Labor leader Anthony Albanese saved his best till last yesterday when he asked Prime Minister Scott Morrison a doozy in the dying minutes of Question Time for 2020: “Does the prime minister agree that his eight-year-old government is riddled with waste and scandal, including spending $30 million on airport land that was worth only $3 million to a Liberal Party donor, $100 million on sports rorts, $4.5 billion to fix the second-rate copper NBN, $1.2 billion to compensate robodebt victims, $20,000 on Cartier watches and millions on his dud COVIDSafe app?” A surly Morrison delivered a one-word answer – “No” – and sat back down as the year’s last Dorothy Dixer was safely delivered to his fixer on the Liberals’ religious right, Alex Hawke, who has been nearly invisible as the minister for international development and the Pacific. Like every member of the government who spoke yesterday, Hawke wanted to thank Australians for our country’s success in dealing with the pandemic – except he went further by thanking “our Pacific family”. It was in keeping with the whole day’s exercise in false humility by the Morrison government, which is brimming with self-congratulation at Australia’s good fortune through the pandemic – with only 908 deaths and an economic rebound in sight – and feeling very smug about the next election.
“Waste and scandal” was one of three themes that emerged from the Morrison government’s handling of the pandemic, Albanese told caucus colleagues this week. Now that the worst of the crisis looks to have passed, Labor plans to hammer the government along these lines into 2021, which may be an election year. The other two themes Albanese identified are the glaring gap between the government’s many announcements and the delivery of them – an excoriating piece in The Monthly previously described the PM as the “announcement artist” – and the growing number of people who are being left behind by the government in the recovery from the pandemic, including those thousands of Australians still stranded overseas. The picking-over of what went right and what went wrong this year has barely begun: for a well-grounded, alternative narrative on the government’s successes and failures, have a look at the three-page executive summary of this week’s interim report of the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19, chaired by Labor senator Katy Gallagher. Its six punchy recommendations include making the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board open and transparent; establishing a US-style Centre for Disease Control and permanently raising the payment level of JobSeeker.
But when it comes to scandal, Albanese was far too soft on the Morrison government yesterday. Whereas the Labor governments from 2007–13 were ruined by infighting and leadershite, the last few years under the Coalition have seen Australian politics sink to a level of corruption and scandal that is breathtaking. It was not that long ago that people would argue federal politics was less prone to the kind of corruption that has long plagued state politics – from premiers Robert Askin and Joh Bjelke-Petersen, to WA Inc, to the collapses of Pyramid Building Society and Tricontinental in Victoria, to the Eddie Obeid era in NSW. State governments were responsible for regulating the property and resource industries, but also reliant on them for taxes and royalties, and were therefore compromised. Nowadays, it is self-evident to even the most casual observer that Australia needs a strong federal ICAC with teeth. Eight in 10 voters support it. The Morrison government is sticking with a toothless model for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission that cannot hold public hearings, cannot initiate its own investigations, excludes politicians and, the clincher, is not retrospective, so the new body will never go poking around the misdeeds of the current crop of ministers.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of scandals, just from the last few years, that the Morrison government’s new “integrity” body would never look into, and which Albanese declined to mention yesterday, presumably for brevity: Josh Frydenberg handing out $444 million of taxpayers’ money unasked for and without a tender process, in #reefgate; Michaelia Cash misleading parliament after her office tipped off the media about a forthcoming raid on union headquarters by federal police; Liberal donor-controlled company Helloworld paying for private travel by ministers including Mathias Cormann; the one-man scandal machine Angus Taylor, whose company Jam Land was pinged for illegally spraying endangered grasses, whose former company Eastern Australia Irrigation got $79 million for non-existent water rights at an inflated valuation from the Commonwealth (#watergate) and whose office distributed an apparently fraudulent document to media in a ham-fisted attempt to embarrass Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, which backfired; and the outrageous prosecution of whistleblower Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery by Attorney-General Christian Porter – seemingly to protect former Howard government minister Alexander Downer. And sports rorts, of course, which ballooned to $2.5 billion in alleged pork-barrelling in programs such as the Community Development Grants scheme administered by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack. Not to mention the questionable track record of Sussan Ley and Stuart Robert, who both resigned in disgrace but have since enjoyed ministerial comebacks. It is little wonder the Morrison government is being described as arguably the most corrupt in Australia’s postwar history. They could truly be called a gated community.
This is the government that is right now patting itself on the back heading into Christmas, led by a prime minister who simply refuses to hold his ministers accountable, no matter how bad their behaviour. Under cover of COVID, it seems, ministers in the Morrison government can do just about anything they like.