As Labor ministers take up their portfolios, the party has uncovered a mess of unmade decisions and funding holes across Arts, Energy and the NDIS. By Rick Morton.

‘Negligent in the extreme’: Labor inherits crises across portfolios

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Darwin on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Darwin on Wednesday.
Credit: AAP / Lukas Coch

Nine years is a long time. The surprises that can build up while a party is in opposition during that period are extraordinary.

As Labor ministers settle into their portfolios about three weeks since Anthony Albanese became prime minister, they are now being briefed on the true state of affairs in their departments. Intentionally or otherwise, old governments have a habit of leaving behind problems and half-baked fixes.

“Partly it’s the nature of the beast,” a new Labor minister says. “And then you have times like this when the breadth and scale of what has been left in the bottom drawer is negligent in the extreme.”

Take the obvious: the biggest energy crisis since the 1970s. Although a long time in the making, and exacerbated by Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, former Coalition minister Angus Taylor magicked away the news of an energy shock until after the election.

Budget black holes in the arts sector and in the National Disability Insurance Scheme’s safety regulator, and economic shocks deeper than those rosily predicted in the Coalition’s last budget are all features of this new normal.

In conversations with Labor ministers and government officials, The Saturday Paper has gained insight into a former administration that was out of ideas, distracted by culture war politics and beset by inertia.

“I am pretty concerned that there are some urgent matters … that we need to deal with,” Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth says.

“When we left government, there were some key issues that we had to deal with and I am surprised that nine years later these issues are back on the new government’s desk without having seen much meaningful action.

“There has not been a real welcoming of new ideas and an encouragement of new ideas and that is certainly what I want to do. My approach is that issues should be thrashed out and voices should be listened to.”

An account common to many new ministers is that the former government left a backlog of work ranging from the incidental to the significant – from unsigned briefs to a $67 million funding shortfall for the National Gallery of Australia, to stalled program start dates, to delayed pricing decisions under the NDIS – some of which came as a complete shock to the new stewards.

“You absolutely get the sense that nothing was happening toward the end,” a minister says. “And some of it was entirely due to ideological bastardry.”

On Wednesday, the Climate Change and Energy minister, Chris Bowen, met with state and territory counterparts where, for the first time, they agreed on a national energy transition plan that would phase out fossil fuels.

That this had never been done was the result, Bowen said, of “poor planning and a previous government which didn’t see the opportunity [in] renewable energy”.

Rather than deal with an imminent crisis, former minister Angus Taylor signed off on a regulatory change that allowed the public reporting of wholesale energy prices to be delayed until after the federal election.

“Some of this stuff is just scandalous,” a Labor minister says.

Tradition dictates that an incoming government gets to clean house: Phil Gaetjens was removed as the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet almost as soon as it was physically possible for Labor to sign the papers. Likewise, right-winger Gary Johns announced his resignation as commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission earlier this month.

The new assistant minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, welcomed the news.

“The Australian government will now commence a search for a suitable replacement, who can work constructively with charities and non-profits to not only uphold the laws and regulations, but to strengthen the social fabric,” he said in a statement. “The election ended the Liberals’ nine-year war on charities.”

On Wednesday, the controversial chief executive of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), Martin Hoffman, announced he is also resigning. Minister for the NDIS and Government Services Bill Shorten thanked Hoffman “for his service”.

In that portfolio, a view has emerged that the former government had dramatically underfunded the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, resulting in an agency increasingly reliant on contractors and consultants to do the work of protecting the safety of NDIS participants.

Key pricing decisions for the disability support scheme itself had also not been made, adding to a logjam of work associated with the cost of providing services that are crucial to disabled people and providers alike.

“I just don’t think they cared,” a minister says. This is, perhaps not surprisingly, a view shared by many in the new government. Numerous are the ministers who have described an almost catatonic public service, long ignored by Coalition politics.

“It’s like they were just worn down,” one minister says. “They were told to stay in their lane, that nobody was interested in hearing about their ideas and certainly not that anyone wanted their advice.”

There was almost a collective unbottling when the new government was installed: of ideas and opportunities for reform, of briefs that urgently needed signing.

“I think my department worked very hard to handle the things that they could handle without ministerial intervention, but they can only do so much,” another Labor minister says. “Put it this way, there is a very long list of things that I must do before June 30.”

In the Social Services portfolio, new minister Amanda Rishworth is rushing to complete the next National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children with just weeks to go before the current one expires. Work had been happening on that, she says, but it all seemed last minute and rushed.

“One of my first order issues is to make sure we deliver [that] plan,” she told The Saturday Paper. “I was concerned that the former government hadn’t properly started planning for the end of the current one.”

When Opposition Leader Peter Dutton announced his shadow ministry, the Arts portfolio was initially left off the list completely. It was later given back to Paul Fletcher, who was the most recent Arts minister in the Coalition government.

Tony Burke, Labor’s Arts minister, has inherited an industry on its knees. National institutions are in chaos. The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, which holds a $6 billion collection, is almost falling down. The Coalition offered less than one-quarter of the required $87 million to replace crumbling infrastructure at the gallery.

“In cultural terms, what the arts, events, entertainment sector do matters to who we are as Australians,” Burke told The Conversation this month. “There [has not] been any guidance that these are serious industries and these are serious jobs. I don’t think we’ve had an Arts minister see it as a priority in that sense for a long time, and I really want to bring that back.”

Another minister is more blunt: “Things get overlooked and every government has to create priorities, but the arts are just like the university sector in that we know the Coalition just doesn’t give a stuff because they don’t think there are any votes in it for them.

“And so when a new government comes in, you’re not just dealing with a few delays with projects or some bad bookkeeping, but often you’re trying to actively undo harm that has been done over many years.”

In early May, Scott Morrison announced an expansion of the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card that would make it available to a further 50,000 Australians from July 1. It was an election offering and Labor matched it. In government, however, the ALP discovered that the legislation to enact the change was non-existent.

While some policy approaches were haphazard, others have been wildly unconventional. During briefings regarding the cashless debit card, it became clear that in some instances there really was no evidence or even a “business case” for it to be rolled out in other regions.

The Saturday Paper understands bureaucrats were pressed about why some sites were chosen and the response was: because the local member of parliament wanted it.

On June 3, Minister Rishworth announced that she was “in discussions” with the department to terminate the program.

“The former Coalition government spent more than $170 million on the privatised cashless debit card – money that could have been spent on services locals need,” she said in a statement.

In March, the then Environment minister, Sussan Ley, effectively abolished legislated recovery plans for 176 threatened plants, animals and habitats in a move that was not made public until after the election. When Guardian Australia revealed the decision, incoming minister Tanya Plibersek asked her department for an “urgent briefing” and said she found the news “alarming”.

A Labor minister told The Saturday Paper there are more surprises that have not yet been revealed.

“The depth of the rot over nine years is something we’ve known but it will take time to quantify,” they said. “I’m not convinced the true state of things has yet come to light even through the departments. I’m not suggesting things have been kept from us by the public servants, but that the way of operating under previous governments became so entrenched and so tricky that it will be necessary to slowly and deliberately unpick that.”

On Wednesday, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus revealed the long-awaited plans for a national integrity and corruption watchdog. The body, a reluctant promise that failed to eventuate under Scott Morrison, will be retrospective and fully operational by the middle of next year.

“It’s going to deal with serious and systemic corruption,” Dreyfus told ABC Radio. “It’s going to be able to receive allegations from a whole range of sources.”

Much more remains to be discovered.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "‘Negligent in the extreme’: Labor inherits crises across portfolios".

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