“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 phenomenon that extended beyond 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 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 he has lost two cabinet ministers.
Even as parliament was meeting, further stories were emerging of more slush funds used by the government in the lead-up to the last election – the most recent being about a $150 million fund that involved 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.
It wasn’t pretty.
The Prime Minister’s office had been involved in suggesting projects for the scheme, the ANAO said, contrary to the Prime Minister’s claim that it was just acting as a postbox.
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.”
The government has not managed its own affairs, or the Parliament, particularly well this fortnight.
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 been finished before the funding began, had already been 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 – that put in lists of money and projects they wanted for target seats like Longman, keen to see 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 departmental head, Phil Gaetjens, showed everything was hunky-dory.
“Nothing’s come to my attention which would lead me to change the report”, he told the committee.
The government has not managed its own affairs, or the Parliament, particularly well this fortnight and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that it does not run many of the services 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 NDIS Minister Stuart Robert, it’s all the states’ fault.
Robert seems to believe, like other ministers, that the best thing you can do in parliament is randomly list facts.
Asked in a Dorothy Dixer this week to update Parliament on government assistance to people affected by natural disasters, Robert rattled off a list that wasn’t designed to inform people about how things were going; it was meant only to provide an alibi – or free advertising – for the government.
“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 1802 266 line open, so people can seek assistance after hours and on weekends, to connecting 1362 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”.
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 robo-debt 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 under way. Needless to say, the government’s legal advice is not being released.