Saturday 27th of February 2021

flying in the porkie skies...

flying low...
John Hewson, writing in the Saturday Paper, explains how rorts, mates and marketing took over politics. He illustrates his point with 17 examples of bad behaviour, ranging through specific examples of corruption (sports rorts, land deals), abuse of privilege (use of VIP aircraft [see above cartoon from SMH Matt Golding]), and contempt for democratic institutions (Parliament, the public service).
Hewson mentions bad behaviour by both Labor and Coalition governments, but an examination of his list confirms the impression that each successive Coalition administration has taken contempt for democratic institutions and disregard for evidence-based policy to new depths.

“Politics is increasingly attracting the wrong sort of people, those more interested in making a difference for themselves and their mates than for their constituents or our nation” he writes. He presses the case for a democratic reform agenda addressing campaign funding, the proper functioning of parliament, de-politicisation of the public service and above all a genuine, well-funded, independent national integrity and reform commission.

Centrelink’s “robodebt” – an egregious failure of standards

The Centrelink “robodebt” case illustrates many ways in which the standards of public administration have eroded under seven years of Coalition government. In its most savage (and illegal) form it dates to February 2015, when then Minister for Social Services, Scott Morrison, signed on to the income-averaging scheme which was the root cause of the problem. The averaging scheme, in assuming that Youth Allowance and unemployment benefit recipients had steady fortnightly income was absurd in its concept – an absurdity anyone should understand.  Worse was the way Centrelink, once having accused recipients of overpayment, threw the onus of proof that the accusation was false back on to the individual – a clear breach of basic legal principles.

On the ABC’s Rear Vision program Annabelle Quince interviews Peter Whiteford of ANU’s Crawford School, Terry Carney and Darren O’Donovan respectively of Sydney and La Trobe Law Schools, and Senator Rachel Siewert who chaired the first Senate inquiry into robodebt. (Government ministers were invited, but declined the invitations.) In the program, Centrelink and the Robodebt recovery system, they tell the story of robodebt from its inception to its inglorious demise when the Morrison Government, unwilling to face the scrutiny of seeing its maladministration exposed in court, settled claims in a consent agreement late last year.

Although a case in court would have exposed much more of the Coalition’s maladministration, even the limited exposure of this and other accounts sees no one coming out with honour. The ethical standards of Morrison and the ministers who have had a hand in the scheme are revealed. The public servants who administered the scheme were consciously obeying orders that they knew to be illegal: that relates not only to the behaviour of those public servants (“an egregious failure of standards within the public service”), but also to the Coalition’s politicisation of the public service. More generally the program reveals that this idiocy had its origins in the unrelenting drive for “efficiency dividends” from the public service ( a bipartisan idiocy) and from the Coalition’s ideological obsession with “small government”.

Australian politics and society

A Liberal Party voice of democratic enlightenment: how annoying for Morrison

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corruption is now accepted as a political tool...

So Senator Bridget McKenzie is being forced to front a Senate inquiry into the #sportsrorts racket.  Excuse me if I don’t get excited.

Oh, it still riles me that the government defrauded hundreds of sporting clubs, that the then Sports Minister, her office, the Prime Minister and his office spat in the faces of thousands of volunteers – effectively stealing money that should have gone to deserving community groups in order to continue to polish their backsides on the rich leather upholstery of the Treasury benches.

And it is execrable that the government is punishing the whistle blower, the Auditor General, by underfunding his office.

But a few opposition senators having a slap at Senator McKenzie now – well, it’s predictable and fruitless.

Predictable because Senator McKenzie will continue to keep schtum, admitting nothing, defending everything. She has taken one for the team – a token scalp, temporarily benched from the ministry over a minor technicality. She will be rewarded for it in time, as long as she keeps to her script. She will.

There will be no caving in under examination to finger the role of the Liberal Party campaign headquarters, the PM and his office. That’s the stuff of fantasy movies.

Fruitless because while Labor and the odd crossbencher persist with the political theatre, they’ve missed an important development: Politics made an evolutionary leap in 2020 – corruption is now openly accepted.

It has been a very quick evolution under the cover of so much other stuff happening this year. From Scott Morrison setting the #sportsrorts snow job standard back in January to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian saying “so what?” to even more blatant corruption in December, it’s been quite a ride.

And along the way, the biggest abuse of public money for political ends – the purpose-designed Community Development Grants scheme, $2.8 billion-and-counting – skated by with barely a mention.

Ms Berejiklian appears an unlikely pin-up girl for public corruption but it’s been an unlikely year.

Trading on her popularity for NSW’s handling of the COVID crisis (never mind the “inexcusable” Ruby Princess), plus a sympathy vote for her mate Daryl being a scoundrel, her effort in brushing off the $250 million council grants scandal has set a new benchmark.

Sure, Scott Morrison has unlimited form with his three trademark responses to scandals: Simply continue maintaining that black is white whatever evidence is produced, from #sportsrorts to Robodebt; ignoring the evidence with a “I don’t accept the premise of your question”; ignoring the issue with “on water matters”, “family matters” or “I’ve addressed that question”.

But Ms Berejiklian has moved the whole game on to:
“Yeah, it’s black. Too bad.”

Amidst the confetti of shredded documents two weeks ago, she admitted the council grants were blatant pork barrelling.

“It’s not an illegal practice,” she said.

No, it’s not illegal – it’s just corrupt.

Defending that admission this week, the NSW Premier placed the star upon the public corruption Christmas tree with the claim that she was in fact being “upfront and honest”.

“I’m not suggesting it’s always the right way to do things, but I think we need to just be upfront about how things occur,” she told a business lunch.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported Ms Berejiklian said she had been very direct in comments on pork barrelling last month because the public already understood the practice.

“You make election commitments, you make commitments to particular areas. I mean, it would have been dishonest for me to say otherwise.”

Let me translate that from the new political “upfront and honest” paradigm into old-fashioned English:

“Yes, my political machine has helped itself to many, many millions of dollars of your money and used it to buy our jobs so that we can deliver power to our machine’s operators and backers.

“That’s the way it is. If you don’t like it – and I know you don’t – well, too bad. We’re going to keep doing it.”

There you go. I hope everyone feels better about politics now that it’s all “upfront and honest”.

The concept of “ministerial responsibility” is long since dead.

Responsibility for anything has been replaced by constant “marketing”, photo ops, and a level of Newspeak that Orwell only imagined as fiction.

So Senator McKenzie before a Senate committee? It’s so last century.
The committee would achieve as much and provide better entertainment by familiarising themselves with Smacka Fitzgibbons’ The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and performing it with my alternative lyrics.  

Coming soon: Of course big political donors set our policies, that’s just being upfront and honest.


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See also:

running age care facilities like private dunnies?
angus is protected species...
you say pork barrelling, I say rort, corruption...
the nasty bastards who see history in the way of their new toys, are at it again...