Morrison government scandals
Mathias Cormann at Senate estimates hearings. (Image: Mick Tsikas)

This morning’s ABC radio news had two stories that caught my attention. The first was the entirely predictable news that the Mathias Cormann “Helloworld” tickets scandal had already expanded. US ambassador Joe Hockey apparently instructed embassy staff to meet with the Helloworld CEO, who’s a personal friend, when Helloworld was seeking a government tender. The second is that Melbourne has been judged the “heroin capital of Australia“, after an analysis of sewer outflows.

Smack running out of a sewer. What better picture could one summon up of Australian governance and political culture than that? As the $400 million dollar Paladin contract sloshes around, with its beach shack registered office, and its shonky personnel, as two thousand deaths of benefits claimants after receiving barrages of Centrelink debt robocalls wait to be investigated, as it turns out that Freedom Boy Tim Wilson plugged a relative’s financial business into a parliamentary consultancy process, as the memory of another $400 million going to the industry-dominated Great Barrier Reef foundation resurfaces, the $30 million handed over to FOX for women’s sports, with no documentation, no reporting and no outcomes, the six hundred thousand given to Bjorn Lomborg’s organisation to produce a single book … after all that, Mathias Cormann must be hoping that $2700 in free air tickets that he “didn’t notice” would barely get noticed by the public.

In fact, that may well be the final straw for many. Four hundred million dollars is such a gobsmackingly large amount to be given around, that it can barely be comprehended. But many thousands of Australians, looking at the cost of a family holiday, and deciding “not this year”, and wondering how many more holidays they’ll get, may well identify that as the real deal-breaker: they save, while Mathias Cormann rings up the CEO to book, who amazingly forgets to take his credit card details at the time.

There is now something more than anger attached to this government. There’s a sort of disgust around. Disgust with them, at the sheer volume of waste, shonk and grift, disgust with ourselves for having let it go for so long, for being the mugs who let it happen. It is once again of the paradox of Australian self-conception. We’ve imagined ourselves to be relatively uncorrupt and competently governed for so long, that a keener sense that government had entirely collapsed into cronyism, clientelism and dirty tricks was lacking. The capacity for trust in Australia is being rotted from the top down. It’s rational to think of a Coalition government the way Italians tend to think of their government, something that has absolutely nothing to do with representation at all: simply a self-contained predatory element, feeding off the body social.

This is part of the intent of right-wing parties of course, to increase cynicism and distrust of government altogether, and enrich themselves at the same time. All the same, they may well have overshot the mark in the last year or so. Am I alone in feeling sick to my stomach, literally nauseous, at reading the national news these days, wondering what the next story of corrupt, corrosive, destructive rorts is going to be?  Is disgust now a live political factor? I think it might be. We now have a fundamental asymmetry in Australian politics. One major political party, Labor, capable of government; one minor, the Greens, with some internal strife, but no accusations of rorting. And on the other side something that is neither a Coalition, nor parties at all. It’s simply a random, rhizomatic piss cloud of sleaze, grift, incompetence, reactionary obsessiveness, glued together by nothing other than hatred not merely of the left, but of good government itself, and an eye for the skim off the top.

The disgust is something more than political contestation or the belief that the political right, in our era, is a sham. It’s a real pain that this has happened to our country. There was, as I’ve noted before, until about a decade ago, some sort of implicit agreement about limits, some sense of being pointed forward, whatever political differences there might have been about what form progress would take. The effect of living in such a continental Rortopolis is to make you feel like a mug for doing anything other than making millions from transfers of state money for no product. Why bother? While you’re putting your energy into art, science, honest commerce, the very fact that you thereby entrust other people with governance is taken by them as a chance to shonk it.

Does Labor have the energy, wit or will to make this an issue, and to genuinely reform Australian governance? I hope so, but I don’t get the vibe. Some of the people Shorten has been close to behind the scenes do not inspire confidence that Labor will avoid the worst. And Chris Bowen is an academic manqué. Plibersek is nothing much at all. Only Penny Wong seems to actually take the fight to the government, seems to actually want it, want power. I don’t doubt they’ll govern better, if they can actually find the energy to win. But for the moment, let us rejoice, it’s all just smack floating down the sewer.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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