“A bunch of bong-sniffing, dole-bludging, moss-munching, glue-guzzling, K-Mart Castros are again vandalising Parliament. And stopping other opinions being heard.” Queensland LNP senator and PM’s Assistant Minister, James McGrath, sneers at twenty members of the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance who disrupt Question Time mid-week with a plea to end the punitive detention of the 1300 innocent men women and children held on Manus and Nauru. “Close the bloody camps now,” they urge. Even worse, WACA is back next day abseiling down the building with a banner; putting red dye in the water feature.
For a moment, the government is flummoxed; shocked to hear the people they represent speak up, out of turn in parliament. Yet no-one heeds the message. MSM turns not to the protesters’ concerns but how best to keep the people out the people’s house. Democracy is under attack, squawk Shorten and Turnbull in unison. Only The Greens applaud the protesters. But nothing happens. To those suffering the torture of indefinite detention in the open air rape camp on Nauru and on Manus, the government’s Christmas present is the cruel hoax of false expectation of resettlement in the US, a prospect which recedes daily in the wake of news of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team opposition.
Turnbull is typically conflicted. Earlier, he seemed cautious about a proposed $60 million security upgrade to parliament house which includes 2.5 metre high barriers. “We have always got to make sure the people’s house… is as open and accessible as it can be and we try to get the right balance there,” says the leader of a government whose secrets and lies over Manus and Nauru include making government operations off-limits to journalists and criminalising whistle-blowers.
Turnbull’s Australian people are free to marvel at the architecture, listen to Question Time, even take a selfie, provided they don’t get fancy ideas about inspecting policy, expecting accountability or, God forbid, voicing their outrage about our government’s human rights abuses on Nauru. The new, you-beaut, security measures are voted in on Thursday in what constitutes the government’s biggest victory all week; part of its drive to curtail, if not outlaw, the impertinence of political dissent. Oddly, no-one from the repeal 18C brigade leaps forward to defend the protesters’ freedom of speech.
The right to protest has long offended the Coalition, especially should it impede oil rigs and coal mines. Australia’s offshore oil regulator is censoring documents about BP’s plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight because environmental campaigners could use the information to “oppose all drilling activities” there. If they could understand them. The plans, it tells Greenpeace, who requested details under FOI, are too “technical” for the public to understand. Yet the FOI Act states that government agencies cannot consider whether releasing information “could result in confusion or unnecessary debate”.
Accountable to Energy and Resources Minister Josh Freydenberg, The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority told a senate inquiry in November that BP’s application “was still in play” and the company could sell its right to drill to another company if its application was successful. NOPSEMA, which is said to be reviewing its transparency is our gatekeeper for information which in all other OECD countries is a public document.
Similarly, Attorney General George Brandis aims to change the Environment and Biodiversity Act to restrict green groups from challenging major developments under federal law after Adani’s Carmichael Mine was challenged on environmental grounds in what Brandis attacks as “green lawfare.” Labor opposes any such change.
Its gang-bashing of Bill Shorten, rudely interrupted, a rattled government scurries out of the House by the nearest exit, leaving only its supercilious sneer behind, a dysfunctional, discombobulated Cheshire cat, its lily-livered leader cowed in yet another humiliating retreat. Later, safely behind an ABC microphone, Turnbull urges reprisals. The protests, he thunders, are an appalling “denial of democracy” … an affront to the Australian people. Unlike Coalition asylum seeker policy or an ABCC which makes it harder for construction unions to protect workers who risk their lives to earn a living.
Construction sector fatalities rose between 2005- 2012 during the last ABCC. On historical data, Turnbull’s reintroduction of the ABCC will cost another ten deaths a year, calculates Bernard Keane. As it stands, big companies can “get away with murder”, says CFMEU Queensland District President Stephen Smyth. Mining giant Anglo American pleads guilty this week to disregarding safety obligations, causing the death of worker Paul McGuire at its Grasstree mine, North-West of Rockhampton. The company settles with a paltry fine of $137,000.
While concessions to cross-benchers by a government desperate for any kind of victory mean that the heavily amended ABBC bill amounts to a re-badged Fair Work Building and Construction according to Andrew Stewart, University of Adelaide employment law expert, it still empowers Michaelia Cash to impose on Commonwealth contractors, a new building industry code of practice. This will spread to other major construction firms. The code will strike down Enterprise Bargaining and prevent “virtually everything” unions would seek to negotiate.
Labor sticks to its post in Parliament at least when the government clears out fearing the protesters. It’s a brief respite in the LNP’s war on Bill Shorten. A succession of MPs are howling down the Opposition Leader, rubbishing his union history and accusing him of post truth politics and lying before trumpeting its own fiction that passing its bastardised ABCC bill and resolving its backpacker tax fiasco are somehow victories; vital to running the country and not just desperate political expediency, critical only to saving Turnbull’s bacon. Parliament is given over to hysterical denunciation and personal attacks. Like a bad rash, the madness of “Good Captain” Abbott’s regime flares up again.
Even Laurie Oakes is disgusted. The government’s conduct is “grubby, unedifying, unpleasant. A week of brinkmanship, horse trading, and undisguised cynicism.” The Coalition’s unrelenting kill Bill invective is primitive, shrill and eerily reminiscent of March 2011 when Tony Abbott stood next to a sign urging “ditch the witch”, near another sign reading “JuLiar Bob Brown’s bitch”.
An ugly undertone of misogyny enters as Liberals itch to ditch Kimberly Kitching, Labor’s recent appointment to a casual senate vacancy by repeating unsubstantiated allegation made in Tony Abbott’s $46 million Heydon Royal Commission into Trade Union Corruption 2014. The smear was made during the long witch hunt into unions which led to only one criminal conviction but provided many a handy stick to beat Labor with all this week.
“The Leader of the Opposition deliberately parachuted into the Senate Kimberley Kitching to become Senator Kitching, who is alleged to have fraudulently filled out the safety tests for six union leaders in the Health Services Union,” Pyne crows, labelling the new senator a “Captain’s Pick”. Pyne, the mouth that roars, hyperventilates with confected outrage.
Parachuted into a portfolio he might not stuff up, Pyne is currently fighting a turf war with Marise Payne who refuses to tell Senator Labor’s Kim Carr who is the senior Defence Minister in a partnership which has yet to be clarified, Labor Senator Don Farrell points out, more than three months after Turnbull’s government was sworn in, despite ABC reports of duplication and confusion from Defence and industry.
In July, Turnbull promised something better. “I believe they want our Parliament to offload the ideology, to end the juvenile theatrics and gotcha moments, to drop the personality politics.” Instead, he has presided over more of the same, subtly undermined by his patent insincerity, his own, inner lack of conviction, achieving a hollow, stagey theatricality; a bad, toothless, flea-bitten, parody of Abbott’s junkyard dog.
The government line is that Labor is not the Labor Party of old; the party of Hawke and Keating but one ruled by militant unions and bosses who exploit their members. It’s a high-risk strategy which invokes invidious comparison between Fizza Turnbull and two real Prime Ministers. Further, “hard-working Australians” may not be wooed by Liberal nostalgia for a time when neoliberal Labor PMs traded off workers’ wages and conditions for companies to increase their profits; increasing inequality, vastly shrinking union membership and eroding Labor’s traditional support-base.
The semi-slavery of an itinerant and readily exploited expanding migrant rural workforce is the sordid reality behind the backpacker tax which is tricked up in parliament as a favour to rich white tourists. Instead, it is the result of an unregulated underpaid and increasingly illegal cut-throat labour market exploited by farmers and fruit growers to meet the ever lower prices offered them by our dog eat dog supermarket duopoly plus upstart Aldi. The real crisis lies not in the government’s utter incompetence in levying an effective backpacker tax rate, but in our economy’s growing dependence on ever cheaper part time or contract and piece rate labour, a legacy of the neo-liberal Hawke and Keating regimes.
Labor’s Accord with the ACTU removed union opposition to Labor’s neo-liberal “reform” agenda, helping governments to strip away hard-won rights and drive down living standards. Risky or not, however, the Shorten-is-no-Keating nor-is-he- Hawke tactic diverts attention from Attorney-General George Brandis, whose crisis-ridden tenure must surely end soon. Brandis awaits a Senate inquiry into how he directed Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson to argue in the Bell Group High Court case or his role in an alleged deal to dud the ATO of $300 million in 2015. Brandis’ retirement is imminent judging by Turnbull’s perfunctory support. “Of course I do,” he says when Labor asks if he still supports his AG.
Labor knows union-bashing failed the PM miserably last election. And as for harping on about how unfit your opponent is to be the nation’s leader, look how well that worked recently for Hillary’s campaign against Donald Trump. Labor’s most powerful indictment comes from the protesters’ banner outside. It reads “Labor: No opposition to cruelty”
Yet there are some extraordinary if not recklessly indulgent union-bashing performances. Turnbull repeatedly trumps up his rhetoric insisting absurdly that the Labor Party “is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the CFMEU”. Barnaby barnyard Joyce goes barking mad and attempts to throw the dictionary at the Opposition leader’s character. Shorten is “swarmy and lubricious.” He reads a scabrous, unsubstantiated TURC allegation until stopped mid-blow job reference by the speaker. Joyce has no problem, however, parroting his PM’s outrageous lie that the ABCC will reduce housing costs, a lie which has drawn censure from The Australia Institute’s senior economist, Dr Jim Stanford.
Stamford, has recently published a report rebutting what he says is the Prime Minister’s “appalling” ideological claim that a tougher construction union watchdog would make houses more affordable. There is no link between construction costs and rising house prices. The property bubble is not the fault of unions.
Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull repeatedly mock Wayne Swan for being the author of Joe Hockey’s backpacker tax. It’s a transparent lie which reveals more about the speaker than the object of ridicule. Turnbull could be talking about himself and his ABCC or his capitulation to his right wing or his Faustian deal with the Nationals to become Prime Minister.
“The hypocrisy of this Leader of the Opposition knows no bounds. He has no regard for consistency. He has no regard for accuracy. He is concerned only with seizing one political opportunity after another—no principles, no integrity, no consistency, no accuracy and no regard for the truth. Except there is one truth we all know about this Leader of the Opposition: he will stop at nothing to pursue his own political self-interest.”
The parliamentary year ends with Turnbull having managed to tidy his sock drawer, says Lenore Taylor. The Backpacker tax which was Hockey’s solution to the debt and deficit disaster so urgent a year or so ago will raise less than a spit in the bucket over four years. Expect instead an expansion in the cash in hand work force. Expect more overworked, underpaid, scammed Pacific Islanders and Malaysian pickers in orchards, vineyards and packing sheds. Getting big companies to pay their tax or getting a fair return from our gas exports which should be worth $400 billion over the next ten years, according to the Tax Justice Network are far more productive tasks which the government has squibbed.
Despite the government “getting on with the job” or “ending the year with a win” spin on a pliant media; despite all the lies that houses will become cheaper in a “win for the economy”, its last week is a tour de force of chaos and crisis beneath the smokescreen of its war on Bill Shorten, its attack on unions and hence the wages and conditions of the average worker. $50 billion’s worth of tax cuts to companies, promised this year as a first priority, can only further increase inequality and divide a society which is increasingly polarised between those few at the top and the rest.
Best SNAFU comes on Thursday. The government could pass a backpackers tax rate of 13% in the senate Thursday. It has the numbers. Instead, it waits to be rescued by The Greens, an inexplicable move which costs it $100 million which will go to Landcare. Pressed (lightly) for an explanation, the PM says he loves Landcare and wouldn’t hear a word against it.
The ABCC, which has never been another cop on the beat, or a tough watch dog, is gutted of its ugly STASI-like powers and is all trussed up like a Christmas turkey with local preference rules, economic benefit strings and such trimmings as Doug Cameron’s hire Australian unless there is “no Australian suitable” for the job clause which has nothing to do with the spirit of the act but which will bugger the 457 Visa and impose more red tape and expense on a body in a bill which was supposed to streamline construction and lower building costs.
In the end the self-styled Fixer, a self-satisfied Christopher Pyne preens. “We’ll do a deal with anybody to get things done,” he says on Friday, making a virtue out of the sheer, unbridled, horse-trading of the government of the turning bull in its last week of the year where doing something, anything, is preferable to searching for the right thing, the democratic thing, the just thing. Not a word about principle, ideal or dedication to the common good.
All tip and no iceberg, to quote Paul Keating, Turnbull’s government for the elite by the elite ends the year spruiking success but all it has to show is a big new security fence.