A funny thing happened in Question Time. A rather strange thing actually. In the House of Representatives yesterday, an Opposition member asked a question that sought plain and unadorned information. There was no point scoring preamble; none of the normal flowery phrases designed for the television and radio news grabs. Just this plain and simple request to the Minister for Defence:

How many SAS soldiers have been disciplined or sacked for daring to raise concerns about your government’s demands for debt repayment of up to $50,000? Does the minister believe that the SAS soldiers who speak out on this issue should be sacked or disciplined?

Bob Baldwin, the rather low-ranking shadow minister asking it (his chief responsibility is Defence Science and Personnel, as he only assists the proper Coalition Defence spokesman), thus calmly set in train an event which has done more to embarrass this Labor Government than virtually any other question since it took office. The discomfort of Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon was marked as he set about using the standard ministerial tactic of not answering the question asked, but talking about something else only broadly related to it. The Fitzgibbon tactic was to blame bureaucratic bungling in implementing a decision of the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal that some SAS troops had been paid allowances they were not entitled to. Steps were taken to dock the soldiers’ pay to recoup the over payments, which did not go down at all well with those left short.

Minister Fitzgibbon was well aware of the problem and last October had told the House of Representatives he would fix it. Instructions were given to suspend the recovery payments and to find a more satisfactory solution. Somewhere along the chain of command something went amiss, and the threats to reclaim the extra dollars continued which led to information being given to the Opposition and then, apparently, some threats of disciplinary action against those who had taken their grievance outside the barracks. Hence the Baldwin question and an admission by the Defence Minister that he was frustrated that his department had been so slow and that he did not know how many soldiers were caught up in the pay error because “the reality is that Defence can’t give me those numbers.”

That was not the kind of answer to instill public confidence in the information technology capabilities of the military in this high tech age — if they cannot get a payroll program right, what hope is there for missile guidance? Not that the Opposition will be pursuing that line. They are having enough fun with the broader question of ministerial responsibility, and it was the Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull himself who took over the attack this morning with a special door stop for the cameras to set the scene for what will surely be a lively Question Time where the questions are not plain and unadorned.

The Opposition Leader said:

[Mr Fitzgibbon] has undermined the morale of the SAS, he’s undermined the morale of the entire ADF. He has, by his incompetence, allowed a situation to continue where soldiers, troopers in the SAS, are having their pay docked, some are getting no pay, so while they are taking the fight up to the Taliban, they are having to worry whether they can meet their mortgage payments, their families are back at home with no income, it is an extraordinary example of ministerial incompetence.

Rent an endorsement. Access Economics is the new rent-an-endorsement favourite in Canberra. It seems there are few causes the consultancy is not prepared to find a fact or two for to assist a lobbying effort. Today’s contribution is for the distilled spirits industry with a look at hospital admission records for young people supposedly affected by alcohol. Hospital doctors, I note, believe it is impossible to use these figures to draw any conclusions about things like whether increasing the price of alco-pops has caused more or less binge drinking.

Greasing the palms. I am sure that the Queensland businessman Clive Palmer is genuinely aggrieved by things Labor politicians have said about him, but if he is as keen for a Liberal National Party election victory as his donations would suggest, he would be keeping a very low profile for the next month. Actions like the one for defamation Mr Palmer is taking against the Premier Anna Bligh and the State Treasurer Andrew Fraser are not at all helpful to the cause of Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg. Voters are sure to be uneasy that one very rich man can appear to be so influential over a political party and I note that Treasurer Fraser this morning is doing his best to stir such fears along.

“Mr Palmer needs to understand that this is Queensland 2009 not Queensland of the 1980s when the National Party government that he was a backer of regularly used threats of intimidation of defamation to try and stifle public debate, to try and impinge on free speech and to try and influence election outcomes,” is how Mr Fraser put it.

Tipping the waiter. It’s enough to make me tip the waiter! Workers in the hospitality industry came in at the bottom of the bunch when it came to wage rises last year. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures out this morning showed increases through the year to December 2008 at the industry level ranged from 2.8% for accommodation, cafes and restaurants to 6.1% for mining. The increase in the trend index through the year for all employee jobs in Australia was 4.2%.

Peter Fray

FINAL HOURS: Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey

This extraordinary year is almost at an end. But we know that time waits for no one, and we won’t either. This is the time to get on board with Crikey.

Subscribe before midnight tonight and choose what you pay for a year of Crikey.

Save up to 50% or dig deeper so we can dig deeper.

See you in 2021.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

SAVE 50%