The Politics    Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Accountable to no one

By Rachel Withers

Accountable to no one

Shadow minister for government accountability Kristina Keneally speaking at the National Press Club today. Image via Twitter

Shadow minister for government accountability Kristina Keneally calls for some

As Nick Feik wrote in this month’s cover story, a lack of accountability has become systemic in the Morrison government. Whether it’s the misuse of public funds or pork-barrelled grant allocations, corporate subsidies or forged documents, the Coalition appears to think it can get away with anything. And why shouldn’t it? It consistently does, as this week has reminded us. Newly appointed shadow minister for government accountability Kristina Keneally used today’s speech at the National Press Club to expound on this very theme, arguing that an endless list of scandals, accompanied by a total lack of transparency or consequences, was undermining Australians’ trust in government – though perhaps that suits Scott Morrison best, she noted. One of the Opposition’s sharpest attack dogs of late, Keneally listed the numerous scandals the government has now shaken off, noting that behaviour from government ministers such as Stuart Robert, Angus Taylor and Richard Colbeck would be “career-ending” in the private sector (and would no doubt lead to talk of a change in chief executive). Keneally also pointed to an increasing amount of taxpayer money being spent via non-transparent grants programs, arguing that the “sports rorts” affair was neither the biggest nor the worst misuse of funds. Morrison, she noted, has repeatedly boosted the once-small Community Development Grants fund, which now sits in the billions, with 75 per cent of it going to Coalition-held seats, along with many other instances of egregious but underreported pork-barrelling, as covered in Feik’s essay

It was convenient timing for Keneally, with the federal Coalition’s NSW counterpart coming under increasing fire for its distribution of bushfire recovery funds. Deputy Premier John “Pork Barrel-aro” is this week defending his government’s allocation of relief funding primarily to Coalition-held areas, telling a parliamentary inquiry on Monday that a $1 million minimum spend requirement was what caused the devastated Blue Mountains to miss out – despite many of the funded projects falling under that amount, as Nine reports. (A spokesperson said that those grants fell under a “sector development scheme” that did not have a minimum spend, and that the Blue Mountains council failed to apply under that category.) It was reportedly the first time that council mayors had heard of the criteria at all. Barilaro also told the inquiry that those who missed out had not been eligible because they were not ready to go – claims disputed by the mayor of the Blue Mountains council, who told Guardian Australia their projects were “shovel ready”. 

The parliamentary committee, which previously heard that money from the Stronger Communities Fund went overwhelmingly to Coalition-held electorates, is now looking into the fire funds, but Barilaro was shameless in his defence of the practice yesterday, arguing that what some call “pork-barrelling” is actually an “investment” in the regions. “I dare you to turn up to these communities and tell them why they don’t deserve these projects,” he added. We dare him to turn up to a fire-ravaged Labor-held electorate and tell them why they don’t deserve any money at all.

The National Party, meanwhile, doesn’t even seem to be accountable to its own constituents, with the farming sector reported to be caught by surprise when Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said on Sunday that agriculture could be exempted from a 2050 net-zero carbon emissions target. Major industry bodies have been developing their own plans to reach net zero under ambitious deadlines, with experts believing that will be necessary to maintain access to export markets, such as the European Union. “Nationals would betray farmers if it waved through net-zero”, reads the headline on Barnaby Joyce and Matt Canavan’s piece in The Australian today. Never mind that the National Farmers’ Federation has already set a target of net-zero emission by 2050.

Senator Keneally has also been one of the loudest voices calling for the federal government to manage Australia’s coronavirus quarantine system, arguing that it’s a Commonwealth responsibility that has been shirked, and she’s now been joined by Nine Media, in an Age editorial. But be careful what you wish for when the federal government gets involved. Health experts and local clinicians are concerned about the proposed facility next to Toowoomba airport, which was confirmed on Monday to be a for-profit proposal from the Wagner Corporation (chair John Wagner told Guardian Australia that the company would have just as much expertise in running a quarantine facility as the Queensland Department of Health – i.e. none). ANU infectious diseases physician Professor Peter Collignon has expressed serious concern about allowing a private company to have such responsibility, saying ultimate responsibility for the operation of the facility must sit with the government. Good luck with that. 

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“The board of directors and management have considered the $3.6m wage subsidy received in the half-year ended 31 December 2020 and decided to refund this amount to the federal government.”

Furniture retailer Nick Scali says it will return the $3.6 million it received in JobKeeper subsidies, after recording a $40.6 million profit for the second half of 2020.

“Many of the politicians and commentators talking about a 2050 aspiration will be dead by then. They won’t have to deal with the economic consequences or pay for the policy.”

Nationals Barnaby Joyce and Matt Canavan argue that those advocating for a 2050 net-zero carbon emissions target won’t be around to face the consequences. They won’t be around to face the consequences of not achieving net zero by 2050, either.

Inside Australia’s military fetish
While Australians grapple with shocking allegations of war crimes levelled against our armed forces, the federal government is moving ahead with a $500 million redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial. Today, Mark McKenna, on what our preoccupation with war tells us about who we are.

The amount Australians withdrew from their superannuation under the government’s eight-month COVID-19 early-release scheme – $10 billion more than the government had expected, and around 70 times the amount withdrawn under the regular rules in 2019–20.

“Labor will go to the next election with a plan to crack down on rolling contracts that leave workers uncertain whether they will keep their jobs, in a policy leader Anthony Albanese will unveil in Queensland this week.”

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese will tomorrow deliver a speech on industrial relations, unveiling new policies addressing casualisation, giving more rights to gig economy workers and ensuring labour hire workers are paid as much as direct employees.

The list

“Paul Pisasale resigned as the mayor of Ipswich in a white hospital gown, red socks and star-spangled pyjama pants, three weeks after sniffer dogs located $50,000 cash in his luggage at Melbourne Airport. It was June 6, 2017. ‘Mr Ipswich’ was 65, with dyed brown hair, a face like a smashed crab, and the uncomfortable frown of someone who usually never stopped smiling … Approximately a year earlier, Ipswich – 40 minutes west of Brisbane – had elected Pisasale its mayor for the fourth time, with a Putin-esque 83.45 per cent of the vote. Now, ‘Australia’s most popular politician’ stood from a wheelchair to announce a shock resignation, citing a long-term battle with multiple sclerosis.”

“Most film festivals have national sections, and as a rule they’re usually best avoided: a dumping-ground for work inadequate for the main line-up. But Sundance presents a particular challenge in this respect, since its national showcase is also its main competition. And by and large it is not good – either blandly ‘inspirational’, calculatedly crowd-pleasing, or simply wretched in that particular, private way only total sincerity of motives can allow. So for Sundance’s online 2021 edition, I chose instead to concentrate mostly on its World Cinema Dramatic Competition, which tends to be rather less self-congratulatory and insular.”

“Mutation is a loaded word – and the image of a virus clawing its way across a hotel carpet to find a victim across the hall is an evocative one. But the truth is that viral mutation is normal and expected. The new variants each bring with them their own challenges, but their emergence doesn’t come as a surprise to the medical community, and they are not going to render the current vaccines obsolete.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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