Where the roles of head of state and head of government are combined, as in the United States, there are fewer restraints on the pretensions of political leaders.
Many of the countries we think of as most progressive are constitutional monarchies – the Scandinavian and Benelux countries, for example – and have hereditary monarchs. In Spain, the role of King Juan Carlos was crucial in the post-Franco transition to democracy, although he is now living in exile, accused of major corruption. In Japan, the decision of the Allies to retain the emperor was important in creating a liberal democratic system after the second world war, and the emperor continues to play an important ceremonial role.
The old dominions of the British Empire – Canada, New Zealand, Australia –basically accepted the British sovereign as head of state, with a governor-general acting as effective head of state. This is a very peculiar constitutional arrangement. Australian passports are issued by the governor-general as “the representative of Her Majesty”, but on arrival at Heathrow airport we queue in the same line as other foreign nationals. Some small Pacific and Caribbean countries, including Papua New Guinea, have preserved the same system, and in several cases have rejected proposals for change.
Of course, the same balance between ceremonial and real power can be achieved through an elected head of state, as in Ireland, or one appointed through the legislature, as in Germany. Defenders of constitutional monarchy claim the hereditary principle removes the political element and provides a sense of historical continuity that promotes greater faith in the political system.
Constitutional monarchies are supported by a combination of nostalgia, national pride and deep distrust of politicians. In both European and Asian monarchies, the royal family stands as a symbol of national pride and a prop of existing social hierarchies.
For the British, the monarchy symbolises a sense of greatness that has long passed, but allows for largely harmless nostalgia. Thinking of Australia as part of the imperial family might have made sense when the predominantly Anglo colonies federated in 1901. It is patently absurd today.
Since John Kerr’s dismissal of Whitlam in 1975, it is difficult to imagine a governor-general, whether with or without the support of Buckingham Palace, doing anything similar. The larger problem is the prime minister is nominally accountable to a governor-general whom he or she has appointed.
The British prime minister has no such power, although the constitutional conventions would require the monarch to stand down should parliament so decree. The simplest solution to the Australian conundrum, as Donald Horne posited some decades ago, is to retain our current system but elect the governor-general.
At this point in our history, the resistance to constitutional change acts to perpetuate the status quo. Most politicians fear direct election would create a powerful challenge to parliamentary authority. Many populists are unwilling to trust politicians to choose a head of state.
This is not a feeling confined to Australia. A few years ago, one left-wing Dutch commentator lamented:
There has been a political crisis in the Netherlands for years, as most Dutch people have lost confidence in the main political parties. In the 21st century, more Dutch people trust the monarchy than the main political parties.
If anything, I suspect this distrust is greater today than it was when the Australian electorate rejected the republic in the 1999 referendum. That referendum came two years after the death of Princess Diana, which was a greater blow to the British monarchy than the recent Oprah interview with Harry and Meghan. Diana, after all, had been a future queen and the mother of a future king.
There are more pressing problems with our Constitution, above all the need to recognise the dispossession of the original inhabitants of what we now call Australia. But no-one writing an Australian constitution today would argue for a head of state living on the other side of the world who is effectively represented by a governor general, hand-picked by the head of government.
Had our monarchists been more far-sighted in 1901 they might have invited one of Queen Victoria’s surplus children to establish an Australian dynasty. At least we would then have our own constitutional monarchy to argue over.
Dennis Altman’s new book is God Save The Queen: The strange Persistence of Monarchies.
Paul Strangio, Monash UniversityWho have been Australia’s most accomplished prime ministers? Curiously, it’s a question that is seldom asked. We enthusiastically compile lists of the greatest films or sporting champions, but rarely do we apply the same energy to thinking about prime-ministerial virtuosity.
More common is the rush to condemn incumbents. For example, a recent venomous piece of commentary on Scott Morrison demanded to know: “Have we ever been led by a worse prime minister than this smirking vacuum?”
The problem with these hyperbolic attacks is that they lack context. How does Morrison’s leadership compare to his 29 predecessors? And, in any case, is it too early to properly judge his performance given his prime-ministerial project is incomplete?
Evaluating leadership performance is replete with difficulties. This is despite the fact that, in democratic systems like ours, the mark of leadership achievement can appear deceptively simple.
On first consideration, longevity of office appeals as the sine qua non of successful political leadership. After all, winning government is the chief prize for a political leader, and retaining power, which is indicative of holding onto public support, affords the primary means by which to exercise influence.
Yet further reflection suggests survival alone is not a sufficient criterion of leadership success: it must also take account of what is accomplished with power. Indeed, should the legacy of a leader’s time in office be the paramount test of performance?
But then a new problem: how are we to construct meaningful and agreed upon measurements of the scale and quality of that legacy? Surely, for instance, the benchmark has to be more than the legislative productivity of a leader’s government. Yet once we endeavour to devise qualitative measurements that factor in the impact of the changes a leader has wrought, we inevitably run into disagreements about whether those changes were for good or bad.
One way of sidestepping the difficulties of evaluating political leadership is expert rankings. That is, ranking evaluations gained from people with professional knowledge, rather than surveys based on population sampling.
These have a storied history in the United States. Presidential rankings are not only conducted regularly but their results painstakingly analysed and hotly debated.
In parliamentary democracies such as Australia, leadership rankings have taken longer to catch on. But they have gained a foothold in recent decades. Most of them have been ad hoc surveys of a small number of public intellectuals and commentators initiated by broadsheet newspapers.
In 2010 and again in 2020, however, large-scale expert rankings surveys have been run out of Monash University. Sixty-six political scientists and political historians participated in last year’s survey. They were asked to rate the performance of all prime ministers, barring the incumbent (Morrison was not included as Julia Gillard was not included in the 2010 survey), and the three caretakers, Earle Page, Frank Forde and John McEwen, who briefly warmed the prime-ministerial seat following the death of an incumbent.
John Curtin, war-time PM, rated our greatest leader
The results of the 2010 and 2020 Monash surveys suggest there is a reasonable consensus about who have been our best prime ministers.
The top-rated national leader is Australia’s second world war prime minister and co-architect of its post-war reconstruction regime, John Curtin. Next comes Bob Hawke, whose governments modernised and internationalised Australia’s economy in the 1980s through market-based reforms cushioned by an overlay of social democratic values.
Third-ranked is Alfred Deakin, the Liberal Protectionist prime minister and the chief architect of the nation-building edifice laid down in the first Commonwealth decade. It included, among other things, tariff protection, an industrial arbitration system and the beginnings of a welfare state through provision of old age pensions.
Ben Chifley, Curtin’s collaborator in the design of the post-war reconstruction Keynesian welfare state, is also in the top echelon. He is followed by Robert Menzies, the father of the modern Liberal Party and Australia’s longest-serving prime minister.
Others who make the top tier or are close to it are: Gough Whitlam, the reforming titan whose government dramatically modernised Australia in the early 1970s; Andrew Fisher, Australia’s first majority prime minister whose legacies included the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank and maternity allowances; and, in a delicious irony, the two great rivals, Paul Keating and John Howard. Keating is the big improver from the 2010 Monash ratings.
Longevity in office isn’t everything
The 2020 rankings also asked participants to rate prime ministers in nine performance areas. These were: effectively managing cabinet, maintaining support of party/coalition, demonstrating personal integrity, leaving a significant policy legacy, relationship with the electorate, communication effectiveness, nurturing national unity, defending and promoting Australia’s interests abroad, and being able to manage turbulent times.
Looking for correlations between performance in these areas and overall ratings it was evident that there was a close nexus between a high ranking and being scored strongly for policy legacy. The upper echelon prime ministers – Curtin, Hawke, Deakin, Chifley, Menzies, Keating, Whitlam, Fisher and Howard – were all in the top grouping for policy legacy.
Julia Gillard rounded out the policy legacy top ten, which seemed to go a long way to explaining her healthy rating in the upper middle tier of the former prime ministers.
It appears that in the minds of the participants the relationship with the electorate, while also important, ranks behind policy achievement in significance. Whitlam, Fisher and Keating were all outside the top ten for winning favour with the electorate, but are still highly ranked.
This is further reflected in the fact that, while Australia’s three most durable prime ministers – Menzies, Howard and Hawke – all make or are near the top tier, the next four longest-serving prime ministers and multiple election winners, Malcolm Fraser, Billy Hughes, Joseph Lyons and Stanley Bruce, do not.
In short, though longevity is important, what a prime minister does with office counts more to the experts. Strikingly, all of the top-ranked leaders were either the initiators or consolidators of major policy settlements.
A high score for nurturing national unity also strongly correlates with a favourable overall rating. Howard’s below-average result on that measure seems to disqualify him from pushing further up among the top-ranked prime ministers.
Conversely, the connection was weakest between a high ranking and the integrity performance benchmark. This does not mean the experts paid no heed to integrity. Rather, they had a generally favourable view of the collective integrity of our prime ministers, regarding them as a fundamentally upright bunch.
And who were the duds?
What about the prime ministerial dunces? There is not only a consensus about who have been our best prime ministers but also our worst.
William McMahon, who was the nation’s leader in the dying days of the Liberal Party’s post-WWII ascendancy and was defeated by Whitlam at the December 1972 election, wins that dubious honour.
Yet the 2020 rankings suggest he now has a rival for that ignominious status: Tony Abbott. Indeed, despite squeaking ahead of McMahon on the overall performance question, Abbott exceeded him for the number of failure ratings: 44 to 41. Against the nine benchmarks, Abbott is ranked last for policy legacy and nurturing national unity. McMahon is bottom for six of the nine areas, among them integrity (part of his entrenched reputation is that of an inveterate schemer and leaker).
Notably, three of the four most recent prime ministers – Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull and Abbott – are situated towards or in the rear of the ratings pack. Together, they occupy the three bottom rungs for management of party/coalition. This suggests respondents hold them, rather than their colleagues, chiefly responsible for their depositions by party-room revolts.
The clear exception among the post-Howard prime ministers is Gillard. Though still only middle-ranked overall, she is by far the highest-rated leader among this ill-starred group.
Where will Morrison end up in the rankings? The short answer is that it is too early to tell since his is an unfinished story. The COVID-19 pandemic has ensured his incumbency will be a significant one, either for good or bad.
Yet the lack of much in the way of tangible policy achievements to this point does not bode well for his rating.
Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraAfter making itself a mega target in 2019, Labor has confirmed it will be a small one in 2022 by promising an Albanese government would keep the 2024 income tax cuts and not disturb negative gearing and capital gains tax.
This decision essentially completes the “de-Shortening” of Labor’s controversial policy pitch. The plan to scrap franking credit cash refunds, which saw a Coalition scare campaign at the last election, was ditched some time ago.
With the Coalition having limited scope to make big promises, and the opposition determined to confine itself to a fairly narrow agenda, the election seems likely to be centrally about the exit from COVID.
A special virtual caucus meeting was held on Monday to approve a shadow cabinet decision on the tax measures. Caucus members were only given a few minutes to read the material.
Some in Labor will be unhappy at the decision, especially as the opposition has consistently criticised the tax cuts as favouring people on higher incomes. The decision also means Labor has constrained the amount of money it will have to spend on promises.
But with polls showing Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a trough, Labor has become more optimistic about its election prospects and opposition leader Anthony Albanese is determined to ditch any baggage in pursuit of a win.
The government will counter with Labor’s past statements on the issues.
At the caucus meeting, shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers, facing questioning about the likely attitude of Labor party members to the package of tax decisions, said parts of the political spectrum “would not applaud” it. He said it had been an “on balance” decision.
Albanese emphasised Labor’s unity, contrasting it with disunity in the Liberal party, mentioning Campbell Newman, a former Liberal National Party Queensland premier, quitting the party.
The opposition leader told his troops Labor was “cutting through” with its message that Morrison had two jobs – the vaccine rollout and putting in place an effective quarantine system.
In a cynical move that is unashamedly motivated by the pursuit of power, Anthony Albanese is now trying to convince voters that Labor doesn’t want to abolish negative gearing or raise taxes on capital gains.
However, if we are to take the Labor Party at their word, ending negative gearing is an issue that senior Labor figures are deeply committed to.
Sukkar backed up his argument with a bunch of quotes from Labor figures, including Albanese and Chalmers, supporting the old policy.
But the Housing Industry Association welcomed the Labor announcement on negative gearing and capital gains tax, saying it “will provide certainty for the housing industry and for Australians that are looking to invest or rent”.
Albanese also announced Labor would introduce a bill into the Senate “to improve the transparency and accountability of ministerial decisions with grant programs”.
This is to highlight the revelations about the political rorting in the government’s car park program at the last election.
This is based on a sample of 1,607, conducted from July 13 to July 17.
Two party estimates are not provided by Resolve, but The Poll Bludger estimates 51.5-48.5 to Labor from these primary votes, which is a one-point gain for Labor.
Negative ratings for Joyce, Morrison and Albanese
Of those surveyed, 45% said they had a negative view of Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Just 16% had a positive view, for a net likeability of -29. Former Nationals leader Michael McCormack had a 17% negative, 11% positive rating for a net -6 in June.
This poll suggests the ousting of McCormack in favour of Joyce could hurt the Coalition, as I wrote about last month.
Also in the Resolve poll, 46% (up six) gave Prime Minister Scott Morrison a poor rating for his performance in recent weeks and 45% (down three) a good rating. Morrison’s net -1 rating is his first negative rating from any pollster since the COVID pandemic began, though Resolve’s ratings are harsher than other pollsters.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s net rating fell three points to -16. Morrison continued to lead Albanese by 45-24 as preferred prime minister (46-23 in June).
On COVID, voters thought lockdowns and border restrictions should be gradually eased over the coming months as more people are vaccinated by a margin of 54-19%. By 54-19%, they thought fully vaccinated people should be given more freedom, though they believed (45-34%) this should not occur until everyone has had an opportunity to be vaccinated.
On economic management, the Liberals and Morrison led Labor and Albanese by 41-25% in July (43-20% in June). On COVID management, the Liberals led by 37-25% (40-20% previously).
Essential voting intentions, and anti-vaxxer sentiment
The Essential poll no longer publishes voting intentions with each poll. Instead they release them every few months for all polls they conducted during that period. Essential’s voting intentions numbers include undecided voters.
Last week’s Essential report gave Labor a 47-45% lead with 8% undecided. If undecided voters are removed (as other pollsters do), Labor led by 51-49.
This is a slightly different result from early July when Labor led by 48-44 (52-48 without undecided). They have led by two or four points since April. The Poll Bludger said applying last election preferences instead of respondent preferences to the current poll gives Labor above a 52-48 lead,
With the Sydney and Melbourne lockdowns, anti-vaxxer sentiment has dropped. In Essential, 11% (down five from early July) said they’d never get vaccinated, and 27% (down six) said they’d get vaccinated but not straight away. In Resolve, 21% (down eight since May) said they were unlikely to get vaccinated.
The federal government had a 46-31 good rating for response to COVID in Essential, slightly better than 44-30 in early July, but a long way below the 58-18 rating in late May, before the Victorian and NSW outbreaks. 54% (down three) gave the NSW government a good rating.
Morgan poll and BludgerTrack poll aggregate
A Morgan poll, conducted over July 10-11 and 17-18 from a sample of over 2,700, gave Labor a 52.5-47.5 lead, a 2% gain for Labor since mid-June. Primary votes were 39% Coalition (down 2.5%), 37% Labor (up 2.5%), 11.5% Greens (down 0.5%) and 3% One Nation (down 0.5%).
With polls from Newspoll, Resolve, Essential and Morgan, the Poll Bludger’s BludgerTrack aggregate of recent polls has Labor ahead by 52.0-48.0, from primary votes of Coalition 39.8%, Labor 37.3%, Greens 10.7% and One Nation 2.9%. Labor has been gaining during this year.
NSW Coalition retains large lead in Resolve state poll
In a Resolve NSW poll for The Sydney Morning Herald, Berejiklian’s Coalition had 43% of the primary vote (down just one point since May), Labor 28% (steady), the Greens 12% (steady) and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers 1% (down three).
This poll was conducted at the same time as the federal June and July Resolve polls from a sample of 1,100. While the July poll was conducted during Sydney’s lockdown, the June poll
occurred after Jodi McKay was ousted in favour of Chris Minns as Labor leader, owing to a disappointing result in the May 22 Upper Hunter byelection.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s poll article says the Coalition’s position was worse in July than in June. With NSW’s optional preferential voting, the Coalition would lead by around 55-45 from these primary votes. Incumbent Gladys Berejiklian led Minns as preferred premier by 55-16 (compared to 57-17 vs McKay in May).
In questions on the outbreak (only asked of the July sample), 56% thought Sydney was too slow to go into lockdown and 52% said the government should have been more proactive in urging people to get vaccinated. Almost half (46% agreed) the state has handled the outbreak well.
In Essential, 44% of NSW respondents (down seven since early July) thought NSW had moved at about the right speed to enforce lockdown restrictions. But 44% (up five) thought NSW was too slow, and 12% (up two) too quick.
Other states were unsympathetic to NSW, bringing the national figure to 56% for too slow, 34% for about right and 10% for too quick.
Labor easily holds Stretton at byelection
A state byelection for the Queensland Labor-held seat of Stretton occurred on Saturday. It was caused by the death of the previous member, Duncan Pegg.
With 73% of enrolled voters counted, the ABC’s results currently give Labor a 63.8-36.2 win over the LNP, a mere 1.0% swing to the LNP from the 2020 election. Primary votes are 56.6% Labor (no change), 32.7% LNP (up 2.5%) and 6.5% Greens (down 2.2%). The anti-vaxxer Informed Medical Options Party won just 2.5%.
Parties defending seats at byelections normally suffer from the loss of the previous MP’s personal vote. State Labor has held government since 2015, so this is a good result for them. 62% of Queensland respondents in Essential gave their government a good rating on dealing with COVID.
Labor has surged to a two-party lead of 53-47%, compared with 51-49% in the previous poll in late June.
The Australian reports the latest result is the worse for the Coalition this term, and if replicated at an election would deliver the government a clear loss.
Satisfaction with Morrison’s handling of the pandemic – which now sees lockdowns in the nation’s two largest states – plunged nine points in the last three weeks to 52%.
As the brought-forward Pfizer supplies start to arrive, confidence in the government’s management of the rollout is negative for the first time, with only 40% believing it being handled satisfactorily.
Morrison’s net approval in Newspoll – plus 6 – is at its lowest since the bushfire crisis, with an eight point overall shift. Anthony Albanese’s position worsened a little – he is on net minus 8. Despite a small drop, Morrison retains a solid lead over Albanese as better PM – 51-33%
Both Labor and the Coalition are polling 39% on primary votes – a two point fall for the Coalition and an equal rise for Labor.
The poll saw an 18 point drop in satisfaction with Morrison’s handling of COVID since April.
Satisfaction with the government’s handling of the rollout was 53% in April and 50% in late June – in this poll 40% are satisfied with the handling and 57% are not.
Sky News at the weekend reported Morrison had urged NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian to strengthen the Sydney lockdown. She did so soon after.
The prime ministerial intervention was likely superfluous because it was already clear harsher measures were needed. But it was notable on a couple of grounds.
In the past Morrison strongly leaned to lockdown scepticism, praising Berejiklian as a woman after his own heart and pointing to the NSW gold standard of limiting restrictions.
The much more infectious Delta variant has forced a change in the positions of both leaders.
Also, the Morrison intervention looked like the prime minister playing himself into the sharp end of the current COVID action, which is concentrated at the state level.
As both the NSW and Victorian governments struggle with serious outbreaks and the detail of their lockdowns, Morrison must be frustrated with his lack of direct power – apart from repeatedly restocking the ATM.
That’s of course leaving aside the vaccine rollout, a federal responsibility, the mishandling of which Newspoll shows is dramatically burning the PM’s voter support.
Late last week, Morrison finally spoke with Pfizer chairman and CEO Albert Bouria. This call, federal sources say, had been scheduled some while ago. It is not clear whether that was before or after the PM heard of Kevin Rudd’s contact with Bouria.
The federal government insists the Pfizer bring-forward was entirely due to its efforts and nothing to do with Rudd. Even so, it was a bad look to be talking direct to Bouria so late in the piece, and after Rudd. It had all the appearance of catch up.
As things stand, Berejiklian, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Morrison are simultaneously under a great deal of heat.
In dealing with COVID, as Berejiklian will attest, you can go from hero to villain very rapidly; hailed in May as “the woman who saved Australia”, she’s pilloried in July for stuffing things up.
Morrison is suffering the same shift in public judgement. And things are not likely to change in the near future – despite the brought-forward Pfizer supplies, there will be shortages for some time yet.
Of the two premiers fighting outbreaks, Berejiklian is under the greater pressure. She and Andrews took different approaches: Andrews locking down immediately and Berejiklian starting with a soft lockdown that had to be toughened (then going further on shutting construction than Andrews ever has).
Even if the five-day Victorian lockdown has to be extended, the situation there appears more manageable than in NSW. On Sunday, Victoria reported 16 locally acquired new cases, while in NSW there were 105.
Berejiklian is under siege simultaneously for not acting fast and strongly enough, and for abandoning her basic less restrictive approach.
The concentration of the NSW infection in south west Sydney has also complicated the situation, because (as Victoria knows) a heavily multicultural area needs particularly good communications and sensitive handling.
This new COVID crisis has seen another round of inter-governmental bickering.
Victoria seethes with retrospective resentment about how Coalition figures (federal and NSW) blamed it last year over its second wave that resulted in hundreds of deaths, mostly aged care residents.
Melbourne then and Sydney currently both had their crises triggered by lapses in quarantine arrangements. NSW is in a much better position to cope than Victoria was – but now the virus is more virulent, and there’s little confidence the Sydney lockdown won’t extend into August.
Last week the Andrews government labelled Morrison the “prime minister of NSW”, declaring that state had been treated more generously than Victoria was in its earlier lockdown this year. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg accused Andrews of “whingeing”. Andrews had a dig at NSW.
Andrews is always a tough operator – probably why he and Morrison have a grudging mutual respect. Last week Andrews made it clear he expected Victorian workers to get the latest full federal financial help, even though, if the lockdown were only five days, they’d fall short of fully meeting the federal conditions. Morrison complied.
The latest lockdowns come as polling just released by the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank, shows people’s faith in state governments’ handling of COVID at an all-time high.
The Australia Institute has been regularly polling the question “which level of government do you think is doing a better job of handling the COVID-19 crisis?”. Respondents were asked to choose between their state or territory, the federal government, both equally, or say they didn’t know.
In August last year, 31% chose their state/territory, 25% the federal government, and 32% rated the performances of both levels of government equally.
By April, 39% nominated their state or territory; 18% the federal government; 28% both.
Early this month (just as the NSW lockdown was starting) 42% rated their state or territory as the government doing better, 16% the federal government, and 24% both equally.
In NSW in July, 39% said the state government was doing the better job, 13% nominated the federal government; and 28% put both equally. The Victorian figures were 34%, 25% and 21%.
The Australia Institute interprets the response to COVID representing “a potential realignment of state-federal relations”.
Certainly the second year of the pandemic, like the first, is seeing the states showing little deference to the federal government when they perceive their core interests are at stake. They determine the lockdowns and, now JobKeeper has gone, NSW and Victoria have shown they are willing to play hardball to extract the best financial support for their citizens. And the Morrison government knows it will pay a political price if it is seen as a skinflint.
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.
It is mildly entertaining to see 2GB’s Ray Hadley excoriating his former colleague Alan Jones, now at Sky, for his “ridiculous stance” against the lockdown, with Jones calling New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian “gutless” for extending it.
Hadley went on to brand Sky’s Andrew Bolt a “lapdog” for agreeing with Jones, and Bolt retaliated by calling Hadley a “weak and ignorant man who panders to an ugly pack”.
It takes one to know one, of course, but behind all this spittle-flecked slanging there is a serious issue: the disproportionate political power of a small group of radio and television broadcasters in Sydney.
It is one factor that helps explain the procrastination and prevarication that have marked the premier’s response.
Long before COVID-19 afflicted the world, the shock jocks of Sydney commercial radio stations, particularly 2GB and 2UE, had created a successful business model built on outrage.
It is based on a political ideology that appeals to an older audience living in what Jones is pleased to call “Struggle Street”. It is not conservatism, as they like to claim, but rank reactionaryism.
In marginal electorates, largely in western Sydney, there are enough people who find this ideology attractive to make politicians nervous.
That is what has given these jocks political power incommensurate with their position in Australia’s democratic institutional arrangements.
They have become a kind of shadow government in New South Wales.
For example, in 2001, when Bob Carr, a Labor Premier, was about to appoint Michael Costa police minister, he sent Costa to Jones’s home to discuss law-and-order policy.
In 2017, a former Director of Public Prosecutions in New South Wales, Nicholas Cowdery, QC, singled out Jones and Hadley, as well as the recently resurrected John Laws, as wielding disproportionate power over politicians and other policy-makers.
They hate, to differing degrees, independent statutory officers such as Directors of Public Prosecutions who speak out objectively on issues in criminal justice.
In more recent times, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has relied on Hadley to provide him with a friendly platform on which to propagandise.
The relationship between the two has been described as a “bromance”, although it had a temporary rupture in 2015 when Hadley tried to have Morrison swear on the Bible concerning any role he might have had in the demise of Tony Abbott as prime minister.
Berejiklian, as a Liberal premier, has also prospered in her commercial radio relationships, most notably from the benignity of Jones’s successor in the 2GB breakfast slot, Ben Fordham.
He was supportive of her even during the embarrassing disclosures about her relationship with the Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire, who is the subject of an ICAC investigation.
So she had a stake in not rattling the shock jocks’ cages. That meant trying to hold the line against lockdowns.
However, that calculation changed abruptly last week after the latest Sydney radio ratings showed that for the first time in 18 years, 2GB lost the breakfast time-slot.
The winners were the KIIS FM pair of Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O, whose shtick involves penis pageants and a determination not to be “woke”.
Horrified fellow-travellers in the right-wing commentariat pounced on Fordham. Jones was especially vitriolic. His successors, he said, didn’t have the “balls” to stand up to “cancel culture warriors”. Government, media and big pharma seemed to be all in bed together, and the media were too ready to accommodate the left.
Management at 2GB were also aghast. The Australian reported they told Fordham to take a harder line with Berejiklian, and Fordham duly delivered. Three days after the ratings results had come out, he unleashed this on-air tirade against the Premier’s lockdown decision:
The virus hasn’t killed anyone this year, but the lockdowns, the extensions, the excuses, the mistakes, the missed opportunities, they are killing this city fast. And stop telling us it’s about the health advice!
By now Berejikilian was in a bind.
There was her own hubris, proclaiming her state doesn’t do lockdowns.
There was Scott Morrison’s hostility to lockdowns, exemplified by his repeated attacks on the Victorian Labor Government. Was she to be a source of further embarrassment to him over how the pandemic is playing out?
There was Morrison’s cosy relationship with the likes of Hadley, in which their reciprocal position on lockdowns was self-reinforcing.
And there was the demonstrated willingness by 2GB station management to go after Berejiklian in pursuit of better ratings for Fordham’s breakfast show.
In the circumstances, it is hardly a surprise that she has procrastinated and prevaricated.
If, as many epidemiologists are saying, the so-called “light” approach is condemning Sydney to a long lockdown and exposing the rest of the country to avoidable risk, the role of the jocks in creating the political climate in which Berejiklian is operating since the Delta strain took hold should not be underestimated.
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.