OK, I can’t do it anymore. For too long I’ve been holding out, hoping against hope, straining to see the good things being done by the Turnbull government, but I can’t resist the evidence any more: this is a dud government. And it might be as bad as the Abbott mob.
Not that there aren’t some good things: Christian Porter’s interest in evidence-based welfare policy, Sussan Ley’s patient work to dig out rorts and waste in the health system, Scott Morrison crafting an ugly but workable solution on super — which will make a material difference to the jobs of Treasurers and Finance Ministers in the 2020s. And we’ve even seen a sustained lift in public sector infrastructure investment in this week’s engineering construction data. But they’re all atypical of a government that is struggling to offer a semblance of coherence and competence, and which this week served up a series of shockers so extensive they’re overshadowing each other.
On Monday, former MP and, more to the point, former minister Ian Macfarlane was revealed to have taken a gig as CEO of the Queensland Resources Council, in what is a blatant breach of the government’s ministerial standards. Under Tony Abbott’s statement of ministerial standards — which have the same requirement as under Malcolm Turnbull’s — “Ministers are required to undertake that, for an eighteen month period after ceasing to be a Minister, they will not lobby, advocate or have business meetings with members of the government, parliament, public service or defence force on any matters on which they have had official dealings as Minister in their last eighteen months in office.”
Macfarlane handled resources up until he was dumped after the Turnbull coup a year ago. He starts in November in a job that will involve advocating for the resources sector. It’s an open-and-shut breach, without even Martin Ferguson’s silly fig leaf of being on APPEA’s “advisory board” after leaving politics. Yet according to Macfarlane, Turnbull’s office signed off on it. If true, such an act makes a joke of any “ministerial standards”.
Then there was the backpacker tax backflip on Tuesday. With farmers, fruit growers and horticulturists warning of high-value produce being left to rot due to the dearth of holidaymakers to harvest it, the government belatedly slashed the proposed tax rate and arbitrarily upped that long-term go-to for cash-strapped governments, the passenger movement charge, to pay for it. But industries reliant on holidaymakers for their workforce, like hospitality, were still unhappy and worried they wouldn’t have a workforce.
No industry likes taxes, of course, but for a government supposedly with low taxes in its DNA — and made up of a coalition with an agriculture-based party — it was a peculiar and unnecessary bungle that, had it happened when Labor was in government, would have been the stuff of front pages for weeks and portrayed as more evidence of how disconnected Labor was from business and farmers.
[Coalition can never have clean hands on education funding]
On Wednesday, there was another iteration of the ongoing debacle of the NBN, with NBN Co announcing it was dumping the Optus HFC network as too rotten to remediate, in favour of “fibre to the distribution point” to hundreds of thousands of residences. The decision made a mockery of Turnbull’s bland assurance in 2012 that the Optus network could be upgraded for a “modest cost” to provide equivalent services to the NBN. As late as early this year NBN Co and ministers were dismissing leaks showing it would cost $400 million to fix the Optus network. Now the leaks have turned out to be true. No wonder Ziggy Switkowski is so determined to use the Australian Federal Police to identify the whistleblowers who revealed the scandal.
Yesterday was given over to the government reverting to the Abbott-era war on renewables, with the likes of Barnaby Joyce bending facts and the basic rules of physics to blame renewables for the South Australian blackout. The Prime Minister’s remarks weren’t so unsubtly stupid as Joyce’s, but he used the blackouts to attack “state Labor Governments [that] have over the years set priorities and renewable targets that are extremely aggressive, extremely unrealistic, and have paid little or no attention to energy security”.
It is indeed problematic when state governments pursue their own energy policies in an interconnected energy market, but in the absence of effective action on renewables from the federal government — the last policy initiative from the Coalition was to cut the Renewable Energy Target and establish a “Windfarm Commissioner” — state governments that understand the long-term need to transition away from highly polluting coal-fired power have no alternative. If the federal government fails to act or, in the case of the Coalition, actively tries to undermine the renewable energy transition, then responsible state governments must pursue their own transition. There’s minimal difference between Joe Hockey complaining that wind farms are ugly and Turnbull’s more sophisticated, but equally hostile, attack on state renewable energy plans.
As for lack of energy security, try telling that to Australian households who for years have been paying via their power bills for gold-plating and over-engineering — supposedly justified by the need for network resilience — under governments of all stripes, plus privatised and state-owned power sectors.
The Gillard government had similar moments to each of these, but never all in one week, never piled up together like this. Labor had the good grace to separate its stuff-ups by a few weeks to give the media time to chew them over properly. It’s so bad that Stuart Robert — giving parliamentary speeches written by donors that placed Australians facing trumped-up charges under dodgy regimes abroad in greater jeopardy — and Wyatt Roy, coming within kilometres of breaking the foreign fighters law he voted for when he was an MP, are almost footnotes.
We all had such high expectations of this government. After this week, there’s a genuine debate about whether it’s actually better than the one it replaced.