Another week, another scandal. This seems to be the ‘new normal’ for this term of Parliament, with the revelation of more government impropriety in the lead up to the federal election in May 2019.
It has become difficult to collate and keep track of the many levels of inappropriate spending by the Liberal–National Government – creeping up to almost $5 billion – but the favourite scandal of the week has to be the $10 million allocated to the upgrade of North Sydney Olympic Pool, as part of the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream fund.
This fund was established in March 2019, just before last year’s federal election, to develop and upgrade swimming pools in regional and remote areas of Australia. Somehow, $10 million from this fund found its way into the coffers of the North Sydney Council, about as far away as possible from the needy towns of Dubbo, Bourke, Bermagui, Walgett and Broken Hill – authentic regional and remote towns that missed out on funding.
The Mayor of North Sydney Council, Jilly Gibson, claimed the pool was “definitely a regional facility”, by virtue of many people visiting from all over New South Wales, and the pool having “a history as a regional pool” and a tourist attraction. But definitions of regional and remote communities become very flexible when a government is so keen to exploit every political advantage that it has available to it.
The links between these sports funding scandals and the Prime Minister’s office have also become more definitive, with the Australian National Audit Office revealing 136 email exchanges between the offices of Minister for Sport, Bridget McKenzie, and Scott Morrison in the lead-up to the last election, exchanges which outlined which marginal electorates needed to be targeted with new funding.
And, as well as seeking every political advantage, when difficulties arise, this is a government that seeks deflection and diversion at every opportunity: when questioned about the role the Prime Minister had in this misallocation of monies in the sports funding scandals, the Attorney–General, Christian Porter, argued the Prime Minister couldn’t be held responsible for any of the actions taking place within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. And, of course, the corollary is: if the Prime Minister isn’t responsible for the actions of his own department, who is?
This week, when members of the government couldn’t provide enough cover and deflection, the public service arrived to the rescue, with outgoing health department secretary, Glenys Beauchamp, outlining to a Senate Inquiry that she destroyed all of her notes from a sports grants teleconference meeting, where decisions were made about which marginal seats should receive funding.
Cesspools of corruption follow their own tail and the public service exists to support the government of the day, but this is a government that takes no responsibilities for its own actions. Whatever happened to the Westminster tradition of ministerial responsibility? Where is the accountability within government? Or within the public service?
Coronavirus to the rescue
Morrison has been under pressure for most of this year, following his inadequate management of the bushfires crisis and the continuing fallout from the sports funding corruption in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election. But a prime minister under pressure will search for other issues to deflect from poor government performance. And so it came to be with the coronavirus.
Governments need to go to sufficient lengths to protect their citizens, and many in the community will support Morrison’s actions on the coronavirus crisis, but surely this is the least the electorate can expect from government. But this is a conservative government that views its entire existence through a political prism and explores every opportunity to extract political advantage. Morrison is acting on the coronavirus crisis now but, in comparison, why was he so slow to respond to the destructive bushfire season and ignore the climate emergency?
Is Morrison acting swiftly on coronavirus, purely to make-up for his inertia on bushfires, inactions which caused him so many political problems? And if he is acting purely to atone for past political mistakes, is this action on coronavirus the correct course of action? And is Morrison exploiting the effects of the coronavirus purely to offer cover for impending dire economic conditions?
Already, the Prime Minister and Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, have commenced priming the public for the prospective failure to produce the promised Budget surplus. The government strongly pinned its economic credentials onto delivering a Budget surplus for the 2019/20 financial year. These are the government’s own standards and that’s what this government has to be judged on.
Offering excuses of bushfires and drought – two areas the Liberal–National government has mismanaged anyway – and a coronavirus, shouldn’t be events used to paper over their economic mismanagement. Before these recent events, the economy had been staggering, reaching a per capita recession in 2019, and the economy is likely to report negative growth in the December 2019 quarter, and a March 2020 quarter that is likely to be even worse.
Labor also promised Budget surpluses in the 2008/09 and 2009/10 financial years, but these were wiped out by the global financial crisis. The costly stimulus packages – roundly criticised by the Coalition at the time – implemented by the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, buffered the Australian economy and avoided the recessions afflicting so many other economies around the world.
Far from offering any bipartisan support in a time of crisis, the Liberal Party pushed the political rhetoric that a global financial crisis couldn’t be used as an excuse for implementing a Budget deficit. And in the grand tradition of Liberal Party politicking, they reintroduced the tour of the debt truck in July 2009, claiming a $315 billion debt was proof of ‘Labor’s reckless spending’ and ‘poor financial management’.
But the financial competence promised by the Liberal Party has never eventuated. National government debt for 2019/20 is $629 billion, or twice the amount the Liberal Party suggested was the marker of ‘reckless spending’ and dire economic credentials. Is ‘diabolical’ too strong a word?
If, according to the Liberal Party, the global financial crisis was not a valid reason for Labor’s Budget deficits in 2009 and 2010 then, a decade later, similar destabilisers of the economy can’t be used as an excuses either: if the Liberal Party is as brilliant as it claims on financial management, then it should be able to reach a Budget surplus on its own terms.
The casual racist
Finally, for those who think racism isn’t an issue in Australia, look no further than the Treasurer’s speech during Question Time last week. Frydenberg is a poor parliamentary speaker; his delivery is slow and lugubrious; his hand motions are robotic, with words to match and a lack of wit.
Here we have the Treasurer ridiculing ashrams and mocking Hinduism, making a political point about Labor’s proposal to include a wellbeing index in future national Budgets – suggesting there is something fundamentally wrong with matching up the economy of a country with the wellbeing of its citizens.
Economies are not ends in themselves and are created by people, for the benefit of people. A correlation between the wellbeing of an economy and the wellbeing of the people that create that economy makes economic and political sense. Why would Frydenberg be so dismissive of such a formula? And would he ever employ the same ridicule about the synagogue or Jews speaking to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem?
Awareness has never been Frydenberg’s strong point, and these Young Liberal-style playground attacks on other people’s religion arrive only a few days after he warned about far-right extremism in Australia and welcomed the Victoria Government’s proposals to educate students about racism and prejudice in schools and the broader society.
Frydenberg calls out the acts that affect him personally but engages in the same behaviours at the expense of other people. Anything for a political point on the scoreboard, even if that means engaging in casual racism to achieve that point because, for this government, scoring political points is essentially what being in office is all about. The public interest always gets left behind.
The House of Representatives sits again this week: let’s see if Josh Frydenberg is mature enough to make an apology for his behaviour and support his claim about reducing racism and prejudice in the broader society.