It’s been a bad week for Turnbull government. Even for a mob with a gift for self-inflicted crisis and a record for monumental mismanagement and sheer ineptitude, it’s been a shocker.
Health Minister Sussan Ley’s gift for snipping up the odd bargain $795,000 apartment while travelling on official business and her spectacular thrashing of her parliamentary travel allowance – $10,000 per day in the USA – has aroused the nation’s indignation at a time when Centrelink’s claw back fiasco takes its popular demonisation of the unemployed, the poor, the frail and the elderly into extortion.
Always with an eye for the main chance, veteran trouble-maker and attention-seeker Tony Abbott swoops to ridicule his PM’s lack of authority and trash our mid-East foreign policy.
Ever willing, Greg Huff n Puff Hunt is sent on an Alcoa rescue mission with a side-serve of Greens-bashing in a desperate, attempt at distraction. “The Turnbull government will stand up for workers, their families and regional communities”, he says in callow self-parody. Does he mean Adelaide and Geelong with closure of car manufacture? Or in ship-building in Adelaide, Melbourne or The Hunter where 1600 workers have lost jobs since the Coalition came to power?
ABS statistics show 44,000 fewer manufacturing jobs and 49,000 fewer mining jobs exist now than when the Coalition took power in 2013. Yet Hunt, champion of the workers, is eclipsed instantly when Indonesia tries to pick a fight over an insult in some training materials and later over a demonstrator waving a West Papuan flag at its Melbourne Embassy. Foreign Minister, show pony Julie Bishop will be tested by the challenge.
Some may call him lily-livered but can Turnbull be blamed for hiding under his goose feather doona? Deputy dog Barnaby Joyce is sooled on to Abbott. The bovver-boy-yobbo rides taller in the saddle on his comeback trail with every Turnbull government crisis. Yet, even Joyce knows the jig is up. He settles for telling Abbott he is “unhelpful”.
Yet something seems to be working. The budgie smuggler is probably miffed that his policies do better under Turnbull than they ever did under his own good captaincy; when his “fierce political warrior” and micromanager Peta Credlin had the whip hand. But he’s not going to ditch the hair product just yet. Turnbull’s true gift is for self-destruction.
History repeats itself, wrote Karl Marx, first as tragedy second as farce. Turnbull, Abbott with a better post code looks set to repeat his 2009 defeat as he once again shows his the vast, yawning deficit in his authority and his lack of political nous.
Junkyard dog Abbott scents blood. Geed up by Malcolm’s endless misfortune, he is free-lancing in foreign policy; urging Australia to drop its foreign aid to Palestine, move its embassy to Jerusalem; second guess Trump.
Domestically, Abbott talks up division, helpfully telling 2GB, recently, there are ‘cross-currents’ within the party, urging colleagues to think twice, not “make a bad situation worse”. The human wrecking ball wags his finger at Cory Bernardi, George Christensen; warns against wrecking and division. How does he keep a straight face?
Abbott knows full well that when things start to go wrong for a government, they rarely go right.
Making a bad situation hopeless, Industry and Science Minister Greg Hunt fails to reach any kind of deal at all with Alcoa after a last minute dash to New York with his Victorian counterpart Wade Noonan in tow.
The rebuff coincides with news of another dud. Its record-breaking 2016 Census data gathering mother of all disasters is about to be eclipsed. Unaccountably, defective data infects its new, computerised, “claw-back” program which is set to shake down shifty welfare beneficiaries and other bludgers who have been wrongly claiming age, Newstart and other pensions. Yet, unfathomably, Bludge-buster Alan Tudge is on leave; unavailable for comment. Who would have thought?
Christian Porter eventually turns up to defend claw-back. It’s “working incredibly well” and “he doesn’t think it’s an unfair system” even though it might “upset” some people. Only twenty per cent of letters are sent in error. Besides, it’s already netted $300 million, a figure disputed by Hank Jongan, Department of Human Services GM who says that this number represents the identified debts.” Porter’s bland blithe indifference will help make this into a PR disaster.
Despite Porter’s spin, MPs and others report countless stories of computer error and human suffering. The system is a lemon. The Not My Debt website records disturbing examples. Jayde Harvey, 24, is shocked when she gets a letter from Centrelink just before Christmas, asking her to clarify how much she earned when she worked part-time while in high school. A casual teacher, morbidly distressed over a demand for a $3200 debt from six years ago, is told to call Lifeline.
Errors are inherent given the way the program calculates fortnightly earnings, for example, or interprets employer’s names. Yet the government will continue with its weapon of math destruction in the absence of any effective, responsible political leadership – adding callous indifference, if not sheer cruelty, to its reputation for incompetence.
Labor’s Human Services spokesperson Linda Burney tells Fairfax Media: “A program that’s working well doesn’t send 4000 false debt letters a week. She’s written to the Australian national audit office asking for an investigation. Labor’s call is echoed by The Disabled Peoples’ Organisation which wants a stop put to the Centrelink “fiasco” stressing that it is particularly unfair on people with a disability. Half of all people with a disability live in poverty.
Peter Martin in The Age calls the program “a litany of inhuman errors”. He predicts that the debacle will cost more than the bungled census debacle for which the PM said heads must roll. A look overseas, at the US or New Zealand would have been sufficient warning that data matching programmes cause more trouble than they are worth. Again, what could have reasonably been foreseen appears to come as a complete surprise to the Turnbull government whose gesture toward planning is a two word slogan. Even the demise of Alcoa, a business long in terminal decline, is treated with feigned surprise.
Who could have predicted that Alcoa would be in trouble? A global decline in aluminium prices has closed eight smelters in the US, reducing that country to its lowest output since 1945. Known for years, also, was the expiry of the unsustainable deal for Alcoa’s electricity struck by the Cain government in the late 1980s, eager to boost employment even if it meant over burdening a creaky state power grid and imposing billions in costs tax payers.
The subsidies began in 1962, when the Liberal Bolte government offered Alcoa discount electricity at 0.4 pence per kilowatt hour, when the market rate of 1.5 pence. The arrangement was possible because the state owned the power network and generators. With privatisation, which politicians promise brings competition and lower prices to consumers came exactly the opposite. Later the Bracks government levied $100 million a year land tax to help it meet its power liability, a cost passed on to all consumers. No-one can tell how many billions it has cost tax-payers in total.
Cain agreed to subsidise the multinational company’s profits by $100 million a year, while the plant consumed ten per cent of the state’s electricity. And a succession of political white knights have come forward as Alcoa has struggled to make a go of things. Although the unprofitable plant was forced to close its Point Henry smelter, an opportunistic Tony Abbott was quick to offer the kiss of life. “Scrapping the carbon tax will give industries like aluminium a fighting chance, not just to survive, but to flourish,” he said in February 2014, a patently absurd prediction.
In reality, despite Abbott’s ranting, rather than being crippled by the carbon price, the company benefited from a system which left it with excess, lucrative carbon units. Now the chips are down, work experience boy, Greg Hunt, is sent on a fool’s errand.
Hunt has been running a few ideas up the flagpole. See who salutes. Some may say it’s late in the day but nevertheless Hunt has big-noted himself with a plan to funnel clean energy loans into building a dirty power station for the troubled smelter. It sounds so good on paper. But it’s not legal. Any clean energy project has to be at least part clean: renewable energy. Shocking bit of red tape. Must be a complete surprise to the unlucky Industry Minister.
Happily the Turnbull government has an economic plan. Its tax cuts to corporations plan is guaranteed to restore jobs and growth. Grow the economy. Alcoa of Australia Ltd, CITIC and Marubeni -three of four entities with ownership interests in the Portland smelter paid zero corporate tax in Australia in the latest year for which information is available. According to the Tax Justice Network Australia, over the last decade, Alumina Ltd, owner of 40% of Alcoa Australia has paid a global average effective tax rate of zero per cent. But it’s all about the jobs, as Hunt keeps reminding us.
Alcoa is a model employer. In early January last year it abruptly replaced the Australian crew of MV Portland, a crew with 27 years’ service and no industrial disputes. Security guards hauled crew members off ship in the middle of the night. The company replaced the workers with a crew from India on a rate of $2.00 per day. The ship was sailed to Singapore and sold. The operation was carried out with the full knowledge of the federal government which was told it was the ship or the smelter.
WA Labor Senator Sue Lines noted in a speech March that,
“The government stood up for a multinational company over the jobs of Australians—men and women, mums and dads, taxpayers, homeowners, voters.”
Astonishingly Greg Hunt can still claim in The Herald Sun just before Christmas that the Turnbull government was “working closely with the Victorian government and unions to help secure jobs in Portland”, after a recent power outage damaged the smelter which appears to have no back up supply.
The Centrelink claw back debacle and the battle to save Alcoa the workers’ friend forms a fetching backdrop to news that little Aussie battler Health Minister Sussan Ley may have rorted her travel claim when she dashed away May 9 2015 from a meeting with key stakeholders to snap up an $795,000 Gold Coast apartment, a spur of the moment purchase.
Other revelations follow including a trip to the USA to “study its health system” a vital exercise in learning what to avoid which could have just as easily been done online – in which expenses ran to $10,000 per day. Expect more to follow.
Late on Sunday Ley admits to an error of judgement in The Australian but she cannot produce evidence of the meeting of stakeholders which she says drew her from Brisbane to the Gold Coast after her official business which was a policy announcement on the “availability of new medicines” which could have easily and rather more cheaply and effectively been made on a piece of paper. She says she will pay the money back.
In any decent, functioning government, Ley’s resignation would have been expected long ago. Its mismanagement is as much of an indictment of Turnbull’s government as the light it sheds on its true nature. Illuminated is the context of indulgence and entitlement. It makes a telling, damaging, contrast to the stories of the wretched victims of Centrelink’s mismatched computerised debt-recovery or the plight of the thousands about to be thrown out of work.
2017 has barely begun yet everywhere is seen the suffering of innocent victims of a government totally unable to plan beyond its next gibe at Shorten or its latest diversion from its own failure. Blinkered by its Neoliberal ideology, possessed by its war on the poor and needy, the Coalition begins 2017 destined to repeat its disastrous performance of last year.
Light on for talent in Cabinet, its ineffectual leader a captive of the hard right, its crew fighting among themselves or mutinous, the Turnbull government enters a world where the inauguration of anti-politician Donald Trump, an unstable professional narcissist and Russian puppet, means all the old certainties will be cast into doubt. It will be sorely tested.