Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraQueensland Nationals Senator Matt Canavan, juggling a couple of committee engagements, hadn’t planned to attend Tuesday’s hearing at which former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate appeared.
But party elder Ron Boswell was insistent, telling Canavan he must be there, in the room, fighting for Australia Post’s small business licensees.
Boswell, himself a former senator, retains one of the best political “noses” in the business. He’d spoken to Canavan soon after the Holgate affair blew up last October, warning the issue was trouble and needed to be fixed.
Canavan was initially sceptical, thinking people would react against the Cartier watches she’d given four executives as a reward for a deal with banks to shore up Post’s licensee network.
But he’s come round to Boswell’s thinking.
The government has been somewhat dismissive of the campaign the licensees have waged in support of Holgate.
But Canavan judges the many small post office businesses in regional areas could pack quite a punch in next year’s election campaign if they chose. And in these areas in Queensland the Nationals are competing with One Nation.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Canavan wasn’t backward. It was he who put to Post’s chairman Lucio Di Bartolomeo the pointed question: “Given that, as you say, Miss Holgate has a lot of support amongst your employees and important clients and suppliers, and given that Miss Holgate this morning has called for your resignation, would it not be better for Australia Post if you were to leave now, as well?” It was a reasonable proposition, but the chairman said he wasn’t going anywhere.
What has been notable, as Holgate lashed out at Prime Minister Scott Morrison for “bullying” her with his parliamentary tirade and Di Bartolomeo for not backing her, is the breadth of her constituency of support. It includes business figures and respected financial journalists, as well as the licensees.
With her claim gender was a factor in how she was treated, and the suffragette-white attire, she has now astutely tapped into the new women’s movement that’s arisen off the back of the Brittany Higgins issue. In doing this, she’s hit Morrison where he’s particularly vulnerable.
Politically, her advocates stretch from Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young to One Nation’s Pauline Hanson, who was the moving force behind the Senate inquiry.
The bedfellows might be somewhat uncomfortable with each other, but it’s a big bed.
The week left Morrison and the government on the ropes over Holgate’s treatment. References to “luxury watches” have lost much of their shock value.
The government can only hope the issue will simply fade with time, as issues do. Except that those small business operators mightn’t forget.
There’s an interesting contrast in how Morrison is currently dealing with Higgins, who alleges she was raped by a colleague in a minister’s office, and with Holgate.
The PM has reaffirmed he plans to meet Higgins. She’s indicated she’s not keen on re-entering Parliament House, so he’s willing to arrange another venue. He says he’s looking forward to hearing what she has to say.
Holgate, who wants an apology from Morrison, this week asked him to call her.
But he rejected that as unnecessary. Outstanding issues are between her and the Post board, he said. That may be true. By the same token, not to make the gesture is discourteous, at the least.
Remember, this was an executive who performed extremely well at Australia Post and who came out of the inquiry into the watches affair with only minor points against her.
Neither Morrison nor the two Australia Post shareholder ministers (Communications Minister Paul Fletcher and then Finance Minister Mathias Cormann) spoke directly to Holgate on October 22, the day Morrison excoriated her in Parliament.
Again, they would say that was a matter for the chairman, and again, they would be technically right. But given the stakes, wouldn’t one have thought Fletcher, in particular, might have sought to make direct contact?
Holgate’s appearance at the Senate inquiry not only gave a detailed insight into the behind-the-scenes events of that October day, but also revealed some of the arguments that had been going on about the future of Australia Post.
She produced part of a review by consultants BCG the government had commissioned, that canvassed cost-cutting measures and the possible sale of Post’s parcel section. She and the management team had pushed back against cutting services and jobs, and opposed divestiture.
So before the watches affair, the government was already – to a greater or lesser extent – irritated by the forceful head of this government business enterprise that some Liberals would like to see part or even fully privatised.
As speculation grew after her evidence about the BCG report, Fletcher on Wednesday said the government had no plans to sell off the parcels service – which performed strongly over the pandemic.
Anyway, probably any attempt to do so would run into vigorous resistance from the Nationals.
The government hasn’t released the BCG report. Obviously it canvasses important issues about the business and should be in the public domain.
But who is surprised? It is of a piece with this government’s penchant for secrecy, if it can get away with it (not that it’s alone among governments here).
It even tried to hold back the report into Holgate and the watches, until public pressure made that untenable.
Further afield, among the advantages, from the government’s point of view, of the national cabinet is that much more can be kept “in confidence” than in the old Council of Australian Governments days.
Crossbench senator Rex Patrick has a “test case” in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for the release of minutes from the national cabinet, which has been crucial in the pandemic decision-making process. Patrick says he “wants to expose the government’s secrecy overreach and to open the document vault for others to look in and see”.
Morrison this week talked about how Australia Post must be accountable. But his government likes to minimise the extent of its own accountability, especially when awkward issues surface.
It is worth remembering that if we didn’t have Senate inquiries like the Holgate one we would get even less information.
Question time, at least in the House of Representatives, has become almost useless as a means of holding the government to account. There is a report imminent from a House committee about how to improve it, but you’d have to be an optimist to see a prospect of qualitative change.
But the Senate committee on COVID, the inquiry into the Holgate affair, and regular estimates hearings on a range of issues, have forced some transparency and accountability.
The ALP national executive has decided on sweeping federal intervention into the crisis-ridden Victorian ALP, in the wake of revelations of the alleged “industrial scale” branch stacking and threats by now former state minister and power broker Adem Somyurek.
Former state premier Steve Bracks and former federal cabinet minister Jenny Macklin will run the state branch and prepare reforms, while the ALP national executive will handle federal and state preselections.
The intervention follows Nine’s 60 Minutes and The Age revealing recorded conversations in which Somyurek boasted of his power over state and federal MPs, and of running massive branch stacking. He also used highly offensive language about a female colleague.
Victorian premier Daniel Andrews sacked Somyurek from his cabinet on Monday, and two other ministers, Robin Scott and Marlene Kairouz, whose staff were allegedly associated with the stacking have resigned, while denying any wrongdoing. Somyurek quit the Labor party on Monday before he was due to be expelled.
The scandal comes at the worst time for federal leader Anthony Albanese who is fighting the byelection in the Labor held seat of Eden-Monaro, which is on a margin of under 1%.
Another complication for the federal party is that some of the secret recording was apparently in the electorate office of Victorian federal Labor MP Anthony Bryne, who is deputy chair of the powerful parliamentary committee on intelligence and security.
ALP national president Wayne Swan said in a statement after a national executive hook up on Tuesday night that Bracks and Macklin “will provide the national executive with recommendations on how the Victorian branch should be restructured and reconstituted so that the branch membership comprises genuine, consenting, self-funding party members”.
He said in developing their recommendations, the administrators would consult party members and affiliated unions.
“The conduct exposed in recent days is reprehensible and at odds with everything the ALP stands for,” Swan said. “The national executive takes these matters incredibly seriously.”
Andrews wrote to ALP national secretary Paul Erickson calling for profound reform of the branch, and asking for its members’ voting rights to be suspended.
“I have no confidence in the integrity of any voting rolls that are produced for any internal elections in the Victorian branch,” he said.
“Accordingly we must suspend those elections and begin a long and critical process of validating each and every member of the Labor party in Victoria as genuine, consenting and self-funded”.
All state officials and staff will have to report to Bracks and Macklin, who are appointed until January 31 next year. All committees are suspended.
All voting rights are suspended until 2023.
Bracks and Macklin will do a scoping report by the end of next month, including recommendations on integrity measures that are needed for the branch. By Novemeber 1 they are to produce a final report on the restructuring and reconstitution of the branch.
Victorian Labor, the jewel in the party’s crown, has been thrown into crisis by the allegations of massive branch stacking.
But with federal leader Anthony Albanese also facing questions about party culture, the scandal will not be contained to Victoria.
Declining membership facilitates branch stacking
On Monday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews sacked Labor powerbroker Adem Somyurek from his cabinet. This came after allegations Somyurek was involved in “industrial scale” branch stacking and used offensive language about a ministerial colleague.
As federal Labor MP and former academic Andrew Leigh has shown, the propensity of Australians to join formal organisations has been in steady decline for 50 years, and parties are a key example. Weeds have sprouted in these ruins.
The infrastructure of party and union branches that once underpinned politics in Labor heartlands has collapsed. The factories are gone and Labor branches have in most cases shrunken to a few ageing true believers.
Branch stacking is possible because Labor’s active membership is now so low they can be easily swamped by those “stacked” into the party.
Preselections for safe seats in state parliament are often determined by fewer than 50 votes at the local level.
We have been here before
Branch stacking is, however, not new.
During the Cold War, membership soared as left and right battled for control. But back then, it reflected real ideological disagreements that mobilised thousands. This popularisation sparked a catastrophic split in the ALP.
Today, Labor is not divided by deep ideological battles and as a consequence, its membership is much lower. As a further result, it is much easier to stack the branches.
With Labor as the dominant political force in Victoria, it is now mostly jobs – from lowly electorate officers to ministerial roles – that people fight about. The power of factional bosses rests on their ability to control access to these positions.
The need for change
The decline in the levels of Labor membership and the commitment of Labor voters have concerned supporters for decades.
Today, new political forces such as the Greens and independents are now going after Labor in their heartland. Even at the 2018 landslide victory of the Andrews government, the Greens retained three seats and independents mounted serious challenges in safe Labor seats.
One popular proposal has been to increase the rights of members, so they can have a greater say in how the party is run.
At the federal level and for some states, this has taken the form of direct ballots for parliamentary leaders.
This method was described by former ALP national secretary George Wright as “an outrageous success” in 2013, leading to an extra 4,500 members at the time. But some states – including Victoria – have not gone down this path.
Some have argued it would be better to give up the dream of building a mass membership Labor Party and instead allow all Labor voters, not just party members, to select candidates by an American-style system of primaries.
However, here, the likely outcome would be an even more media-centric politics, where political celebrities – such as Canadian leader Justin Trudeau – would communicate directly with voters. It is a weak shield against a populist right on the march.
Organisational reforms flagged
On Tuesday night, ALP president Wayne Swan announced former Victorian premier Steve Bracks and former federal frontbencher Jenny Macklin had been appointed administrators of the Victorian branch until the end of January 2021.
They will report on how the branch “should be restructured and reconstituted so that the branch membership comprises genuine, consenting, self-funding party members”.
But in the absence of a larger and engaged membership, organisational reforms will always be subject to evasion. The highly-centralised pre-selection system in Victorian Labor provides an incentive to stack, but reform of this would disrupt the delicate factional balance within the ALP.
The political fallout
The branch stacking scandal also presents political opportunities for Labor’s opponents.
For the Greens, this latest scandal offers the opportunity to challenge Victorian Labor’s progressive image. In the short run, the Andrews brand is strong enough to ride out the loss of less talented ministers, but one day, the political tide will turn. The collapse of the once all-conquering NSW Labor Party is a cautionary lesson.
At a federal level, it drags Albanese back into mire of Labor politics and undercuts his attempt to present him as an inner-suburban everyman – unlike former leader Bill Shorten, who could never escape his identity as a political hack.
If Labor loses the forthcoming Eden-Monaro byelection, this is something all Labor MPs, not just the Victorians, will have more to worry about.
Albanese most of all.
Eden-Monaro byelection to be on July 4
About two weeks since a transcript of Donald Trump’s phone conversation with the Ukrainian president was revealed, his approval with all polls in the FiveThirtyEight aggregate is 41.6% and his disapproval is 54.0%. Trump’s net approval is -12.4%, down 2.5% since last fortnight’s article.
With polls of registered or likely voters, Trump’s approval is 42.2% and his disapproval is 53.9%, for a net approval of -11.7%, down 3.4% since last fortnight. The Ukraine scandal has had a small but discernible impact on Trump’s ratings.
As I wrote previously, I did not expect this scandal to have a serious or lasting impact, as better-educated voters already detest Trump, while lower-educated voters are far more focused on the economy. Indeed, after an initial drop, Trump’s ratings have stabilised recently.
While there has only been a modest drop in Trump’s ratings, support for impeachment has risen sharply. Before the Ukraine scandal, 51.0% opposed impeachment and 40.1% supported it, according to the FiveThirtyEight tracker. Currently, 49.2% support impeachment while 43.3% are opposed. Support has risen strongly among Democrats and non-aligned voters, but only modestly with Republicans.
The vast majority of Trump disapprovers now support impeachment, but the Ukraine scandal has not converted many Trump approvers into disapprovers.
Despite the increased public support for impeachment, there is very little chance that the Senate, which Republicans control 53-47, will reach the two-thirds majority required to remove Trump from office before the November 2020 election. In the RealClearPolitics average, Trump has well over 80% support for the Republican presidential nomination, with the other three candidates at about 2% each. Republican senators are very unlikely to go against their party’s base.
In head-to-head polling against the three leading Democrats in RealClearPolitics averages, Trump trails Joe Biden by 7.4 points (7.7 points last fortnight). He trails Elizabeth Warren by 4.5 points (4.0) and Bernie Sanders by 5.2 (4.8).
US jobs situation still good
Last week, there were worse than expected September industry surveys for the services sector in both the US and Europe. However, the US added 136,000 jobs in September and the unemployment rate dropped to 3.5% – the lowest since 1969. The one negative aspect of this jobs report was that hourly pay dropped 1c after increasing 11c in August.
The low US unemployment rate is not just because of low participation. The employment population ratio – the percentage of eligible Americans who are employed – increased 0.1% to 61.0% in September, its highest since December 2008, near the beginning of the global financial crisis.
My view is that, bad as Trump’s ratings are, they would be worse without the strong US economy; this explains why Trump’s ratings improved during September as the recession talk from August faded. If the US jobs reports continue to have good news until November 2020, Trump will have a reasonable chance of re-election.
There are two economic policies being pursued by the right that could undermine the global economy. One is the US/China trade war, where talks this week are unlikely to make progress. The other is Brexit, particularly a no-deal Brexit. A no-deal Brexit may occur on October 31, but is more likely after an election that current polling indicates the UK Conservatives would win.
Warren surges to tie with Biden in Democratic polls
In the RealClearPolitics average of Democratic national polls, Warren and Biden are virtually tied, with Warren at 26.6% and Biden 26.4%. It is the first lead for anyone other than Biden. Sanders is at 14.6%, Pete Buttigieg at 5.6%, Kamala Harris at 4.4% and nobody else has more than 3%.
Since the September 12 Democratic debate, Warren’s support has increased at the expense of Biden, Harris and Sanders. Some of Sanders’ recent drop is probably due to his October 1 heart attack.
In early state polls, there have been no new polls since last fortnight in Iowa, with Warren leading Biden by 23.0% to 20.3%. In New Hampshire, the two polls taken since the September 12 debate have Warren leading Biden by one to two points.
The big exception to Warren’s rise is South Carolina, which is the last of the four early states to vote on February 29. Owing to strong black support for Biden, he has a lead over Warren exceeding 20 points in three post-debate polls in that state.
The next Democratic debate will be held on October 15. Contrary to my previous expectations, the 12 qualifying candidates will not be split over two nights, but instead appear all on one night. The threshold has been increased for November and future debates, and so far eight candidates have qualified for the November 20 debate.
Brexit, Austrian, Portuguese and Canadian elections
I wrote for The Poll Bludger about Brexit and the September 29 Austrian election results, in which the conservatives won, but need an ally to reach a majority. My latest Poll Bludger article is about Brexit and the October 6 Portuguese election, a rare triumph for the left in a democratic world that is trending to the right.
The Canadian election will be held on October 21. The CBC Poll Tracker has the Conservatives and Liberals virtually tied in voting intentions, with the Liberals ahead on seats, but short of a majority.
Australian Newspoll: 51-49 to Coalition
The latest Australian Newspoll, conducted September 26-29 from a sample of 1,660, gave the Coalition a 51-49 lead, unchanged since early September. Primary votes were 42% Coalition (down one), 33% Labor (down two), 13% Greens (up one, and their best Newspoll since 2015) and 6% One Nation (up one).
Scott Morrison’s net approval was +4, down six points. Anthony Albanese’s net approval was -1, up four points. Morrison led Albanese as better PM by 50-31 (48-28 previously).
Voters favoured prioritising the US relationship over China by 56% to 25%. All figures from The Poll Bludger.
This weeks marks 15 years since Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg first set up the platform with his college roommate Eduardo Saverin. Since then, Facebook has grown into a giant global enterprise.
Facebook hasn’t escaped without scandal. It’s been subject to data breaches and allegations that it has failed to protect user privacy. Reports suggest that numerous Facebook users have responded to these incidents by giving up the platform.
But the data say otherwise. Preliminary findings from my recent research suggest that although Australian Facebook users do care about the privacy and security of their personal information, this is not enough to drive them to leave the platform.
The scandals: Australians didn’t leave Facebook
One of the most prominent scandals Facebook has been caught up in involves allegations made in March 2018: that analytics company Cambridge Analytica was using personal data from Facebook users to help political parties in their election campaigns.
This, and other news stories about Facebook’s use of user data, received widespread international attention, including significant coverage in Australia. Numerous news reports claimed that large numbers of Australians were deleting their Facebook accounts as part of the #DeleteFacebook trend. As one news story contended:
Many Australians are for the first time discovering just how much Facebook knows about them and many are shocked, leading them to quit the platform.
Statistics on Australians’ use of Facebook, however, show no change in numbers since the Cambridge Analytica scandal first received public attention. There were 15 million active monthly Facebook users 12 months ago (just before the scandal erupted) and this figure remained steady over the course of the year. Facebook is still far and above the most highly used social media platform in Australia.
The study: what I wanted to know
In September and October 2018, I conducted a study involving in-depth telephone interviews with 30 Australians who were current or past Facebook users.
An equal number of females and males participated across a broad age distribution (10 participants aged 18-40, 10 participants aged 41-60, and 10 participants aged 61 and over) and geographical distribution (10 participants living in rural towns or areas, 20 participants living in cities or major towns).
During the interview, the participants were asked:
- whether they were bothered or concerned about Facebook’s use of information about them
- if they had ever changed their use of Facebook or privacy settings in response to these concerns
- what kinds of personal information they would not want internet companies like Facebook or apps to access or use
- what steps these companies should take to protect users’ information.
In the interview questions there was no direct mention of Cambridge Analytica or any other scandal about Facebook. I wanted to see if participants spontaneously raised these events and issues in their responses.
The benefits: it’s all about connecting
The findings show people continue to use Facebook for a wide variety of reasons. For some people, their business depended on their active Facebook use, so they could advertise their offerings and connect with potential clients:
I know that if I did delete it, I’d be harming myself and my business, so yes, so that’s kind of the main reason I keep it.
For most people, however, the key incentive was the desire to connect with family and friends. This included being able to find old friends and reconnect with them, as well as maintaining ties with current friends and family members.
Several people commented that using Facebook was the best way of knowing about the lives of their adult children, grandchildren or other young relatives.
That’s the only thing that’s kept me on there – because my kids are on there and I just want to see what they’re doing, and what and who they’re hanging around with.
For others, being part of a community (for example, a health-related group) was an important way of alleviating isolation and loneliness.
These comments suggest Facebook is an important tool to support social interactions in a world in which people are more dispersed and physically separated from friends and family.
The drawbacks: mundane trivia, too many ads
The drawbacks of being on Facebook reported by participants included feeling annoyed by aspects such as having to see other people’s mundane trivia, random friend requests or too many ads:
Sometimes there’s a lot of nonsense that goes up on there, people posting you don’t want to get involved in, or I think it’s stupid or rude or whatever it may be.
Some people also talked about not liking feeling that you are being watched, and their anxiety about their personal information being accessed and identity theft or bank details being stolen. However, these issues were not considered serious enough for them to leave Facebook.
Apart from targeted advertising, most people were unsure how Facebook might use their personal information. Very few participants mentioned the Cambridge Analytica scandal or related issues, such as the use of Facebook for political campaigning or to disseminate “fake news”. Even when they did refer to these issues, they had difficulty explaining exactly how personal data were involved:
Well, I know Facebook collected the data for that Cambridge business and they collected it via a quiz with an app, and then passed it on to other parties. So I think that’s all they do. I think it’s just maybe for them to earn money off it. I don’t really know.
Data privacy: employing workarounds to stay on Facebook
Most people thought they were careful in not revealing too much information about themselves on Facebook, and therefore protected their data. They reported engaging in practices such as avoiding uploading details about themselves, limiting their number of friends or the type of friends, blocking or unfriending people who annoyed them, clearing their history regularly and being very selective about what photos to upload (including of their children).
Several people mentioned they had recently checked and changed their privacy settings, often in response to a prompt from Facebook to do so:
I keep my personal stuff to myself, and then I share what I want to share through my friends. And I’ve got strict privacy things in place so that I only get things to people that I know, rather than people I don’t know. So that’s fine with me.
These findings show it’s not so much that Australian Facebook users don’t care about their personal data privacy and security. They do think about these issues and have their own ways of managing them.
Australians think Facebook serves them well. They consider other people’s over-sharing or having to see too many ads as more of a problem than alleged political manipulation or other misuse of their information by Facebook.
It took disgraced Nationals MP Andrew Broad 24 hours after the “sugar baby” story broke to announce the inevitable – that he won’t recontest his Victorian seat of Mallee. They do things slowly in the Nationals.
In Michael McCormack’s case, at glacial pace. The Nationals leader’s handling of the Broad scandal has been appalling. His failure to instantly inform Scott Morrison of a potentially explosive situation – the prime minister only learned of it on Monday – is inexplicable, and must severely strain the relationship between the two men at the top of the government.
McCormack on Monday muddled his account, saying he had only been told “a couple of weeks ago”, when he urged Broad to go to the police over the actions of a woman he met on a “seeking arrangement” website.
McCormack’s timetable was blown out of the water within hours by an Australian Federal Police statement that said Broad had referred the matter to it on November 8.
On Tuesday, McCormack’s performance was extraordinary.
He explained his confusion over timing by saying, “I don’t carry around the dates and times of what people tell me”.
He hadn’t informed Morrison at the start because “I don’t tell the prime minister everything about every member of parliament. He’s got enough on his mind at the moment.
“And quite frankly I thought it was a matter for Andrew to sort out with his family. Obviously, I wasn’t aware of the entire extent of what had taken place. I wasn’t made aware of that until yesterday.”
Asked whether he wanted Broad to run for Parliament again, McCormack blathered rather than just saying no.
Any diligent leader would have got to the bottom of the matter at once, extracting the full picture from Broad. Any prudent leader would have briefed the prime minister without delay. Any savvy leader would have known the scandal was likely to leak and that, anyway, Broad’s behaviour showed he was in an untenable position.
McCormack must live in some parallel universe if he ever thought his assistant minister’s account of flying off on an overseas date, which resulted in an apparent move to extract money from him, was just “a personal matter between him and his family”.
Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie said in a statement late Tuesday: “The Nationals are not a party where this standard of behaviour is acceptable”.
Yet McCormack kept Broad on as his assistant minister for weeks. And in his Monday morning statement announcing Broad had resigned from the frontbench, the Nationals leader said Broad “will continue as an effective and hardworking Member for Mallee”.
McCormack’s leadership is only secure because we are so close to an election. He was already under criticism from within his party and his conduct over Broad might have brought on a challenge in other circumstances.
The Nationals, supposed to be a party of family values, have bookended the year with two personal scandals. Barnaby Joyce’s affair with his former staffer, now mother of his son, distracted the Coalition in the early months.
How the Morrison government’s grand tactical plan to overshadow Labor’s national conference went awry! The big story about a surging budget position, promising dollars for tax cuts, was expected to dominate the news.
As things turned out, the government did squeeze out the Labor coverage – but for the worst of reasons.
Labor’s management plans, in contrast, went as smoothly as clockwork.
Tricky issues, notably border security, were stitched up. Potentially controversial polices, including how broadly a Labor government would allow industry-wide bargaining, have been left for decisions by the leadership later.
Even what seemed the risky course of having Kevin Rudd address the conference – as a gesture of reconciliation and party unity – played out without a hitch.
A raid on New South Wales ALP headquarters in Sydney in pursuit of an ICAC investigation into donations was embarrassingly timed but didn’t threaten the narrative at the conference in Adelaide.
The conference was used as a platform for announcements – on housing affordability, the protection of superannuation, the environment, reconciliation, refugees, the pursuit of gender pay equality. There were few votes and only one of them, on a left proposal for a human rights charter, involved a count – the left narrowly lost.
Controversy over signing up to a nuclear weapons ban treaty, on which Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong have different views, was defused by wording that leaves plenty of latitude.
One significant resolution that was passed calls for a Labor government to recognise Palestine, something that various state conferences have been urging strongly.
The role of the unions was proudly acknowledged.
The ACTU secretary Sally McManus told the conference: “The trade union movement is the early warning system for this nation. We are the earthquake sensors in the ocean that feel the tremors before they reach the shores. We are the smoke alarm trying to wake you from your deepest sleep. The siren that makes you look up before it is too late.
“And we are sounding the alarm now. We see the unfairness, we see the fair go being crushed with growing inequality. It is time to listen and to act. And Australian Labor, Bill Shorten, is doing just that.”
It’s notable that in the election for the ALP national executive, the CFMMEU has gone from one representative to two. Its national secretary, Michael O’Connor, is now a member of it. The conference has left open how much the unions will get as Labor unveils more detail of its industrial policy over the coming months.
Much of the media commentary on the government prosecution of Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery has focused on government duplicity in suppressing the trial until it had its oil and gas treaty signed with Timor-Leste.
But this focus on government hypocrisy has neglected the accountability of the director of public prosecutions, Sarah McNaughton. The prosecution policy of the Commonwealth says:
The decision to prosecute must not be influenced by any political advantage or disadvantage to the government.
McNaughton’s job is to be the key politically independent actor in the process. She must be a check on state political revenge.
This is why the case should of course be in open court, so the public can see how the DPP justifies its independence in the case.
The reason people are worried about the case is that it has the appearance of state revenge against Witness K, who complained through proper channels about the illegality of the bugging he was asked to do, but a decade on served the public interest by blowing the whistle.
Alexander Downer was foreign minister when our international intelligence services were moved away from their counter-terrorism work to focus on commercial espionage on behalf of oil magnates who later offered him a lucrative consultancy. Witness K went public after Downer started working for the consultancy.
So, let the public see in open court whether this is, or is not, a coin-for-the-crown-case that rightly provoked a whistleblower, and not a political revenge case.
Public confidence has been shaken
An even greater concern is that K’s lawyer, Collaery, has been swept up in the government’s prosecution.
From assault to complex commercial crimes, it is common for both sides to make allegations of criminality against the other. We expect the DPP to show independence in assessing who is the greatest victim of crime in complex cases like this. That person will be the least likely to be prosecuted.
The prosecution policy of the Commonwealth also requires the DPP to take into account the views of crime victims in deciding how to manage its deliberations, not only about whether to prosecute. In this case, the public needs to see what kind of victim support services are being provided to Collaery.
For example, the DPP should be asking the government as one of the alleged offenders to make one very public announcement. This is that Australia will continue to abide by the spirit of the International Court of Justice order that the government keep sealed the documents it seized from Collaery’s office in 2013.
The Commonwealth should also assure the public that it will continue to desist from spying on Collaery’s legal work and any bugging or invasion of Collaery’s office.
Further, the prosecution policy says the government should avoid cases that “undermine the confidence of the community in the criminal justice system”.
That confidence has already been shaken by this case. It will be further shaken if much of it were heard in secret. “Openness” and “accountability” are specified in the policy, binding the DPP to “maintain the confidence of the public it serves”.
Citizen confidence that counter-terrorism laws would not be used against civilians is a public issue. It seems these laws are now hanging over Witness K and Collaery, who most Australians view as patriots rather than terrorists.
Question of resources and timeliness
Lastly, the prosecution policy emphasises that prosecutorial resources are limited. Only those cases most worthy of prosecution should go forward.
Banking and insurance crimes are a real threat to the security of our financial system. These are the kinds of cases where the “public interest” test demands more focused resources, not cases against public-spirited civil servants.
Another element of the prosecution policy is that the passage of time since the alleged offence occurred should also be taken into account.
In this prosecution, the passage of time has been taken into account in the wrong way, delaying prosecution until a political interest of the government has been realised.
Rarely have the courts in our country faced such a moment of truth for our justice values.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Ley judged resignation to be the appropriate course of action in the interests of the government. But Ley has maintained her claims were within the rules.
In response to the scandal, Turnbull has announced major reforms to the parliamentary entitlements system. The changes are modelled on the UK’s system of vetting MPs’ expenses.
What are the proposed reforms?
The main reform Turnbull announced is the introduction of an independent agency, modelled on the UK’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, for parliamentary entitlements. The Department of Finance administers Australia’s current system.
The independent authority will be staffed by a member experienced in auditing, a member experienced in remuneration matters, the president of the Remuneration Tribunal, a former judge and a former MP. This is a very strong board. It will have significant independence from the government.
MPs and senators will be able to get advice and rulings from the independent agency if they are unsure about a claim.
This means the administration of MPs’ entitlements will now be out of the hands of MPs themselves, who may be interested in a generous interpretation of claimable expenses. MPs’ expenses will now be overseen in a more robust and independent way.
The second reform is to have monthly disclosure of parliamentary expenses, rather than every six months. More frequent reporting will certainly improve the system’s transparency.
The government has also committed to implementing the recommendations of the independent review of parliamentary entitlements that followed then-Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s 2015 “Choppergate” scandal.
As such, entitlement claims will be limited to those made for the dominant purpose of conducting parliamentary business. This excludes political party administration and management, and activities for the dominant purpose of party fundraising, pursuing commercial interests or obtaining personal benefit.
The legal enforcement of the system will be increased. Where MPs misuse entitlements, legislation will oblige them to repay the money – plus a 25% penalty.
The terminology of “entitlements” will be changed to “work expenses”. This is because MPs are given resources to perform their duties in exchange for acting in the public interest.
What happened in the UK?
In 2009, the UK had its own MP expenses scandal. UK MPs made inappropriate claims for a second residence allowance, alongside outrageous claims for moat cleaning, a ride-on lawn mower, jellied eels and a duck house.
The scandal led to the first resignation of a Speaker in the House of Commons for more than 300 years, and prompted the resignation of a dozen government ministers.
Following public outrage, legislation was introduced to set up the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. It was a strong reaction to a
situation that the then-British prime minister, Gordon Brown, called the “biggest parliamentary scandal for two centuries”.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority determines what MPs can claim, and administers and audits those claims. It is independent of government and has significant resources.
Will the reforms fix the system?
Turnbull’s reforms will significantly revamp the entitlements system. They introduce for the first time an independent agency to vet MP expenses. If the agency does its job well, it will ensure MPs do not abuse the system.
The reforms will also simplify the system, enhance transparency, tighten the rules, and introduce enforceable penalties.
When the system comes into effect, Australians will hopefully see fewer politicians flying around in helicopters and private jets while attending to their private affairs on public funds. The reforms are a great first step toward rebuilding public trust in our elected representatives.
What is it that too many politicians don’t get about the inappropriate use of taxpayer-funded expenses and the need to reform federal political donations laws and establish a federal anti-corruption body?
The answer to those questions may help explain why MPs continue to behave inappropriately in each area. This is important, as the impact of politicians’ inappropriate decisions on people’s trust is becoming alarming.
It is now evident that too many politicians appear to have misplaced their moral compass. When this happens in any one of the policy areas referred to above, people’s trust in their elected representatives is eroded. But when inappropriate actions and decisions span all three policy areas, trust is lost, sometimes permanently. If that happens, it is not only the reputation of politicians that suffer. Lack of trust extends to the democratic political system itself.
Public office is a public trust. Any MP who understands, accepts and acts on that principle will surely insist that the public interest be placed before personal and party interests.
The latest in a series of scandals relating to MPs’ inability to understand the difference between public and private interests involves federal Health Minister Sussan Ley.
The public reaction to it should send a strong message to all parliamentarians. The message is: voters are fed up with political scandals consuming elected representatives’ time and energy, especially when the country faces several social and economic challenges. MPs cannot find solutions to these important issues when they are constantly distracted by the behaviour of too many of their colleagues.
Perhaps parliamentarians need reminding that taxpayers do not pay them to take advantage of a totally inadequate parliamentary entitlements scheme with too many loopholes, through which many of them willingly jump.
Federal MPs also need to remember that people do not pay taxes so that they can deliver a political donations regime that is pathetically weak. For years, parliamentarians have turned a blind eye to evidence-based reports and the advice of experts in the political donations field. Both have said time and again that meaningful reform is urgently required.
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is due to bring down a report on political donations in March. It will be a test for the committee to come together and demonstrate that it has placed the public interest before party and personal interests. The nature of its recommendations and the speed with which they are implemented will reveal MPs’ commitment to cleaning up this neglected policy area.
Voters have made it clear that they want their elected representatives to be accountable for how they spend taxpayers’ money. One of the best ways to ensure this is through an independent, federal anti-corruption body. A division within such a body could also offer advice to parliamentarians unsure about whether an expense is directly and predominantly related to their role as parliamentarians, or is largely personal in nature.
The evidence clearly demonstrates that many parliamentarians have deliberately dragged their feet when it comes to reforming the “entitlements” scheme and overhauling the woefully inadequate federal political donations regime. They have also resisted the establishment of a federal anti-corruption body. Detailed explanations as to why they have acted in this way are required.
The delays are not only on reforms that affect serving members of parliament. It seems they are also looking after former colleagues. Despite promising to overhaul the entitlements system that still applies to many people who were once parliamentarians – some many years ago – nothing has happened in the past two years.
Why? Is it too difficult? Again, a detailed explanation is required and not one that says “we are looking into it” or “we will establish a committee to do so”. These excuses are becoming tiresome to everyone except MPs.
The very best new year’s resolution every MP could make is to promise to work toward restoring people’s trust, which is at a dangerously low level. An excellent place to start would be reforming, in a meaningful way, MPs’ entitlements and the political donations regime. Establishing a federal anti-corruption body would go a long way towards completing an integrity circle.
All these reforms are achievable this year. The only major obstacle to be overcome is parliamentarians’ lack of resolve to do so.