.”

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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