Another reboot, another self-inflicted disaster. The last one was the budget timing announcement, designed to reset the agenda and fire the gun for the 2019 election, ruined at the moment of its announcement by Julia Banks. Yesterday it was MYEFO, designed to at least end the year with a fiscal platform for the government’s pitch of economic management.
It was being overshadowed even as Josh Frydenberg and Mathias Cormann delivered it, courtesy of the Nationals. Frydenberg and Cormann have every right to be furious — especially the latter. The better fiscal outcome is mostly due to the good luck of better commodity prices and improvements to multinational company tax collection put in place by Labor. But Cormann has also done an outstanding job at curbing spending, right from the get-go back in 2013 but particularly over the last year as the coffers have filled and his colleagues have started eyeing off the treasure. Yesterday, as the best Finance Minister since John Fahey, he was entitled to enjoy finally delivering some good news after all the hard work of the last five years.
Andrew Broad, or James Bond, as he appears to prefer being called, had other ideas. So too did Broad’s boss, Deputy PM and all-round Mystery Man Michael McCormack. Broad is now quitting at the next election. McCormack’s leadership is under even more pressure, except that replacing McCormack with Barnaby Joyce would exchange one person with appalling lack of judgment with another.
Barnaby Joyce’s affair was a personal matter; its revelation was an abhorrent invasion of privacy without public interest, however much the media wants to pat itself on the back about its exposure. But Andrew Broad’s is a rolled-gold, old-fashioned sex scandal deserving of revelation. This is the bloke who demanded Joyce step down over his affair. This is the bloke who compared same-sex couples to mounting farm animals. He even appears to have used taxpayer money for part of his travel to Hong Kong. And there are allegations today from within the Nationals of complaints involving other women.
More politically culpable is McCormack, who knew about the scandal for weeks, and failed to tell the Prime Minister, on the basis, McCormack limply offered this morning, that the PM “had enough on his mind already”. Scott Morrison, too, is right to be furious. Like Turnbull, he was badly let down by his deputy. The Nationals knew this was going to happen, but didn’t bother telling him, and didn’t try to manage it, leaving the timing to the editors of New Idea. The political irresponsibility is staggering. This government can’t afford any mistakes, but McCormack decided to plant a bomb in their midst with a randomly-set timer. And it detonated at the worst possible moment.
McCormack then exacerbated things by claiming he’d only found out a fortnight ago. He also tried to dodge questions by saying the matter was under investigation by the Federal Police. Neither was true; he found out early in November and the AFP had — remarkably — already finished investigating and closed whatever file they’d bothered to open.
Unbelievably, this is the second time this year that a Nationals leader has kept a sex scandal from the Prime Minister, ensuring it wreaked havoc. The first time, at least, had the silver lining of removing Barnaby Joyce from the government, helping the improvement in Malcolm Turnbull’s polling. What is it about the Nationals that makes them behave so irresponsibly?
Simple: they don’t behave responsibly because they’re never held to account.
They get a quota-based free ride in the Coalition, wielding political power grossly disproportionate to the 13% of the national vote they secure (and that’s including the 8.5% of the vote they get with the Liberals in the LNP in Queensland). They’re allowed to behave as wreckers and destabilisers by the Liberals — who have plenty of those of their own, thanks — without consequences. They’re allowed to misuse taxpayer funds for regional pork-barrelling and handouts to their constituents, they’re allowed to sabotage major national initiatives like the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, they’re allowed to create political time-bombs like unregulated live exports with impunity.
And if you can act with impunity, why wouldn’t you? Why bother telling the Prime Minister a sex scandal is about to break? Why not let it erupt at the exact moment the government is trying to launch its fiscal strategy for the election? What are the Liberals going to do? If you’re never held accountable, you act as if you don’t need to be.