The pandemic is no excuse for misleading parliament
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his scandal-prone energy and emissions reductions minister, Angus Taylor, are hoping to use the coronavirus as a big get-out-of-jail-free card – on sports rorts, on #Taylorgate, and on much else besides. They hope that, because there is a bona fide health and economic crisis unfolding, anyone who raises these tawdry episodes will look petty or worse – an addict of the kind of gutter politics that Australians hate. Never mind that this situation is of Morrison and his ministers’ own doing. It wasn’t Labor or journalists from inside the Canberra bubble who dragged the prime minister’s office into the sports rorts affair; it wasn’t Labor or the media that decided it would be a lark to make fun of Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore’s climate activism by shipping a forged council document to TheDaily Telegraph. Morrison and Taylor did all this by themselves. In the House this week, both stood accused of misleading parliament, and both got away with reverse-smearing the Opposition for having the temerity to ask questions about either episode in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. If Australians fall for that, we will be on the slippery slope to Trumpism, and soon there will no accountability for any minister, ever, misleading parliament again.
First to sports rorts, which exploded onto federal politics in January when an Australian National Audit Office report found that certain applicants to the $100 million Community Sport Infrastructure Grant program (that is, those from marginal seats targeted by the Coalition) got favourable treatment. Bridget McKenzie, then sports minister, lost her portfolio and the deputy leadership of the Nationals over that, and the prime minister has consistently sought to downplay the involvement of his office in decisions over funding allocations, telling parliament that “there was no authorisation provided by me as prime minister on the projects”. But, as Guardian Australia’s Paul Karp reported last Friday, the ANAO, in written responses to questions on notice, wrote that “the prime minister’s office had advised the minister’s office that it was expected that the minister would write to the prime minister to seek ‘authority’ on the approved projects and inform the prime minister of the ‘roll out plan’”. Karp has stayed on the story all week, pressing the PM in a press conference on Monday and following through on Tuesday and Wednesday, after Morrison attempted to explain that the authority of his office related to election announcements, rather than funding decisions itself. Right. It all culminated in this exchange with Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, in the House yesterday:
Marles: My question is to the prime minister. Why did the prime minister tell the House yesterday, about his sports rorts scheme, “The only authority sought from the prime minister’s office and for myself was in relation to announcements,” when the audit office found the prime minister’s office told Senator McKenzie’s office, “It was expected that the minister would write to the prime minister to seek authority on the approved projects and inform the prime minister of the rollout plan”?
Morrison: I said it because it was true.
Gobsmacking. When Marles came around for his next question, the PM stuck to his guns and then went for the reverse-smear:
Today, we heard information released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that almost 600,000 Australians have lost their jobs. That’s where my focus is. I will leave the Australian people – [Opposition members interjecting] – leave it to their judgement to see where the Opposition’s focus is.
Angus Taylor, who has much less to commend him than the PM, is even more brazen, and again it is Guardian Australia that has stayed doggedly with the story, led by Anne Davies. As Davies reported on Wednesday, the Australian Federal Police told the Senate, in answers to questions on notice, that it had “no concluded view” on who doctored the City of Sydney council document provided to TheDaily Telegraph, and after receiving a “thorough and detailed” brief from NSW Police, the AFP dropped the investigation. The AFP had already stated there was “no evidence” the document was downloaded from the council’s website, but Taylor has repeatedly said the document was “accessed” from the website and he repeated that claim in the House yesterday after being questioned by his Opposition counterpart, Mark Butler:
Butler: My question is again to the minister for energy and emissions reduction. On 24 October last year, in answer to a question, the minister told the House that a document with fake numbers was drawn from the City of Sydney website, but New South Wales police told the New South Wales parliament that they found no evidence that the minister’s office downloaded the annual report from the City of Sydney’s website. Does the minister stand by his statement to the House? Why won’t the minister tell the House where the document came from?
Taylor: I do stand by the statement I made on 25 October – that the document was accessed from the City of Sydney website – [members interjecting] – Let me read from the department’s evidence, which was made public in January, four months ago: “The department did ascertain that the City of Sydney’s website was accessed by the minister’s office on 9 September 2019. The department’s system allows individuals to directly print from the website.” This matter was the ninth political referral from those opposite, and, in keeping with the previous eight, the matter was considered and closed, not once, but twice. As the commissioner said, the matter is finalised, full stop. I’m getting on with protecting lives and livelihoods, because I know that a strong Australia coming out of the COVID-19 crisis requires a secure and reliable supply of energy, liquid fuels, gas and electricity. That’s what I’m focusing on every day. Those opposite should do the same.”
What Taylor actually said in the House last October – it was the 24th – was that the document was “drawn from the City of Sydney website”. Whether it was drawn, accessed or downloaded, we all know who provided that forged document to TheDaily Telegraph in a student-politics hit job, and Taylor’s semantics make a mockery of the parliament.
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Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his scandal-prone energy and emissions reductions minister, Angus Taylor, are hoping to use the coronavirus as a big get-out-of-jail-free card – on sports rorts, on #Taylorgate, and on much else besides. They hope that, because there is a bona fide health and economic crisis unfolding, anyone who raises these tawdry episodes will look petty or worse – an addict of the kind of gutter politics that Australians hate. Never mind that this situation is of Morrison and his ministers’ own doing. It wasn’t Labor or journalists from inside the Canberra bubble who dragged the prime minister’s office into the sports rorts affair; it wasn’t Labor or the media that decided it would be a lark to make fun of Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore’s climate activism by shipping a forged council document to TheDaily Telegraph. Morrison and Taylor did...
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