The Prime Minister’s numbers are under threat, and so is his Deputy PM. (ABC News: Andy Kennedy)
Never was a government more relieved and happy to head for the safety of the Canberra bubble this week than Scott Morrison and his wounded band of politically damaged and policy compromised colleagues.
On the final day of a disastrous first parliamentary sitting fortnight for the year, members of what is referred to with increasing irony as the Coalition, leapt on a story of possible policy difference within the Opposition with an almost shrill hysteria.
The Government itself was riven with anxiety that the madness that had consumed most of its members from the Queensland LNP — and Barnaby Joyce — might lead to a breakaway which would deprive the Government of its numbers in the House of Representatives, and thus majority government.
Mr Joyce has apparently been making dark warnings about a breakaway to his colleagues. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)
Mr Joyce has apparently been making dark warnings along those lines to some colleagues.
No-one quite believes it would happen. But the previously mentioned madness means the Liberals spent the week trying to avoid doing anything that might set off a landmine in the Nationals.
Then, miraculously, along came a story about how Opposition MPs and senators had been discussing policy directions within the party and had even had a dinner to talk about it at a restaurant called Otis.
“The only breakaway I’m aware of is the Otis breakaway,” the Prime Minister observed on Thursday morning, apparently enjoying the fact that politicians grumbling about how they aren’t being listened to — and about the direction of the party — were a more widespread phenomenon than one afflicting his own ranks.
But seriously, how “Canberra bubble” is a story about Labor factions having dinner and grumbling about policy?
You’d have to be pretty desperate to devote so many resources to it in question time — in both houses.
But of course, things really are pretty desperate for the Government just now.
Let’s consider the state of play after the first parliamentary fortnight.
The evidence wasn’t pretty
The Prime Minister’s numbers are under threat, as is his Deputy Prime Minister (who has already faced one leadership challenge).
The junior Coalition partner is in meltdown and Mr Morrison has lost two Cabinet ministers.
Even as Parliament was meeting, stories were emerging of more slush funds used by the Government in the lead up to the last election — the most recent being a $150 million fund which had none of those pesky guidelines or application forms, just the say-so of the local MP.
To round off the fortnight, as most MPs and senators scurried for their planes on Thursday afternoon, a Senate inquiry into the so-called sports rorts affair convened to hear evidence from the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO).
It wasn’t pretty.
The Prime Minister’s office had been involved in suggesting projects for the scheme, the ANAO said, contrary to what the Prime Minister had said in his explanation that his office was just acting as a post box.
It’s not quite hunky dory
Staff members exchanged “comfortably dozens” of emails, officials revealed, with the Prime Minister’s office making suggestions about funding.
“Suggestions directly about these ones, rather than those ones,” the ANAO’s Brian Boyd said.
“[For example], ‘These are the ones we think should be included in the list of approved projects’.
“Or passing on lists of applications, as to whether they could be included and those to be approved.”
Despite the findings of brazen political interference and colour-coded spreadsheets, the Prime Minister argued all the projects were at least “eligible”. (ABC News: Matthew Doran)
While all the projects eventually funded were eligible under Sport Australia guidelines (that is, they were for sports infrastructure), 43 per cent of them were ultimately ineligible because they had already finished before the funding began, had already started, had been accepted after the deadline for applications, or had been altered.
Much of the attention has subsequently focused on what we heard about the role of the Prime Minister’s office.
But there was other disturbing information about state-based political bodies — only the Queensland LNP was mentioned — which put in lists of money and projects it wanted to put into target seats, like Longman, and was seeing what the Community Sports Infrastructure program might be able to cough up.
Perhaps most significantly, auditor-general Grant Hehir calmly stood by the 10-month investigation his office had undertaken into the $100 million scheme, despite the Prime Minister asserting that a subsequent review — which he wouldn’t release — by his department head, Phil Gaetjens, had shown everything was hunky dory.
“Nothing’s come to my attention which would lead me to change the report,” he told the committee.
The best thing you can do is list facts
The Government has not managed its own affairs — or the Parliament — particularly well this fortnight, and perhaps unsurprisingly it transpires it does not run many of the services that people rely on very well either.
ABC reporter Stephanie Dalzell and FOI editor Michael McKinnon revealed a shocking story this week about how children with developmental delays such as autism have become the victims of postcode discrimination, with some in poorer suburbs waiting hundreds of days for the crucial diagnosis often needed to access the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
However, according to the Minister, Stuart Robert, this all boils down to it being the states’ fault.
Mr Robert seems to believe, as do other ministers in the Government, that the best thing you can do in Parliament, is randomly list facts.
Asked in a Dorothy Dixer this week to update the Parliament on government assistance to people affected by natural disasters, Mr Robert rattled off a list that wasn’t designed to inform people of how things were going, just give the Government an alibi, or some free advertising.
“It’s interesting to reflect that this time last year Services Australia in its previous guise, Human Services, received over 120,000 calls for assistance during the devastating North Queensland floods and the Morrison Government paid out, quickly and efficiently, over $120 million to those affected,” he began.
Actually, it’s not interesting at all. And it turns out the Government — or at least its public servants — have been doing their job!
“From working seven days a week to keep the 1802266 line open, so people can seek assistance after hours and on weekends, to connecting 1,362 residents to counselling and mental health support, working to keep all walk-in service centres in affected areas operational when required and, of course, working alongside the ADF to reach isolated communities where support has been most needed,” he said.
Mr Robert seems to believe that the best thing you can do in Parliament is randomly list facts. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)
On and on it went. So many facts and figures.
Not so many facts and figures, however, on one of the Government’s more disgraceful bits of maladministration, the so-called Robodebt fiasco.
Labor has been pressing the Government to repay at least some of the $1.5 billion it got from hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients under a scheme that the Government’s own lawyers have now admitted is unlawful.
A Victorian law firm is running a class-action lawsuit against the Government over the scheme, which it said about 10,000 people had joined.
But a spokesman for Stuart Robert said it would be inappropriate to respond while legal action was underway.
Needless to say, the Government’s legal advice is not being released.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.