The Australian National Audit Office told a parliamentary committee a list of the top 20 marginal electorates guided the distribution of a $389 million car park construction fund during the 2019 election campaign.
Sitting Coalition MPs were invited to nominate projects for funding. In some cases, money was allocated to electorates when a project had not yet been identified. An adviser from the Prime Minister’s Office was involved in the funding allocation — the same adviser involved in the “sports rorts” incident.
Earlier this month, the Audit Office released a scathing report, finding 77% of the commuter car park sites selected were in Coalition electorates, rather than in areas of real need with congestion issues. None of the 47 project sites selected for funding commitment were proposed by the infrastructure department.
So, why do these rorts keep happening? What mechanisms are in place to try and stop them? And what further protections do we need?
Why do rorts keep happening?
Pork-barrelling involves the channelling of public funds to government electorates for political purposes, rather than proper allocation according to merit.
We have been inundated with pork-barrelling scandals in recent years. This includes the “sports rorts” scandal that led to Bridget McKenzie’s resignation from cabinet last year, and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s biased distribution of the Stronger Communities fund.
Australia has a single member electorate parliamentary system, which makes it more susceptible to pork-barrelling than multi-member electorates like Norway or Spain. The belief is that politicians who “bring home the bacon” for their constituents are electorally rewarded for doing so.
This means there are incentives for the central cabinet to strategically apportion benefits to marginal electorates to increase prospects of electoral success. There is also an incentive to bias the apportionment of funds towards the party in power.
In short, rorts scandals keep happening because governments believe that channelling money to marginal and government electorates will win them elections.
What are the accountability arrangements for grants?
At the federal level, we have sophisticated financial management legislation that provides a framework for grant rules. The Commonwealth grant rules provide a detailed set of guidelines that ministers and government officials must follow on grant application and selection processes.
However, there are significant loopholes in the rules. For example, the “car park rorts” scandal is not covered by these rules because it involves money being channelled through the states.
Also, there are no sanctions for breaching the rules. So ministers and government officials can break the rules without any repercussions.
Who keeps an eye on the grants?
The auditor-general is the main actor who investigates federal grants administration. The auditor-general has significant coercive powers, and is independent of government. Although the auditor-general lacks the power to change governmental practices, the publicity of their reports may encourage government agencies to respond in a positive and productive way.
In Australia, parliaments have a strong constitutional role as overseers of the activities of government.
Parliamentary committees have become the main form of scrutiny of government in recent years. They are set up to investigate specific matters of policy or to evaluate the performance of government.
Parliamentary committees are normally tasked with making inquiries into matters by taking submissions, hearing evidence and reporting their findings to parliament. They have been highly effective identifying and investigating issues relating to government rorts.
Where to now?
To fix the system, we need to reform the rules about grants allocation and close the loopholes. We also need to impose punishment for breaching the rules.
It is imperative our grants administration system be reformed to ensure that taxpayer funds are protected from governmental abuse. If the ministerial discretion available in grants processes is improperly used, this can give rise to political favouritism and corruption.
Ministers, as our elected representatives, are the custodians of public trust. As part of a well-functioning democracy, it is important there is probity, transparency and accountability in the use of public funds.
Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraScott Morrison this week more or less trashed Australia’s top advisory body on immunisation, in remarks that were at best ill-judged and at worst alarming.
On Wednesday Morrison told a news conference he (or the government) made a “constant appeal” to the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) to review its advice on AstraZeneca according to the balance of risk.
On Thursday he said on radio: “I’ve just simply said balance of risk is changing, guys, so how is that impacting on your advice, and it’s time to think about that”.
The “guys” (and girls) on ATAGI are obviously as aware as anyone of the changing risk profile as cases increase.
Indeed ATAGI has already altered its advice on AstraZeneca in light of the Sydney outbreak. On July 13 it said where there was an outbreak and the Pfizer supply was constrained, people under 60 without immediate access to Pfizer should “reassess the benefits to them and their contacts from being vaccinated with COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca, versus the rare risk of a serious side effect”.
ATAGI, whose members have qualifications in immunisation and infectious diseases, is charged with advising the health minister on immunisation issues.
There’s no doubt its advice on AstraZeneca has been very cautious. It threw a spanner in the vaccination works when it said that Pfizer (of which Australia doesn’t yet have enough) was preferred for those under 50, and then raised the age to under 60.
This was based on the very small risk of blood clots, which are more likely to occur in younger people. Two more recent deaths associating AZ and clots were announced by the Therapeutic Goods Administration on Thursday – the people were in their 40s.
Whether ATAGI is right or wrong in its caution is disputed.
But it is not the only expert source in Australia taking this position. A paper by the Kirby Institute’s Raina MacIntyre and other authors published in this month’s issue of the international journal Vaccine reported their “risk-benefit analysis for Australians aged 18–59”, comparing the risk of AZ vaccination with the risk of COVID infection.
The authors concluded: “In Australia, the potential risks of the AZD1222 vaccine in younger adults, who are at low risk of dying from COVID-19, may outweigh the benefits”.
The article also said: “The latest policy decision to avoid use of this vaccine in adults < 60 years in Australia is entirely consistent with past vaccine risk–benefit policy decisions when rare but serious adverse events were identified”.
The authors say their analysis, done after the death of a 48-year-old woman, was “shared with senior health officials in Australia on April 8, 2021”. That was the same day ATAGI advised against AZ for under 50s, with the government announcing this at a hastily-called night news conference.
It’s up to the government whether it accepts whatever ATAGI says – as ATAGI’s remit indicates, it only “advises”.
Certainly we know ATAGI’s advice (and the debate it prompted) contributed to vaccine hesitancy including among those for whom AZ is most appropriate – older people – and this is very unfortunate.
It would be legitimate – if difficult and some would say irresponsible – for Morrison at any point to say he thought ATAGI wrong, that other advisers were telling him something else, and so the government rejected ATAGI’s advice.
But what he – a leader with his back against the wall because of the Pfizer shortage and the rollout shambles – should not do is try to lean on a supposedly independent expert group to change its advice.
The PM’s aim seemed obvious. If ATAGI was pliable, he could say, “this is the new health advice – everyone should follow it”. He would have the best of all worlds.
Or perhaps not. If and when ATAGI changes its advice from now on – even if the PM’s view has nothing to do with that change – will it have the same credibility? Won’t many people, already suspicious and cynical, think: that’s just ATAGI giving into political pressure?
If the perception of ATAGI’s independence is going to be undermined, the usefulness of the body – whatever it says – becomes questionable.
At his Thursday news conference, Morrison tried to re-spin his pressure on ATAGI. He completely respected its advice, he said. “That’s why we’ve followed the advice of ATAGI. It’s my job as prime minister not just to simply accept advice uncritically. Whether it’s sitting in cabinet meetings or in other forums, of course I challenge the advice that I receive. I ask questions. I drill into it. You would expect me to do that. I think Australians would not expect me to just take this advice simply on the face of it.”
Actually, on numerous occasions, the government has made a virtue of just accepting health advice without question.
In the Australian Financial Review two economists, Ashley Craig and Matthew Lilley, have criticised ATAGI for not building into its recommendations social benefits versus risks.
They write: “ask yourself whether ATAGI made the right call by refusing to properly account for social benefits in its advice, which encouraged millions of Australians to delay vaccination”.
“It is not too late to change this message. With millions stuck in lockdowns, ATAGI could instead be emphasising how accelerating vaccinations will make society better off.”
This, however, seems wrong-headed. ATAGI is a narrow, specialist vaccination advisory body. You wouldn’t ask Treasury to assess the effectiveness of Pfizer against AstraZeneca. ATAGI’s advice is part of a wider picture, which government has the job of bringing together into one frame.
The ATAGI episode is just the latest chapter in the evolving story of the role of health experts in this pandemic.
Early on, their status was substantially unquestioned. Morrison and other leaders constantly referred and deferred to them.
But then health officials especially at state level became controversial figures, accused of being political.
Although the federal bureaucrats have not been targets in the same way as state officials, there has been a growing perception their advice is influenced by the political needs of their masters.
This makes it all the more important that independent advisory groups like ATAGI are not perceived as having a political tinge.
As Morrison struggled with what he was saying, or not saying, about ATAGI, on Thursday he did what he hates doing, to get the media off his back on another front.
Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraSpeaker Tony Smith – who has been battling to force better behaviour in the House of Representatives on MPs including Scott Morrison – has announced he will not contest the next election.
Smith, 54, has held the Victorian seat of Casey – which takes in outer eastern suburbs in Melbourne – since 2001. He’s been around Parliament House much longer, though, having worked previously for Peter Costello from 1990 to 2001.
He said in a Wednesday statement his decision not to re-contest had been taken “after a great deal of thought and consideration”.
“I love our parliament and serving the Australian people. I am honoured that the Liberal Party and the electors of Casey voted to give me this privilege for two decades.
“However, I believe now is a good time to give the Liberal Party and the people of Casey the opportunity for renewal.
“I also believe the time is now right for me to pursue other endeavours following the conclusion of this forty-sixth Parliament.”
Smith followed as speaker the highly partisan Bronwyn Bishop, after she was forced to quit the post in 2015 over misuse of entitlements.
From his start in the role, Smith has been highly regarded by both sides of politics for his even-handedness and fair rulings. He said at the beginning he would not attend party room meetings and noted he had friends in opposition ranks.
One of those lobbying for Smith in the ballot (among Liberal members of the House) for the nomination was Scott Morrison, who was social services minister.
Immediately on assuming the chair Smith said parliament should be a robust place, however “it needn’t be rude and it needn’t be loud.”
Recently, against the background of the apparently intractable loud and rude behaviour, he has made a toughly determined effort to impose greater discipline on an unruly house. This surprised colleagues and shocked (and probably angered) ministers who have felt the lash of his tongue.
In particular he has cracked down heavily to stop the government frontbenchers, including Morrison, flouting the standing orders, notably by giving answers that are irrelevant to the questions they are asked.
A few weeks ago Smith brought Morrison into line in a way that was highly embarrassing for the PM. After Smith insisted Morrison be relevant in answering, the PM replied. “I’m happy to do that, Mr Speaker.” To which Smith retorted, “I don’t care whether you’re happy or not. You need to return to the question.”
On the same day, Smith also dealt sharply with the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and brutally with Health Minister Greg Hunt who was repeatedly refusing to sit down when told. “The minister for health can resume his seat, full stop. I’m not going to be ignored,” Smith said.
Subsequently he told parliament: “Obviously in the course of the last week I’ve enforced the standing orders vigorously. I intend to keep doing that.” He said the reason was “to get an improvement in parliamentary standards”.
Morrison said in a Wednesday statement: “Tony has been an outstanding Speaker, in the true Westminster tradition”.
He said Smith’s “intellect, temperament, dry wit, staying above the fray and respect for the Parliament as an institution, has earned him respect, far and wide.
“Many Speakers can get caught in the crossfire of parliamentary debate. Instead, his actions have elevated debate and demonstrated the great strength of parliamentary democracy.”
Manager of opposition business Tony Burke tweeted on Wednesday: “Tony Smith leaving will be a huge loss to the parliament. He’s one of the only speakers in history to have been nominated by the government and seconded by the opposition. He’s been consistent, principled, and most importantly fearless.”
At the last election Smith held Casey on a two-party vote of 54.6%-45.4%.
Smith said in his statement he had been first elected 20 years ago this November “and have had the honor of being re-elected on six occasions making me the longest serving Member for Casey”.
He said his announcement now gave the Liberal party time to choose the best candidate for the election.
If the Coalition is re-elected it will be looking for two new presiding officers. Senate president Scott Ryan, also from Victoria, announced some time ago he would not be standing for another parliamentary term.
In the meantime, in the remaining parliamentary weeks between now and the election, which is expected in March or May, Smith will continue his quest to improve behaviour.
Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraAs the Delta strain escalated our COVID experience to a new stage of national disruption, Scott Morrison has been under a form of political house arrest, driven by circumstances and choice.
The prime minister arrived back from his G7 excursion – which seems an age ago – on June 17. He spent a fortnight in quarantine at The Lodge (including joining the House of Representatives remotely) before going home to Sydney – already in lockdown – on July 2.
Since then, after several days absent from view, it’s been COVID-dominated Kirribilli news conferences, media interviews, and no doubt an encouraging word to Jen about the coming test of home schooling. Next week Morrison moves to Canberra – to quarantine for the parliamentary sitting that starts August 3.
Anthony Albanese took a different course. He hasn’t returned to Sydney since parliament rose. He hung around Canberra initially, then headed north for a swing through Queensland. He might be missing his son and his dog but he has covered a lot of kilometres.
On Monday of last week he was in Toowoomba, in the electorate of Groom.
The following days saw him at Redcliffe (Petrie), Cairns (Leichhardt), Mackay (Dawson), and Gladstone (Flynn). He visited the seat of Griffith in Brisbane before going to Moranbah (Capricornia), where he went to a coal mine.
Returning to Brisbane, he took in Lilley on the way to the airport and a flight to Canberra this week – to avoid Sydney and so retain flexibility (although the country is now so closed, he’s running out of places to go).
Being confined during this winter parliamentary recess obviously doesn’t make any decisive difference for Morrison’s electoral fortunes. Nevertheless, it is an interference to his campaigning.
The government makes the counterpoints that the opposition leader has nothing else to do but campaign, and anyway it’s a bad look to be away from your home city in its hour of need.
Normally, Morrison would have used some of the winter break to be on the road, seen in several parts of the country, getting to out-of-the-way seats.
Instead, that work will have to be crunched into later. It all takes time, and Morrison will be even more time-poor if he makes any of several possible trips overseas between now and Christmas – to the US, the East Asia summit, the G20, Glasgow. Also eating into time are the parliamentary weeks between now and year’s end.
Maximum seat-by-seat campaigning is especially important when the chaotic vaccine program and the Sydney lockdown – and now a short one in Victoria – are throwing curveballs into the political outlook.
Until relatively recently it appeared most likely Morrison, like state and territory leaders, would have the strong advantage of “COVID incumbency” when facing the voters, probably in March or May.
Even with a slow rollout, there seemed enough time to get the job done and for things to settle. Although the Coalition has been trailing or level in the polls, the government could feel reasonably confident.
But at the moment lockdown upheavals, rollout confusion, and community anger make any assumptions courageous.
An analysis published this week of Newspolls taken between April 21 and June 26 found two-party swings against the Coalition in every state except Victoria, with the biggest swings in Queensland and Western Australia.
The analysis concluded that if this were replicated at an election, the ALP could win majority government with 78 seats (in a 151 seat House).
This should be treated cautiously, even apart from any scepticism about polls. The election isn’t imminent. And translating general swings to particular seats is hazardous. For instance, on these figures Peter Dutton would lose his Queensland seat of Dickson. Yet all we know from the past suggests Dutton is well dug in there.
On the other hand, the Coalition’s seat numbers are at a high point in Queensland and Western Australia, making it difficult for it to look for any significant gains.
It’s no wonder Morrison, dubbed by his critics the “prime minister for NSW”, is pinning hope on gaining seats in his home state. Throughout the pandemic he has heaped praise on the Berejiklian government. In the Sydney lockdown, now extended for at least an extra fortnight, the federal government’s package for the state drew accusations from Victoria of “double standards”.
Anyway, NSW can no longer be celebrated for its model handling of COVID, and the state government is under criticism for the timing (too late) and nature (too soft) of the lockdown.
People might not be enthusiastic about Albanese’s Labor, but if the opposition picked off a few seats (in net terms), it would not take much to change the map. Think a hung parliament.
The chances of that might be statistically unlikely. But it wouldn’t be a total surprise – given the government is on a razor’s edge (current House numbers are Coalition 76 and Labor plus crossbench 75), and an unfavourable redistribution has scrapped a Liberal seat in Western Australia and created a Labor one in Victoria.
The election is unlikely to see any significant influx of independents (that’s not to preclude one turning up) but on present indications we could expect most of the current House crossbenchers to be returned (excepting Liberal defector Craig Kelly).
Politically, these crossbenchers are a mixed bunch and it would be fascinating to see how Morrison and Albanese matched off as negotiators, if they were in a 2010 situation.
A small event this week triggered a comparison between how Morrison’s political persona came across in the run up to the “miracle” election and his image now.
It was announced the charges against a woman alleged to have put needles into strawberries in 2018 had been dropped. Morrison turned the Great Strawberry Crisis into a dramatic national event, rushing legislation through at breakneck speed. This was more stunt than substance but it was all about portraying him as a man of action.
The action-man image was punctured before the vaccine debacle but the failures in this stage of a real crisis (after the earlier successes) are dealing him a serious blow.
In 2019 many voters actively disliked Bill Shorten; they found Morrison a more neutral figure, the man next door, not a world-beater but okay. Since then opinions have sharpened. Women look at Morrison differently from back then. The coating of teflon has many scratches. Albanese is now the inoffensive man next door.
With the rollout a battle, this week reinforced that Morrison is hostage to events beyond his control, struggling to respond to them, a leader forced to repeatedly change tack and lines, find excuses, slap on sticking plaster, spend more money. The package for NSW, announced on Tuesday, was followed on Thursday by a proposed “more simple and streamlined” set of arrangements.
The health challenge in trying to get in front of COVID’s Delta strain is formidable. Morrison finds the politics as hard.
Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraThe Morrison and Berejiklian governments have unveiled a joint support package for businesses and workers, as the Sydney lockdown is set to extend to and probably well beyond a fourth week.
But the assistance has set off a row between the Andrews and Morrison governments, with Victoria resentful about its earlier treatment and the federal government accusing it of taking a politicised approach compared with NSW’s constructive one.
As the level of the outbreak continues high in NSW – 89 new cases in the community announced on Tuesday – a support payment will be available for businesses, which is set to cost about $500 million a week. This cost will be equally shared between the federal and NSW governments.
For individuals, from week four of a lockdown in a hot spot declared by the Commonwealth, the COVID disaster payment will rise from $500 to $600 if a person has lost 20 or more hours of work a week. The amount will go from $325 to $375 if the hours lost are between eight and 20.
The payment will also be available to people in NSW outside Commonwealth-declared hotspots where they meet the eligibility criteria – but in these cases the NSW government will fund the cost.
Businesses eligible for assistance will be those with an annual turnover between $75,000 and $50 million, which can demonstrate a 30% decline in turnover, compared with an equivalent two week period in 2019.
Businesses will receive payments ranging from $1,500 and $10,000 a week, based on their payroll, with non-employing businesses such as sole traders receiving $1000 a week.
Up to 500,000 entities are expected to be eligible, which employ more than three million people. The assistance will be available to not-for-profit entities. Those receiving the payment will have to maintain their workforces at current levels.
Scott Morrison, speaking at a news conference with NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian and state treasurer Dominic Perrottet, said the aid would go as long as the lockdown required.
The federal government – under earlier criticism for being more anxious to help NSW than it had been to assist Victoria, when it was slow with an announcement – emphasised that the new payments would apply to other states if they were to be in similar circumstances.
But the Victorian government reacted sharply.
“Victorians are rightly sick and tired of having to beg for every scrap of support from the federal government,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
“It shouldn’t take a crisis in Sydney for the Prime Minister to take action but we are seeing the same double standard time and time again. His job is not to be the Prime Minister for NSW.
“We had to shame the federal government into doing their job and providing income support for Victorian workers when we battled the Delta strain earlier this year. Their position at the time was a disgrace.
“If they had bothered to think about this at the time and work with Victoria, they’d already have had a practical framework in place when NSW went into lockdown and more people would have got the support they need earlier,” the statement said.
The Morrison government hit back, contrasting what it described as different attitudes by Victoria and NSW.
“The NSW government has worked constructively with the Commonwealth to support their households and businesses while the Victorian government’s politicised approach has unfortunately been to issue decrees by media instead of picking up the phone to find solutions as a partnership,” a federal spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said Victorian received the same support for its two week circuit breaker lockdown as had NSW for its first two weeks.
“As the pandemic has evolved and as the situation in NSW has gone beyond those two weeks, the Commonwealth’s support has also evolved. If Victoria were to go into another extended lockdown, it would receive the same support as is being offered to NSW.”
The spokesperson said that during the recent Victorian lockdown, the Commonwealth offered to share all costs with the state. “Victoria declined, and asked for the Commonwealth to handle income support while they would support businesses.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told the ABC on Tuesday night, people were sick of Victorian Premier Dan Andrews’ “whingeing”.
Under the package for NSW, the Commonwealth is providing some business tax relief and the NSW government is giving some payroll relief and protection against evictions.
The package also contains $17.35 million for mental health support. Among organisations to receive funding will be headspace and Kids Helpline.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) on Tuesday released new advice on AstraZeneca in light of the Sydney outbreak.
It said in the context of an outbreak where the supply of Pfizer was constrained, people under 60 who don’t have immediate access to Pfizer should “reassess the benefits to them and their contacts from being vaccinated with COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca, versus the rare risk of a serious side effect”.
It also said in outbreak situations those who had received a first AZ shot more than four weeks ago should get their second dose as soon as possible, rather than waiting the preferred 12 weeks.
William Bowtell, UNSWAll-encompassing crises like a pandemic can expose systemic flaws and failures in government and society, clearing the decks for radical reform and renovation.
The question is in which direction and in whose interests.
Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a four-phase plan to lead Australia out of the COVID-19 crisis. The plan was devoid of numbers, facts, targets or commitments. But Morrison nonetheless declared it to be a “New Deal”.
It would be tempting, but mistaken, to pass this off as just one more politician riffing off US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who coined the phrase in 1932.
Yet, the disruption caused by the fear of COVID has delivered the Morrison government an unexpected opportunity to reshape Australian politics and society along neo-liberal lines.
Roosevelt’s vision for a new America
In the early 1930s, Roosevelt was confronted by a social and economic catastrophe — the Great Depression.
His genius was to understand that a bold, radical reshaping of the economy and society was required to overcome the crisis and forestall the rise of alternatives to democracy from both the right and left.
The core of Roosevelt’s New Deal was redistribution of wealth from the few to the many. He ran large budget deficits, increased government spending and taxation, imposed regulations to rein in the worst excesses of the banks, and commissioned massive public and social works programs.
Roosevelt’s New Deal shifted the balance from profits to wages, created millions of new, better-paid jobs and stabilised society at a higher and better level for the American people.
The New Deal spent big to save on the grandest scale.
Neo-liberalism’s impact on the COVID response
The resurgence of casino capitalism in the 1980s reinvigorated the free-market opponents of the New Deal era.
In the US, the neo-liberals laid waste to much of the New Deal public health system. In the UK, decades of “market reforms” to the National Health System steadily eroded the principles of public health provision.
These reforms were prosecuted in the name of providing choice and efficiency and went largely uncontested by public opinion.
But they had long-term and serious consequences that the COVID pandemic cruelly exposed. Neo-liberalism undermined the ability of public health structures and institutions to provide independent and open scientific advice.
The US, UK and Brazil were all run by neo-liberal governments when the pandemic emerged, committed to free markets, small governments and budgets balanced by massive reductions in outlays on education, welfare and, ominously, public health.
Eighteen months into the pandemic, the three countries have recorded a combined 57 million cases and 1.25 million deaths (and counting) from COVID-19, with the actual death tolls considerably higher.
By contrast, in countries that moved rapidly to apply tried and tested public health principles through long-established and resilient structures, COVID deaths and illnesses were, with difficulty, contained.
These countries dealt with the realities of COVID as best they could and strengthened their responses as dictated by the accumulation of facts and evidence. Broadly, science dictated the response.
Morrison government’s initial hands-off approach
In Australia, the split between traditional public health principles and the neo-liberal response to COVID was apparent from early 2020.
The initial response of the Morrison government and its planning for COVID was deeply influenced by the UK and US.
The Morrison government did not accept the Commonwealth government had an over-arching national responsibility for public health outcomes. As cases occurred in the states and territories, the responsibility for the response rested with them.
In the critical early months, the Morrison government kept most borders open, limited surveillance of incoming travellers, moved too slowly to ban the export of PPE packs and let aged care operators follow free-market, self-regulation principles in the hope of reducing risk to residents and staff.
This laissez-faire approach provoked dismay and incredulity within the robust public health system.
Propelled by public health professionals and the public, the country locked down at the end of March, and after a rocky few months, brought about COVID zero.
This brought time and options to build an effective quarantine system and organise vaccine supply. But the Morrison government squandered the gift.
A recovery prolonged by two big missteps
From mid-2020, the economic and social disruption caused by the COVID response should have begun to dissipate. But instead, the Morrison government made the critical decision that prolonged and intensified the misery of the pandemic.
Rather than sign contracts with a number of vaccine manufacturers to guarantee adequate supplies this year, the government put much of its faith in one candidate – AstraZeneca.
And after the more infectious Delta variant emerged in December 2020, the Morrison government resisted all entreaties, pleas and scientific evidence to build Delta-proof quarantine facilities.
The effect of these two decisions has been to prolong Australia’s emergence from the botched COVID response until next year.
On the present trajectory, there is no way most Australians will travel abroad again until sometime after March 2022 — the second anniversary of the lockdown that saved Australia.
A ‘New Deal’ that leaves people behind
The Morrison government did not create COVID, but it has skilfully magnified the impacts of COVID in Australia to clear the decks for its own “New Deal”.
But the only thing Morrison’s New Deal has in common with FDR’s is massive deficit spending.
When faced with mass dismissals of employees early in the pandemic, the federal government’s huge stimulus packages fell short. The sharpest blows and cuts fell on the universities, the arts sector and casual and gig economy workers.
Businesses applied for JobKeeper on the basis that earnings would fall. But as was reported earlier this year, more than 30 ASX-listed companies recorded higher profits last year after receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in JobKeeper subsidies than before the pandemic.
Shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh has said between $10-20 billion could have gone to firms with rising profits.
Unlike Roosevelt’s New Deal, which lifted millions of people from poverty to sustained prosperity with a commitment to open democracy, Morrison’s plan for the future doesn’t contain a strong enough safety net to support those in need.
The need for openness and transparency
It is also deeply wrong such a blueprint is being put together behind closed doors, with the input of like-minded politicians, sectional interests and lobbyists, but without the involvement of the Australian people.
All the goals, assumptions, modelling, advice and arguments should be published in a white paper.
Let the Morrison government make its best case for reopening Australia’s borders without full vaccination of the population and a variant-proof quarantine system.
Put on the table the plans for vaccine passports and how the international travel system might be reconstructed to let people travel and not the virus.
Rather than concentrate on the gauzy benefits of “freedom”, the government needs to outline the costs in lives and jobs that will accrue to vulnerable and less-wealthy Australians.
Let’s have a full and frank discussion of the increase in surveillance and the erosion of rights and liberties that have taken place in the name of containing COVID.
And be told what, if anything, is being planned to ensure the next pandemic will be managed far better than the government has managed COVID.
Only a process based on the values of truth, transparency and debate can rebuild people’s confidence and trust in government. The New Deal Australia wants and needs is not the Old Deal being constructed in Scott Morrison’s Canberra office.
Yee-Fui Ng, Monash UniversityYet another rorts scandal is swirling around the federal government. The Auditor-General has reported that a $389 million car park construction fund has been administered ineffectively. The minister had distributed the grants with “inadequate assessment” for eligibility.
The auditor-general’s report found 77% of the commuter car park sites selected were in Coalition electorates, rather than in areas of real need with congestion issues.
Damningly, none of the 47 project sites selected for funding commitment were proposed by the department. This suggests there has been extensive ministerial interference in the funding decision-making.
The fact this questionable allocation of funding occurred the day before Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the 2019 federal election suggests an element of “pork barrelling”: the channelling of public funds to government electorates for political purposes, rather than proper allocation according to merit.
The car park rorts is the latest in a series of rorts scandals in recent years. This includes the “sports rorts” scandal, in which the biased distribution of funds and a conflict of interest prompted the resignation of minister Bridget McKenzie.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was also accused of reducing funding to the highest ranked community safety projects and redirecting the funding to projects of his choice, including those not recommended by his department.
Rorting isn’t new in Australian politics. More than a decade ago, we had a previous “sports rorts” incident under the Labor Government, in which grants were distributed in favour of the Labor Party. Famously, minister Ros Kelly claimed that decisions on short-listed applications were made on a “great big whiteboard” that was erased without permanent record.
A number of empirical studies over the years have confirmed a strong partisan component to allocating grant money towards the party in power.
Why all the rorts?
Given we have had so many rorts scandals over the years, the question is why they are still happening unabated? Why hasn’t the problem been fixed?
To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the legal and political regulation of grant programs in Australia.
First, the political regulation of grant programs is generally working well. The auditor-general, an independent officer of parliament, has been vigilant in reporting on maladministration of grants in government. Many of the rorts scandals have been brought to light through auditor-general reports.
Parliamentary committees have also been vigilant in investigating grants rorts, and reporting on these incidents.
Sometimes the relevant minister resigns, sometimes they tough it out, depending on the political circumstances and the support of the prime minister or premier.
However, the legal regulation of grant programs is problematic.
Although at the federal level we have sophisticated financial management legislation that provides a framework for grant rules, there are significant loopholes in it.
For one, the government cannot make grant rules for government statutory corporations, or for grants administered under intergovernmental agreements with the states. This is problematic because many grants programs are administered by independent statutory corporations or through the states.
As I have written, there are good reasons to set up independent statutory bodies to administer government policies, rather than leave it to the politicians. This would avoid the partisan interference and short-termism that characterises modern politics. An example of the benefits of this is letting the Reserve Bank set interest rates, rather than politicians.
However, these goals are undermined if ministers interfere with the merit-based decisions of the independent bodies in favour of partisan considerations.
Another issue is that breaches of these grant rules do not result in any legal penalty. There is no penalty for breaching the Commonwealth grant rules in the financial management legislation. So there are no repercussions for breaching the rules, which may be why politicians do it with impunity.
A further problem is the limited opportunity for grant applicants to challenge partisan decisions. Courts in judicial review will confine themselves to the legality of the decisions. They will not intrude into public policy considerations by ministers, such as which applicants deserve the grants.
In light of the pervasive and repeated rorts scandals that have plagued Australian politics, it is time to reform the rules.
First, the loopholes need to be closed. The Commonwealth grant rules provide a detailed set of guidelines that ministers and government officials must follow on grant application and selection processes. This should be broadened to include situations where the Commonwealth distributes grants through an independent statutory corporation or through the states.
Second, there needs to be legal enforcement of the grant rules. This may lead to more effective legal challenges of partisan grant decisions in the courts.
With no legal repercussions for breaches, politicians will continue to flout the rules.
It is clear the probity of the use of public funds is essential to maintaining public trust in the Australian political system. The repeated rorts scandals in Australia undermines a basic tenet of our democracy: that allocation of public money should be administered responsibly by our elected officials.
We need to reform the regulation of grant programs in Australia to enhance the probity, transparency and integrity of the use of public funds.
Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraThe debate about the vexed vaccination rollout on Wednesday exploded into an extraordinary free-for-all, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison under fire and health experts arguing among themselves.
Morrison had hoped by easing the way for younger people to get AstraZeneca he’d give a push to the program’s slow pace; equally, he wanted to put to use the excess supply of a vaccine that’s become unpopular in the public marketplace.
But his Monday night comments after national cabinet did not sit easily with the advice of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.
ATAGI says Pfizer is the preferred vaccine for people under 60. When it comes to AstraZeneca, it has not given an actual no-no for younger people – seeing it as an alternative when Pfizer’s not available and there’s informed consent – but has discouraged its use.
Former health department secretary Jane Halton makes the distinction between population-wide advice – about those over and under 60 – and what may be best for individuals based on their own circumstances. AstraZeneca has been registered in Australia to be given to anyone over 18, she points out.
Instead of advancing the rollout, Morrison’s intervention triggered one of the worst days he’s had among many bad ones on vaccine issues.
There’s confusion and anger, when what’s required is order and calm. We heard the sort of cacophony more usual in the middle of an election campaign.
The government insists Morrison’s words did not contradict ATAGI.
Phil Gaetjens, secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, told his state counterparts on Tuesday there was no inconsistency between what the PM had said and the clinical advice (and blamed some media coverage).
But the critics saw considerable inconsistency.
First to Morrison’s Monday words.
He said: “The ATAGI advice talks about a preference for AstraZeneca […] for those over 60. But the advice does not preclude persons under 60 from getting the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“And so if you wish to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, then we would encourage you to go and have that discussion with your GP.” The government would establish an indemnity scheme to protect the doctors.
In its formal statement, national cabinet “noted” the indemnity scheme and also “noted that GPs can continue to administer AstraZeneca to Australians under 60 years of age with informed consent”.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk on Wednesday was adamant there had been “no national cabinet decision about AstraZeneca being given to under 40s.” (They are the ones not being vaccinated at the moment.)
She wanted to know if the federal cabinet had made the decision.
Her “message to Queenslanders” was to listen to the Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young and other health experts on the vaccine.
Young – who is Queensland’s governor-in-waiting – absolutely let fly.
“No, I do not want under 40s to get AstraZeneca,” she said. “It is rare, but they are at increased risk of getting the rare clotting syndrome.
“We’ve seen up to 49 deaths in the UK from that syndrome. I don’t want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness who, if they got Covid, probably wouldn’t die.”
Former federal deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth had earlier tweeted: “Critical ethical principle of autonomy at stake here. Should not be paternalistic. Adults should be allowed to consent to an intervention with a 3 in 100,000 risk of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome and less than 1 in 1,000,000 of death”.
Coatsworth – the guy you see in those Commonwealth vaccination advertisements – added after Young’s comments, “Well, I guess that puts me at odds with the QLD CHO”.
Charlotte Hespe, from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, described Young’s comments as scaremongering.
Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan said the Commonwealth had made a decision to allow younger people to be able to receive AstraZeneca and “provided an indemnity for GPs who do that. The health advice we have is that they shouldn’t”.
As McGowan observed, “with health advice, lots of doctors give you different advice at different points in time”.
And, indeed, see things differently from day to day.
Australian Medical Association President Omar Khorshid on Tuesday declared Morrison’s announcement “a really significant change in the vaccine program”.
On Wednesday, he said: “The PM simply removed the age restrictions on AZ.”
But Khorshid did say Morrison had thrown a “hand grenade” into the rollout. “Today shows why we need to keep the politicians out of health discussions, and leave them between patients and their doctors.”
While the argument raged about AstraZeneca, problems just deepened over the shortage of Pfizer.
Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said the state had written to Lieutenant General JJ Frewen, who is in charge of the rollout, to ask for further supplies.
“The reason we gave is that we are at a critical level and that at some of our sites we are projected to run out of Pfizer by as soon as … next Monday.
“We sent that letter yesterday. We got a response this morning. From the lieutenant general. We’ve been advised that we will not be provided additional vaccines of Pfizer.”
Queensland did not suggest which state or territory should get less Pfizer to meet its request for more.
National cabinet meets again on Friday. With frustrations high, tempers frayed, and some states struggling with their own shortcomings, its effectiveness will be tested to the limit.
Well, not any more. With the rollout struggling and half the country in lockdown, Scott Morrison is now encouraging younger people to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, despite the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) not recommending it for the under 60s.
Morrison’s Monday night announcement of the government’s new position was quite a significant moment.
It marked a break with the experts in a move that, if it were to backfire, would leave the government facing the heat without the “shield” of its advisers.
One can understand why Morrison is going down this path. The government needs to get the population vaccinated much more quickly. We are at the bottom of the OECD with our rollout. There is plenty of AstraZeneca, which is home made at CSL, and limited amounts of the imported Pfizer, the vaccine ATAGI recommends for the under 60s.
The hugely infectious Delta strain is putting the fear of god into federal and state governments, and many in the public. The current lockdowns show how quickly activity can be semi-crippled even by small numbers of cases.
All this when the younger part of the adult population, the under 40s, aren’t yet even in the current vaccination queue.
However, the contradiction is obvious. After AstraZeneca was associated with rare blood clots, the government took ATAGI advice on who should receive which vaccine – AstraZeneca for over 50s, Pfizer for those under.
In embracing the ATAGI advice it knew it would be contributing to hesitancy about vaccination generally and AstraZeneca in particular, but it said it felt it had no option.
Then ATAGI became even more cautious and recommended AstraZeneca be given only to those 60 and above. The government accepted the revised advice, which was likely to make people even more suspicious of AstraZeneca.
When Morrison in effect parks his attachment to the experts and says to younger people, if you are so inclined just talk to your doctor and make your own decision about taking an AstraZeneca jab, the danger is the public become confused or cynical or both.
Heath Minister Greg Hunt on Tuesday explained things this way: “So the advice is very clear on two fronts. One is the medical advice; two is the access.
“AstraZeneca remains the preferred vaccine for people 60 years and over. That has not changed, the advice of ATAGI, and Pfizer is the preferred for people under 60. And the clinical advice of ATAGI, again, has not changed.
“However, as has always been the case … on the basis of informed consent, individual patients and their doctors have been able to make a decision to take up the AstraZeneca on the basis of their individual circumstances and their own judgement,” Hunt said.
“Some GPs have reported that they have excess supply [of AstraZeneca]. And so if there are people who wish to access it, via informed consent, via the existing ATAGI rules, then that’s simply being enabled.”
It might have “always been the case”, but now people are being actively encouraged by the government towards this independent position. Australian Medical Association President Omar Khorshid described the PM’s announcement as “a really significant change in the vaccine program”.
So a 30-year-old woman may find herself weighing the ATAGI advice and the advice of her doctor (who, incidentally, is being provided with a professional indemnity giving “additional certainty” to those advising on vaccination).
Who knows where she will land if the two sets of advice differ?
The AMA and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners both said on Tuesday they hadn’t received advance notice of the government move.
Karen Price, President of the RACGP, tweeted: “Phones are ringing off the hook at GP clinics. We had no warning of last night’s announcements and this isn’t the first time this has happened to general practice. It’s vital that government provides significant support to GPs to implement these changes to the vaccine rollout.”
She said on 2GB if doctors were to operate outside the ATAGI guidelines “we need to be super clear about what that means”.
Khorshid told The Guardian, “It took us by surprise”.
“Our recommendation is still really for patients to follow the ATAGI advice. Be patient and have the ATAGI-recommended vaccine when it’s available. I am certainly still backing the expert advice at this stage.”
Khorshid said he thought the government had taken this step because it wanted “to provide nervous Australians who are going into lockdown this week with something that they can actually do to improve their chances of getting through this and to push the nation’s vaccination program forward”.
It will be interesting to see how ATAGI now reacts.
Meanwhile there must be questions about how the officials let the doctors apparently be caught on the hop.
Just as the “medical advice” has stopped (at least in this case) being sacrosanct, so criticism of federal health officialdom continues to sharpen over its operations in the rollout. It’s no coincidence that a military man, Lieutenant General “JJ” Frewen has been put in charge of trying to get the program on track.
The official medical and health experts are finding themselves a good deal more challenged by their federal political masters than a year ago.