Scott Morrison – The Morrison Government has the commentary. But what about the answers?
The former host of the ABC’s Q&A program, Tony Jones, famously used to tell questioners missing appropriate verbs in their questions that he would take their question “as a comment” and sit them down.
In politics these days, the prevailing form of response to a journalist’s question should lead to the observation that “I will take your answer as a comment”.
It’s hardly a new phenomenon: the apparent complete disregard for the idea that you, a politician with a taxpayer-funded salary, have any obligation to answer questions about what you are doing.
But the chutzpah with which the Prime Minister and his colleagues engage in it now is still staggering, when you stand back and look at it from even the tiniest distance.
Examples stack up
Take a few recent examples.
Asked a couple of weeks ago whether spending $24 million on a public information campaign to boost public confidence in the COVID-19 vaccination program was a waste of money when backbenchers like Craig Kelly were undermining it in posts on Facebook, Scott Morrison “answered” that Craig Kelly “isn’t my doctor” (to much guffawing from the assembled Government ministers and staff in the audience). As if that in any way dealt with the issues of the use of taxpayer funds, the potential damage Kelly was doing, or Morrison’s own political weakness in refusing to deal with him.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said on Friday that any suggestion of wrongdoing in a community grants scheme — in which the ABC’s 7.30 program revealed he had personally rerouted funding to proposals against merit assessments by his department — were “absurd”.
“I took a decision not to grant every dollar that was asked [for] by councils because the scheme was over-subscribed,” Dutton told the Nine Network.
His Prime Minister backed him, saying he was “not aware of any breaches of any rules or regulations in relation to the administration of that program”.
Nowhere, you will note, was there any recognition that taxpayers might just like, or be entitled to, a bit of an insight into what drove the minister’s decisions, so they could be reassured that there was no part of those decisions being driven by politics.
Similarly, the Prime Minister didn’t feel it necessary to explain what “concrete action” he’d be taking to ensure that companies who took millions of dollars from taxpayers under JobKeeper, yet found they had enough to pay large executive bonuses, would be paying the money back.
He dismissed the question, saying, “I’m not into the politics of envy”.
“If there are some companies that feel that they want to hand that [money] back, great. Good for them,” Morrison said. “But let’s not lose sight, in some sort of envy narrative, that that program did not change the course of the nation.”
The Government’s argument about JobKeeper has been that, sure, it might have splashed around a bit, but that was in keeping with the aim of putting a floor under confidence in the worst days of the pandemic last year and, as result, keeping employees linked to their workplaces.
Consistency, of course, is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Glaring difficulties on the horizon
But it’s hard not to notice the Coalition’s history of savage attacks on Labor policies that were similarly deliberately loose in their construction during the GFC, or to notice the glaring difficulties it may face in coming months explaining its approach to executive largesse as it winds back support for both JobKeeper and the increased rate of unemployment benefits because, the Prime Minister says, “you can’t run the Australian economy on taxpayers’ money forever”.
A bit of tough love for the unemployed will be okay, it seems, even as we are confronted by the black-and-white reality of executive bonuses and fattened profits in companies that were receiving substantial taxpayer funds through the JobKeeper scheme.
It’s hard not to think it’s not journalists who occupy the “Canberra Bubble” as much as politicians with smarty-pants lines but no sense of accountability, or even reality.
Take climate change as an example of how reality and political posturing are careering off in various separate directions just now.
Now, we could get into the absurdities of the political discussion about climate change this week, such as Energy Minister Angus Taylor declaring that Australia was “dead against” carbon tariffs (now being touted not just by the EU and UK but Japan) and portraying the proposal as protectionism (when in fact these tariffs would aim to level the playing field for local industries against free-rider countries like Australia who won’t engage in real climate policy action). As if he, or we, would have a say in stopping such tariffs.
But let’s just step aside from the political bubble and have a look at what is happening in the real world.
Battling it out over the commentary
Forget, for the moment, the much-mooted Paris climate change targets in their own right and understand how, by setting a net-zero by 2050 target, Paris forced companies and markets to “reverse engineer” what achieving that target means for economies, companies, and individual assets.
The Paris UN climate change conference in 2015 took climate change science and converted it into dollars and cents in a clear, internationally-accepted accounting sense.
It accelerated a process already underway which has led to companies and investors around the world having in place their own climate strategies.
Financial regulators have set up systems to assess risks of climate change to bank balance sheets.
BHP is one example of what has happened. The company not only publicly supports the Paris agreement but has established its own long-term goal of achieving “net-zero operational emissions” by 2050 and, perhaps more importantly, a medium target of a cut of “at least 30 per cent” by 2030. Executive remuneration is tied to achieving that.
It has also developed a series of climate-change scenarios for how vulnerable its various operations would be to climate change, with delayed carbonisation — and a carbon crisis — expected to slash the value of all commodities.
These scenarios are driving its investment decisions and even its divestment decisions — like its plan to get out of thermal coal in the Hunter Valley.
Large corporates will tell you that government decisions on climate policy are becoming increasingly irrelevant to their own decision-making processes because they lag so far behind the real world.
In the past couple of weeks, we’ve not only seen the United States, the UK and Europe step up pressure on Australia over climate policy, but the divide between farmers — who want to take part in a lucrative carbon market — and the Nationals — who are trying to carve agriculture and mining out of any 2050 target — widen.
The WA Liberals have adopted a policy of shutting down state-owned coal-fired power stations in four years, joining the aggressive push to renewables by the NSW Coalition Government.
And our very own nominee for the position of head of the OECD, Mathias Cormann, has suddenly taken on concerns about global warming in his lobbying for the job that he never seemed to show when he was a member of the Coalition Government.
It leaves the Government — and for that matter, Labor — apparently battling it out over the commentary, not the answers, on climate change policy.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.