What do you do when your Treasury secretary, a controversial, political posting in 2018, claims that workers are to blame for their own wage stagnation? It’s nothing to do with government. Wage too low? Just find another job that pays better. Joe Hockey was right all along when he told those who were struggling to buy a home “to get a good job.”
Promote him is what you do. Continue the war on the poor; show neoliberalism to be alive and ageing well. Genius. Bugger the boffins, if you ever need advice, there’s always the IPA or Deloitte Access or Judith Sloan. And The Australian Terry McCrann is always full of good news even barracking for APRA this weekend.
Parachuting Phil Gaetjens, Liberal hack and Canberra-Bubble head, a career public servant since 1977, into Dr Martin Parkinson’s chair as secretary of the Department of PM and Cabinet is ScoMo’s top act of the week. Out with the old and in with the old mate is all part of today’s hyper-partisan politics. Shocking. Another apparatchik, Liberal staffer, Simon Atkinson, appointed deputy secretary by Morrison could well move into the top job.
Adding a tragic element to the drama is the fact that Parkinson has to be sacked, two years before his time expires, to make way for ScoMo’s chum and new shiny bum, as a bureaucrat is often fondly termed.
Of course, Phil’s got a few runs on the board. John Howard got his help to spend once in a lifetime mining profits buying votes, he also helped Costello handcraft a gift for Hockey in the form of a budget structural deficit of $56 bn PA. There’s a lot more including bringing in a GST that, of course, cuts hardest the poorer you are – in rather the same way that Morrison’s flat tax system is a boon to the wealthy but sees the ordinary worker pay more than their fair share.
And speaking of things unfair, Phil helped set up Costello’s now $148 billion Future Fund in 2005. Costello likes to kid us that the fund is set up to guarantee public servants and politicians their superannuation – a purpose for which it is both inadequate and unnecessary but its main effect so fair is to takes billions away from useful functions such as education, health and infrastructure as Kaye Lee has clearly pointed out.
ScoMo’s set up a future fund himself to drought-proof Australia which is modelled on Abbott’s dud Medical future fund which is also all about investing in equities, cash and debt securities and keeping the financial industry in work. ScoMo’s drought fund will also dole out $100 m P.A. on some loose criteria, creating what is effectively a Nationals’ slush fund.
ScoMo’s appointment of Gaetjens, sends a message not just about rewarding political time servers and politicising the public service but about surrounding himself with yes-men; a claque of vacuous, boosters like himself. Long gone are quaint public service customs such as promotion on merit. Above all, Morrison sets up a bond of patronage. Let others inspire loyalty or command respect. Yet, of course, the bond does have drawbacks such as any capacity to provide the wisdom gleaned from experience and expert, objective, frank and fearless advice. Treasury is a case in point.
The Hayne Royal Commission exposed Treasury’s complete failure to regulate financial services, a key portfolio function. Forecasts appear more wishful thinking or influence from above than careful projection. Once an engine of economic reform, since 2013, Treasury is now reduced to predicting heroic wage growth rates that never materialise.
Its latest 2018-19 wages forecast of 2.5% has been revised down three times since 2016. It has failed to predict the collapse in economic growth in the second quarter of 2018. But the problems run deeper than poor performance.
In February, responding to Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’ concerns, Parkinson observed pointedly,
“I regard acts that have the substance, or appearance, of politicising the APS as threats to the effectiveness of Australia’s democracy.”
Deposing Dr Parkinson, whom ANU Chancellor and former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans praises as “the outstanding public servant of his generation” who’ll be missed is but one stunt in a week of unbridled chutzpah in both local and international events. It almost upstages the Coalition’s attack on its own bipartisan Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, the PJCIS, chaired by Handy Andy Hastie. Why? Peter Dutton doesn’t like compromise.
ScoMo & Co can’t possibly have an advisory committee so uppity that it gives you advice. As for traitor, Mark Dreyfus,
“Mark Dreyfus waters every bill down … what ends up happening is we end up with a bill that’s ineffective and these matters are too important for that … I’m not going to allow national security agencies to be stymied by Mark Dreyfus’ ability to water down bills.” Consultation in the ScoMo government post PJCIS 2.0? It’s now just a rubber stamp.
Dutton’s histrionics echo performance artist Boris Johnson who becomes the first professional clown to enter 10 Downing Street while con man Bernie Madoff, currently serving a 150 year sentence for the largest Ponzi scheme in history, in which he swindled thousands of investors out of billions of dollars, petitions Trump for clemency.
These are more than parallels or echoes or outbreaks of the same neoliberal, post truth Trumpian zeitgeist, they are interactive influences in a mediated, globalised world where connectivity makes intimate what used to be remote.
Meanwhile, our local performer, PM ScoMo, stars in his Towards Zero Suicide advertorial which portrays his compassion on screens across the nation, a sequel to Praying for Rain, his popular drought relief melodrama, while, hidden from prying eyes, his government drives refugees to take their own lives in the suicide factories on Manus and Nauru or in lock-up or at home in terror on the mainland.
There have been 24 deaths in Australia’s onshore and offshore detention facilities since 2010, according to refugee groups, with 14 confirmed as suicides. More than half of the recorded deaths were people held on Manus and Nauru.
Not to be forgotten is Robo-Debt’s hugely successful extortion of the poor, about to be stepped up this year.
From June 2016 to October 2018, the Department of Human Services (DHS) sent more than 925,000 automatically generated letters asking welfare recipients to confirm their income as part of the federal government’s online compliance scheme, known as “robo-debt”. Of those who received letters, 2030 died within the next two years.
Because our DHS does not collect data on cause of death, it is impossible to say how many took their own lives. Although anecdotal evidence was presented to a 2017 senate inquiry, DHS representatives could supply no details of location of the 2030 deceased letter recipients or how many – if any – had been referred to a social worker or helpline.
Morrison’s bid to be our most autocratic PM yet, complete with theatrical displays of public compassion and a public service on a leash, is upstaged by Barnaby Joyce, Craig Kelly, Andrew Bragg and a rash of others suffering relevance deprivation, free-lancing costly ideas or madly impractical policy in the media. Best leave that stuff to me, ScoMo, says in what media report is a “riot act” reading to his party room, Tuesday. Some call it a carpeting. All agree it’s ineffectual.
Yet there’s no censure for good old boy Gaetjens with his “blame the worker” shtick. What can Phil mean – apart from an even more politicised, partisan public service? We’ve caused our own wage freeze with our inflexibility? Workers should be out there jogging from job to job; forever seeking out bosses who can “offer greater productivity”. He claims there’s historical evidence to support the notion that better wages are to be found at more productive enterprises. Oddly, this does not explain the handsome salaries enjoyed by senior public servants. Especially veteran political apparatchiks.
Treasury produces a working paper and deputy secretary Meghan Quinn gives a couple of dull speeches on the virtue of labour market fluidity. Yet the case is flimsy. Among other deficiencies, the authors say they’ve left out utilities, education, public administration and safety, health and financial services from their analysis, in brief the top five sectors for contemporary wage growth. Yet there is no doubt that the thesis is a winner in terms of political utility.
Crikey’s Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer call out the wilful evasion – if not self-delusion at the heart of Gaetjens’ heartlessness – his scapegoating of lazy workers. They also point to the inadequate evidence and note that the Productivity Commission and The Reserve bank are far less convinced. But it’s bound to get a lot airplay.
Wouldn’t it be great if the whole problem of wage stagnation could be explained away as no big deal? As though the flat or in some cases negative real wages growth of recent years was merely a passing phase, not evidence that something had gone structurally wrong in neoliberalism?
On a smaller scale, the Coalition’s answer to consumer’s rising power prices, a function of our electricity cartel and market rules which encourages generators to game the system is to tell the consumer to shop around.
It’s nonsense. But it’s a timely diversion as sectors of commerce and industry rev up their calls for Newstart to be increased by $75. It pays to paint the welfare recipient as a job snob or one who lacks the gumption to get up, get out and get a real job. And of course, if it’s all the workers’ fault, then a government with no IR policy is doing the right thing.
The jobs are out there, affirms dynamic deputy PM, “Mick-Mack”, as Michael McCormack as he is dubbed by ScoMo who has pet names for his colleagues, all part and parcel of the PM’s footy coach approach to leadership. If only our dole bludgers would get up off the sofa. Why, he was out in the bush the other day and they were just begging for workers.
“Get off Newstart and go Bush” is Mick-Mack’s message for the young unemployed – despite the fact that in outback Queensland, for example, the ABS reports an unemployment rate of 27.6%. The Brotherhood of St Laurence ought to have a word to him. It lists twenty hotspots for youth unemployment; they are all in the bush.
Lowest is the New England area and that suffers 14% unemployment. If time permits, Mick-Mack could also research rampant regional underemployment – and then there’s the issue of migrant workers brought in as cheap labour. Or the deputy PM could just do some research. Read some of the information his own government produces.
ABS data records just 243,000 job vacancies in Australia in May, for example, with 697,000 workers unemployed. Even if each worker has the skills the boss is looking for, even McCormack, surely, is capable of calculating the shortfall. On the other hand, his studied innumeracy and cruelty would not see him out of place as treasury secretary.
Pete Costello’s former chief of staff, Phil Gaetjens, the fiscal whizz-kid who helped Howard blow the entire proceeds of Australia’s mining boom largely through tax handouts to the rich, is exalted for his loyalty this week, although any notion of nepotism or politicisation of the public service is scotched by ScoMo. Besides, he says, it’s all been done before. ScoMo reads out a list, he just happens to have on him, of Labor hacks who also have gone on to be top public servants.
What was to be the megalomaniac’s master-stroke of mates in high places; installing his pal Gaetjens in charge of PM and Cabinet and appointing himself Minister for the Public Service, however, quickly turns into a surreal nightmare. It’s not for want of trying. ScoMo tries to talk softly and carry a big stick but it all comes unstuck with no agenda.
“My view of the public service is straightforward: respect and expect — respect their capabilities, and expect them to get on board and implement the government’s agenda.” Agenda? ScoMo has no policy agenda and it shows. Respect? Hasn’t he just sacked an urbane, respected public servant and replaced him with a two dimensional party hack? Worse, ScoMo resorts to what he fondly believes are subtleties but which to any bureaucrat appear as simply idle threats.
“We don’t expect the public service to run the government. That’s what we were elected to do,” he tells The Australian. “In my experience, the public service always works best when it has strong guidance and leadership.”
Scrap Medicare? Go for nuclear power? Include the family home in the aged pensioners’ assets test? Make super optional for those earning $50k or less – when $47k is our workforce’s median annual income? Backbenchers from crazy Craig Kelly to barking Barnaby Joyce are all over the airwaves. MPs whom even Captain ScoMo knows are best kept locked in the Liberal Party brig are frigging in the rigging; doing everything they can to get attention.
Liberals’ current festival of ideas is an intriguing oxymoron, were not most proposals just plain silly. Could it be simply a function of nature abhorring the policy vacuum at the dead heart of Morrison’s miracle? ScoMo tells MPs to stop it.
Proposing policy initiatives in the media is forbidden. Run them through proper party processes, implores a PM whose signature is policy on the run. Relocating our embassy to Jerusalem? The Cambodian Solution. Both good ideas at the time. He was all for constitutional recognition of indigenous people for a few days after appointing Ken Wyatt his fixer. It lasted four full days, until he felt the dead weight of his right wing’s disapproval and ruled it out.
Morrison’s strictures make his leadership look even more tenuous, as mavericks laugh at him, blow raspberries or ignore him. By week’s end upping Newstart, at least, is firmly on the agenda and it’s likely to cost at least $3 billion for starters. Bugger the bleeding hearts who want the poor and the elderly to stay alive. There goes the sacred surplus.
Worse, the proposal to raise Newstart is supported by rabid socialists such as Philip Lowe, Governor of the Reserve Bank who believes helping pensioners to afford to feed themselves regularly might be just the boost we need to stimulate the economy, despite his compromising photo-opp with Hungarian Josh Frydenberg – where, after some prompting by the Treasurer, Phil whispers that the “Australian economy is growing” and the “fundamentals are strong”, immediately seized upon by media pundits as solid evidence that while Josh talks tosh he knows what he’s doing.
You can tell Dr Phil’s having a lend of Frydenberg when he sends up the Treasurer’s set-up witless with his line,
“But I don’t think we should forget that more Australians have jobs today than ever before in Australian history. That’s a remarkable achievement.” Remarkable indeed considering that we have more Australians than ever before. Our population continues to grow, boosted by our wildly successful jumbo Australia scam where migrants arrive by jet in record numbers, as Border Force combs the seas for the odd boat-load of refugees. But all is well at Border Control.
Immigration Minister David Coleman, crows over yet another Coalition triumph. Onshore asylum claims “fell by 12 per cent in the 2018-19 program year, a result of the Government’s focus on stopping unmeritorious claims.”
But, as former Immigration official Abul Rizvi notes, that’s not saying much. The year before saw a record 28,000 applications – and after an astonishing rise to 18,000 applications in 2016-17.
Then there’s those social activists and more bleeding heart liberals at neoliberal lobby group Deloitte Access who argue a $75 boost might cost a few billion but that it would yield a “prosperity dividend”.
The PM gives team ScoMo a pep-talk and a finger-wag. Government is not a blank cheque, he says. Those who go to the media disrespect their colleagues. His lecture results only in the odd snigger and a few muffled titters. The lunatics are on the grass. Not only does a two seat majority ginger up his internal critics, he’s hoist by his own petard.
Having won the election all by himself – and erasing all traces of his party, in “Honey I Shrunk the Libs”, a successful gambit – helped no end by Clive Palmer’s non-stop noxious anti Labor propaganda into regional Western Australia and rural Queensland, Morrison the miracle-worker, finds himself sidelined by his own genius; upstaged by an untalented, unruly mob anxiously clamouring for attention. Relevance deprivation syndrome sets in early when your leader is an egotistical control-freak who has yet to learn, as Fran Bailey put it “to work with other people”.
Yet if the spectacle of a party hack parachuted into head of PM and Cabinet is not wondrous enough, the nation thrills to a brilliantly zinger-less, orchestrated Question Time grilling of Angus Taylor from an Opposition keen to weed out corruption as it needles a busted Gus on his meeting with a compliance officer about relaxing the law in his bid to apply glyphosate, the cockies’ carcinogenic poison of choice, to endangered grasslands on the family farm. Or was it agent orange? ScoMo is completely upstaged in Albo’s new tactics; ignored as Labor treats the PM with icy disdain.
“We’ll treat Morrison as if he’s just another Minister,” a key Labor strategist explains to Paul Bongiorno.
It seems to be working. Immediately it gets under the egomaniac’s skin. By the close of play Tuesday, Morrison, the balding Prima Donna sulks publicly, upbraids Labor with a sooky-la-la rebuke,
“I would invite the opposition to perhaps ask me a question tomorrow. They didn’t do that today.”
Given your obsession with secrecy and control; your record of turning every question into an attack on Labor and given your allergy to objective advice, not being asked questions is something you may need to get used to ScoMo – but just have a word with your department. Phil and the rest of the crew will be quick to tell you you’re doing a fantastic job.