The Politics    Monday, February 1, 2021

The big five-oh

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking at the National Press Club today

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking at the National Press Club today (image via Facebook)

Morrison’s five priorities for 2021 seem like politics as usual

MPs are converging on Canberra ahead of tomorrow’s opening of the new parliamentary year – and though it’s only meant to be a three-day sitting week, it’s already shaping up to be a full five days’ worth of politics.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to strike a positive note in his National Press Club address this afternoon, laying out his five priorities for 2021: to suppress the virus and deliver the vaccine, to cement the nation’s economic recovery, to continue to guarantee the essential services Australians rely on, to protect and secure Australia’s interests, and to “care for our country”. On the first point, Morrison used the opportunity to announce an additional $1.9 billion investment in the vaccine rollout – bringing the government’s total support for COVID vaccines and treatments to $6.3 billion. But when it came to the second, he offered up exactly the opposite, echoing Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s comments on Sunday saying that JobKeeper and the JobSeeker supplement are definitely coming to an end after March. “We are not running a blank-cheque budget,” Morrison said. And when it came to “caring for our country”, Morrison continued to plead the Fifth on emissions-reduction timelines, focusing instead on recycling, soil and illegal fishing. 

The Australian Electoral Commission, meanwhile, has released the 2019–2020 donations disclosures, with a couple of big fives in there too. Number crunching by the Centre for Public Integrity, a non-profit group seeking reform to donations laws, reveals that 46 per cent of political donations came from just five donors, with Mineralogy, Pratt Holdings, Woodside Energy, Macquarie Group and the Australian Hotels Association giving almost $8.3 million between them. More than $5 million of that came from Clive Palmer’s Mineralogy, which was donated – surprise, surprise – to his own United Australia Party. Greens senator Larissa Waters – whose new private member’s bill to stop grants and tenders to political donors is unlikely to pass parliament – has been sharing other findings on Twitter: Trevor St Baker’s company donated $25,000 to the Liberal Party, just as the government was assessing whether give it a $8,700,000 grant to upgrade its coal plant (it did), while the big four consulting firms donated $208,869 between them, getting back $600 million in government contracts. Nine Entertainment gave money to both Labor and Liberal, while Seven Network’s Kerry Stokes gave $100k to Clive Palmer. The Liberals, meanwhile, handed back a $33,800 donation from a Lebanon-based engineering firm, but accepted $203,000 from the Chinese businesswoman Sally Zou’s Transcendent Australia.

Longer-term analysis from the Centre for Public Integrity reveals another big five, with 25 per cent of all political donations in the past two decades coming from either Mineralogy, the Cormack Foundation, ALP Holdings, John Curtin House or the SDA. But what’s worse than the donations we know about might be those we don’t. The report found hidden donations worth $1.1 billion, or 35 per cent of contributions since 1999, with Australia’s weak donor disclosure laws allowing the source of donations below $14,300 to be hidden from public view. Former electoral commissioner Ed Killesteyn has joined criticism of Australia’s disclosure scheme, calling it one of the worst in the world for informing voters about donations at election time.

Perth is also counting to five this week, with a snap five-day lockdown now underway, following Western Australia’s first locally acquired cases in 10 months. The community is being warned to brace for more cases, in what will be the first big test for the state’s contact-tracing system. Premier Mark McGowan is still trying to keep non-residents out of his state, asking the prime minister and state premiers to “put a stop to any travel into WA”, even when they’re the one with cases. The man is nothing if not persistent. Authorities in Canberra have ordered federal MPs who arrived on a flight from Perth to go into self-isolation, although an exception has already been made for Attorney-General Christian Porter, given a special exemption to attend a High Court ceremony.

Things are looking a hell of a lot better for the prime minister than they did this time last year, but they’re not looking quite as good as they did this time last week. The first Newspoll for 2021 saw Labor level the two-party-preferred contest to 50-50, and even narrow the gap between the two leaders to 29-57 (previously 28-60) in spite of the party’s leadership angst. Morrison approval ratings dropped by three points to 63 per cent, with The Australian suggesting Morrison was being unfairly blamed for Christmas border closures – something for which no one has blamed him. The unexpected preselection defeat of veteran right-winger Kevin Andrews – despite the support and campaigning of the prime minister and other senior party figures – should have him worried, as should the twin challenges facing controversial Liberal MP Craig Kelly in Hughes, with moderates and independents gunning to remove him. Has Morrison been appeasing the wrong side of the party? Two of his ministers are in self-isolation (even if one of them is allowed out under special exemptions), with their absence able to tip the balance in the House of Reps, and he might soon be staring down an Opposition with its act together.

It’s not exactly a five-alarm fire at this stage, but Morrison might want to tread carefully. He should recall how quickly fires can get out of hand.

“In an era of faltering government accountability, of Trumpian neo-populism, of sports rorts and of ‘I don’t hold a hose, mate’, the lack of environmental accountability is perhaps the least-explored and will provide the most enduring costs of those failures. The Samuel report can help to start to change this.”

Tim Beshara and Suzanne Milthorpe of the Wilderness Society say a new report by Professor Graeme Samuel into Australia’s environmental laws cannot be ignored.

“It might be a great political slogan, but it’s not a realistic approach to this virus.”

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton criticises Western Australia’s snap lockdown.

The sailors stranded at sea because of Australia’s trade war
Right now hundreds of ships carrying Australian coal are stranded in Chinese ports. More than 1000 sailors have been trapped on board for months now because of one reason: Australia’s escalating trade war with China.


The number of hours worked by the Perth hotel quarantine guard who tested positive for COVID-19 in the 48 hours leading up to falling ill. It’s believed he also works as a rideshare delivery driver, though not in the time he was positive. Underpaid, insecure work strikes again.

“Gig economy workers such as Uber Eats delivery riders will be entitled to a minimum wage and other basic terms and conditions under a policy proposal to be released soon by federal Labor.”


The Labor Party will commit to ensuring gig workers are fairly paid, accelerating its policy rollout amid internal leadership tensions.

The list

“Already criticised for failing to tell the story of the ‘dark side of the Anzac legend’ (soldiers who committed crimes, rioted, deserted or mutinied) and to adequately address the history of anti-war movements, the Australian War Memorial stands at a crossroad. Will its council – overwhelmingly dominated by military or former military personnel with little historical expertise, and backed by the prime minister – succeed in restricting the autonomy of the memorial’s curators and historians to tell the full story of what happened in Afghanistan, or any other theatre of war for that matter?”

“In a fawning column last year, The Australian’s foreign editor celebrated Trump’s fulfilment of promises and his ‘strong nationalism’. Greg Sheridan also commended Trump’s ‘earthy’ persona – which is like describing Pacino’s Scarface as ‘excitable’. Perhaps, for Sheridan, the pus-filled blisters of Trump’s psyche resembled some mythic American decency. But when Trump’s ‘earthiness’ revealed itself – surprise! – to be fascism born of a profound and annihilating narcissism, Sheridan performed his triple aerial cartwheel, capped with a backward somersault.”

“After Australia’s pharmaceutical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, announced on Monday it had approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for domestic distribution, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his health officials stepped out to reassure the public … But in sections of the health community that determination is tempered by confusion, anxiety and frustration. There is a creeping sense that despite its success tackling the virus, Australia is not as ready for this daunting next stage as it should be.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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