Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Keeping the government honest

“Keeping the bastards honest” taps neatly into a sentiment ingrained in Australia that whoever is elected to govern needs a check – namely, by not controlling the numbers in the senate.

The phrase was coined about 40 years ago by Don Chipp, the founder of the now-diminished Australian Democrats. He had particular insight into the way political power is purveyed. Formerly a Liberal cabinet minister, Chipp took his disgruntlement with the then prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, to the 1977 federal election and won two seats in the senate. His centrist party frequently held the balance of power and often used its numbers to live up to its original mission statement.

Today, that role is played by the Greens and assorted independents, a dynamic that sees senate committees generally kept out of the control of the ruling Liberals and Nationals. No one is more grateful than the opposition Labor Party.

During senate estimates in the past fortnight, Labor has not squandered any chance to call the government to account. Its senators have seized on the forensic work carried out by the auditor-general and indeed their own ferreting to reveal disturbing extravagance, misguided entitlement and incompetence, if not corruption.

Labor began the parliamentary week with a series of questions, building a picture of a government interested only in looking after its mates and doing its best to minimise opportunities to be held to account. The most obvious example is the Morrison government’s decision to sit on the legislation to establish a federal integrity commission, which officials from the Attorney-General’s Department revealed the government has had since December last year.

Morrison was indignant last week when questioned about the integrity commission, telling parliament he was “not going to have one public servant diverted from the task of focusing on … dealing with this pandemic”. This week, the prime minister again dived for Covid-19 cover when Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese lobbed at him a growing list of scandals. By now they are familiar: the “sports rorts” spending of $100 million for electoral advantage through targeted grants; the $30 million paid for a piece of land, valued at $3 million, near the future Western Sydney airport; the stacking of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal with “70 Liberal mates”; and many more.

In his reply, the prime minister waxed lyrical. He said the government was focused “on the Covid-19 pandemic, the Covid-19 recession, saving lives, saving livelihoods and protecting Australians in their time of greatest crisis”. The opposition, he said, “comes in here to throw mud around”. He accused Labor of playing politics while he got on with “good government”.

It’s clear why Morrison doesn’t want any more scrutiny of his good government, particularly when the auditor-general, Grant Hehir, is causing him embarrassment enough with his probing. Labor’s shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, says the Liberals and Nationals have slashed the auditor’s budget by almost 20 per cent in real terms since the Coalition came to power in 2013.

It’s being speculated in Canberra that the next target of Hehir’s detective work could be the much-lauded $100 billion JobKeeper scheme. There’s no doubt it saved a million jobs and bought time for hundreds of thousands of workers, but that cannot excuse the unconscionable siphoning off of millions of dollars by businesses that have been shielded by a lack of transparency.

Analysis by the corporate governance advisory group Ownership Matters has already found that at least 25 of the largest listed public companies in Australia were receiving JobKeeper payments while also paying executive bonuses worth a combined $24.3 million. A subsidy meant to save people’s jobs was diverted to boost the already fat incomes of people whose jobs were not at risk. This certainly merits further investigation and, if necessary, exposure.

Taxpayers should be grateful that, in Grant Hehir, we have an auditor-general who is fearless in fulfilling his statutory obligations to hold the federal government’s stewardship of the nation’s finances to account. Estimates this week heard that Hehir was ignored after querying contentious expenditure at the corporate regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

Twelve months passed, and Hehir wrote to the treasurer about his concerns. The identified overpayments of $200,000 to ASIC chairman James Shipton and his deputy, Daniel Crennan, have now led to Shipton standing aside pending an independent inquiry. Crennan resigned this week.

The government has been briefing reporters that it was unhappy with ASIC anyhow and wants a shake-up. But what undermines this narrative is the fact that Shipton, described by The Australian Financial Review as “a child of the Melbourne establishment”, and the son of former Liberal MP Roger Shipton, was appointed while Scott Morrison was treasurer – and James Shipton’s brief had been to sharpen up the corporate watchdog.

Midweek, the prime minister was asked if he had confidence in ASIC and if he believed the organisation needed a broader restructure. Morrison, in his usual fashion, distanced himself from Shipton’s appointment, saying it was all the work of the Revenue and Financial Services minister at the time, Kelly O’Dwyer. The prime minister said it wasn’t appropriate for him to offer commentary while an inquiry was under way.

The government now has two ad-hoc “independent” inquiries: into potentially corrupt or inappropriate behaviour at ASIC and in the Infrastructure Department over the Leppington Triangle land purchase. Independent MP Helen Haines, true to the tradition of Don Chipp, believes these developments only add further weight for a national integrity commission to help the auditor-general keep the bastards honest.

Haines, when she tabled her Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill this week, said it focuses deliberately on “pro-integrity”, according to what she dubs the Beechworth principles. In February, she had outlined these principles in the historic Beechworth courthouse in her electorate. They push for fair hearings and public accountability applying equally to all federal MPs and public servants. The commission would be given a broad jurisdiction and the power to consider public referrals as well as to initiate its own investigations.

The fate of the bill is problematic, to say the least. But like the Greens’ National Integrity Commission Bill, which passed the senate last year, it sets a clear benchmark that the government is now challenged to meet and will certainly be judged by.

Albanese, who in the past sitting fortnight has taken the fight up to Morrison more aggressively, highlighted to his caucus the hypocrisy of the government slow-walking any federal integrity commission. The prime minister, he said, can “spend a week doing LNP fundraisers in Queensland but he’s too busy to establish an integrity commission”.

Whether Morrison spent his time well in Queensland will become clear as the votes are counted in this weekend’s state poll. All the indications are it is a tight race, but Labor believes that Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s handling of the pandemic will give her the edge. Party research shows older voters are particularly grateful, which could deliver Labor seats with high numbers of retirees and senior citizens in the state’s south-east corner.

This research explains why billionaire developer and mining magnate Clive Palmer is spending millions of dollars on advertisements falsely warning of a “Labor death tax”. The premier says it is categorically untrue and designed to scare elderly people.

Whether Palmer and his confected United Australia Party manage to harm Queensland Labor in the same way it damaged federal Labor in the 2019 election is yet to be seen. Palaszczuk is no Bill Shorten; she is a two-term premier and a known quantity in government. Still, you can’t saturate a state in anti-Labor propaganda – fake or otherwise – without it having some impact.

Morrison would obviously share any kudos from a Liberal National Party win. Not only did he campaign on the ground, but for months he also weighed in with attacks on Palaszczuk over her border closures. On that count, his intervention may well have backfired, especially as the LNP leader, Deb Frecklington, now says she will take the advice of the state’s hardline chief health officer, Dr Jeannette Young.

Further south, Morrison played a slightly different tactical game with the politics of the pandemic. He left it to his two most senior Victorian ministers – Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt – to hound the state’s premier, Daniel Andrews, over his government’s handling of the crisis.

On Tuesday, when Andrews finally announced that the 112-day lockdown – one of the longest in the world – was ending with spectacular results, Albanese caught Morrison and many on his own side by surprise.

The Labor leader leapt to his feet at the beginning of question time and moved a motion to congratulate Victorians and Andrews for their efforts. The prime minister nodded to the leader of the house to indicate he would accept the motion, and he, Hunt and Frydenberg went into a huddle.

Albanese echoed health experts, praising Victoria’s effort of going from 723 new daily cases on July 30 to zero earlier this week. “No other place in the world has tamed a second wave this large,” says the Grattan Institute’s Stephen Duckett. “Few have even come close.”

But Frydenberg would have none of it. He bellowed the comparison is not with Britain or the United States, “the comparison is with New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia”.

The role of attack dog doesn’t exactly suit Frydenberg. One of his colleagues says he’s acting on instructions from Morrison. The suspicion is that so too is the attorney-general in keeping the integrity commission legislation in his desk drawer.

But as life shifts to Covid-normal, the prime minister and his mates are going to need better excuses or, better still, real answers.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2020 as "A Chipp on the shoulder".

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