News National Senator James McGrath takes swing at ABC, as government rorts spiral out of control
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Senator James McGrath takes swing at ABC, as government rorts spiral out of control

Senator James McGrath is happy for the government to spend obscene amounts of taxpayer money when it's in the party's interest. Photo: TND
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The dogs are barking at the ABC that its excellent disaster coverage over summer has blown the news budget.

That means more jobs will have to go.

Journalists are expecting a round of redundancies next month barring a financial miracle – pennies from heaven, or at least from Canberra.

You might think that with the great public service provided by the ABC fresh in people’s minds, it would be an excellent time for a savvy chair to be pounding government corridors seeking to at least reverse the announced cuts in the ABC’s budget.

Maybe that’s why a sworn enemy of the ABC, Senator James McGrath (LNP, Qld), decided the best contribution he could make to the nation this week, the best thing he could find about himself to self-promote on Twitter, was to attack the reduced amount the ABC already receives.

A senator since 2014, it seems from Google that James McGrath’s biggest claims to fame outside the Liberal Party machine are being sacked in 2008 from Boris Johnson’s campaign to become London Mayor and bragging about his car killing a cockatoo last year.

Senator McGrath comfortably fits the very model of a modern Queensland senator.

He has fed off the public/political/lobbyist teat since he was 25.

His maiden speech wanted the ABC sold off, company tax cut, the GST increased and the federal Departments of Health and Education abolished.

Some might find it ironic that his pay packet is topped up by being chair of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee and deputy chair of the Education and Employment References Committee.

He is, of course, a supporter of the Institute of Public Affairs’ campaign against indigenous constitutional recognition, is a fossil-fuel friend, and makes Michael West’s Revolving Doors list for links between the mining industry and government.

Right now, private economists are publicly doing what Treasury and Reserve Bank economists are doing privately – downgrading Australia’s economic growth prospects and dissing thoughts of the budget surplus Josh Frydenberg claimed to deliver nine months ago.

But since Senator McGrath thinks the ABC’s $1.1 billion is a crucial sum, and prompted by a tweet about the cumulative cost of grant rorts, I wondered how the ABC’s budget compared with the way Senator McGrath’s government plays loose and fast with taxpayers’ funds.

As the disclosures keep ticking over, it’s unsurprising to be able to find around $1 billion worth of government rorting in the past financial year that does not concern Senator McGrath in the least.

Since the ‘Adventures of Bridget McKenzie’ debuted, they just keep coming.

There is the $102.5 million McKenzie special, the particularly egregious community sports infrastructure grants that conned local sports volunteers, closely followed by the $150 million coalition swimming pools.

Then there are the National Party specials of the $272 million Regional Growth Fund and the $841.6 million Building Better Regions Fund.

The BBRF is spread over four years, so let’s say the amount spent in the election year (94 per cent in coalition and marginal seats, including yet another million-dollar surf club) is a round $200 million.

That brings us to $724 million. But wait, there’s certainly more.

One of the biggest abuses of taxpayers’ funds thrown in the public’s face was the blown-out and blatantly political federal government advertising campaign – $200 million worth to spruik such things as the coalition’s tax policy and promised infrastructure spending before the election.

(In case you missed it, the government’s much-promoted “$100 billion infrastructure investment” is over 10 years, so in real terms, it is only a promise to bring annual spending back up to what Joe Hockey promised in 2014. The vast majority of infrastructure spending is being done by the states.)

The #ScottyfromMarketing advertising splash is especially wasteful, not that Senator McGrath cares, as some of the other projects did have worthwhile outcomes despite the poor governance.

So that’s $924 million.

For a really big-ticket waste of money that’s open to large-scale rorting and non-performance though, it’s hard to look past the coalition’s $2 billion climate direct non-action plan, whereby taxpayers hand over money to companies to undertake energy savings they probably would do anyway, and pay farmers, among other things, to “drought-proof” their farms, which they also would have to do anyway.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison rebranded Tony Abbott’s Emissions Reduction Fund as the Climate Solutions Fund – an exercise that, of itself, wasted money on stationery and name plates – instead of trying to develop a real climate policy.

The $2 billion is being spread over 10 years, so we’ll just add $200 million for a running total of $1.124 billion and stop counting there, as we’ve beaten Senator McGrath’s worrisome ABC budget figure without having to try hard at all.

That’s $1.124 billion primarily spent on shoring up the Coalition’s base, some of it doing some good along the way.

But given the government’s lack of ethics and basic governance failures, who can tell?

As written before, the level of deceit has destroyed trust in government.

For a totally unscientific example, I asked Twitter if Scott Morrison hiding the Philip Gaetjens sports rorts report was protecting or damaging Mr Gaetjens.

It is an unrepresentative sample, but 71 per cent of the 1725 who bothered to vote thought Mr Morrison not making the report public was throwing his departmental secretary under the bus.

The implication is that the Gaetjens report is more damaging to the government than Mr Morrison is prepared to admit, that the Prime Minister is misleading the public over the contents of the report; that he is hiding something.

By comparison, the ABC is the country’s most respected news source.

Not by Senator McGrath, it seems, or the IPA, or the Murdochs, or the small number of people who for some reason watch Sky News After Dark, but by most of us and with good reason.

It has been steadily required to do more with less.

In a time of shrinking news resources more broadly in the nation, we’re very lucky indeed to have a strong public broadcaster.

To quote part of Peter FitzSimons’ 2019 Andrew Olle lecture, for the $1.1 billion Senator McGrath begrudges: “…we Australians can sustain a world-class public broadcaster across 56 regional bureaux, help sustain our democracy; nourish the national soul around the country’s campfire; hold the powerful to account; and shine the light on seriously important issues that the commercial networks never touch for fear there won’t be profits.

“Let me cite the example of just one program, Four Corners, and what it has accomplished just in recent times.

“Since 2016, their journalism has seen Royal Commissions called for everything from water theft in the Murray Darling Basin, to the rapacious behaviour of the big banks, to the appalling treatment of the elderly in aged care. All of this while Louise Milligan was doing her ground-breaking work on George Pell, which ultimately not only helped put him where he belongs – in prison – but must, perforce, help change the approach of an entire church towards its victims.

“That’s one ABC program, in the space of just three years.

“Yes, this journalism does actually come with a cost to the taxpayer  – but can we look to the extraordinary value we get first?

“Tonight, as we speak, the frail and elderly in nursing homes all around Australia are being treated a little better than they otherwise would, simply because of the Four Corners story; just as we the people are getting a fairer go from the banks; the Murray and Darling Rivers are flowing a little freer than they otherwise would have . . . and victims of sexual abuse are better compensated.”

For $1.1 billion, the ABC does more to keep bastards honest than all our politicians combined.

I’d wager any one of the cited Four Corners stories has done more for the public good than Senator McGrath has or ever will.

On his track record and sense of priorities, he’s likely to remain best known outside the Liberal Party for a dead cockatoo and being dropped by the Boris Johnson campaign.

If he wanted to turn his career around, he could start by supporting more resources to preserve the ABC.

He won’t.

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