Scandal: Nothing to see here, please move on

Mathias Cormann Helloworld

One of the greatest take-away surprises from a visit to Parliament House during the House of Representatives Question Time for many people is the sheer ferocity of it, the hurling of insults and, importantly, the lack of transparency and scrutiny. While I haven’t been to Question Time in Canberra for some time, I was always struck by amount of head-shaking as people vacated the public area, quite often in the disbelief Parliament actually operates in this way.

In New South Wales, schoolchildren from Year 5 make the journey to Canberra to see their Parliament in action and are quite shocked to learn about the typical behaviours on the floor of the House of Representatives. It’s usually quite reprehensible and inhumane behaviour and if these schoolchildren were to replicate these acts on their return to school, they’d probably be handed long-term detentions or expulsion.

I’ll admit it’s not a severe as the Yugoslav Parliament in 1928, when the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party, Stjepan Radić, was assassinated on the floor of parliament, but it must come close in other ways.

Question Time, in theory, serves a defining purpose in democratic systems: it’s an essential part of making governments accountable for their actions, and scrutinising their performances and policies.

In practice, it’s a one-hour slug-fest session where the opposite occurs: questions of Government are pushed aside, a highly partisan Speaker of the House heavily favours the Government to ensure any scrutiny is deflected and bypassed; and a certain type of rigor mortis sets in for a bemused public.

Many democratic parliaments around the world hold some form of question time: in Canada, it’s referred to as ‘Question Period’, the European Parliament holds ‘Question Hour’, New Zealand has ‘Oral Questions’. The first recorded question to government in the British Westminster system occurred in 1721, but it didn’t become a formal process until 1869. Question Time was also a feature of the Australian Parliament at the time of federation as an ad hoc arrangement and became of formal part of Parliament in 1962.

Christopher Pyne, Question Time, 2017.
The public has lost trust in Australia’s political system and sees Question Time as a futile waste of resources.

But it’s a classic case of theory and practice colliding: Question Time should be an essential part of a parliamentary democracy but, in its current form, it’s a total turn-off for the electorate – at least those who are prepared to watch – and it’s fuelling the public’s distrust of Parliament, and heightening the disdain for partisan party-based politics.

The worst of Question Time was on display last week where, time and again, the Government used the full arsenal of parliamentary weaponry against the Labor Opposition. So much that it seemed the entire frontbench was moving towards a collective hernia.

It was the last week of Parliament before the next federal election and, to me, it had the feel of ‘last-shot-in-the-locker’ for the Government. And it really showed. On the four days of sittings this week, the Government asked 33 questions to itself (the classic ‘Dorothy Dix’ questions), and all but four included clear and obvious references to border security and asylum seekers.

A question about the economy? Sure, but let me now show you how that relates to strong borders, asylum seekers and demonstrate how Labor is letting in rapists, murderers and paedophiles.

And the reasons for the Government’s focus on border security? Parliament had just passed the Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill, put forward by the crossbenchers, and agreed to by Labor. The Bill is nothing remarkable – it simply outlines the circumstances for providing desperately-needed medical services to refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru who require urgent medical care – but the Government proceeded to misrepresent the legislation in every possible way.

The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, led the attacks: “They may be a paedophile, they may be a rapist, they may be a murderer, and this bill will mean that we would just have to take them. This is what will happen if Bill Shorten does not put national security ahead of his own political opportunism.”

The Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, added: “Under the arrangements that Mr Shorten and The Greens passed, we have people that can come to our country from Manus or Nauru. People that have been charged with child sex offences. Child charged or allegations around serious offences including murder.”

Keiran Gilbert, Laura Jays, Michael McCormack
Keiran Gilbert, Laura Jays and Michael McCormack on Sky News.

And if you missed the message, the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, claimed the legislation will allow “spivs, and rapists and murderers” to be transferred to Australia for medical treatment, and Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, claimed “rapists and paedophiles will still get a free pass into this country”.

It was ad infinitum, but four days of constant harping and misrepresentation of border security? The Liberal–National Party perceive the issue to be their strongest point of attack against Labor, but it was evident after day four, the enthusiasm was starting to wane, and other events towards the end of the week became a distraction from their cause.

In a contest between border security and corruption, it’s government corruption that’s always going to pique the interest of the electorate, and so it proved to be towards the end of the parliamentary week.

First, some context. To say the Government is on the nose would be an understatement. Since the last federal election in July 2016, it has been in electoral losing positions for 163 consecutive opinion polls. 163!

It has been a seriously underperforming government. It has not been able to control the political agenda – or its own Members of Parliament – changed its leader again, when Scott Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister in August 2018, and is lacking the ability to seriously prosecute any case for policy or legislative reform. And it also has the small matter of trying to function without having outright control of the Parliament.

For a Government so bereft of policy initiatives, of course it was going to seize a small political opportunity on border security to provide a fillip for its MPs and offer some type of loose platform to launch a winning campaign strategy for the upcoming election.

But just as the media started pondering whether the tables had been finally turned on Labor and whether Morrison was going to lead the Coalition to an unlikely election victory – Napoleonic-style – along came the issues that have dogged this Government since it first claimed office in September 2013: corruption.

As we’ve reported elsewhere in ‘Morrison’s mix of religion and corruption ends a bad year’ and ‘Conflicts of interest and the corruption of politics’, corruption is a practice not tolerated by the public in any country in the world – nor should it be – and is rightly punished in democratic systems. It’s the only real option available to the electorate, especially when they see a system that covers up and protects its own kind.

The final stages of the NSW Labor Government during 2009–2011 were examples of self-interest, navel-gazing and extreme corruption in politics, and the electorate handed NSW Labor a severe punishment in 2011. At this election, NSW Labor was left with 20 of 90 seats in the Legislative Assembly, and 35.8 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. Subsequent to this election, Labor powerbrokers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald were found guilty of attempting to steal up to $100 million of public assets through secretive water licence deals, and were sentenced to jail in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Footnote: Ian Macdonald won an appeal in the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal and had his conviction quashed on 25 February 2019. He is likely to face a retrial.

While the Federal Government has not engaged in the excesses of Obeid and Macdonald – as far as we know, although it’s clear that something is not quite right with the landholdings of Barnaby Joyce in Narrabri – it has the same whiff of corruption and political favouritism as NSW Labor in the final stages of its government, has engaged in highly unethical practices and evaded the law.

Helloworld!

On Tuesday, there were revelations in the Senate Estimates Committee that Mathias Cormann had booked a family holiday to Singapore to the value of $2,780, but not paid for it. On face value, there’s probably not that much to see here, but who gets to book an air flight, flies to the destination, and doesn’t get charged for it? Not many people.

Mathias Cormann
Mathias Cormann during the Senate Estimates Committee hearing.

Cormann’s problem was that he booked his holiday directly with Andrew Burnes, the CEO of Helloworld, the travel booking company that has received over $3 billion of federal contracts to provide all federal departmental travel, including politicians.

Andrew Burnes also happens to be the Treasurer of the federal Liberal Party, and it was Cormann’s department that lobbied strongly to replace the multi-provider panel that previously provided federal departmental travel, with just one provider – Helloworld. This removed the competition and efficiencies that had previously existed with the multi-provider panel, and provided a major boost to the value of Helloworld, with its share price increasing after these contracts were awarded.

Helloworld is also a donor to the Liberal Party. The former Treasurer and now Australian Ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, also facilitated meetings between Helloworld and embassy staff to provide travel services between Australia and United States.

Hockey also owns shareholdings in Helloworld to the value of $1 million.

While it might not be up to the level of corruption shown by Obeid and Macdonald – as far as we know – the Helloworld saga drowned out the key messages on asylum seekers the Government was pushing, and dovetailed into other actions that seem to be the key feature of this Government: one rule for them, and totally different rules for everyone else.

How can it be that a senior Minister of Government can directly contact the CEO of an ASX-listed company, ask for services, and not be charged for it? What does the public think when the CEO of this ASX-listed company happens to be the Treasurer of the Liberal Party, a recipient of large Government contracts, a close friend of the Prime Minister, and donates to the Liberal Party? And what does the public think about the former Treasurer of Australia who smoothed the passage of the contracts for Helloworld and also owns $1 million worth of shares in that company?

If this isn’t corruption, well, the laws need to be re-written, and the Australian Federal Police needs to start investigating properly.

And Helloworld isn’t the worst of it.

There are other events where Liberal Party MPs where simply don’t understand the duties of public service and behave as if their only duty in Parliament is to self-enrich themselves and offer access to benefactors of the Liberal Party and corporate friends.

Cash oversteps the mark

Senator Michaelia Cash has doggedly searched for a nefarious link between GetUp donations of $100,000 to Labor candidates, at the time when Opposition Leader Bill Shorten headed the Australian Workers’ Union – in 2006.

Senator Michaelia Cash.
Senator Michaelia Cash.

The AWU has stated all monies have been documented and accounted for, the donations were approved by the AWU executive, and has consistently claimed the pursuit of any malfeasance is a politically-motivated witchhunt by Senator Cash, more than 12 years after the donations were made. It’s a very obvious case of a Minister unable to find any wrong doing, but then deciding on political options to destroy the reputation of an opponent.

In October 2017, raids on the offices of the AWU were performed by the Australian Federal Police. The media was also tipped off, ensuring maximum television coverage and maximum political damage to Shorten, the AWU, and the Labor Party.

But as with most politically-motivated actions, there was a high level of overkill, and the pursuit by Cash has backfired and produced ongoing political problems for the Government.

We’ve since discovered Cash’s adviser at the time, David de Garis, was the one who tipped off the media and admitted in the Federal Court his actions were primarily to damage Bill Shorten’s reputation. He also revealed he shared this information with Michael Tetlow, the media adviser, for former Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan. Keenan has denied all knowledge of this information, as has Cash.

Both Cash and Keenan have refused to provide statements to the AFP, and the fact that they haven’t been forced to resign by Scott Morrison is a sign of how low parliamentary standards have fallen.

Why has the AFP not pursued Cash and Keenan in the same way they pursued documents from the offices of the AWU? Why has the Federal Court instructed de Garis to give evidence, and not Cash and Keenan?

The Deputy Commissioner of the AFP, Leanne Close, agrees “a prima facie case that a conviction could be recorded beyond reasonable doubt” if Cash and Keenan provided statements to the police. The AFP has asked Cash and Keenan to provide evidence twice. Why have they not pursued this matter further?

Unanswered questions

There are questions about other contracts and arrangements made by the Government. It was revealed security contractor Paladin was awarded $423 million in a select tender to manage the Nauru immigration detention centre. Paladin also has strong connections to the Liberal Party, and it has been difficult to scrutinise how this money is to be spent and which services it is being spent on. Reports from asylum seekers on Nauru, as well as from refugees advocates, suggest very few services are being provided on security and it’s difficult to ascertain what this $423 million is being spent on.

Immigration detention facilities on Nauru, 2018.
Immigration detention facilities on Nauru, 2018.

The money trail for Paladin’s activities on Nauru, as well as Manus Island, are difficult to track and the avenues for corruption here with the involvement of the Papua New Guinea and Nauru governments go far and wide.

The Great Barrier Reef Foundation was granted $444 million in 2018, following a clandestine meeting between former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, then Environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg and executives from GBRF. The meeting was not requested by the GBRF, but we’ve since discovered there are several links back to the Liberal Party.

Last week, a Senate Environment & Communications References Committee inquiry report found the granting of this money was a highly irresponsible and “off-the-cuff” decision, “hastily concocted by relevant ministers, without proper consideration of risks and potential effectiveness, no consultation with key stakeholders, and without having undertaken due diligence”. The Committee also recommended the termination of the Foundation Partnership and all unspent funds returned to the Commonwealth.

Franking credits fiasco

Liberal Party backbencher, Tim Wilson, is the chair of the House of Representatives economics committee, and recently held a series of four roadshows in the eastern states to rail against Labor’s policy to remove franking credits, in those instances where no tax has been paid.

Franking Credits Inquiry in Merimbula.
Franking Credits Inquiry in Merimbula, NSW.

Aside from the exorbitant cost of $160,000 to go through the unusual process of an inquiry into Opposition policy – which, of course, was purely a campaign to misrepresent and smear the policy – Wilson failed to disclose his shareholdings in Wilson Asset Management, a company owned by a cousin, and a company that contributed to the cost of the inquiry website.

He also used official Commonwealth insignia on the inquiry website (against Commonwealth rules on the use of the insignia), and used one of the forums to fundraise for the Liberal Party, as well as distribute Liberal Party membership forms.

And the reprimand provided for a clear breaking of rules and convention?

The Speaker of the House, Tony Smith, criticised Wilson for breaking convention and acknowledged there was “potential for interference” but said there was a significant hurdle to establish any contempt of parliament, and then let the matter slide.

Different rules for different people? Yes, that is most evident. And do conventions matter? To the Liberal Party, apparently not.

There are too much examples where the Liberal–National Party, desperate in its quest to win a mostly undeserved third term, has engaged in corrupt practices, stretched the rules to suit themselves, used the powers of Parliament to cover up their actions, or simply hope that time will make problems disappear.

Once such case is Assistant Treasurer, Stuart Robert, who incurred home internet costs of $37,975 over 18 months. He simply paid the money back, rode out the storm for a month, and no further questions or investigations have been made. It’s a pity the former Speaker of the House, Peter Slipper, wasn’t allowed to pay back the $954 he allegedly used dishonestly in 2010, was forced to resign, and subsequently convicted.

Again, different rules for Liberal Party members. Slipper had his conviction overturned in 2015, but the damage had already been done.

No stone is left unturned in the quest to find an undeserved and unethical electoral advantage.

And there is no end in sight. Just yesterday, Georgina Downer provided a large $127,373 novelty cheque with a photograph of her face and the Liberal Party logo, to the Yankalilla Bowling Club. The problem for Downer is she is not the local member and, as the election hasn’t been called, doesn’t even have status as a candidate.

Member’s of Parliament are solely responsible for announcing funding allocations, and Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie is the one who assisted the bowling club secure the grant. Downer had nothing to do with it. Labor has referred the matter to the Auditor–General for further investigation to see if any Australian Electoral Commission rules have been broken.

Politics, of course, seeks advantages at all opportunities, but there are limits to how these advantages are obtained. If the electorate considers there is corruption involved in obtaining these advantages, or feels they’ve been taken for a ride, the candidate and their party, will lose the votes they so desperately seek.

Bill Shorten has already announced if Labor is to form government at the next election, the first item on its proposed federal integrity commission will be exploring the links between Helloworld and the Liberal Party. It’s sure to uncover a great deal more than is simmering at the surface.

Newspoll

Much has been reported about the recent Ipsos poll, which showed a narrowing of the polls, but the latest Newspoll is showing the Liberal–National Party is still further behind Labor on a two-party preferred basis, at 53/47 per cent. This the same result as the previous two Newpoll surveys.

Given the poor performance of the Government during this term, and the reports of ongoing scandals within its ranks, it’s not difficult to see why there is a shift away the LNP. Certainly, the Government would have hoped the noise generated by the Migration Amendment Bill in Parliament would have had some effect on opinion polls, but once the electorate follows the stench of corruption and sees where it’s coming from, it’s difficult to wave it away.

Facebook Comments
About Eddy Jokovich 49 Articles
Eddy Jokovich is a Sydney-based journalist and producer of many books, magazines and handbooks and has worked as a war correspondent, journalist, lecturer in media studies and production.