(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Point by point, brushstroke by brushstroke, a picture emerged this week of just how ugly things are for Australia.

Senate estimates further revealed how deeply corrupt this government is, and how entirely indifferent it is to basic integrity.

The Australian Sports Commission misled a Senate committee over the crucial issues of changes made to the rorted grants program after caretaker mode kicked in on April 11 last year.

Ex-minister Bridget McKenzie then re-emerged to deny knowing anything about the changes. Which is deeply problematic, because not merely were the changes made after the government went into caretaker mode, but she was the legal decision maker, for a set of rorted grants the legality of which is already under serious question.

Who made the changes? Good luck finding out. This government doesn’t have a flash record when it comes to dodgy documents. And it’s no use asking the Australian Federal Police (AFP), which didn’t bother interviewing either Clover Moore or Angus Taylor about the use by the latter of a fictitious document to attack the former.

Meantime Attorney-General Christian Porter revealed he doesn’t even know the basics of anti-corruption bodies, with his own departmental staff forced to contradict him. No wonder there’s no sign of the national integrity body first mooted in 2018.

There’s also no sign of much of the money that Scott Morrison — beset by accusations he was just a marketing man and not a leader — promised in response to the bushfire crisis. Either appropriated money isn’t rolling out anywhere near fast enough, or the money is purely “notional”.

Hard right-wing government backbenchers like Amanda Stoker and Connie Fierravanti-Wells also revealed just how extraordinarily thin-skinned the government is when they angrily objected to discussions about a key threat identified by ASIO — right-wing terrorism. Their problem? They didn’t like the term “right-wing”.

A corrupt government, protected by a partisan AFP, that can’t even allow discussion of a major terror threat without descending into self-interested histrionics.

In a way, what we got from Treasury Secretary Steven Kennedy was even more worrying. Kennedy’s remarks to Senate estimates yesterday mainly attracted attention for his indication that coronavirus would slice 0.5% off growth in this quarter and might end up having some impact on the June quarter as well. Full marks for honesty.

But Kennedy also stated that “the economy is quite solid and travelling quite well”, a staggering statement from the man notionally in charge of the government’s economic policymaking.

Let’s quickly run through current economic data: growth slowed to 0.5% in the December quarter, with government spending and iron ore the only things propping up growth. Households were already bunkered down before the bushfires, and business investment is falling.

One of the few areas outside mining where investment is growing, renewable energy generation, has been smashed by the government’s lack of a climate policy. There’s a major productivity crisis. Wages have stagnated since 2013. And all of that while interest rates have been at record lows even before the RBA cut rates last year, and while the government has pumped tens of billions of dollars of stimulus into the economy via deficits over the last decade.

If Kennedy thinks that is “travelling quite well” then what nightmare would qualify for “in trouble”? How much can we trust Treasury when it offers statements like that?

The government’s narrative, of course, is that the reason the surplus it claimed to have already delivered has vanished, and the reason the economy will grind to a halt and perhaps even enter recession, is because of the virus.

But as a direct result of government decisions, the economy was already comatose in 2019, meaning the slowdown from the virus will be significantly worse, and more prolonged, than it would have been if the government had displayed the sort of economic leadership the Reserve Bank and the business sector have been calling for for over a year.

As a result, the Reserve Bank had to use up half of its remaining ammunition this week in an effort to short-circuit the collapse in consumer and investor confidence on display on stockmarkets and in the aisles of supermarkets.

And still we wait for the government’s fiscal response to the crisis, which won’t appear until next week, six weeks after the World Health Organisation declared an emergency. Ministers appear to spend as much time backgrounding journalists on what will be in the package as they do actually preparing it.

As with the “notional” bushfire funding, how much will actually reach businesses, and how quickly?

Meantime, the crisis, and the panic, spreads. The smell of fear is so great it is almost masking the stench of corruption coming from Canberra.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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