News Paul Bongiorno: Time is running out for the Morrison government to be fit for purpose

Paul Bongiorno: Time is running out for the Morrison government to be fit for purpose

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been labelled ‘‘the most shameless & unethical PM ever’’, Paul Bongiorno writes. Photo: TND
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The rumblings are getting louder that the Morrison government is being increasingly perceived as not fit for purpose.

A compelling witness for the prosecution came forward on the weekend with a devastating contribution on Twitter.

South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick, an important interlocutor for the government when it tries to marshal the numbers in the upper house, did not mince his words. He tweeted he was “done with ’em”.

His anger up in lights, accusing the Prime Minister of “gifting hard-earned taxpayer money to his business mates & donors makes him the most shameless & unethical PM ever”.

That was just a start.

He said Josh Frydenberg’s JobKeeper prudential failure “makes him the most incompetent Treasurer ever”.

And to slam the door on the way out of the government’s anteroom, Senator Patrick ended his negotiations with Environment Minister Sussan Ley struggling to get her amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act passed.

Independent Senator Rex Patrick is unhappy with the federal government. Photo: AAP

His reasoning here was those amendments making it easier for big business developers to have their projects more quickly waved past environmental protection laws was more of the same.

Senator Patrick cut his teeth in politics as an adviser to the wily Nick Xenophon.

Mr Xenophon was a master of politics but not always a master of technical detail. That’s where Mr Patrick played a vital role in helping then-senator Xenophon leverage his balance of power position in the red chamber.

Senator Patrick’s judgment is unerring in his pursuit of $13 billion JobKeeper 1.0 paid to firms whose revenue rose rather than fell – and so subverting the stated purpose of the massive $90 billion scheme – the biggest handout in Australian history.

A further $17 billion is estimated to be owed by smaller companies and businesses.

His efforts have complemented the work done by Labor’s Andrew Leigh, formerly an economics professor who has been on a mission to have some of the country’s biggest firms repay the billions of dollars they did not need.

Dr Andrew Leigh has been vocal about highlighting the double standards of the JobKeeper program. Photo: AAP

Dr Leigh has often cited in Parliament the experience of pensioner and part-time teacher Jan Raabe. He dubbed her Jan from Frankston; and her story gave a searing edge to Nine’s 60 Minutes expose on Sunday night.

Unlike Harvey Norman and 157,000 other businesses that were given millions of dollars they ended up not needing when their fortunes prospered in the pandemic rather than withered, Jan has been hit with demands she repay just over $1000 that pushed her over the limit she is allowed to earn before losing her part pension.

Incredibly, the Liberal government that was scathing of Labor’s “waste” in the global financial crisis – which was minuscule by comparison – did not build into JobKeeper a clawback clause requiring businesses to repay the taxpayers’ generosity if they didn’t end up suffering the required 30 per cent loss of revenue.

No one has been more critical of the program than conservative economist Judith Sloan.

Writing in The Spectator, she said “JobKeeper is the most irresponsible and reckless spending program ever undertaken by a government”.

The government is lacking any remorse.

Not only is it not considering any sort of retrospective legislation to retrieve billions of misdirected dollars, it is fighting tooth and nail the moves by Senator Patrick, Labor, the Greens and Senator Jacqui Lambie to name all businesses earning above $10 million that received the handout and how much they were given.

Dr Leigh says New Zealand, the United States and Britain were accountable in their wage subsidy schemes so “transparency is not a left-wing value in itself”.

Dr Leigh says “it seems this right-wing government is fighting for secrecy every chance it gets”.

The usually more benign Australian Financial Review has been particularly critical of the Treasurer’s incompetence.

Josh Frydenberg
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has been slammed by the Australian Financial Review. Photo: AAP

It even surprised Dr Leigh for its vehemence in describing Mr Frydenberg as “transactional, tactical, erratic, profligate and ultimately empty”.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, who fronted 60 Minutes when the Prime Minister and Treasurer wouldn’t, had no answer when asked why the government waited three months to refine the criteria after learning of the huge revenue leakage to 15 per cent of businesses that didn’t need it.

The JobKeeper debacle is more evidence of a government slow to act and inept when it does.

In this instance, Rex Patrick raises the spectre of corruption as a factor and while that cannot be ruled out on the face of it, it’s almost too kind.

The pandemic has certainly stress-tested the Morrison government’s ability to plan ahead and react with a sense of urgency, finding it simply is not up to the task.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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