Fair game: the Opposition’s sustained attack on the public service

August 4, 2011

Last night, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey appeared on Lateline. Among other things, that interview touched on the Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ plan to tackle climate change. This is a policy that’s been held up as a viable alternative to the government’s carbon pricing scheme announced a few weeks ago – both cheaper to implement, and less damaging to household budgets. Tony Jones zeroed in on a problem with the figures, though – for all the Opposition’s claims, the Department of Climate Change identified that the policy would cost the average Australian household around $720 per year, with no compensation such as is planned under the carbon price.

Hockey’s response? You can’t trust that Department’s figures. They get things wrong.

But then there’s this:

TONY JONES: But are you saying they’re putting out false figures about your direct action plan?

JOE HOCKEY: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

That’s a serious accusation right there. Hockey didn’t equivocate, or use any weasel words – he flat out accused the Department of Climate Change of deliberately falsifying their figures for the sole purpose of discrediting the Opposition.

Sound familiar? It should.

Remember back around the time of the election, when the Coalition dodged the question of getting their election promises costed by Treasury? Their stated reason for doing so was that Treasury couldn’t be trusted to do it right, or do it fairly. Back then, the accusations flew thick and fast. Treasury was ‘incompetent’. Treasury was ‘corrupt’. In essence, the Coalition did their level best to convince the public that the Treasury was little more than a political agent for Labor, willing to stoop to any level to keep them in power.

Remember Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb? At the time, he blustered that ‘It could mean that they [Labor] steal an election through the actions of a criminal act. We are not going to be patsies and be played off a break by people who are engaged in criminal activities to create a political problem for us’.

Then there was Opposition Leader Abbott’s sledge at the Solicitor-General. Upon hearing that the proposed minority government arrangement was all in order, Abbott did more than just hint that the Solicitor-General might well be both incompetent and corrupt. Again, the message was clear: that department is part of the public service, and – just like Treasury – should be viewed with at least a measure of suspicion.

Now, it seems, it’s the turn of Climate Change.

Understand, the Opposition are not talking about government ministers here. They’re not out there attacking Greg Combet or Robert McLelland. They’re saying that the Departments are engaging in corrupt and criminal acts – essentially, that major areas of the Public Service are so compromised by some kind of partisan loyalty to the Australian Labor Party that they simply can’t be trusted.

These are not party political organisations. They’re staffed by people who, in some cases, have held their jobs under successive governments from both major parties. To listen to the Coalition, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking these Departments do little more than give jobs to Labor’s mates.

As I said before, these are serious accusations – the kind that need to be backed up by strong evidence. If proven, there would have to be criminal proceedings, and that could potentially see the government – and the country – undermined at its very foundations. So what is the evidence?

The Coalition says so.

That’s right. They’ve offered no proof of falsified figures. They’ve secured no sworn confessions of wrongdoing. There are no memos discussing how best to help the government attack the Opposition. Just unsubstantiated bluster delivered in ringing tones of condemnation.

This is nothing more than the continuation of a smear campaign that started around the time of the election. It’s designed to deflect attention from shaky policy that doesn’t stand up under rigorous scrutiny. By casting doubt on the organisations whose job it is to catch these sorts of errors and omissions, the Coalition hopes to effectively get waved through the gate without a ticket.

It’s also designed to take advantage of a particular gap in most people’s education. We learn at school about how our government works, or at least we can grasp the basics. You vote, a party gets elected, and the one that doesn’t get in make up the Opposition. Then the government makes laws. What we don’t often learn about is the massive bureaucracy that ensures government can work at all. We see the Minister at the head of those Departments on the news, and we identify the organisation with the person. We don’t get told that Treasury, or Climate Change, or the Solicitor-General’s Department is made up of people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the business of winning elections – people who are experts in their fields, administration assistants with long years of experiences, accountants, legal advisors, etc. When the Coalition accuses Treasury of participating in criminal acts, or Climate Change of deliberately falsifying numbers purely to discredit rival policies, they’re hoping that we won’t realise that.

The Coalition is apparently so committed to tearing down everything even remotely associated with this minority government that they consider these people’s good names to be expandable. Moreover, they apparently have a complete disregard for the personal consequences to the people they’re so merrily disparaging.

That’s not clever strategy – it’s a calculated, callous decision to do whatever it takes, and never mind the collateral damage.

The important thing is that we do realise it. The next time Abbott, or Hockey, or Robb stands up in front of a camera and accuses a Department of corrupt or criminal acts, keep it in mind. It’s not the standard political tactic of discrediting a policy by discrediting the Minister in charge. It’s an attack on hundreds of largely unknown people whose only crime is to be working in government administration under the current government.

Those people keep the country working. They deserve better.

So, Mr Abbott, Mr Robb, Mr Hockey – here’s your chance. If you have proof to back up your accusations, deliver it to the Australian Federal Police. Right now. Put up or shut up.

If you don’t, why don’t you take your own advice to Prime Minister Gillard? Go down to those Departments and personally visit every single employee there. Explain to them why you decided that destroying their reputations and their peace of mind was an acceptable part of your campaign to bring down the Gillard government with baseless accusations. Why you decided that they were fair game.

Then apologise to them. Individually. Sincerely. Unequivocally.

It’s the least you can do.

Machiavellian bastardry or masterful misdirection?

October 11, 2010

Tony Abbott’s ‘truth parrot’* appears to have taken flight. Perhaps there is no room for it to perch on his shoulder now that the hyperbole monkey is clinging to his back?

In an interview he gave just before flying to Afghanistan, Abbott let fly at Prime Minister Julia Gillard, accusing her of an act of ‘Machiavellian bastardry, low bastardry’. That’s a serious accusation. Gillard must have done something terrible, right? What could she have possibly done to attract that kind of condemnation?

According to Abbott, what Gillard did was tell the media she’d invited him to accompany her to Afghanistan even though she knew he’d already booked his own trip. As a result, he was backed into a corner and ‘spoke out of turn’ when he said he didn’t want to be jetlagged for the Tory party conference in London. This, apparently, makes her worse than any other Prime Minister ever. How dare she play politics with Our Brave Boys (and Girls) Risking Their Lives For Freedom, God and Country?

His colleagues were quick to wave their own jingoistic banners, tutting about the ‘low act’ Gillard had committed. Senator Mitch Fifield this morning on Sky was particularly strident in his condemnation, and called on the Prime Minister to apologise. After all, she ‘knew’ about the trip, she ‘knew’ Abbott could not make his plans public for security reasons, and she ‘deliberately’ tried to make it look like Abbott didn’t care about Our Brave etc., by telling people she had slept well.

Reality check.

The media did receive the information that Abbott had declined to accompany Gillard to Afghanistan. The information did not come from the Prime Minister’s office but was confirmed by them when media asked.

Abbott, when asked why he didn’t go with Gillard, said he did not want to be jetlagged. This was not a statement made under pressure, nor was he manoeuvred into it.

In a media conference, Gillard was asked ‘how she was sleeping’. The question got a huge laugh from the media pack. Gillard responded that she knew there were comments flying around about Abbott, and that his sleeping arrangements were his business. She went on, grinning, to mention that she had managed to fit in a visit to Zurich as well as Afghanistan, and still got eight hours’ sleep.

Abbott’s colleagues later asserted that he had ‘locked in’ his travel arrangements over a month ago, and that Gillard knew it when she made the invitation. Gillard denied this.

Whether the Prime Minister knew about the Opposition Leader’s travel arrangments is a matter of dispute, but a few things are clear. Nothing forced Abbott to make the ‘jetlag’ comment. Gillard certainly took advantage of his gaffe and got in a sideswipe of her own, but she in no way implied that he didn’t care about the troops. If anything, she took aim at his much-touted ‘Action Man’ status. A cheap shot? Definitely. ‘Playing politics’ with our war situation? Hardly.

It is curious, though, why this issue should rear its head again. After all, the Coalition has the Murray-Darling Basin report to attack. Why keep on with this?

This article in the Sydney Morning Herald might have something to do with it.

A document has surfaced bearing the signatures of Brian Loughnane and Brad Henderson, Federal Directors of the Liberal and National parties. In that document, the Coalition affirms that it is aware that the report prepared on its costings by WHK Horwath does not constitute an audit. That document was dated August 18, 2010. The very next day, both Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb repeatedly asserted that the report was an audit. Mitch Fifield described this today as merely a matter of ‘semantic debate’, and that Hockey was using the word in a ‘colloquial sense’.

Peter Martin reported on this in The Age back on August 20. He pointed out that a firm engaged in this kind of business has a legal and ethical obligation to make sure its clients understand the precise nature of the report – in other words, to make sure the Coalition knew it was not getting an audit of its costings. At the time, WHK Horwath stated that it had done so.

At the time, the story died fairly quickly. The election result and the ensuing focus on the Independents saw to that. Now, though, we have a document proving that WHK Horwath fulfilled its obligations, and that the Coalition was well aware that it had not secured an audit. Either Hockey and Robb were never told this – which beggars belief – or they deliberately and repeatedly lied to the Australian public. Even as late as last week, the Coalition were still saying their costs had been ‘audited’.

At the very least, this is a situation in which the Coalition’s ‘money men’ were provided with plausible deniability. At worst, it is evidence that the Coalition were willing to do and say anything to undermine Labor’s chances of winning the election, and maximise their own. These lies went hand-in-hand with the Coalition’s constant accusations of corruption within Treasury – and they demonstrate an astounding contempt for both the political process and the Australian public.

Is it any wonder Abbott is letting the hyperbole monkey out to play?

And the media is lapping it up. The ‘bastardry’ comment is running the board in terms of the headlines. Occasionally, someone comments that no one forced Abbott to say ‘jetlag’. By contrast, the question of the WHK Horwath document, and its implications, is getting almost no air time.

The Coalition is good at this. It knows that if you can control the news cycle, you can successfully obscure your own vulnerabilities and misdeeds. This is classic misdirection – the loud noise and light show that allows the magician to make the rabbit disappear without the audience seeing where it went. And the Australian public are the audience – they’re here for the spectacle, here to be fooled.

At least, that seems to be the Coalition’s view. I’d like to think people won’t be fooled by the magic words and the ‘look over there!’ tactics.

I think we’ll have a long wait if we sit back and expect the media to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. After all, it’s more entertaining to play sound bites of Abbott quivering in outrage and channelling the hyperbole monkey than to engage in a reasoned discussion of the difference between an audit and a review, right?

But if we don’t start ignoring the razzle-dazzle and the cries of ‘J’accuse!’ we may well find, come election time, that we only remember the spectacle, and not the real information being drowned out by it.

And we forget that information at our peril – because that is what tells us what any prospective government will be like if it gets its hands on power.

* A marvellous phrase coined by the ABC’s Annabel Crabb.

UPDATE: Fran Kelly, speaking on ABCNews24’s The Drum tonight, reported that her investigations into the whole Afghanistan trip situation had borne interesting fruit. Far from confirming the Opposition’s claims, it seems that the government did not leak the information that Abbott had been invited to accompany the Prime Minister. That was heard by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Phil Coorey ‘on the grapevine’. The Prime Minister’s office confirmed an offer had been made, but said that Abbott had not yet given them an answer. Abbott’s office said exactly the same thing, right up until the day before Abbott’s ‘jetlag’ comment. The ‘Gillard knew and is trying to make political points’ spin did not start until after Abbott’s gaffe and the resulting media frenzy.

Tonight, as Christopher Pyne accuses Gillard of ‘back alley bitchiness’, it’s worth remembering what Fran Kelly was able to find out with a couple of phone calls. And kudos to The Drum for actually tracking down the facts.

What’s in a name?

September 15, 2010

We appear to have become a nation obsessed with semantics.

Since Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement of her Cabinet line-up on Saturday last week, the commentary has zeroed in on two ‘issues’ – the appointment of Kevin Rudd to the Foreign Ministry, and the absence of the word ‘Education’ in any of the portfolios.

The former is understandable, if a little tiresome. Rudd’s relegation to a subordinate position, when three years ago he was the one making the appointments, was always going to attract attention. Much has been made of his apparently ‘stony’ face and ‘disengaged expression’ during the swearing-in ceremony that took place at Yarralumla yesterday. It seems that no amount of denial or reassurance on his part will stop that, and I suspect it will simply be a matter of time before the media and the Opposition find something else to talk about.

When it comes to the question of portfolio names, however, the arguments get a little silly. Correction – they get very silly.

True, Gillard had not named an Education Minister. What she had done was split up the portfolios between two other Ministries – Schools, Early Childhood and Youth under Peter Garrett; and Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations under Chris Evans. For a government self-admittedly preoccupied with educational matters, this looked at first glance like a remarkable oversight on her part. Universities were particularly worried; to all intents and purposes, it appeared as though tertiary education was being treated as entirely vocational. The unfortunate result of the initial announcement was that people – perhaps with some justification – thought that education was being devalued.

The Opposition went to town, and pundits everywhere pounced on this disquiet. Instead of evaluating the situation, however, media shook their heads over what a ‘bad look’ it was, and accepted without question whatever they were being told by those with a vested interest in undermining the new government’s reputation.

In perhaps the most obviously example, the Opposition proclaimed that Gillard had actually forgotten to name an Education Minister. One particular sound bite of this was replayed ad nauseam by Sky News – a particularly irresponsible move on their part, since it gave legitimacy to something that was not merely spin, but an outright lie.

The government eventually responded to concerns expressed by universities, and by the time the respective Ministers formally took up their responsibilities, the word ‘Education’ had appeared in their titles. Of course, by this time, the damage was doe, and the Opposition could then argue that the government was playing ‘catch-up’.

All this, because a single word was left out of a Ministerial title.

It can be argued that perceptions matter. That it’s important to have a clear understanding of what a Ministry actually does. In that case, the government’s failure to provide that clarity is an elementary error which will likely prove to be a continuing thorn in its side.

But, you know, it cuts both ways.

Take a look at the Coalition’s Shadow Ministry, for example.

Most positions are still held by their incumbents, although Malcolm Turnbull’s appointment to Communications and Broadband was clearly the opening salvo in what is likely to be a vicious campaign against the NBN. There are a whole slew of new Shadow Parliamentary Secretaries, including the hapless Tony Smith, whose woeful performance during the election campaign saw him banished from the Communications Ministry with lightning speed. There is a good summary, including links to websites, on The Notion Factory.

An initial failure to name a Shadow for Mental Health was quickly corrected, with Concetta Fierravanti-Wells taking on that responsibility in addition to Shadow for Ageing. There are also, apparently, two Ministers for Regional Development; Barnaby Joyce and Bob Baldwin. It’s not clear whether this is an error in the list released to the media, or actual appointments.

Some of the names for the Shadow portfolios, though, are very telling.

Andrew Robb is still the Shadow for Finance and De-regulation. He’s got an additional title now, however, that doesn’t mirror Penny Wong’s Ministry. He’s also responsible for Debt Reduction. Then there’s Scott Morrison, whose pre-election portfolio of Immigration has been expanded to include Productivity. Finally we have Jamie Briggs, who’ll chair the Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee.

See what they did there?

Those three Shadow portfolios are intended to be a constant reminder of Coalition policies and criticisms. You can just bet that any time Robb or Morrison turn up, their staff will insist on the full titles. Every time Robb comments on the ‘massive debt’, his title will be there underscoring the point. Every time Morrison takes on the asylum seeker and immigration issues, his title will underpin the Coalition argument that Australia needs to consider the effect on the economy first, and humanitarian considerations later (if at all).

As for Jamie Briggs – honestly, it’s so ham-fisted I’m embarrassed for them. This committee, linked to a truly crass website called LaborWaste, apparently exists for only one purpose – to discredit the government wherever possible. Apart from semi-regular media releases liberally sprinkled with ‘scare’ words, the website (adorned with a version of Labor’s own logo, something that may not be entirely legal) asks people to provide ‘tip offs’. Yes, that’s right – dob in the government today. You too can send in your complaints (you can even attach documents of up to 10Mb) and help participate in what’s little more than an exercise in muck-raking.

The so-called ‘waste’ claims are not examined, nor is any evidence provided. In fact, the most commonly cited ‘proof’ is a statement allegedly made by a Liberal Senator or MP castigating the government for its ‘mismanagement’. The title of the committee is a dead giveaway – this isn’t about impartial scrutiny at all. It starts with the assumption that any money the government spends is wasteful.

The irony here is unbelievable. Here is a committee, and a website, designed to perpetuate a central pillar of the Opposition’s election campaign and sloganeering – unnecessary expenditure. But back up a second. Running and staffing such committees costs money. Building, maintaining and monitoring websites costs money. Sending out media releases is cheaper than it used to be thanks to email, but someone is still being employed to sit there and write them. Granted, they’ll save a lot of money by not doing any actual scrutiny, but when you get right down to it, the committee is nothing more than an expensive, dirty, propaganda engine.

So if we’re going to point fingers at the government’s failure to include the word ‘Education’ in Ministerial titles, we should probably spend a bit of time looking at the linguistic tactics of the Opposition – which are far more revealing.

In this ‘kinder, gentler’ polity, this ‘collegial’ atmosphere, those tactics make it very clear what the Opposition really plans to do for the next three years. Abbott didn’t even bother to deny it this morning on ABC radio. He made it clear that the Coalition still consider themselves a ‘government-in-waiting’ – and now, they’re just waiting to step in when ‘inevitably’ the government loses the confidence of the Independents. (He doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that, even if there is a loss of confidence, the Independents won’t automatically turn around and crown him Prime Minister.)

In the meantime, the Opposition appear to be doing everything they can to undermine the government even before the new Parliament sits for the first time – and the use of ‘slogan’ Shadow Ministry title is just another weapon in that attack.

Spin me right round, baby

August 27, 2010

After all the bluster and extravagant language of yesterday, suddenly the Coalition has changed its mind. It says it will give Treasury access to its costings for the Independents to peruse, after all. On the condition, of course, that the government doesn’t get its grubby little hands on it.

Abbott has spun this as a ‘significant win’ for the Coalition. Without this agreement – which he is claiming is entirely his idea – the Independents would only have received a briefing from Treasury on the government’s costings. They would have had no information about the Coalition’s numbers at all. Now, he claims, the Coalition will brief Treasury, who will in turn brief the Independents. In this way, the briefings can go ahead ‘without risk of political interference’.

It was all about making sure that the public service was able to give ‘frank and fearless’ advice, he says. Before, that simply wasn’t possible. The existence of a shadowy figure in Treasury leaking information showed that the process was hopelessly compromised. But now, with this agreement, the Coalition has ensured that all is well, the briefings can take place and the Independents can have access to all the numbers.

On Wednesday, Abbott said he couldn’t give his numbers to Treasury because they could not understand how the Opposition’s numbers were put together.

Twenty-four hours ago, the story changed.

Andrew Robb proclaimed that there was no chance that Treasury would see their costings until the alleged Treasury leaker was identified and prosecuted. The ‘process’ was corrupt – and by inference, so was Treasury. The mere suggestion that Treasury should see the Coalition’s numbers was outrageous, not to be contemplated. The Independents could see the private audit completed by WHK Horwath, but that was it. (And it’s worth noting that the firm in question is now the subject of a complaint to the Institute of Chartered Accountants). Robb drew a sharp line in the sand, and if the Independents didn’t like it, tough.

In fact, the Coalition claimed, Gillard’s willingness to co-operate with the Independents’ requests showed that she was willing to ‘trash the Westminster system’. They called her ‘weak’, and an ‘appeaser’. By contrast, Abbott was taking a ‘principled stand’.

Now, another day further on, the story has changed again.

Suddenly, the corrupt process no longer exists. Suddenly, Treasury is capable of understanding the Opposition’s costings. With a wave of some political magic wand, Abbott has fixed the problem and Treasury is no longer under a cloud. How confident, how masterful, how – Prime Ministerial.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen spin this blatant. And this stupid.

You only have to read the letters exchanged between Abbott and Gillard to see that the story is very different to what Abbott announced not twenty minutes ago. The Herald-Sun helpfully provided links to them in the article linked above. Media conferences given by the respective leaders can be found via ABC News or Sky News.

The initial overture was made by Gillard on Wednesday. Under the caretaker provisions, Abbott’s agreement was needed to make certain information available.

Abbott attempted to set some conditions, including what amounts to a gag order on the Independents. He wanted assurances from the Prime Minister that they would not disclose any information they received. Gillard, rightly, made it clear that she had no intention of attempting to silence the Independents – it was entirely up to them to make that decision. This was an obvious attempt by Abbott to further the Coalition’s allegation that the government had undue influence over Treasury, and was probably responsible for the leaked document. What it looked like, though, was standover tactics on the Independents.

Abbott also insisted that Treasury look over the costings on the government’s broadband and proposed Mineral Resources Rent Tax. Gillard responded that the numbers had already been scrutinised by Treasury and released before the election – and she also offered a more detailed briefing to the Coalition should they required it. This was nothing more than Abbott attempting to cast doubt on the government’s figures. It’s a pity the Coalition didn’t do its homework and realise the numbers were already out there. They’ve come off looking petty.

The condition that the government not be given any access whatsoever to Coalition costings is, frankly, ridiculous – and Gillard’s agreement can be read as nothing more than acquiescence to a pointless demand that has no effect on the government. Again, it’s just an attempt to perpetuate the idea that the government is untrustworthy. The question needs to be asked, though – if the costings were prepared properly, what possible harm can be done by releasing the figures once they have been scrutinised by Treasury?

Then there’s Abbott’s claim that he prevented Gillard from ‘trashing the Westminster system’ by releasing the briefings normally given to an incoming government. Gillard’s first letter shows that she never had any intention of doing so. Abbott has tried to take credit for something he hasn’t done.

Finally, the notion that this is something entirely brokered by Abbott and reluctantly agreed to by Gillard is completely demolished. As noted above, Gillard made the overture on August 25, and it was not until August 28 that Abbott agreed to provide the Coalition’s costings to Treasury.

All of it adds up to a very unpleasant picture. We have a story that changed three times, each time presented as though the previous version did not exist. We have a Coalition claiming that the current state of co-operation is entirely their doing, and that it demonstrates how capable they are of forming stable, responsible government.

But we also have the evidence of how their story has changed – and the conviction with which they told it each time. We have the evidence to show that Abbott is not a deal-maker par excellence, but rather a reluctant partner.

Why change their ‘principled stand’ now? Is it because they realised how thoroughly they alienated the Independents by refusing to allow access to Coalition costings? Because they have already prepared a response if Treasury find that their numbers are dodgy that points the finger squarely at Labor?

It certainly looks that way. But it appears Abbott cannot simply front up and say that the Coalition has had a change of heart. Instead, he has to pretend the last two days simply did not happen. More, he has to take credit for something he quite simply did not do. Humility, and the ability to admit mistakes, do not seem to be qualities the Opposition leader possesses in any great quantity.

This is just another posture in what has been an increasingly arrogant series from the Coalition. How the Independents respond to it will be telling. It’s to be hoped that they will call Abbott on the ridiculous runaround he’s given them, and on his current ‘magnanimous ruler’ pose. It’s also to be hoped that they will tell him that he has no control over who they speak to, or what they say.

Abbott and Robb continue to play a dangerous game – but they’re getting the headlines. Gillard’s co-operative stance has almost been eclipsed by the Coalition’s spin, and they’re continuing with their attempts to paint Labor as weak, incompetent and corrupt.

It’s important that each be seen for what it is. One side is co-operating freely. The other side is the Coalition, which has slunk back to the table after it failed to bully the Independents into falling into line.

On post-election tactics alone, this is a dismal situation. Should the Independents choose to back the Coalition, we will have a government that was willing to bully, lie and blacken the good name of Treasury just to sit on the right side of the Speaker.

That’s something I don’t care to contemplate.

Dodging the numbers question

August 18, 2010

The Coalition have just announced their costings – you know, the ones that were too sensitive to be given to Treasury? Yes, did it at 5pm Wednesday afternoon, one hour before the second so-called ‘People’s Forum’, seven hours before the election advertising blackout, and two days before the election.

According to Andrew Robb (who, incidentally, thinks it’s so important that we know the Coalition will ‘stop the boats’ that he took time to mention it again … and again … and again during this release of their costings), the Coalition will return the Budget to a surplus of $6.2 billion in the 2012-13 financial year, and reduce the country’s net debt to $66 billion.

That’s a pretty impressive call. It’s about double what the Labor Party says it will deliver. But hold on a second. Before you start thinking about how much lovely money we have, consider these points.

These figures were prepared by an independent firm, WHK Horwath. Robb described it as one of the ‘top five’ in Australia (presumably quoting from their website). This firm has never before been involved in costing something of this magnitude, or at least have not mentioned it – and you’d think something as prestigious as potential federal budget costings would be worth promoting.

Senator George Brandis declared that ‘no serious person would question the integrity of that firm’. I think exactly the opposite is true. A firm entrusted with such an important task should come under the closest examination possible. A firm, incidentally, founded by the former Liberal Premier of Western Australia, Sir Charles Court. But wait – this hasn’t been possible. We just found out their name today, because the Coalition deliberately withheld it.

Now, none of this is to say that there’s something automatically dodgy going on here. But, had we known this firm’s identity beforehand, we could have investigated how independent it was, and whether it was up to the task.

Or better yet, the Coalition could have just given their figures to Treasury.

Then there’s the question of methodology. We don’t know what was used to come up with these figures. It almost certainly isn’t the same one used by the Charter of Budget Honesty – so where is the basis for comparison with Labor’s figures?

The costings have been released, as mentioned before, after close of business very close to the election. This ensures that virtually no scrutiny can take place. Journalists currently questioning Robb and Hockey have only just been handed the documents, and so have to think on their feet. Even the most economically astute journo is going to have difficulty finding substantive questions to ask on the basis of a 30-second scan.

There’s virtually no chance Labor, the Greens or any other interested party could whip up a counter-advertisement in time to shoehorn it in before the advertising blackout. Coincidence?

And just to be completely cynical: isn’t it an awfully good way to grab the prime time news headline?

And then there’s those awfully good figures. We can’t look at them. We have no access to the documents – we’re reliant on the media to untangle them and find out if they’re as good as Robb and Hockey would have us believe they are. How long have the media got?

Two days.

Two days in which to pull apart an entire suite of policies and savings, which – by all accounts, even the Coalition’s, border on the esoteric.

Two days to try and pin down Abbott (described by Robb as ‘the best economically credentialled Prime Minister in Australia’s history – he has a degree in Economics), Robb or Hockey on anything that might be unclear or even faintly dodgy-looking.

Labor’s figures and costings have been made available and constantly updated. The Coalition’s are only just now making it into the hands of media. As @GrogsGamut noted on Twitter, if the Coalition was so very confident of its numbers, why did it take so long to release them at all? Never mind the costings – we didn’t even have a number to discuss.

Joe Hockey said in his announcement that the Coalition’s costings process had been conducted in an ‘open, transparent, honest way’.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Coalition have sought at every turn to delay, obfuscate and avoid this issue. Its accusations of corruption and criminal activity in Treasury, its pointing the finger at Labor’s own failure to deliver the costings to Treasury and now its eleventh-hour release of the numbers are anything but honest.

The Coalition’s financial spokespersons have successfully sandbagged every person in Australia. We have to take their word for it that their costings are real and that the numbers they provided to WHK Horwath are in line with Treasury figures.

And they have had the hide to try and claim the moral high ground. They would have us believe that they have the right to treat us with contempt, on the basis of a highly convenient leaked document that stems from well before the election was even called.

Effectively, they’ve stood up in front the whole nation and said, ‘You’re just going to have to trust us’.

I don’t think they’ve earned it.

Five weeks in a leaky boat

August 13, 2010

The 2010 election is a leaky boat, and we’re the poor bastards bailing frantically, trying to make it to the other side of August 21. We’re eight days out from that shore, and – if anything – the waters are just getting murkier.

This week it’s been all about numbers. The Coalition says Labor’s broadband can’t possibly be as fast as announced (1 Gigabit/second). Labor says the Coalition has ‘black holes’ in its budget, meaning that they can’t fund what they’re promised. Debt is huge. Debt is only 6% of our Gross Domestic Product. We wasted money on Building the Education Revolution. The BER was, on the whole, efficient. So it goes.

For the record? A broadband speed of 1 Gbit/sec is achievable using optical fibre – in fact, there had been speculation in the tech sector as to why Labor was ‘only’ promising 100Mbits/sec. Our debt is 6% of GDP – the equivalent of $6000 interest on a $100,000 debt. (And given I just paid off a $20,000 loan that slugged me around $3500, that’s pretty damn impressive.) The Orgill Report into the BER has identified some cost blow-outs, but concluded that it was an efficient program. There’s an excellent post on The Notion Factory going into the details.

This is fairly standard argy-bargy for any election campaign. It’s in each party’s best interests to make their opponent look as inept as possible. No surprises there.

Labor has also been pressuring the Coalition to submit their costing proposals to the Charter of Budget Honesty in Treasury. This was set up by the former Coalition government, with the aim of informing the public whether those promises can be kept. So far, neither party has submitted their full list of costings. The Coalition is lagging far behind, though, and there are serious questions as to whether they have counted slashing proposed – not currently funded – Labor programs in their savings.

Labor’s moral ground isn’t exactly high on this. During the 2007 election, they submitted their costings less than 24 hours before the election. Treasury had no chance to scrutinise the proposals. As such, the Coalition has been comfortable in saying that they’d ‘get their costings in’ before the deadline (this afternoon), and reminding everyone what Labor did last time around. Time was clearly ticking, though, and Joe Hockey was pressured into giving a commitment on The 7.30 Report that the proposals would be submitted.

But then there was a new development. Early in the week, the Sydney Morning Herald published a ‘leaked’ document showing that there was a shortfall of $840 million in the Coalition’s costings.

Yes, another leak. That brings us up to an average of one per week of the campaign.

Predictably, Swan jumped all over it – here was proof of what he’d been saying all along. The howls of outrage from Joe Hockey and Liberal Finance spokesperson Andrew Robb were likewise unsurprising. It was sabotage, it was Swan, we can’t trust Treasury. Hockey even went so far as to accuse Swan directly in that same 7.30 Report interview.

It’s worth mentioning that the document in question was dated July 5 – 12 days before the election was announced – and had been publicly available for some time.

Now here we are on Friday morning, and the Coalition have said flatly that they will not submit any more costings to Treasury until the Australian Federal Police have investigated the source of the leak. Andrew Robb was doing the rounds of the media, proclaiming that ‘It could mean that they (Labor) steal an election through the actions of a criminal act. We are not going to be patsies and be played off a break by people who are engaged in criminal activities to create a political problem for us”. Instead, they will submit their costings – on Wednesday next week – to an as-yet unnamed ‘independent third party’.

See what they’re doing here?

The Coalition are playing the role of ‘victim’ to the hilt. This is ‘clearly’ a Labor plot to smear them.

But who really benefits from the leak?

Sure, Labor gets to point to this document and say, ‘Look, we were right all along’. They can hold up the Treasury analysis as proof that the Coalition has badly mismanaged their costings.

But the Coalition gets a lot out of this, too. They can point the finger at Labor and shout, ‘J’accuse!’, branding them outright criminals. They can recapture the underdog status that they’d lost when their polling numbers went up – after all, they’re in an impossible situation. They can obscure the $840 million shortfall with outrage. Most usefully, they now have an excuse not to submit their costings – they ‘can’t trust Treasury’. The third-party analysts won’t get to see the costings until Wednesday, which is simply not enough time to scrutinise them properly. Finally, the whole point of the Budget of Charter Honesty is to ensure that costings can be checked against real figures – and there’s no guarantee this third party will have access to Treasury’s numbers.

On the face of it, I’d have to say the Coalition benefits more from this leak. The fact that it came at a time when their broadband plan was shown up as vastly inferior to Labor’s is probably no coincidence.

The Labor Party has no excuse for not submitting its costings to Treasury in a timely fashion in 2007. It was underhanded. Equally, the Coalition has no excuse for playing the same game. Its claims that Treasury cannot be trusted are completely disingenuous – anyone remember Godwin Grech and ‘Utegate’? That was a confirmed leak from Treasury, but there were no calls for a massive AFP investigation from the Coalition then, no claims that Treasury was hopelessly compromised. And no wonder – the Coalition was caught out, clearly benefiting from Grech’s behaviour.

We had a low-key Senate inquiry into ‘Utegate’ that fizzled into nothing. Grech lost his job, but walked away scot-free. This time, though, the howls are loud and the banners being waved high.

There is little chance of an AFP investigation into the ‘$840 million’ leak, and the Coalition has to know that. From their perspective, it’s a win-win situation. Either there’s no investigation, and they get to send their costings to a hand-picked accounting firm at the last moment – or there is an investigation, and the remainder of the campaign will get overshadowed by the spectre of a corrupt Treasury. And you can just bet that Robb, Hockey and Abbott will be out there making careful statements about what a terrible thing this is, and how under Howard this never could have happened.

Even if it comes out that the leak came from the Coalition itself, by that time the election will be over. If the Coalition is in power a junior staffer will be sacked, there’ll be a couple of tough interviews with Kerry O’Brien and Laurie Oakes, and that will be it. If they lose – well, they’d be the Opposition, and Oppositions tend to get away with more than governments. It’d be good for a few sledges in Question Time, but that’s all.

The real damage here is to the reputation of Treasury, and to our access to the inner workings of the political process. The Coalition can use this to keep casting doubt on everything Labor does.

Meanwhile, we’ll be out in the cold with no idea whether either party can do what they promised. If we believe Treasury’s corrupt, Labor’s figures come into question. If we believe Treasury, we won’t be able to look at the Coalition’s figures in time. Either way, we go to the polls in a state of utter confusion.

I hate Mondays – the Coalition’s bad day

August 9, 2010

This may not be a good week for the Coalition. At the very least, it’s been an awfully bad day.

First, Joe Hockey, Shadow Treasurer, started off his debate speech sounding a lot like he was praising the government. ‘Our destiny is bountiful … the world wants our services … agriculture … innovation’. It’s one thing to include love of country and hope for the future in an opening argument – it’s quite another to give every indication that you think the country is in a wonderful situation. Once you do that, it’s hard to then make the point that things are so dire that your party needs to step in and clean up the mess.

Then there was the matter of expenditure figures. First, Tony Abbott said that the Coalition has planned to spend $18 billion. Later, Joe Hockey announced the figure was nearly $26 billion.

Asked to account for the discrepancy on Sky News’ PM Agenda this afternoon, Senate Opposition leader Barnaby Joyce stammered, stuttered and blustered. He protested that the Coalition’s costings would be given to Treasury to evaluate. He excused himself on the grounds that they didn’t have access to the latest figures. He accused Labor of destabilising the country to the point that the Coalition was having difficulty even working out its costings. And when reminded that he was being asked about expenditure, not costings, he took on a faintly alarmed expression and went on the attack.

At which point he rewrote history, and elevated Mark Latham to a position he once coveted (and may still do so). He referred to Julia Gillard being confronted by ‘a former Prime Minister’.

Andrew Robb, the Coalition’s putative Finance minister, was quickly rolled out to clarify the situation. There is no discrepancy, he explained. Hockey’s figures simply include Labor’s mining tax. Abbott’s did not.

Hold on a minute. Back up there.

This was a discrepancy in the Coalition’s expenditure figures. Why, then, would Hockey’s numbers include an as yet non-existent mining tax which is their opponent’s policy? A tax, moreover, that the Coalition have promised that they have no intention of ever implementing?

So as Monday draws to a close, we have: a Shadow Treasurer waxing lyrical about a bountiful life under Labor; that same Treasurer, his leader, his Senate leader and his colleague in Finance unable to explain a $7 billion discrepancy in expenditure figures; and the aforementioned Senate leader apparently unaware that his party defeated Mark Latham.

Tony Abbott could be forgiven, right now, for thinking that he has a lot in common with Garfield – that Monday is out to get him. I imagine he’d dearly love to draw a line under today, and hope that this doesn’t carry over into tomorrow’s news cycle.

There are some very important unanswered questions, though – and we can only hope that those in the media with access to him don’t forget to keep asking them.

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