/A perfect storm of political hopelessness

A perfect storm of political hopelessness

Melbourne suddenly joined the club of choking cities and – good grief! – the world’s worst air quality threatened the tennis.

Cabinet ministers, who might not have directly experienced the knock-on effects of the fires, were confronted by airline ground staff wearing masks at Canberra Airport.

Others felt the eerie silence of a forest where no birds sing any more when they visited devastated communities.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the funeral of NSW RFS volunteer firefighter Samuel McPaul at Holbrook Sports Stadium in Albury on Friday. AAP

Still, things seemed to be whirring into action in other places.

The Prime Minister had more roundtables and press conferences than you could poke a stick at in Canberra this week.

There was a photo opportunity on Thursday at the beginning of a meeting with charitable groups providing disaster relief, which recorded Scott Morrison saying (at some length) that the government was there to listen. But the media were asked to leave before the charitable groups got to say anything.

And it feels like it has suddenly been raining money from the federal government: money for mental health services; more money for emergency payments to individuals; more money for councils.

And don’t forget all those “boots on the ground” from the Australian Defence Force called out in “unprecedented” fashion by the Prime Minister.

Is the assistance, however belated, welcome? Of course.

But what is the situation on the ground?

Veteran political journalist Peter Logue and his wife, former senior diplomat Zena Armstrong, live in the devastated NSW village of Cobargo and have been tweeting this week about the exasperation of locals about getting assistance.

“The response of the various government agencies and NGOs has been well-intentioned but haphazard and confused,” Logue wrote.

“Huge sums are being donated but little is hitting the ground and none of it is transparent and accountable. There are many scams.

“The critical message here is that if you’re going give, give to audited, transparent funds run by community for community. Find them. Google is your friend. That’s what we’re doing in Cobargo. No politicians, no bureaucrats.”

We have got to a point where the long-running downgrading of our institutional apparatus of government means that the most efficient way of getting money out to people in desperate circumstances is via non-governmental organisations such as Vinnies and the Red Cross.

They are doing their best. But as ABC’s 7.30 reported last year about drought relief funding, what usually happens is that the government makes the big announcement and looks like good blokes, then the organisations wait weeks to have the contracts signed that allow them to hand out the money.

The anecdotal evidence is that this is exactly what is happening this time around, too.

Big announcements. Prime Minister attempts another bit of reputation restitution. But people are left without any help, other than what charities can initially provide from their own resources.

Basic government competence

It’s a bit like announcing the ADF is going to come to the aid of the party, but failing to tell the state authorities (or even your own officials embedded with those authorities) what that actually means: what those resources will be; and where, and when.

It comes to basic government competence.

And it provides a particularly bitter context in which to consider the disgraceful saga of the Adventures of Bridget McKenzie.

There’s been a lot of quite understandable outrage about this story of how the then sports minister’s office ignored the recommendations the body set up to give recommendations about $100 million in grants to local sports groups, and set up a parallel process designed to put money into seats the government wanted to win at the last election.

Former sports minister Bridget McKenzie with the prime minister this week, announcing relief for fire-hit farmers.  

The more time went on, and the more the fund got additional boosts of money, and the closer we got to last year’s election, the more the cavalier approach applied.

But the outrage should really be about the fact that while this is the most brazen example – both in the documentation of how it happened and in McKenzie’s unrepentant defence of her actions – it is so not out of the ordinary. (Even if McKenzie’s defence that it was in fact “reverse pork-barrelling” might be novel.)

Of course, there has been lots of moral equivalence defence – which is never a great defence at the best of times, but particularly when you have argued that people should vote for you because  the other mob can’t be trusted.

Peter Dutton (you remember him, he’s the senior cabinet minister responsible for emergency management) defended McKenzie on the Nine Network’s Today show on Friday.

“I’ve been in the Parliament a little while, I can remember the years in opposition where the Labor minister, the Labor candidate, the Labor senator, would come out and make announcements for funding in your local community,” Dutton said.

But the Coalition’s record on this sort of funding is hard to beat. For example, Parliament’s joint public accounts committee is examining an audit office report from late last year about a $220 million regional grants program which revealed ministers had overruled department advice and approved nearly $80 million of grants through the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages.

It’s Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack who has been at the centre of this particular storm, refusing to comply with a Senate order to produce documents relating to ministerial decisions, and defending his role in handing out grants against department advice.

“Australians wouldn’t want the public service running the nation. They want the people they elect running the nation,” McCormack said.

And that’s where this perfect storm of political hopelessness slams into itself and causes such havoc for Morrison’s glib political management that seems incapable of knowing what to do when things go wrong.

While his ministers spent their time, and that of their offices, handing out grants to small projects around the country last year, there appeared to be no time to heed the warnings that this year’s fire season was always going to be a really, really bad one, and to put some contingency plans in place.

That, it seems, was a matter for much lower levels of government than Canberra.