The Politics    Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Less is less

By Paddy Manning

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Question Time today

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Question Time today. Image via ABC News

The Morrison government’s underspending ways are catching up with it

For a while it might have seemed like clever politics for the federal Coalition to try to shape the news cycle by making announceable spending commitments – as often as not, dropped in advance to friendly journalists – without actually spending the money. Viewed most charitably, underspending is the opposite of profligacy and could be considered part of budget repair. The jig is up, however. The Morrison government has so perfected the art of underspending that it has begun to look cynical and deliberate rather than prudent.

Today, Guardian Australia reports that the $100 million Recycling Investment Fund announced before the last election – which is run by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and is meant to support the manufacturing of products from recycled plastics and paper – has not “entered into any transactions at this point”. On Monday, shadow agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon highlighted that exactly two years after the prime minister announced his $5 billion Future Drought Fund, “not one cent” has been spent. In his budget reply a few weeks ago, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese pointed out that of the $4 billion allocated to the Emergency Response Fund created after the Black Summer bushfires, with $200 million available each financial year from 2019–20, “not a dollar has been spent”. Then there’s the HomeBuilder grant scheme (underspent), arts funding (underspent) and JobKeeper (an underspend that can be seen from space).

In the middle of a pandemic and a recession, when people really need support, and in the wake of devastating bushfires and drought, the Morrison government can no longer get away with such misleading and deceptive conduct. 

In a searing piece for The Monthly, editor Nick Feik dubbed Scott Morrison “the announcement artist”. It is a theme that Labor has taken up with gusto, including in Question Time today when shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers asked Treasurer Josh Frydenberg about evidence that the $4 billion JobMaker hiring-credit scheme for workers under 35 will create just 45,000 new jobs, not the 450,000 estimated in the federal budget. “How can Australians trust this government to spend taxpayer dollars in their best interest when its announcements never match its delivery?” asked Chalmers. Frydenberg simply stood by the estimates in the budget.

Shadow infrastructure minister Catherine King followed up with a question to the treasurer, again citing Treasury evidence that the government’s claimed 130,000 jobs generated by the Technology Investment Roadmap was a figure in a press release, not in the budget papers. “Is this another case of spin over substance?” asked King. Frydenberg ignored the question, saying: “I do not know what those opposite have got against creating jobs, but we are in favour of creating jobs.”

Such hollow rhetoric, often delivered at a hundred decibels, is wearing very thin. The prime minister and treasurer both joined the Opposition in a motion congratulating the people of Victoria in defeating the second wave of the pandemic, but they used it to attempt to score political points. Scott Morrison effectively chided the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, saying that border closures and lockdowns were “not evidence of success, they are evidence of outbreaks that have got out of control”. Frydenberg had the temerity to talk about the loss of 800 Victorian lives, saying it “all comes back to the failures in hotel quarantine” – neglecting to mention that 683 of those deaths were in federally funded and regulated nursing homes. State-run homes (with better staff ratios, trained nurses and proper infection-control procedures) were able to cope with the second wave without such fatalities. 

There is a disconnect between the Morrison government’s self-congratulation and the reality on the ground, and it is only getting deeper. 

“You can be assured that I will stand up for what is right and fair for everyday Queenslanders and Australians. How can I have faith in the proposal from a government that has yet to fix this huge and sometimes cruel mess that has impacted thousands of honest workers?”

Senator Malcolm Roberts warns the Morrison government it may not receive One Nation’s support if it blocks the entitlements of casual workers in looming industrial relations reforms.

“This is a guy who knows business and how to get things done: the fact he’s on the international political scene gives him so much more to add to his already strong CV.”

The US ambassador to New Zealand, Scott Brown, explains why President Trump has nominated his deputy chief of staff for policy coordination, New Zealander Chris Liddell, for the role of secretary-general of the OECD – a position also being contested by Australia’s outgoing finance minister, Mathias Cormann.

The teenagers taking on Adani
The controversial Adani coalmine in Queensland has already been approved by both state and federal governments, but a new legal challenge by two teenagers could be one last roll of the dice to stop it from going ahead.

The year when Australia’s 12 new submarines – costing $90 billion – are expected to be fully operational.

“The government is seeking stakeholder views on exposure draft legislation that makes permanent changes to the Corporations Act 2001 in relation to virtual meetings and electronic document execution … through these reforms, companies have the opportunity to utilise technology to satisfy their legal obligations.”

Treasury consults on legislative amendments to permanently allow companies to hold annual meetings virtually, sparing directors the discomfort of being subjected to shareholder scrutiny in person.

The list

“The quickness with which First Take was made – it took somewhere around a day – would be unlike Flack’s albums to follow, and especially unlike her multi-million-selling 1973 album Killing Me Softly, which was worked on for more than a year, and sounds like it, all the air pressed out of the arrangements. First Take, by the nature of its recording, has a presentness – a presence – that I envy now.”

“The state government says it is ‘committed to working with Aboriginal Victorians towards Australia’s first treaty’ but its actions indicate that it is more committed to working with Aboriginal Victorians who don’t get in the way. There is certainly greater enthusiasm for solutions that are material (involving compensation, for example) rather than solutions that require meaningful engagement with spiritual or environmental concerns.”

“Melbourne’s three-month lockdown has taken its toll on the city, but for some the sense of a loss of control – of their lives, their identity, their hair – has been particularly acute … For those living alone, lockdown often stirred intense feelings of loneliness. That human beings are social creatures is not a controversial fact, but it’s often forgotten that touch is one of the most important senses. Social animals kept apart tend to come undone at the seams. These psychic ruptures might be gentle, or severe, but they are all very real.”

Paddy Manning

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

The Politics

Image of Anthony Albanese

Whither progress?

In a threatening climate, the first full year of the Albanese government has been defined by caution and incrementalism

6 News Australia interviews Gen Z Party founder Thomas Rex Dolan. Image via X.

Grift of the gab

Strange things are happening to our political system, and it’s time the major parties started paying attention

Voting results displayed on two large screens at the UN General Assembly’s tenth emergency special session

Ceaseless politics

The Albanese government calls for a ceasefire, and the Coalition goes on the attack

Image of Chris Bowen speaking at COP28

Not phased

What good are nice words about phasing out fossil fuels when Australia continues to expand and export?

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination