Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce has condemned the slimmed down, part-virtual COVID parliament as living “in a half life” and compromising democratic rights.
“No disease in 2020 should interfere in your parliamentary democratic rights. Parliament in a half life is not a parliament, it is merely a rather large building, kind of a new age palace in Canberra.”
Under rules agreed for the current sitting fortnight MPs can participate in parliament remotely and ask questions and speak but cannot vote.
The prohibition on remote voting reflects not just technological challenges but a desire to preserve the integrity of votes, represented by the tradition of the chamber doors being locked when votes are counted.
There are some differences in rules between the House of Representatives and the Senate – senators can move amendments remotely.
The House numbers in the chamber at any one time are limited not just to comply with social distancing but to avoid ACT health rules that would apply if the number was above 100. The parties have rosters. Numbers are managed to reflect the balances between the parties.
Writing on Facebook, Joyce said he was in Canberra but every second day he did not have a seat in the parliament to do his job.
“This is all very epidemiologically responsible but also a dangerous intrusion into your democratic rights.”
Legislation passed on a majority vote, but if he was “rostered off” on the day of a vote, how did the people in his New England seat have their wishes represented?
“On that day New England is disenfranchised and there is merely the presumption that their wishes are the same as the executive.
“It is difficult to be responsible for something I had no vote on and I don’t want to explain how I didn’t actually support something but … that was my RDO”.
Joyce said to bring on a private member’s bill required more than half of the actual 151 members of the House, posing a big problem when many members were not there.
“Nothing will be brought on against the wishes of the executive and don’t the ministers in the executive love that.”
He gave the example that the Senate might soon vote to restore the Northern Territory’s two lower house seats (one of which has been abolished due to population loss) but in present circumstances there would be no way to bring the bill on in the House unless the executive agreed.
“Our parliament can’t work on the presumption of the benevolence of the boss being all good. Whether right or wrong it is just too North Korea.”
“I am sure the PM and cabinet are doing the right thing, I don’t see them
as bad people, but if they went off the reservation then there is little or rather vastly less than there should be, to check them.
“This must stop because when the malady is hard to diagnose it is easy to cure, however when it is easy to diagnose – well it is then too late.”
Questioning why MPs could not vote remotely, Joyce said “a person can transfer millions of dollars back and forth in bank accounts but apparently it is too dangerous for a member of parliament to press ‘y’ for yes or ‘n’ for no, check that they have registered on the correct side for how they intend to vote and then press ‘enter’.
“Apparently it is too difficult to declare the empty public gallery, to allow social distancing, as being part of the chamber, so if you are in Canberra, you can vote responsibly.”
Scott Morrison dodged a bullet when the Nationals clung on to Michael McCormack. There was palpable relief when the news came through to the Liberals. “We still have a Coalition,” one MP was heard to say during the Liberal party meeting.
But it had been the Prime Minister who created the circumstances for Barnaby Joyce to get his gun out of the cupboard.
If Morrison hadn’t been in such a politically weak position, due to his summer missteps, he’d probably have brazened out the sports rorts affair.
Morrison didn’t force Bridget McKenzie from cabinet because she skewed the grants scheme – for which she deserved sacking.
He acted because the price of keeping her became too high. But then suddenly the cost of ditching her skyrocketed when Joyce seized the moment. Morrison found he had destabilised the deputy prime minister he desperately needs to keep in place.
How things will pan out now is the unanswerable question. Of course no one believes Joyce’s protestation that “I support the vote of the [party] room”. Joyce can’t bear not being the macho top dog and he and his ally Matt Canavan – self-exiled from cabinet and a huge loser from the day – will continue to create trouble for McCormack.
The Nationals don’t release their voting numbers. McCormack people claim he had a healthy margin; the Joyce camp says they were line ball. If McCormack’s backers are right the secrecy harms him, fuelling uncertainty and the opportunity for mischief.
The easy consensus is McCormack must “lift his game”. Might as well tell a jogger to become a sprinter. McCormack isn’t the worst of leaders but he’s never going to be more than average.
And having acquired the reputation of a poor performer, he can’t win. Thus he’s criticised for having a low profile when Morrison was in Hawaii. But could he have raised it when the prime minister’s office was trying to hide their boss’s holiday?
The rebel (for want of a better description) Nats attack McCormack for not standing up to the Liberals, in particular to Morrison. They seek a more distinctive Nationals branding.
Now this is a real issue. A well-functioning National party has to strike a balance within the Coalition between, if you like, growling and purring. Each Nationals leader must find a sweet spot. Assertive but supportive in the government’s inner sanctums. In the electorate, distinctive while also a team player.
But if McCormack follows the wishes of the Nationals to be more aggressive, this carries its potential dangers. On the flip side of that coin is “division”, a bad look for the government as a whole.
McCormack might be a pushover but Morrison has not been sensitive to their mutual interest in the Nationals’ profile. John Howard gave them a few wins, and recognition. Morrison tends to occupy whatever space is available. His very personal central role on drought issues, for example, has overshadowed the Nationals on their home ground.
If Morrison wants to prop up McCormack he needs to pump his tyres. As former Nationals senator John (“Wacka”) Williams told Sky, there was a message in Tuesday’s events for Morrison: “Don’t make the Nationals irrelevant”. The Nationals had to be treated with respect and get some pats on the back, Williams argued.
The Nationals’ schism triggered a reminder that Morrison is in a no win situation internally on climate change policy, as he faces an increasing need to nuance it.
In Tuesday’s Coalition parties meeting (coming immediately after the vote) a bevy of Nationals – Joyce, Canavan, George Christensen and David Gillespie – sent hardline messages on climate among talk of regional jobs and industry. Joyce said some people were trying to push their hobby horse issues out of the fire tragedies. To one Liberal source, these outpourings from the Nationals’ losing side were a bit weird and not very coherent.
They were met by a counter from some moderate Liberals. Earlier, in the separate Liberal party meeting, Queenslander Andrew Laming criticised those who went on policy “solo flights” on climate. The government’s policy was based on the science, which had been overwhelmingly accepted, Laming said – to contest the science undermined the policy.
McCormack’s next test is immediate – recrafting his frontbench. He has two cabinet vacancies, with Victorian Darren Chester expected to fill one.
What happens with the key resources portfolio vacated by Canavan will be crucial, given the coal issue and energy battles. Whether McCormack should have invited Canavan back is a moot point. Canavan (a loud voice for the coal industry) has a sharp policy mind; also, he might have been less trouble for McCormack if still on the frontbench than rampaging round the backbench.
Among the complexities of the reshuffle is that with the fall of McKenzie and Canavan the Nats have no Senate minister, but the remaining three senators (all women) are parliamentary newcomers. Still, one of these women will surely be in line for promotion, at the least to an assistant minister. McCormack sources believe all six women in the 21-member party voted for him; certainly most did.
The significance of the Nationals new deputy, David Littleproud, should not be overlooked in considering the future. Littleproud is competent, ambitious and articulate. He was frustrated at having his portfolio sliced back after the election.
His presence could assist McCormack. At 43, he has plenty of time and, in the National party tradition, an incentive to support his leader and inherit the mantle rather than trying to snatch it.
But if McCormack can’t survive until the election, the party would be better off turning to Littleproud than to Joyce, who would carry a maximum risk factor, not least for Morrison.
Our “state of the states” series takes stock of the key issues, seats and policies affecting the vote in each of Australia’s states.
We’ll check in with our expert political analysts around the country every week of the campaign for updates on how it is playing out.
New South Wales
Chris Aulich, Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra
There is a clear fault line in the Coalition between conservatives and moderates, reflected in the number of centre-right women challenging more conservative members.
Some sitting moderates have chosen not to renominate – Ann Sudmalis in NSW won’t recontest, while Julia Banks in Victoria has resigned from the Coalition to challenge Greg Hunt in Flinders. Other moderate women are standing as independents (Kerryn Phelps and Zali Steggall in NSW, and Helen Haines in Victoria) or as candidates for other centre-right parties (Rebekha Sharkie in SA).
What typically unites these women is a rejection of conservative social policies – and perhaps also a rejection of the alleged culture of bullying within the Coalition parties. These candidates are modernists in that they support progressive policy issues. As independents they can also sidestep the Coalition’s internal fracas about quotas and targets for women.
In NSW, independent Zali Steggall is challenging Tony Abbott in Warringah. Front and centre of her campaign is action on climate change, refugee policy and foreign aid. Her views on marriage equality contrast dramatically with Abbott’s in an electorate that overwhelmingly voted “yes” in the marriage equality postal vote.
Similarly, independent MP Kerryn Phelps, contesting Wentworth, was a significant player in the marriage equality debates and has argued forcibly for a more humane treatment of asylum seekers.
Both Steggall and Phelps have complained about “dirty tricks” and the negative campaigns being mounted against them. Billboards linking Steggall to Labor, allegations that she is receiving funds from GetUp! (she is not), the renting of premises next to her office that were then plastered with anti-Steggall advertising, and the sexualising of Steggall posters all appear to be an attempt to intimidate and demean her.
A number of articles critical of Steggall have been published by the Daily Telegraph, with free copies delivered to residents who are not subscribers to the paper. This includes a front page story in which Steggall’s ex-husband and his current wife described her as “opportunistic” and “lacking the temperament of a leader”. The couple have since declared that the Telegraph article does not reflect how they feel about Steggall’s candidature.
Kerryn Phelps says dirty tricks were behind the removal of hundreds of her election posters in her campaign to retain the seat of Wentworth. Labor’s Tim Murray has also complained that his posters had been removed and replaced by Liberal posters. Liberal challenger, Dave Sharma, rejects any allegation that this activity has been sanctioned by him or the Liberal Party. Today it was reported that Sharma’s posters have also been defaced.
The seats of Wentworth and Warringah are critical to the reelection of the Morrison government and it’s clear that some supporters of the conservative wing of the Coalition have “taken off the gloves”. We can only speculate if it’s because the independents are women or because they are moderates.
Maxine Newlands, Senior Lecturer in Political Science at James Cook University
Labor leader Bill Shorten’s first hustings in Herbert coincided with reports of a deal that the Coalition will preference Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) over other populist parties.
UAP’s candidate, former NRL player Greg Dowling, will run for the lower house, while Palmer has his sights on the Senate. Palmer’s big cash splash announcement may cause more of a ripple than a bounce, considering former Queensland Nickel workers will have to wait until after the election to get their money back.
With One Nation and Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party (FACN) also throwing their hats into the ring, there’s now four right-leaning minor parties vying for votes.
Herbert’s 2019 election is shaping up to be a rerun of 2013. Six years ago, preferences played a huge role in deciding 97 of the 150 seats nationally. 40% of Queensland seats were decided on preference votes in 2013.
The latest polling shows UAP at 14% – almost the same as 2013 after preferences (15.52%), but this was before Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON) confirmed their candidate. In 2016, One Nation preferences helped push the incumbent, Labor’s Cathy O’Toole, over the line. With a preference deal between LNP and UAP, Palmer’s chance of a seat in the Senate is a good bet, but it’s now a four-way spilt for the lower house.
UAP and Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) will be the benefactors in the Herbert electorate, placed ahead of Liberals and Labor on the how-to-vote cards. In a battle between UAP, PHON and FACN, it’s the Greens that could benefit the most.
With UAP aligned with LNP, the Greens candidate Sam Blackadder has a chance of picking up protest votes against Labor. The Greens could also take votes from latecomers, the Animal Justice Party, thanks to its clear policy on climate change – something that has eluded the major parties.
There’s a similar picture in Dickson, with One Nation, Fraser Anning and the Animal Justice Party all putting up candidates. Plus there’s former Palmer United Party, now independent candidate, Thor Prohaska running on a democracy ticket.
Like Herbert, PHON and FACN will have to fight for votes from UAP in Dickson. In 2013, Palmer’s party polled 9.8% of the vote in Dickson. With UAP favouring LNP over ALP like it did in 2013, it could help Dutton to retain his marginal seat this time around.
Ian Cook, Senior Lecturer of Australian Politics at Murdoch University
Attention was on Bill Shorten and Clive Palmer in WA election news this week.
Bill Shorten came under scrutiny when it was revealed that three WA Labor candidates had been forced to include him in their election advertising after they were found distributing pamphlets that made no reference to the Labor leader.
Polls consistently show that Australian voters prefer Scott Morrison to Bill Shorten as prime minister. But Shorten is a bigger problem for Labor in WA than he is elsewhere – although it’s not clear by how much.
A poll last month by Crosby Textor showed that Shorten had a minus 26 favourability in the Perth seat of Cowan, which is held by Labor’s Anne Aly by a margin of just 0.7%. That makes Shorten more unpopular in Cowan than he is in other marginal seats across the country. And it’s the reason that candidates would rather put Premier Mark McGowan in their campaign material.
Like the rest of Australia, many West Australians will vote Labor even though they don’t particularly like or trust Bill Shorten. So, we can expect more ads attacking Shorten as the Liberals look to capitalise on one of the few positives (or should that be negatives) they have to work with in WA.
Clive Palmer was in WA news for the same reason he was in everyone’s news: the Newspoll that showed that his United Australia Party would change the result in some marginal seats. That includes one of one of ours: Pearce.
Pearce is held by Christian Porter and this election is a big moment for him. Porter was Attorney-General in Scott Morrison’s government, and he has a high profile in WA. He was also on the way to becoming premier when he took a detour into federal politics. Porter undoubtedly has ambitions and is one of the bright young(ish) things in the WA Liberal Party, so his future is important to his party’s fate in the West.
After One Nation’s disastrous campaign in the last state election, WA voters are obviously looking elsewhere and Palmer has spent a lot of money on the UAP campaign. Christian Porter and the WA Liberals will be hoping that it isn’t enough to make the difference in Pearce.
Rob Manwaring, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University
It would be ironic, to say the least, if former Labor state Premier Jay Weatherill’s legacy will be to have delivered the final nail in the coffin of the Turnbull-Morrison governments.
Last week, water policy dominated the political and campaign agenda, with the issue of water buybacks causing significant problems for the Coalition, and the Nationals in particular. Yet the groundwork for this poisonous issue was laid when the Weatherill government set up a state royal commission into alleged water theft by the upstream states.
Since then, the issue has been a lingering problem, exacerbated by the dead fish in the Menindee. Since the revelations of the water buybacks story, this has proved a problematic issue, culminating with a remarkable interview on the ABC with the former Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Barnaby Joyce.
While elections are rarely ever decided in key marginal South Australian seats, this issue could be the exception. It’s striking how it has unified South Australians. When the original allegations of water fraud were revealed by the ABC, there was a press conference with all key South Australian senators, including Sarah Hanson-Young, Cory Bernadi, Nick Xenophon and Penny Wong. Commonwealth governments rarely benefit from this issue in the state where the Murray ends.
The Nationals have no presence in South Australia, and the electoral damage is likely to be limited to the Liberals in the seat of Mayo, where Centre Alliance MP Rebekah Sharkie has been strong on water policy. But this issue, so close to South Australian politics, could prove problematic on the national stage.
Michael Lester, researcher and PhD student at the Institute for the Study of Social Change
The Tasmanian North West Coast seat of Braddon is sitting on a knife-edge. Braddon is notoriously fickle, having changed hands five times since 1998, and margins are always tight.
Labor’s Justine Keay won the seat from the Liberal’s Brett Whitely in 2016. She retained the seat after having to resign and recontest it in the July 2018 citizenship byelections, but failed to make any electoral gains. She is now defending a very slim 1.7% margin.
In 2018, Keay had seven opponents. This election she is up against eight:
Karen Wendy Spaulding from the United Australia Party
independents Craig Brakey and Brett Michael Smith
Shane Allan from Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party
Liberal Gavin Pearce
The National’s Sally Milbourne
Phill Parsons from The Greens
Graham Gallaher from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
Braddon is hard to call. In the absence of polling, local commentators are looking to the betting odds which presently place Keay as clear favourite at $1.45, with Pearce at $2.65. Despite that, some see Braddon as Liberal Party’s best chance of winning a seat in Tasmania – especially since an electoral boundary redistribution in 2017 added the more affluent Port Sorell area.
There is no single electorate-wide issue here. Braddon is a diverse mix of regional centres and agricultural districts extending from Devonport and Latrobe in the east, through Ulverstone, Burnie, Wynyard, Stanley, Smithton and Waratah, then down the west coast to the mining towns of Rosebery, Zeehan, Queenstown and the tourism and fishing village of Strahan. It also includes King Island in Bass Strait.
Tasmania’s recent economic renaissance has been slow to reach many areas of this electorate. So, candidates are aiming their promises at people’s concerns over economic development, jobs, youth training, health services and education. And both major parties have been careful to match almost anything the other side offers up.
Labor’s commitment of a A$25 million grant to support a Tasmanian AFL team has emerged as one big point of difference in the strongly pro-football Braddon, while the Liberals run a campaign on what better uses that money could be put to.
We’ll be back with an update on Victoria next week.
It’s hard to believe Barnaby Joyce really wants to lead the Nationals again. Of course everyone knows he does, desperately, but his unhinged ABC interview with Patricia Karvelas on Monday showed a breathtaking absence of political judgement or personal restraint.
Joyce went on the program to defend his conduct in the 2017 A$79 million water buyback from two Queensland properties owned by Eastern Australia Agriculture (EAA).
Regardless of how his approval of this deal will ultimately be judged, his shouting, interruptions and at times absurd language drowned out any chance of his getting his points across.
Joyce loyalists will see it as Barnaby-being-Barnaby. But it was further reason for Nationals to despair about the parlous state of their party, as they watch an ineffective leader and an out-of-control aspirant.
The Joyce interview made it harder for the government to manage this big distraction in a messy second campaign week.
The controversy over the water purchase is based on an old story; the election has enabled it to be resurrected for a powerful fresh spin around the political circuit.
Water expert Quentin Grafton, professor of economics at the Crawford School at the Australian National University, lays out the issues.
Grafton estimates the Commonwealth paid about $40 million too much for this water. He identifies three areas of concern: the government’s failure to get value for money (remembering this was floodwater, which is unreliable); the lack of transparency in the deal, and the nature of the process – a negotiated sale rather than an open tender.
Much has been made of EAA being a subsidiary of Eastern Australian Irrigation (EAI), which is based in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. This does, however, seem an irrelevance in the context of the value for money issue.
Also, it is one thing to say tax avoidance structures should be cracked down on, quite another to suggest the government should decline to deal with a company with a structure that accords with the law.
There has also been talk about Energy Minister Angus Taylor. As a business consultant Taylor helped set up the two companies and was a director of each.
But according to Taylor’s office he ended all links before entering parliament, never had a direct or indirect financial interest in EAA or any associated company, had no knowledge of the water buyback until after it happened, and received no benefit from this transaction.
So the questions in this affair centre on the conduct of the Agriculture Department and its then minister.
Grafton says: “Either the public servants were incompetent in relation to understanding value for money – or there’s an alternative explanation.”
The department is sensitive, taking the unusual step during Easter (and in the “caretaker” period) of issuing a statement defending its actions. It said it had done “due diligence”. The water purchase had been consistent with Commonwealth Procurement Rules “and paid at a fair market rate, as informed by independent market valuation,” the statement said.
Joyce is known in general to have been a meddling minister.
In this case, he insists he followed departmental advice in approving the purchase, and had been at arms length from the deal.
“My role was never to actually select a purchaser or to determine a price,” he told a Tuesday news conference. But he approved the authority to negotiate without tender, and imposed conditions, including having the department report back to him before finalising the deal.
The current Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, tried to stem the damage on Tuesday by asking the Auditor-General to inquire into the matter. Littleproud added a political twist, requesting the audit to look back as far as 2008, to encompass Labor’s period.
But this wasn’t going to satisfy Labor in an election campaign.
The opposition had demanded documents by the end of Tuesday; predictably, it didn’t get what it wanted.
Bill Shorten had already flagged the need for a judicial inquiry.
Late Tuesday, environment spokesman Tony Burke accused Scott Morrison of “trying to cover up his government’s incompetence, chaos and potential misconduct”.
“It is now clear that there needs to be an independent inquiry into the Eastern Australia Agriculture scandal, with coercive powers so that Australians can get the truth,” Burke said. (That inquiry, however, wouldn’t be probing Labor deals.)
If Labor wins on May 18, yet again we will see a government launch an investigation into the conduct of its predecessor. If this comes to pass, Joyce will find himself in the witness box, a prospect he seems to relish – at least now.
In 2017, the then agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, signed off on an A$80 million purchase of a water entitlement from a company called Eastern Australia Agriculture.
The problem is that Energy Minister Angus Taylor used to be a director of Eastern Australia Agriculture – though he didn’t have a financial interest – and the company is a Liberal party donor. What’s more, the value of the water purchased for A$80 million is under question.
Now, as the election looms, this issue has resurfaced. But why should taxpayers be concerned?
Water buybacks using an open tender were halted by the current government in 2015, even though this is the most cost-effective way to set aside water for the environment. Instead, the government pronounced that subsidies for irrigators were a better deal.
Until 2015, the government bought back most water using an open tender process, before it was replaced by a subsidy scheme for irrigation and occasional closed tenders.
The problem with the closed tender process is that it tends to lack transparency, which raises questions about how effectively the government is spending public money. And it’s hard to prove closed tenders deliver the most cost effective outcome.
The Murray-Darling Basin is a very productive agricultural zone and its rivers have been used to boost agricultural outputs through irrigation.
State governments spent much of the 20th century allocating this water to agricultural users. By the 1990s it was clear too much water was being extracted. This resulted in both harm to the river environment and potential reduced reliability for those with existing water rights.
Various attempts to rein in extractions were made around this time, but ultimately the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was adopted to deal with the problem.
In agreeing on the plan, the federal government committed to spending A$13 billion to reduce the amount of water being extracted from the Murray-Darling Basin. To accomplish this the government has two basic strategies.
One involves buying up existing rights for water use. The other hinges on using subsidies so farmers use less water when irrigating.
Reducing water extraction from the basin
The second approach of using subsidies is generally more politically appealing. This is because few farmers ever object to receiving a subsidy and the public has an affinity with the idea of “saving” water.
The problem, however, is that subsidies are a more costly way of returning water to the river system than simply buying back existing water rights. And so-called water savings are hard to measure how much water savings are a result of subsidies or some other factor.
This is why some analysts even claim subsidies are reducing the level of water available for the environment.
Buying back water rights is generally more cost-effective than providing subsidies. But a clear and transparant process still matters because water rights are not the same for everyone and it’s a complex process to determine their overall value.
Allocations and entitlements
First, most water users hold a legal right, known as an entitlement. Water entitlements represent the long-term amount of water that can be taken and used – subject to rain, of course.
Second, water allocations represent the amount of water currently available against a given entitlement – this is the water that is available now.
If a farmer owns an entitlement in the River Murray, chances are the annual allocation will be determined by how much water has flowed into upstream storages like Hume Dam, Dartmouth Dam or Lake Eildon.
Even then the allocation will vary, depending on which state issued the original entitlement. For instance, New South Wales water is generally allocated more aggressively. This means NSW entitlements tend to be less reliable in dry years than Victorian or South Australian entitlements.
If a farmer owns an entitlement where there are no upstream storages, as is the case with much of the Darling River system, then the allocation will vary depending on how much water is flowing in the river.
All of this means the amount of water that can actually be used for the environment when an entitlement passes to the government will depend heavily on the underlying characteristics of the water right.
Partly for this reason, water buybacks were historically conducted using an open tender process.
This meant the government would announce its willingness to buy water entitlements. Farmers would then notify the government about what entitlements they held and the price they were prepared to take.
Running an open tender allowed the government to assess the value for money of the different entitlements on offer at the time.
Water buybacks through open tender began seriously in about 2007 to 2008. This meant the price owners were prepared to sell for would be registered, and then the government would determine which offer provided the best value. Around 60% of all water now held for the environment by the Commonwealth was secured through open tenders.
As a general rule, a relatively high-reliability water entitlement was bought for about $2,000 per megalitre and this has become the metric for many in the market. But the current government halted this process in 2015.
Now, the government buys water through direct negotiation with water-entitlement holders.
The government justified ending open-tender buybacks on the basis that the water being secured was causing undue harm to rural and regional communities. And, instead, much more expensive subsidies would supposedly generate a better overall return.
This view is not universally shared. The receipts from openly tendered water entitlements were being used by many farmers to adjust their business, while still staying in the region.
Many rural communities continue to thrive, regardless of the strategy chosen to secure water for the environment. Subsidies also tend to favour particular irrigators rather than the community in general.
Having set aside the cheapest option of open-tender buybacks and declaring support for irrigation subsidies, the problem the government now faces is that it must explain why closed tenders persisted (albeit in isolated cases) and were signed off by Ministers as good value for money.
Closed tenders need not deliver a poor outcome for taxpayers. But it does mean the likelihood of establishing the best value for money is reduced, simply because there are fewer reference points.
And if it’s legitimate to overspend public money on irrigation infrastructure subsidies, the credibility of a supposedly cost-effective closed tender is also brought into question.
Scott Morrison’s government is struggling with a fresh crisis,
the combination of a bitter domestic within the Nationals and the
conflicting imperatives of pitching to voters in Australia’s north and south on the highly charged issues of energy and climate change.
Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce on Monday turbocharged his push to regain the Nationals leadership with a media blitz.
Obviously the former Nationals leader would like his positions back
now (despite saying “we’ve got to go to the polls with the team
we’ve got”) but if that’s not possible he’s staking his claim for
after the election.
There was a manic edge to Joyce’s Monday interviews, focused on leadership and championing coal. Explaining why, while he wouldn’t move for a spill, he’d feel no “guilt” about standing if the opportunity came, he described himself as the “elected deputy prime minister of Australia”. That claim was based on occupying the position when the Coalition won the election.
Bizarrely, he also questioned that emissions could be measured. “It is a self-assessment process by the major emitters … And then it’s compiled by the government. So basically, it’s a proposition about a supposition,” he said on the ABC.
Although these days he sounds more over-the-top than ever, Joyce resonates with Queensland Nationals fearing a loss of seats – they have boundless faith in his campaigning power, and are highly critical of the ineffectiveness of party leader Michael McCormack.
One of their key KPIs for McCormack has been that he must successfully pressure Morrison for the government to underwrite coal-fired generation.
But McCormack hasn’t been able to deliver, and that became obvious on Monday, when Morrison indicated the government won’t be nominating a Queensland coal project for underwriting.
“For such a project to proceed, it would require the approval of the Queensland state government,” the Prime Minister said.
“Now, the Queensland state government has no intention of approving
any such projects at all. So I tend to work in the area of the
practical, the things that actually can happen”.
Annastacia Palaszczuk might derive some wry amusement to find the
PM sheltering behind her skirts.
The Queensland rebels are less amused, seeing this as evidence that
McCormack has lost the battle (if he ever joined it) and worrying the Prime Minister is “cutting Queensland adrift to sandbag Victoria”.
Morrison certainly knows that to embrace a coal project would be
counterproductive for the Liberals in Victoria, where a number of
seats are at risk.
But it is not just Victoria, or even just Liberal seats.
A hard-fought state election is underway in NSW, and the Nationals have much at stake.
They have several seats on or near the north coast where concern about climate change would top commitment to coal.
Lismore is a case in point, where the Nationals have their member retiring, and polling is showing a strong Green vote.
The regional vote is seen as crucial to the NSW election outcome,
and it is very volatile.
The destabilisation in the federal party is the last thing the NSW
Nationals need right now. If the state Nationals do badly on March 23, there will be recriminations and that will flow back into the federal backbiting and panic.
How McCormack will go managing his rebellious party in the coming
weeks is problematic.
He displays poor judgement under pressure, as he did on Monday, after Joyce said the Nationals could pursue policies in their own right because “we are not married to the Liberal Party”.
“I understand when you have a marriage that it’s a two-way
relationship,”. McCormack shot back. “You don’t always get what you
want, but you have to work together … That’s what I do with the
The man who lacks “cut through” had cut through, in an unfortunate way, to Joyce’s marital failure.
On Monday night, the row over coal took a new turn, threatening a
dangerous further escalation.
A batch of moderate Liberals, in a co-ordinated effort, waded into the debate, with public comments opposing taxpayer funds being used to build or pay for any new coal-fired power station.
They included Trevor Evans, Jason Falinski, Tim Wilson (who likes to call himself “modern” rather than “moderate”), Trent Zimmerman, Jane Hume – and Dave Sharma, the candidate for Wentworth.
Their comments were made under the cover of supporting the Prime Minister, but they had been wanting to say their piece for quite a while.
Once again, raging energy and climate wars are burning out of control in government ranks.
The Nationals have been unable to make a finding on the claim by a woman that former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce sexually harassed her.
Catherine Marriott, former West Australian Rural Woman of the Year, made the allegation at the height of the controversy over Joyce’s affair with his former staffer (and now partner), Vikki Campion. He claimed at the time it was the tipping point that led him to quit the Nationals’ leadership, although he has said subsequently when Campion became pregnant, he always knew he would have to go.
Marriott, who made the complaint in confidence, was highly upset when her name was quickly leaked.
She said in a Friday statement expressing her frustration at the inconclusive result of the eight months investigation that “this outcome simply isn’t good enough”.
She had been told by email on Thursday that the NSW National Party “has been unable to make a determination … due to insufficient evidence”.
“This is despite the investigation finding I was ‘forthright, believable, open and genuinely upset’ by the incident.
“The result of this investigation has underpinned what is wrong with the process and the absolute dire need for change”, she said.
Joyce on Friday had no comment beyond standing by what he had said initially, when he described the accusation as “spurious and defamatory”.
Marriott said she was “extremely disappointed that after eight months of waiting, three trips to the east coast at my own expense to meet with the party, my name and confidential complaint being leaked to the national media, and my personal and professional life being upended, the National Party have reached a ‘no conclusion’ verdict.”
But she said she wasn’t surprised because the party hadn’t had an external process in place to deal with such a complaint “My complaint was handled internally by the NSW National Party executive with no professional external expert brought in at any stage.”
She said the only positive outcome from a “harrowing experience” had been “the development of much improved policy by the party”, which she had encouraged. She was heartened that people who found themselves in similar situations in future “will have a robust policy in place to assist them”.
The outcome of the investigation comes as the Liberal party has been rocked by allegations of bullying during the leadership battle. Several Liberal women have spoken out strongly against the bad behaviour, and MPs are waiting to see whether individuals are named in parliament next week.
Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce have each accepted job offers from new Prime Minister Scott Morrison to serve as his special envoys.
The prime minister’s offers may have been a clever way to keep these two former leaders busy and put their abilities to use. But these jobs may have inadvertently rendered both Abbott and Joyce disqualified from parliament under section 44 of the Constitution. That section disqualifies any MP who accepts a paid job in government that is not a ministerial position.
The special envoy jobs
Tony Abbott is now the prime minister’s Special Envoy for Indigenous Affairs, whereas Barnaby Joyce is Special Envoy for Drought Assistance and Recovery.
Special envoys are not ministerial positions. Neither Abbott nor Joyce is part of the Morrison ministry. Their roles are to work with the relevant ministers and the prime minister to advance policy in these respective areas. The precise details of what they will be doing are not yet clear.
Section 44 of the Constitution sets out several grounds on which a politician will be disqualified from membership of parliament. Being a dual citizen is only one of them.
Another ground for disqualification is set out in section 44(iv). That provision disqualifies anyone holding an “office of profit under the Crown”, unless the position is that of a minister.
The special envoy roles look suspiciously like offices of profit under the Crown.
What is an office under the Crown?
There is no doubt the special envoys hold offices under the Crown.
In Re Lambie (No 2) from March this year, the High Court decided that Jacquie Lambie’s successor, who was the Mayor of Devonport in Tasmania, was not disqualified under section 44(iv).
The High Court held that a position is under the Crown if hiring or firing decisions are made by the executive government. Mayors are voted in and out by the people, rather than hired and fired by governments.
The prime minister, who is the effective head of the executive government, appointed Abbott and Joyce to their special envoy roles. The prime minister can also sack Abbott and Joyce as special envoys if he wants.
Positions like Speaker of the House of Representatives, Leader of the Opposition, and Chairperson of a Parliamentary Committee are not “under the Crown”. They are parliamentary positions.
The key issue is whether the special envoy positions are “of profit”.
Is the position of special envoy “of profit”?
It has been reported that Abbott and Joyce were offered remuneration for their special envoy roles.
ABC Radio National Presenter Patricia Karvelas tweeted:
Access to staff does not make a position “of profit”. Nor does covering of work expenses. But a salary, however small, definitely makes a position “of profit”.
On the same day, having already accepted the special envoy job, Tony Abbott told 2GB radio host Ray Hadley that he would not be receiving any pay for his role as Special Envoy. Abbott said: “The other thing I want to say, Ray, is that I certainly don’t expect any extra pay”.
Hadley had not asked Abbott about payment. Abbott simply made the comment off his own bat.
This all suggests that Abbott may have been offered remuneration for the special envoy job, but decided to decline that offer.
The High Court has said that to fall foul of section 44(iv) it does not matter whether a person is actually paid. What matters is “the character of the office”.
In the 1992 case of Sykes v Cleary, the High Court held that Philip Cleary, who had won the federal seat of Wills, was disqualified under section 44(iv). Cleary was a teacher who was on leave without pay at the time of the election.
The High Court decided that it doesn’t matter whether a person is actually receiving payment. What matters is whether payment attaches to the position. Cleary held an office of profit under the Crown even though he was not receiving any payment.
Chief Justice Anthony Mason and Justices John Toohey and Michael McHugh said:
The taking of leave without pay by a person who holds an office of profit under the Crown does not alter the character of the office which he or she holds. The person remains the holder of an office, notwithstanding that he or she is not in receipt of pay during the period of leave.
Logically, the same reasoning applies to an office-holder who waives their right to payment or declines to take a salary. A person is not saved from disqualification because they are not currently receiving payment.
Abbott and Joyce will be disqualified if, and this is the crux of the issue, remuneration was originally part of the special envoy job offers.
It doesn’t matter if Abbott and Joyce never asked for payment. It doesn’t matter that they declined an offer of payment. And it doesn’t matter that they aren’t actually being paid now.
If a non-ministerial position answers the description of an “office of profit under the Crown” then the holder of that position is disqualified.
Could Abbott and Joyce really be disqualified?
A clear answer is needed to the question of whether Abbott and Joyce were offered payment as part of their special envoy roles. Morrison, Abbott or Joyce could each easily answer that question.
If payment was indeed offered as part of the roles, the only way the issue of disqualification could be decided authoritatively is for the House of Representatives, where the government has a slim majority, to refer Abbott and Joyce to the High Court.
It is unlikely the government will refer Abbott and Joyce to the High Court, and quite likely that the opposition will pursue the issue – and also Peter Dutton’s potential section 44 problem – when parliament resumes in September.
Government funding of agriculture during a drought typically falls into three categories:
subsidies for farm businesses
income supplements for low-income farm families
support for better decision-making.
Unfortunately, none of these government outlays induces the much-needed rainfall. But, as this article will explain, income supplements and help with decision-making are better ways of supporting sustainable farming. Subsidies are much more problematic.
Farming is a known risky business. Seasonal conditions vary from drought to normal and above-average rainfall. Some are hit by floods and cyclones. Farmers also face outbreaks of pests and diseases.
Farm commodity prices are volatile. Farmers, and others along the food and fibre supply chains, are fully aware of volatile and uncertain seasons and markets.
People commit to farming if anticipated returns in the good times balance low or negative returns during droughts and other adverse conditions. This is consistent with the productive allocation of limited national labour and capital between agriculture and other sectors of the economy.
Farmers employ production and financial strategies to adapt to changing seasonal and market conditions. This includes smoothing over time the availability of funds for family consumption. Most farmers prepare for and adjust to the ups and downs of farming, including droughts.
So why a new round of government handouts for another drought? Current drought relief amounts to $576 million, a figure that excludes concessional loans to farmers. Of course, drought conditions are tough, but they are not a surprise. They do, however, provide graphic material for the media, and some families fall into poverty.
Drought subsidies have the effect of raising the average return from farming. They might be said to “privatise the profits of good seasons and subsidise some of the losses of droughts”.
Subsidies must be paid for, though, by higher taxes or lower government outlays affecting others. Artificially increasing the average returns to farming leads to a misallocation of limited national labour, capital and other resources from the rest of the economy to agriculture. The effect is much the same as the efficiency costs of tariffs protecting the car assembly industry.
Farm drought subsidies have important and unintended side effects. Knowing that subsidies will be provided during drought and other adverse conditions reduces the incentives for some farmers to adopt appropriate drought preparation and mitigation strategies.
Structural adjustment is a continuing feature of farming, as it is for all other industries. Increased costs of labour relative to capital equipment, as well as the scale bias of much farming technological change, favour the expansion of farm sizes over time. Drought subsidies work to hold up inevitable structural changes, including smart farmers who have planned for and adapted to drought buying out less successful operators.
Subsidies for farm outputs or inputs are a very blunt policy instrument to support farm families facing poverty. Direct household income measures, as discussed next, are more effective.
Farm household income support
Australia has long-established equity objectives of a minimum income and safety net for all citizens. Newstart is the policy for the unemployed, Age Pension for retirees, Disability Support Pension for the disabled, and so forth.
Because of poor decisions or bad luck, some farm households find themselves short of money to provide basic food, clothing, education and so forth for the family. The Farm Household Allowance (FHA) is a means-tested (assets and income) government-funded safety net to counter poverty of farm households.
This allowance raises horizontal equity issues. Initially, the FHA rate was the same as for Newstart. In an August 5 policy announcement, the government added additional lump-sum payments, described as a supplement. Arguably, the supplement can be interpreted as a form of farm subsidy.
Providing a minimum income support to the self-employed, including farmers but also many small-business people in other parts of the economy, has been a challenge. A key challenge is the difficulties of applying a means test. Why other small-business families experiencing a downturn in business income – including some who depend on the farm sector – are not eligible for an equivalent to the Farm Household Allowance remains an issue.
Government funding of mental health, social and other support for farmers and their families adversely affected by drought can be regarded as an important social equity instrument. These programs may also be a valuable investment in society.
A number of programs to support better farm plans to manage droughts are funded. This includes the provision of meteorological and other data on seasonal conditions to guide decisions.
Hands-on education and support to individual farmers in developing more appropriate decision strategies and plans are also available. This adds to a more robust and self-sufficient farming sector.
To summarise, government funding for farm household incomes to avoid poverty and to improve farm decision-making make sense. Subsidies for farm inputs or outputs have undesirable longer-term resource misallocation effects, and are relatively blunt income-support measures.