Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Helloworld, this is free

No longer confident it controls the parliament of Australia, the Morrison government has shut it down for the next six weeks. And no wonder: it is reeling from revelations of cronyism, incompetence and profligate, unaccountable spending. Scott Morrison’s only defence was to accuse Labor of having its head in the “chum bucket”. If he is right, the bucket is his and he will have to do a lot of hard work to expunge the stench before the May election.

The last sitting week began with the government taking great heart from an Ipsos poll in Nine (formerly Fairfax) newspapers. It showed a surge of support for the Coalition, bringing it within two points of Labor for a three-point gain for the Coalition and three-point drop for Labor. Whatever the scepticism about the poll – it is out of line with other published polls – it tended to reinforce the view that the more the Liberals can talk about boats and border security, the better for them. It’s a conclusion Labor needs no convincing about.

The surest sign of that is the fact Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and his senior colleagues were doing their level best not to join the fight over the questionable use of Christmas Island as a staging post for the medical transfer of sick refugees and asylum seekers. Their sights were on the startling revelations that were coming out of senate estimates and investigative reports in Nine newspapers, linking preferential multimillion-dollar contracts to Liberal ministers and party identities.

If that wasn’t disturbing enough for the government, the heads of some of its most important agencies – the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the Australian Federal Police – turned whistleblowers. In the process, two cabinet ministers, Michaelia Cash and Michael Keenan, were exposed for refusing to fully co-operate with the police in their investigation of the legality of raid tipoffs on the Australian Workers’ Union. Two other ministers, Mathias Cormann and Peter Dutton, used the Sergeant Schultz defence – “I know nothing” – to clear themselves of any blame for the awarding of contracts that at the very least looked contemptuous of taxpayers’ best interests.

Much to the embarrassment of Finance Minister Cormann, he was found out “forgetting” to pay $2780.82 in airfares for travel with his family to Singapore. He booked the fares by directly contacting Andrew Burnes, the chief executive officer of the travel conglomerate Helloworld. Burnes and companies he is associated with are generous donors to the Liberal Party, of which he is also honorary federal treasurer.

Cormann’s memory was jogged by media inquiries about his apparent undeclared freebie. He and Helloworld went into immediate damage control. The company’s chief financial officer, Michael Burnett, provided a statement that barely did the trick. Cormann tabled it in estimates as evidence the flights were never intended to be free.

Burnett’s explanation defies normal business practice. He wrote: “Because we held your credit card details at the time of the booking, payment reminders weren’t sent to you, even though the amount remained listed as ‘outstanding’ on our internal system.” Curious, because the details would normally have been used to complete the payment if that was the real intention.

Cormann was also forced to deny the apparent Helloworld generosity was linked in any way to the fact his department had signed off on a billion-dollar contract with the company about the same time. He said the reason is ministers – even finance ministers – are held at arm’s-length from procurement.

Helloworld’s special relationship with the government was further explored when the Nine papers followed up with revelations Australia’s ambassador in Washington, Joe Hockey, asked his staff to meet an executive of the company before it lobbied for government work. Hockey counts Burnes as a good friend who he had previously introduced to Cormann when they were both ministers in the Abbott government.

The Nine journalists report they had sighted documents from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade outlining the meeting, which would have given the company priceless insight into how its competitors operate in providing the services it would tender for. Helloworld was competing with five others for the billion-dollar tender. Further complicating the story is the fact Hockey is one of Helloworld’s largest shareholders, with a stake now worth $1.3 million. This conflict of interest alarmed insiders at the department.

Again, Cormann says he had no involvement in or influence over his department’s awarding of the lucrative contract to the Helloworld subsidiary. Hockey’s assistance to his mate’s firm is not so easily minimised. Morrison says Hockey declared his interest according to the department’s guidelines, something Labor disputes. Maybe only a federal anti-corruption commission could get to the truth.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was also distancing himself from his department’s decisions this week, after it was revealed a contract worth almost half-a-billion dollars over two years was awarded to a company registered to a beach shack on Kangaroo Island. The saga of the contract awarded to Paladin Holdings is truly gobsmacking. It was given a “special measures” tender, making Paladin the sole bidder. This cut out others who were, on the face of it, more reputable and capable of providing the security and administration needed for the Manus Island detention centre.

Evidence given by departmental officers didn’t correspond in all cases to what was uncovered by The Australian Financial Review’s investigation. But what is not disputed, beyond the disreputable characters involved, is that this Paladin operation needed to be propped up with a $10 million advance payment to even begin. Paladin is being paid $20 million a month, of which as much as $17 million is estimated to be profit.

What we are seeing is a further eroding of the Westminster parliamentary system of ministerial responsibility, something Shorten rightly fingered. Dutton’s defence that the Paladin contract had nothing to do with him, it went through his department, was swiftly dismissed by Shorten, who said, “Well, hello, Peter, you are the minister.” Surely, as an editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald said, such huge expenditure under such unorthodox circumstances ought to involve the minister?

Then we had the spectacle of the deputy commissioner of the AFP, Leanne Close, telling senate estimates that neither then justice minister Michael Keenan nor employment minister Michaelia Cash had provided witness statements to investigators probing the legality of raids on the offices of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU). Cash insisted that what she provided – a transcript of her previous answers at estimates – was a statement.

Whatever it was, the AFP didn’t find it useful for their investigation into whether she was complicit in illegally tipping off the media about impending police raids on the AWU offices. The staff of the two ministers certainly understood the political agenda at work, which is why they leaked the police raids to maximise any damage to Shorten, who is a former leader of the union. Both the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions and the Solicitor-General told estimates the lack of a “number of witness statements” was a factor in not going ahead with prosecutions, despite prima facie evidence of a crime.

The government’s political overreach received two powerful checks when the head of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, told estimates that “when reporting [generated by ministers] wrongly attributes advice from ASIO, or our classified advice is leaked, it undermines all that we stand for”. Similarly, Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo says his remarks on the threat of Labor’s support for refugee medical transfers were regarding the unamended bill passed by the senate before Christmas and were not relevant to what passed the parliament this year. It seems Morrison doesn’t care; his credibility is secondary to keeping the focus on border security.

Shorten is just as determined not to engage on Morrison’s terms. His refusal to condemn government plans to send sick refugees to Christmas Island for treatment is because it is for Morrison and Dutton to show how this complies with the law parliament has passed.

In his valedictory speech to the parliament, former treasurer and deputy prime minister Wayne Swan called out the government’s attempts to again whip up the racism and xenophobia surrounding the rescue of refugees by the Norwegian ship MV Tampa in 2001. John Howard used armed commandoes to board the ship and prevent the captain landing in Australia with the 433 men, women and children he had saved from drowning.

Swan said his hope was that “this ugly approach is so soundly defeated at the ballot box that it can never arise again”. The good news, he said, is “that it won’t work, not this time”. He said, “One of the greatest things about democracy is its moral force. Sometimes parties can lose a moral right to govern before they lose their numerical majority in parliament. For the Coalition, the first is already gone and the second is about to follow in its wake.”

Morrison will do whatever it takes to stop this coming to pass. His task was made no easier by the high-profile Julie Bishop finally announcing on Thursday that she was quitting his embattled government.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 23, 2019 as "Helloworld, this is free". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.