The Politics    Friday, December 11, 2020

Under COVID cover

By Paddy Manning

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

Ministers in the Morrison government can get away with anything

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. 

“I’m frigging furious. 2 years after asking for a PC report on mental health & 58 mental health inquiries since 2013 the Govt has set up yet another talk-fest. Scott Morrison has set up another inquiry to consider the PC report, putting off real action for months.”

Shadow health minister Chris Bowen takes to Twitter to vent about the appointment of a joint select committee on mental health to look at implementing the Productivity Commission’s recommendations.

“Linda has sadly been an abject failure and the devastation of her handling of the Brereton report cannot be underestimated … The discussions involving Dutton and the defence portfolio are less about elevating him to that role and more about ensuring that Linda no longer continues in that role, given the damage she’s done to the government.”

An unnamed senior minister briefs Sharri Markson on the push for Peter Dutton to replace Defence Minister Linda Reynolds.

Morrison gears up for a summer brawl
Just as parliament was wrapping up for the year, the government introduced radical and controversial proposed changes to workers’ rights. The new legislation looks set to dominate the political agenda in the new year. Today, Paul Bongiorno on how the political battlelines are being drawn.

The cost to the Commonwealth government of offshore processing in 2020–21, even though fewer than 300 asylum seekers remain detained indefinitely on Manus Island and Nauru – a cost of roughly $4 million per person.

“The global transition to zero emissions has negative implications for Australia’s important coal and LNG exports. The border taxes that the EU and US will apply to carbon-intensive goods will compound the loss. Join the developed countries of the northern hemisphere on the climate and energy transition, and we gain far more from the new zero-emissions economy than we lose from the old fossil energy. Investment in the new zero-emissions economy can provide much of the stimulus required for Australia’s own movement to full employment.”


Ross Garnaut, professorial research fellow at the University of Melbourne, makes the climate debate simple in an address drawing on his new book Reset: Restoring Australia After the Pandemic Recession.

The list

“On the evidence of Shirley Hazzard’s short stories, the author was always drawn to that authoritative world that was Europe: an idea as much as a region, and one subtle and perfected by time. European culture furnished a backdrop – splendid and festive, solemn and stylised – against which the characters of her own imagination might be ennobled or condemned, or at least granted volume and shape. No articulate, conscious life could proceed, in her view, without acknowledgement of the civilisations on which that life was built.”

“Australian politics is undergoing a painful realignment around the cleavages of climate politics. On one side of this realignment sit Liberal, National and ALP representatives of the fossil-fuel interests … On the other side of this realignment sit the Greens, obviously, but also the representatives – in both major parties – of climate-conscious voters in various inner-urban and other geographical areas. These voters are presently disorganised and disillusioned (at least outside of Twitter and GetUp!-style online petitions), and haven’t been able to respond at all effectively to the mobilisation of fossil-fuel interests since 2008–09.”

“When highway traffic stopped rumbling through Ulmarra earlier this year, the silence was deafening … Millions of vehicles a year had trundled through the northern New South Wales town (population 450), a historic river port that’s squeezed between the Clarence River and what was – until May – the Pacific Highway. That thoroughfare is now named Big River Way following the Pacific Highway’s realignment, part of Australia’s largest regional road infrastructure project that, after $15 billion and 25 years, is set for completion this month. And not-so-sleepy Ulmarra has taken the seismic change in its stride.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor at The Monthly and the author of Inside the Greens and Body Count.

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