Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

Carrot vs pork
The government that loves buying Australians’ votes is deadset against paying them to get vaccinated

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

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

The Morrison government has come out hard against the Opposition’s proposal for a $300 payment for Australians who get vaccinated by December 1, arguing that cash incentives are reckless and unwarranted. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham took the first whack on News Breakfast, telling hosts that the idea was “insulting” to the millions of Australians already doing the right thing (though they would not miss out under Labor’s proposal), and claiming it was wasteful. (The policy would cost around $6 billion if all adults got the jab by then, compared to the $2 billion per week that lockdowns are costing, and compared to the $12.5 billion in JobKeeper payments given to companies that did not suffer any downturn last year.) Birmingham told RN Breakfast that the government was considering special liberties for vaccinated people, while limiting movement for the unvaccinated, seemingly preferring the stick over the carrot approach. Throughout today’s press conference and Question Time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeatedly referred to the idea as a “bubble without a thought”, arguing it was a “$6 billion cash splash” from Labor. But the more outrageous argument he used against the proposal was that it was a “vote of no confidence” in Australians, and he spoke at length about his faith in Australians to do the right thing. Australians, the PM added, couldn’t be “paid off” – an about-face from a government that has repeatedly attempted to pay off those living in marginal seats with car parks and sporting facilities, for example. It’s curious that the Morrison government is so opposed to what is a rather modest incentive to grease the wheels of the vaccine rollout, considering its recent fondness for incentivising votes in the “top 20 marginals” – though of course vaccine payments would go to all Australians, rather than just those it wants votes from. It’s not so much that the government prefers the stick over the carrot, it seems, but that it prefers the pork.

The government’s cheap arguments against the one-off payment continued in today’s masked-up Question Time, the first of the spring session, featuring Acting Leader of the House Christian Porter standing in for the isolating Peter Dutton. (No adequate explanation was offered for why the deputy leader of the house, David Gillespie, did not step in, despite being in attendance.) Labor, unsurprisingly, opened with its “you had two jobs” line, while Morrison tried out a new counterattack, shouting that Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese didn’t understand the job and was “undermining” the vaccination program, before labelling the $300 idea “ill-informed, ill-disciplined, not thinking of the consequences”. When the PM was then asked, somewhat pointlessly, if the government would adopt Labor’s proposal, Morrison argued that experts had labelled it a “bad idea” that could have the reverse effect, and he then accused Albanese of failing to speak to Lieutenant General John Frewen, head of the vaccine rollout taskforce, who had earlier backed up the government’s approach. (The allegation prompted much shouting and something “unparliamentary” from Albanese that had to be withdrawn, with the Opposition leader noting that Morrison “knew full well” there was a meeting scheduled for Thursday, and that it was the first time one had been offered.)

It’s not clear that the payments are a bad idea, however, with behavioural experts finding evidence that financial incentives – which are being tried in many other countries – can work. As shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers noted, Morrison’s phased reopening plan specifically mentions “encouraging uptake through incentives”. To which Morrison responded by accusing Labor of wanting to “recklessly spend Australian taxpayers’ money” and of playing politics (his usual go-to).

But when it was put to the government by Ballarat MP Catherine King that it had spent much more (and much more recklessly) on JobKeeper and pork-barrelling, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg ignored the rorting allegations, and claimed that this was Labor questioning the importance of JobKeeper – an amazing program that he insisted had saved Australia. (Never mind the fact that it was Labor that had fought for JobKeeper to be kept and reinstated.) Question Time then devolved into a game of semantics around whether the vaccine rollout was, in fact, “a race”, and why the prime minister had ever suggested it wasn’t, along with everything else he had changed his tune on, such as lockdowns.

The prime minister’s rejection of a cash incentive on the basis that such an idea is some combination of untargeted, undisciplined and ill informed (words he used over and over throughout Question Time) is deeply hypocritical, considering the way the government treats taxpayers’ money (see: JobKeeper profiteering, sports rorts and commuter car parks). But it may also be incredibly short-sighted. The government has dismissed the idea out of hand, with what independent Rex Patrick labelled an “unfortunate kneejerk” response. But what happens if Australia later fails to reach its all-important vaccination targets? Will the government then be forced to take on the idea that it attempted to laugh out of the room? It wouldn’t be the first time it has majorly backtracked, while insisting it is only “with hindsight” or due to “changed circumstances” that the things it previously rubbished – such as hard, early lockdowns, and payments for those undergoing them – are now necessary. Government ministers today suggested that this payment proposal was an “insult” to Australians, but the real insult is the government repeatedly changing its tune while never admitting it got things wrong in the first place. 

“The Commonwealth should work with traditional owners and their representative corporate bodies to support them to scrutinise such arrangements and detect underpayments.”

Senator Pat Dodson has called for a widespread audit of Indigenous land-use agreements, after traditional owners found they may have been underpaid by Rio Tinto by as much as $400 million.

“The agency has conducted the refunds process in a careful, thorough and appropriate manner and we reject any claims to the contrary.”

A Services Australia spokesperson rejects reports that it used trainee staff to process complex robodebt refunds.

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Hosting the Olympics is an honour for which cities have competed for more than a century. It’s seen as recognition of a nation’s economic superiority and a source of national pride. But is hosting the games really worth it? Today, Mike Seccombe on the power of the IOC.

The amount of taxpayer funds that have been spent in schemes with inadequate checks on ministerial power, according to new analysis, with that number expected to reach $10 billion in the coming years.

“Just hours after calling on the federal government to abandon a permanent relaxation of sharemarket disclosure laws, Senator Pauline Hanson said she would back the change, with a review in two years.”


Treasurer Josh Frydenberg needs just one more crossbench vote to make the relaxation of continuous disclosure laws permanent, meaning corporations and directors would be only liable for breaches where they acted with “knowledge, recklessness or negligence”.

The list

“Assange has now been under some form of house arrest, political asylum or imprisonment for 11 years. Electronic ankle bracelets and long white vans have given way to solitary confinement in a freezing maximum-security prison. ‘I’m slowly dying here,’ he told friend Vaughan Smith in a rare phone call on Christmas Eve 2020. The Westminster Magistrates’ Court agrees. Continuing down this oppressive path is going to kill Julian Assange. Yet within days of her judgement the same magistrate refused bail while US authorities considered their appeal options, leaving Assange still trapped in a cell.”

“Tap–tap–tap. Felicity Baker knocks her fingers on the table; an insistent percussive beat. It could get annoying. We are in an otherwise tranquil room at the Southbank home of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, where Professor Baker (small, intent, energetic) is head of music therapy. It is a field whose previous lack of recognition was once a source of frustration to her. But that is not why she’s tapping. Baker is recalling an encounter with a patient in an aged-care home where she was working. The woman had dementia and, like many others with the disease, she was often agitated. When she was agitated, she would tap – and soon everyone else would be agitated too … So Baker did what she had been trained to do. Leaning across, she began to tap on the woman’s leg. And as she tapped, she sang.”

“As COVID-19 continues to batter the higher education sector, Australian universities began rounds of job cuts and program restructures, with Asian language programs highly targeted. In December 2020, Swinburne University axed its Chinese and Japanese programs. Prior to this, La Trobe University had proposed scrapping its Indonesian and Hindi courses. Western Sydney University also cut its Indonesian language subjects …With the wave of redundancies likely to continue, several Asian experts told The Saturday Paper that universities were ‘short-sighted’ for the cuts. They worried that, as borders remained shut, the cuts would leave a gap of Asia literacy in this generation. ”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



The Monthly Today

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