News National The high cost of government deceit: All trust is lost

The high cost of government deceit: All trust is lost

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces Senator McKenzie's resignation in Canberra on Sunday. Photo: AAP
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With what may be another crisis unfolding, it would be helpful to have faith in the nation’s leadership, reassuring to have confidence that a capable, open and honest government is doing the right and best thing.

Instead, well, is what you’ve heard really true or just Morrison government talking points?

That’s what it has come to under a steadily mounting case load of fibs and lies, spin and evasion.

This is the terrible price for the government being “subtle, false and treacherous” with us – a loss of trust in the government when it is most needed.

The Morrison government corrupting the $100 million community sports grants program was dreadful and cynical and enraging, but not of itself earth shattering.

It might have been the straw to break the camel’s back for many, coming on top of carbon emissions fibs and Robodebt and ignoring the fire chiefs and Angus Taylor and lying about the Hawaiian holiday and the Witness K prosecution and Craig Kelly and (insert your favourite disappointments here), but it was merely the most egregious example of politicians and political operators lying and cheating with your money during an election campaign. A matter of degree.

Now the government has managed to destroy whatever little credibility it had left with the utter farce of Bridget McKenzie stepping down from the ministry only because of a minor technicality with one grant, admitting no real wrong, thanks to the joke of a Scott Morrison-defined “investigation” that found no other problem.

And there’s the collateral damage of the reputation of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary, Philip Gaetjens, as his name goes down as the author of the report Mr Morrison is using to claim that black is white and the sun rises in the west.

This is appalling in its arrogance and worrying in its stupidity as this transparent stunt only reinforces the belief that many more people than Bridget McKenzie and her ministerial officers were involved in the corruption.

I’ll come back to that, but wholescale rorting at the highest level of the Coalition is not the worst part of this saga.

What is much worse is the loss of confidence in government.

When it seems the government’s priority is always spin and polling and stunts and photo ops, when everything smells of #Scottyfrommarketing, it becomes reasonable not to trust anything the government does.

For example, if the government is taking the radical and expensive step  of isolating hundreds of Australians on Christmas Island, it would be nice to think it’s the best and right thing to do.

But over 18 months now, we’ve been given no reason to take the Morrison government at its word and good reason to doubt it.

So when Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton says “Christmas Island is purpose built for exactly this scenario”, it is sensible to question the statement.

And it is not subsequently surprising to find he is not telling the truth.

Christmas Island was purpose built as a detention centre, as an offshore jail. It does not have adequate medical facilities for “this scenario”.

The government has had to fly in a mobile hospital and if anyone gets seriously ill, they will have to be evacuated to Perth, 2600 kilometres away.

That’s about the same distance from Darwin to Adelaide, the width of Australia, the width of the government’s credibility gap.

When Mr Dutton says “I can’t clear out a hospital in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane”, it is again reasonable to wonder what this Christmas Island thing is about because there is no need to clear out a hospital.

There are people with the virus in Australia being treated in hospitals there have not had to be “cleared out”, that are functioning normally.

The Australian evacuees from Wuhan don’t need a hospital to house them. They need a hotel – like the Chinese women’s soccer team in Brisbane – or one of many military bases or a camping ground or a combination of the above.

Cripes, they could be housed in Parliament House as it’s rarely used and then not to much effect.

With very reasonable doubt then – doubt shared by the Australian Medical Association and plenty of other voices – it’s reasonable to wonder what else Christmas Island might be about.

Was Scotty or someone else from marketing involved?

Is this a chance to hose down the stink of $185 million being spent on re-opening Christmas Island for a Prime Ministerial photo op before the last election?

A reminder of the government’s “Medevac” political triumph in the Senate?

Maybe someone in marketing thought several hundred people on Christmas Island would detract from the odium of a family of four needlessly jailed there, reportedly sharing one bed with a little girl to be escorted to the island school by armed guards.

Once you have been given good reason to doubt the government’s ethics and credibility on several matters, all matters become dubious.

And now the coronavirus issue has been escalated further.

As the PM on Saturday dramatically announced Australia had closed its borders with China, except for Australian citizens etc, you might have missed that the World Health Organisation’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on Thursday specifically advised: “The committee does not recommend any travel or trade restriction based on the current information available.”

At the time of writing, there has been no subsequent change to that recommendation.

The pressure is now on the Australian government to further justify the move as: “Under Article 43 of the IHR, States Parties implementing additional health measures that significantly interfere with international traffic (refusal of entry or departure of international travellers, baggage, cargo, containers, conveyances, goods, and the like, or their delay, for more than 24 hours) are obliged to send to WHO the public health rationale and justification within 48 hours of their implementation. WHO will review the justification and may request countries to reconsider their measures. WHO is required to share with other States Parties the information about measures and the justification received. “

Surely the federal government wouldn’t play politics with this? Mr Morrison kept stressing it was the advice of the Chief Medical Officer on Saturday to close the border.

Yes, sure – or maybe. What is the government’s track record?

As Niki Savva spelt out on the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday, the government lied and prevaricated its way through the bushfires crisis until the political cost caught up with it.

“At every point he (Morrison) stumbled and fumbled,” she said.

The government has shown it can lean on public servants to hear what it wants to hear, just influence them a tiny bit one way or another. It can depend on how the questions are asked.

Cue Philip Gaetjens. Cue Sport Australia – and in theory Sport Australia is supposed to be independent. (Has the chairman resigned yet?)

I hope closing the border with China is the right thing to do.

I hope it’s not a convenient crisis for overshadowing Bridget McKenzie’s (probably temporary) demotion, a chance for Mr Morrison to look like a leader after making such a hash of the bushfire emergency.

But with this government’s track record, who knows?

Last week National Party MP Darren Chester, perhaps the best of that party and therefore not a minister, observed: “The greatest deficit we face right now in Australian politics has nothing to do with the budget, it’s a deficit in the trust between us and the public we represent.”

Oh Darren, you’re sure not going to get back into the ministry telling the truth like that.

That deficit grew wider during Mr Morrison’s National Press Club address on Wednesday and every time any member of the government was asked anything about #sportsrorts.

Even Mr Morrison’s go-to marketing zingers have turned against him.

These grants were supposed to be about the girls changing behind trees and in cars? Turns out plenty of women’s changing rooms were knocked back, while one rugby club struck it rich for that purpose despite not having a women’s team.

The trust deficit, the chasm, grew wider again on Sunday when Treasurer and Liberal Party Deputy Leader Josh Frydenberg was interviewed on Insiders.

Like everyone else from the government, Mr Frydenberg proved incapable of simple honesty – prevaricating, obfuscating, trotting out the weasel words instead of just admitting what is obvious to everyone, that the sports rorts scandal was wrong.

He even tried to re-run Senator McKenzie’s pathetic line that the corruption was reverse pork barrelling as more money went to Labor seats. Add insult to dishonesty.

The most important part of the interview, unfortunately not pursued further as it cuts to the very core of what matters most about this corruption, was the question about whether the expenditure review committee – comprising of the leadership of the Liberal Party – had targeting marginal seats in mind when Mr Frydenberg approved the community sports infrastructure grants scheme.

Mr Frydenberg didn’t, couldn’t, give a straight answer.

“We had in mind they would go to communities in need,” he said.

“Not based on political need?” asked David Speers.

“The program was initially oversubscribed …”

And rhubarb rhubarb – non-answer.

Sticking to the talking points, not telling the truth, not earning or deserving respect or trust, just like every other member of the government every time this corruption is raised.

Mr Frydenberg went on to maintain we don’t have a climate emergency, just a climate challenge.

Nobody could be surprised.

To slightly misrepresent the Bard, this summer of our discontent is not to be turned.

The weasel words, the lies, the treachery of putting individual ambition and political party benefits ahead of the nation’s best interests will not be diminished by whatever happens next.

Given the track record, this government’s incapability of being honest with the people on the most obvious matters, it’s only likely to get worse.

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