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.

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Abbott – the real backstabber

October 14, 2010

You have to wonder, really, just what’s going on in Tony Abbott’s head right now. It seems he’s hell-bent on tearing down the reputation of our public institutions. As @Paul_Jarman so succinctly put it, he may well have ‘jumped the shark’ this time.

First, it was Treasury. During the election campaign, Abbott and his Coalition colleagues repeatedly tried to tear down Treasury’s credibility. They claimed that Treasury was responsible for leaking some of their costings, at the behest of the caretaker Labor government, and withheld their numbers from the Charter of Budget Honesty. Once it became clear that the election was going to deliver a hung parliament, Abbott developed his argument even further. When the Independents asked to see the Coalition’s ‘independent’ costings, Abbott refused – and gave several reasons for doing so, all of which were outrageous.

Treasury was incompetent – it couldn’t handle the job of assessing the costings. Treasury was untrustworthy – they leaked documents when told to do so. Worst of all, Treasury was so corrupt that it would deliberately ‘fiddle’ with the numbers in order to make the Coalition look bad. Even though Abbott eventually consented to let the costings be examined – resulting in the discovery of a $7-11 billion shortfall – the accusations still get trotted out from time to time.

Not content with attempting to destroy Treasury’s standing as the economic managers of the country, Abbott next took aim at the Solicitor-General. Part of the agreement with the Independents that was signed by both major parties dealt with the matter of pairing the Speaker. Although his representative had signed off on this, Abbott reneged, claiming that such an arrangement was unconstitutional.

The Solicitor-General investigated the idea, and concluded that there was no bar to an informal pairing arrangement. That wasn’t good enough for Abbott. He engaged his own lawyer – Senator George Brandis – who, unsurprisingly, backed up his leader. Armed with that information, Abbott set about declaring that the Solicitor-General was not only wrong, but perhaps a little bit suspect – after all, he was part of the government’s public service, wasn’t he? Abbott would therefore trust Brandis’ opinion, he stated.

By the time the 43rd Parliament opened, Abbott had attacked two of the most crucial government departments – the one responsible for managing our economy, and the one called upon to deliver the definitive legal opinions on constitutional and legislative matters.

This week, he’s gone after the military. Three Australian soldiers deployed in Afghanistan were charged with manslaughter, dangerous conduct, failing to comply with a lawful general order and prejudicial conduct after a raid in which five Afghani children were killed. Brigadier Lyn McDade, the military’s chief prosecutor, brought the charges – and became the subject of a dreadful campaign of abuse and threats as a result. You might think that, after Abbott worked himself up into a lather chastising Gillard for allegedly ‘politicising’ our participation in the war in Afghanistan*, he might stay well out of this court martial issue. Not so.

Abbott let fly with an extraordinary spray. Gillard, he said, was at fault here. Australian soldiers were being ‘stabbed in the back’, and the government should be doing something about it. Now, although ostensibly aimed at Gillard, Abbott’s comments have graver implications. There is a strong insinuation here that the military justice system either does not work, or that McDade is abusing her position – and that the military are allowing her to do so. By not intervening, therefore, Gillard’s government condones this kind of abuse. What’s more, Abbott carefully did not contradict radio host Alan Jones, who – when interviewing the Opposition Leader – described McDade as a woman who had never fought on the front line, and who had ‘too much uncontrolled power’.

The military justice system is completely independent of Government, as Defence Minister Stephen Smith pointed out today. The Prime Minister cannot intervene, nor should she. At best, the government could make some submissions to the military. Even the Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, and the executive director of the Defence Force Association, Neil James, were moved to comment. Both criticised the Opposition Leader’s remarks and stated that they were supportive of the legal process – and urged all defence personnel to be the same.

Yet Abbott maintains that Gillard should get involved on behalf of the accused soldiers. In other words, that political power should be brought to bear on the military, with the aim of pressuring McDade to drop the charges altogether – to do an end run around the legal process. To help the process along, Abbott seems happy to consent by silence to the character assassination of the chief prosecutor.

Abbott’s position is easy to see – our soldiers in wartime should not be subject to this sort of prosecution. It’s not far removed from the US saying that they would not participate in the International Court, in case their soldiers were prosecuted. Australia, like the US and Great Britain, mercilessly pursued German war criminals from World War II, and recently hanged Saddam Hussein, yet Abbott’s words suggest that there are two standards at work here. Crime in war cannot be committed by ‘our’ side, only ‘the enemy’.

It is precisely this attitude that leads to the creation of justice systems in the first place – impartial organisations dedicated to the pursuit of justice for all, rather than being subject to the whims of politicians. In fact, this was part of the rationale behind the formation of our own system under John Howard’s government. It’s a laudable goal, but one that Abbott now seems to think should be dictated to by the government. In fact, it seems likely that he would have interfered in this prosecution had we ended up with a Liberal-National minority government.

So now Abbott has three notches on his belt. He has called into question Treasury, the Solicitor-General’s office and the military justice system. You have to ask, what might be next – the Australian Electoral Commission, perhaps? Will we see legal challenges to election results that don’t favour the Coalition?

It’s difficult to discern a sound political strategy in what Abbott is doing. More and more, he seems to be on an uncontrolled slash-and-burn. Despite his protestations that he is ‘holding the government to account’, and ‘engaging in robust debate’, the real effect of his words and actions serves only to undermine his character. He’s like the angry kid in the sandpit who kicks over the other children’s sandcastles, because he didn’t win the blue ribbon and the praise from the teacher. He blamed his recent drop in popularity on the Prime Minister calling attention to his ‘jetlag’ gaffe, but the truth may have more to do with his apparent willingness to disparage without foundation anyone or anything that may stand in his way – in effect, to be the backstabber he accuses Gillard of being. Remember, Abbott still considers himself the Prime Minister-in-waiting.

What kind of Prime Minister builds his argument for legitimacy of government by tearing down the foundations of the country?

Yesterday, Abbott described himself as the gatekeeper for the nation’s values. ‘I am the standard bearer for values and ideals which matter and which are important,’ he said. Which values might those be? That the ends justify the means? That it doesn’t matter who or what is damaged, discredited or torn down, as long as power is ‘properly’ vested in the ‘legitimate’ contender (Abbott himself)? Or that, while truth might be the first casualty of war, integrity is the first casualty of politics?

* I refuse to call it the ‘War on Terror’. That title is nonsensical – we are at war with Afghani people, not some abstract emotion.


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.


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.


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