Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison’s delivery failures pile up

Revenge, so the expression goes, is a dish best served cold. Six months after her “humiliation” by the prime minister and “bullying” by Australia Post’s chairman, Christine Holgate gave ice-cold vent to her fury. And while the former chief executive of the nation’s mail service came to the senate inquiry into her demise attired in the white livery of a suffragette, gender discrimination was far from the whole story.

What emerged was the government’s hidden agenda to dismantle Australia Post and privatise it. Holgate’s supporters now see her as something of a Joan of Arc: the heroine prepared to thwart the government’s secretive plan and to save their jobs. Almost 50 years after the word “Watergate” entered the political lexicon as shorthand for a scandal, we now have an Australian version: “Holgate”.

And there were no shortages of other applications in a week that produced even more evidence of “NDISgate”. The Saturday Paper in recent weeks has revealed a determined effort to significantly shrink the National Disability Insurance Scheme in its scope and purpose. Now there are reports of another furtive attack to cut costs and services.

Spectacularly, there was also “vaccinegate”, where the prime minister shut the gate on his promise to have everyone in the nation receiving at least their first Covid-19 jab by October.

In their different ways, all of these issues raise real questions about the values and the competence of the Morrison government. The prime minister is being caught out. The chair of the senate inquiry at which Holgate appeared this week, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, says Morrison’s handling of Holgate shows he “just doesn’t get it”.

It’s a hardball view, to be sure, but Holgate herself is convinced that had she been a man, the approach would have been very different. Hanson-Young isn’t the only one to compare and contrast Morrison’s summary execution of the former Australia Post chief on the floor of the parliament with the way Christian Porter was defended with an insistence of due process and a presumption of innocence.

Morrison midweek was still denying that he sacked Holgate from the bully pulpit of parliament. He has conveniently expunged from his memory the bellowed: “She can go.” It was a “willing day in parliament”, he concedes, but it wasn’t his intention “to cause distress”. The closest he got to an apology was saying, “I regret any distress that that strong language may have caused to her and indeed did cause to her.”

At his first news conference the day after Holgate’s excoriating evidence, the prime minister was not asked by the media pack in Perth about Holgate’s resistance to the dismantling and sale of Australia Post. The focus was on the misogynistic aspects of her predicament, which is of a piece with the mire the government has been in since Brittany Higgins’ allegation almost two months ago that she was raped in her parliamentary workplace by a senior colleague.

But if Morrison had any further regrets, it would be that his privatisation druthers had been revealed. Holgate tapped into a sentiment, certainly in regional Australia, when she described Australia Post as “an asset for all Australians” and said “we should stop having secret reviews” into it.

This was a reference to Boston Consulting Group analysis put together to facilitate a sale. The government was refusing to release it. The senate inquiry, and Holgate’s submission, has finally flushed it out. The report recommended cutting up to 8000 jobs, closing 190 post offices and reducing services.

Holgate’s supporters within Australia Post have little doubt the board and its chair, Lucio Di Bartolomeo, were aware of Morrison’s privatisation plans. In hiring Holgate, they misjudged badly that she would share the same objective.

Holgate thought her task was to put the business in better shape and have the profitable parcel delivery service subsidise the loss-making postal side. Furthermore, with no help from the board, or indeed the prime minister, or Australia Post’s so-called shareholders – the ministers for Finance and Communications – Holgate forged a multimillion-dollar deal with three of the country’s big banks to provide financial services through hundreds of licensed post offices around Australia.

Ironically, a chance meeting with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg at the 2018 AFL grand final was the breakthrough she needed. According to a source close to the deal, Frydenberg became a last-minute white knight. He judged that the Bank @ Post idea she was pushing would give the Big Four banks a chance to redeem themselves in light of the battering they were then receiving at the banking royal commission and after their near desertion of regional Australia.

The prime minister and the Australia Post board, however, haven’t given up. Under the cover of the pandemic, emergency regulations were introduced cutting postal services and feeding the narrative that a government-owned postal service was an expensive and inefficient dinosaur. Stories began appearing in the media about the expensive extravagances of Holgate and her executives, never mind that she headed a multibillion-dollar government business that had been corporatised to mimic private enterprise.

Morrison midweek blithely ignored this context, as well as the fact the four bonus Cartier watches costing a total of $20,000 were purchased two years before the pandemic and were not in breach of the company’s protocols. Indeed, Holgate told the inquiry she was entitled to pay even higher cash bonuses, which she chose not to do.

Who can blame Holgate’s supporters, especially the small-business post office licensees, for believing Morrison’s outburst in parliament was cynical opportunism. It has surely blown up in his face. Labor is hoping that the senate crossbench will disallow the regulations cutting services and priority mail when they next come up for review. Pauline Hanson, after all, is one of the movers behind the senate inquiry. Shadow Communications minister Michelle Rowland says Labor is certainly opposed to privatisation. She lashed the Australia Post board this week, describing them as “a swamp of Liberal hacks and mates”.

The opposition’s early opportunism over the Cartier watches has had a result it wasn’t quite expecting. Senator Kimberley Kitching first raised the gifts in estimates last year. Labor leader Anthony Albanese jumped on the bandwagon echoing the sentiment that Holgate showed poor judgement and that her position was untenable. Midweek, Albanese explained his statement was after Morrison’s outburst in parliament and, he notes, no doubt with some relief, that Holgate’s issues aren’t with him but with the prime minister.

Just as furious with the prime minister this week was the disability services sector. Its anger exploded into public view on Monday when Andrew Richardson, the chief executive of Aruma, one of the nation’s largest providers, told the ABC it was “shameful” that not one of the 1500 residents in the company’s 350 specialist accommodation homes nor any of their “thousands of staff have been vaccinated”. He said it was an experience that is common across the disability sector.

On Wednesday, The Age reported that aged-care and disability workers have been left scrambling to get their own Covid-19 shots from general practitioners after being ignored in the Commonwealth rollout. The office of the new Government Services minister, Linda Reynolds, says the distribution is the responsibility of Health Minister Greg Hunt, and that Reynolds would be discussing the rollout failure with him. Those with disabilities and within aged care are considered to be among the most vulnerable in the community.

If that shambles isn’t bad enough, there was more evidence this week of the government’s attempts to gut the NDIS.

Back in 2015, when he was Social Services minister, Scott Morrison distinguished between disability support and welfare. He argued there needed to be cuts to welfare to help pay for the NDIS rollout. His distinction was that those on welfare are somehow blameworthy, or at the very least prone to cheat the system. Those with a disability, meanwhile, were seen as hapless victims of fate worthy of support so they can live with as much dignity as possible.

But now people with disabilities are to be seen through the same prism as those on welfare. By the Morrison government’s thinking, they are a burden on the budget and a taskforce has been established with the aim of cutting the growth in funding packages and participant numbers. This comes with the revelation that the public servants who designed the illegal computerised “robo-debt” scheme are busy at work for debt recovery from the disabled.

One of the original architects of the NDIS, Labor’s Bill Shorten, says the plans are a disgrace and a betrayal. There is also anger on the government’s backbench. So much so that the portfolio’s former minister, Stuart Robert, feared his plans to introduce privatised tick-and-flick assessments would not get approval from the party room.

Veteran Liberal MP Russell Broadbent says people with disabilities and their families “deserve special care and consideration”. He says, “They need all the support that is promised by the NDIS.” The new NDIS minister, Linda Reynolds, isn’t inspiring confidence, telling The Age she supports quality outcomes that are “fair and affordable” – a loaded motherhood statement if ever there was one. What’s affordable is what the government is willing to spend, according to its value judgements.

Overlooking people with disabilities in the vaccine rollout is symptomatic not only of the government’s poor priorities but of the mess the whole project has become.

Morrison began the week by resorting to Facebook to retreat and regroup. He ended it by putting the national cabinet – the Zoom meeting with premiers and chief ministers – on a weekly war footing. What exactly that means, and how it will meet the almost inexcusable shortfall of vaccines, isn’t clear. We may need to rely on more leaks from the public service and revelations from the disgruntled to find out.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 17, 2021 as "Government’s raft of delivery failures".

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