(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

Normally Scott Morrison’s announcements are idiot-proof: the media is carefully managed, journalists fall into line, and the evening news bulletins provide the right images. It’s only months later that people start to realise the announcement was literally all there was. The arts funding never gets provided. Bushfire funding never makes it to people in burnt-out homes. Boldly asserted vaccine priority turns out to mean nothing.

But last week’s Qantas and Virgin handout, masquerading as a tourism package to offset the dumping of JobKeeper, fell apart almost in real time. And it turns out that no matter how idiot-proof you make something, it won’t be enough for an idiot like Michael McCormack.

The package — media managed in the usual way, with leaks to select journalists to get positive morning coverage, then a Morrison photo op in a cockpit — was poorly designed in the first place, with two vulnerabilities: being a handout to airlines, the actual tourism industry per se was left wondering exactly what it was going to get; and being tightly targeted at a handful of regional destinations, the other 90% of the tourism sector, especially in capital cities, immediately demanded to know why it was being excluded. Nationals MPs, nostrils flaring as pork passed them by just out of reach, jacked up as well and clamoured for access.

Within a day, Townsville (an inexplicable omission in the first place), Darwin and Adelaide had been added to the initial list of destinations, with no explanation. Yesterday Hobart made it on.

Cleverly, the government had managed to make an alleged $1.2 billion package all about people missing out.

Having added several capitals onto the package, it raised the question of whether funding would be adjusted so that the smaller centres originally on the list wouldn’t miss out. That was the question David Speers put to McCormack yesterday on Insiders.

“Well, it is demand driven, David. What we will do is spend the money that is needed,” McCormack replied.

Speers pointed out the program is capped at 800,000 flights.

“Yep,” replied McCormack.

See, programs are either capped or demand driven. “Demand driven” means governments commit to paying an open-ended amount depending on how much a program is used. There’s no cap, for example, on many health programs. Demand-driven programs are costed based on assessments of how much people will use a program. Capped means the opposite — the government will pay up to a certain level and then that’s it. That’s why government budgetary documents ask questions like “is funding for the policy to be demand driven or a capped amount?”

Speers persisted. “Is it demand driven or capped?” “Well it’s demand driven, of course,” McCormack said. “It is obviously going to be capped at the higher end but it is demand driven.”

Well, it can’t be. Hello? McFly? It can’t be both.

McCormack eventually decided it was capped, but the cap would be re-examined. “Once that 800,000 is used up, we will revisit it, as we’ve done the whole way through because we want planes in the air, David. It is tragic to go to an airport to see planes banked up one after the other outside the hangar.”

About as tragic as this man being deputy prime minister.

Speers moved on to the wage support elements of the package in relation to aviation workers, inquiring how much would actually be going into workers’ wages. McCormack couldn’t answer that at all. The unanswered questions were banking up like, well, sort of like planes outside a hangar. No wonder the Insiders panellists were openly laughing at McCormack afterwards.

McCormack is there, of course, because he’s leader of the Nationals, a party paralysed between a faction loyal to accused sexual harasser Barnaby Joyce and a faction either vehemently opposed to Joyce or disinclined to allow him to return to the leadership.

But he’s also emblematic of a deeper malaise within the Morrison government — a profound dearth of ministerial talent. Without Mathias Cormann, Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne, this is a government alarmingly thin on talent and experience. Now it can’t even put Morrison’s own stunt announcements together without bungling them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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