It wasn’t so much the exuberance of the Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures in Arnhem Land that set the tone of federal politics this week, as the troubling economic data on the evening news.
Last weekend, Garma’s Yolngu hosts, Indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson, and politicians including Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, made a heartfelt bid to boost the Voice campaign amid joyous images of the annual cultural and political gathering.
On Tuesday, finance journalist Alan Kohler’s report gave a taste of what the forces of hope are battling. The latest consumer confidence and business confidence figures fell. Consumer sentiment, in particular, is cellar-dwelling and Kohler, standing before a graph labelled “Everyone’s miserable”, explained that “those with a mortgage are the most miserable of all”.
The cack-handed monetary policy performance of outgoing Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe has all of Australia in a vice.
It’s squeezing the life out of the generosity of spirit Albanese hoped could be relied upon to secure constitutional embodiment of the Voice as promised when he won office last year. And this week that full-throated declaration of intent crashed into another nasty set of numbers. It’s worth pausing to reflect on the RedBridge Group polling released in the lead-up to Garma. The government did.
The survey showed majority support for the Voice in not one state. The only age group showing majority support is 18- to 34-year-olds, and the only income bracket is households earning more than $200,000 a year. Households in which a language other than English is spoken are mostly in favour, but not households in which only English is spoken.
For every brave, positive picture and social media post from Garma, and from enthusiastic town hall meetings supporting the Voice around Australia, there are quietly shell-shocked anecdotes from Labor people getting pushback from white voters at shopping centres along the lines of: Aboriginal Australians have enough of a voice and get enough of a hand. The subtext: why isn’t Labor talking about me and my problems?
This sentiment is showing up in the qualitative polling, too.
As Philip Lowe’s legacy of big, frequent interest rate hikes slows the economy, disrupts household budgets and threatens a swath of mortgage defaults, white voters’ bandwidth for “other people’s problems” has narrowed drastically.
This is not something Albanese could have anticipated on election night in 2022, and it won’t stop him trying to pull off an increasingly improbable “Yes” victory on a referendum day that’s yet to be confirmed for a Saturday in October.
But deep inside Labor, people are preparing for a loss, and then a pivot to a full-on focus on the cost of living that, if not latched onto soon and forcefully, could see some of the voters who got Albanese across the line in 2022 drift away.
In the wake of victory, the Albanese government’s first winter was easy and ecstatic.
This second winter is proving hard.
But the country is still treated to reminders of how, after years of exponential erosion under successive Coalition administrations, the Morrison government substantially wrecked the joint on its way out the door.
Each day’s media this past week revealed more steaming piles of what could be conflicts of interest, malfeasance and/or public sector capability destruction hanging over from the Coalition, and especially the Morrison era.
Among the main developments, KPMG was the subject of multiple whistleblower allegations on ABC TV’s Four Corners program concerning its vast contracts with the Department of Defence. More detail emerged on Morrison government minister Stuart Robert’s multiple meetings with IT firm Infosys when it was bidding for lucrative government contracts, including one that it won and was later scrapped at a cost of $191 million.
Denials by former PwC consultant Luke Sayers about Australian Taxation Office representations over the firm’s shady behaviour on his watch wore see-through thin when the senate economics committee released the ATO’s “comprehensive time line of events relevant to the PwC matter” on Tuesday.
The week was looking better for former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann. The ACT government-commissioned inquiry into the handling of his trial for the alleged rape of former colleague Brittany Higgins in 2019 – which Lehrmann denies – extravagantly bagged his nemesis, the then ACT director of public prosecutions, Shane Drumgold.
Integrity campaigner Geoffrey Watson, SC, said the language used by Walter Sofronoff, KC, in the report is severe. “I am afraid that it reads to me like an effort to wreck Drumgold, his reputation and his career,” Watson said, adding the findings were in his view “unnecessarily strong and unnecessarily personal”.
In a twist that’s raised fundamental questions about the inquiry’s integrity, Sofronoff provided his report to News Corp newspaper The Australian before giving it to ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who commissioned it. This action had tainted the inquiry, a furious Barr said, and denied due process to those named in the report. Barr and the ACT attorney-general, Shane Rattenbury, are seeking advice on whether Sofronoff’s leak breached the Inquiries Act 1991, with the possibility of referring it to the ACT Integrity Commission.
“I am reminded of the film Muriel’s Wedding, when Bill Heslop says, ‘Deidre Chambers, what a coincidence’,” Barr said of The Australian’s claim it had obtained a second copy of the Sofronoff report and had not breached the embargo on the copy Sofronoff had provided.
The Australian doubled down with a report on Tuesday on the impact on police and their families of Drumgold’s allegations of bias affecting officers’ behaviour in the Higgins case.
The following day, Brittany Higgins responded. “These men were absolutely awful to me,” she said. “They made me feel violated at every turn.”
Despite the best efforts of Barr and Rattenbury, the actions of Sofronoff and The Australian between them had erased the woman at the centre of the case.
To cap off this mad and disturbing week, there was an intriguing development on the prior week’s reversal of evidence from the Australian Federal Police to the senate estimates committee, concerning the multimillion-dollar Nauru-related Home Affairs Department contract awarded in 2018 to Mozammil Bhojani, later convicted of bribery.
The AFP had previously told the committee it had briefed then Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton that Bhojani was being investigated for bribery. Within weeks the Department of Home Affairs had awarded Bhojani the contract, which was extended by Home Affairs even after Bhojani was charged and convicted of bribery.
On Friday last week the AFP recanted that evidence, saying Bhojani had not been specifically mentioned to Dutton. The AFP failed to provide details when pressed on this surprising reversal of its original testimony.
Prime Minister Albanese has appointed distinguished former public servant Dennis Richardson to inquire into the Bhojani contract. Richardson is expected to cast a cold, clear eye on the matter.
Then this past Monday Nine newspapers published one of the most remarkable opinion pieces written by a former or serving politician in memory. George Brandis, the former attorney-general in the Abbott government, wrote a paean of praise to the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, while simultaneously calling on him to stand down from his position.
There was no suggestion Pezzullo was guilty of wrongdoing, Brandis wrote, but the “man at the top must accept responsibility”, including “for the culture of the department which he has led since its inception”. This was particularly so, argued Brandis, because the Department of Home Affairs “is almost entirely Pezzullo’s creation”.
Brandis described Pezzullo’s attempts to create a United States-style home affairs department, which included moving ASIO from the attorney-general’s department where it had traditionally resided, safe in the hands of people who respect the law and stand against breaches or overreach.
He detailed Abbott’s rejection of, and then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s acceptance of, Pezzullo’s push despite significant opposition. Turnbull went along with it, Brandis said, to appease his then rival for the leadership, Peter Dutton.
Brandis gave a detailed account of an obscure 2017 speech in which Pezzullo “made it perfectly clear that his vision of an omnipresent invisible state was not limited to global networks and supply chains but applied to civil society itself”.
Brandis was tempted to describe it as Orwellian but settled for Hobbesian. Either way, he wrote, Pezzullo “is precisely the wrong man to be in charge of national security in a liberal democracy”.
Only Scott Morrison’s post-election-loss sermon, declaring “we don’t trust in governments ... [or] the United Nations” at Margaret Court’s Victory Life Centre church in Perth rivals Pezzullo’s speech, as conveyed by Brandis, for sheer strangeness.
Against this chaotic backdrop, the government is valiantly trying to govern.
It recalibrated foreign policy in relation to the Middle East back in line with historical Australian and current international norms. The “two state” Israel and Palestine policy was reasserted and Israel’s West Bank and Gaza settlements once again described as illegal.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers announced new fines of up to $780 million for consultants who help their clients dodge tax.
Albanese foreshadowed a plan for renters’ rights, in league with the states and territories, to be pursued at national cabinet in Brisbane next week.
And while these things and more were canvassed in question time on Wednesday, across the lake, at Canberra’s EPIC showground (formerly the home of the National Tally Room), the annual CareersXpo for local high school students was on.
Amid the competing university and employer stands, one political party had set up camp: the Greens, staffed by four women, including ACT government Greens minister Rebecca Vassarotti, with plenty of free stickers and multicoloured Skittles on offer.
The Greens stand was doing plenty of business.
Paul Bongiorno is on leave.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "A long way from the red dirt".
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