Scott Morrison was touted to call the election on the weekend, but decided to keep the country waiting three more days, finally announcing a May 18 poll early this morning. A lot happened in those three days — in a burst of pre-election activity, the Coalition made a stack of new appointments to various roles in the public service and, after much infighting, brought the Adani mine slightly closer to being fully approved. But the last three days have also been chaotic enough that the Coalition may wish they’d gone into caretaker mode earlier.
Appointments, Adani and ads
As is often the case for a government in the waning days before an election, the Coalition pushed through a raft of appointments. Since last week’s budget, the government has made 49 appointments, seven of which are former Coalition MPs. These included Richard Alston, the former party president and Howard government minister who was appointed to the National Gallery of Australia Council, and three ex-Liberal federal and state MPs who were put on the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation Board.
While finance minister Mathias Cormann said the appointments were simply “good housekeeping”, the Coalition has a history of stacking bodies, like the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, with retired politicians and party apparatchiks. A disgruntled ALP has threatened to scrap some of the government’s recent appointments. Meanwhile, Labor argued Morrison’s delay was a cynical ploy to get $1 million a day worth of additional taxpayer-funded advertising.
This week also gave the coalition an opportunity to get the Adani mine approved before the election. Environment minister Melissa Price signed off on the mine’s groundwater approvals on Tuesday, meaning that the final Commonwealth hurdle has been crossed, with only Queensland-based approvals still required. The minister’s decision, which will delight the right wing of the party did, however, expose ruptures in the Coalition –Senator James McGrath said he would call on Price to resign if she didn’t approve the mine. While the mine is popular among rural MPs, particularly those from Queensland, others in urban seats where the name Adani is toxic want a decision delayed until after the election.
Morrison’s decision not to call the election meant Senators had to go back to estimates this week. Finance minister Mathias Cormann said he was happy about this, because he “loves estimates”. Some officials, however, were unprepared. Committees were rocked by absences, with Treasury boss Phil Gaetjens a particularly notable no-show.
Estimates also produced plenty of uncomfortable moments for the government. On Tuesday, Queensland Senator Ian Macdonald asked if Labor’s Penny Wong was related to Chinese billionaire and Beijing lobbyist Huang Xiangmo. After being called out for a comment with racist undertones, Macdonald issued something of an apology. That exchange came after a Four Corners episode, aired the night before, exposed links between Huang and Peter Dutton, earning the home affairs minister a strong reprimand from former PM Malcolm Turnbull.
Labor also grilled them relentlessly about how much they were spending on election advertising, and the flurry of last-minute appointments.
By announcing the election today, Morrison spared the government from any further estimates pain later in the week. Questions to the CSIRO about the Adani approval, and hearings on the Murray Darling, and the Helloworld affair were all scheduled for later in the week, and will instead be asked during a grueling election campaign. Still, Scott Morrison’s delayed announcement gave us three more days of chaos in Canberra, a truly fitting end to the 45th parliament.