So Bridget McKenzie has bitten the dust. Finally, and not because of the flagrant pork-barrelling she and her office were caught in — up to their colour-coded elbows — but merely because her now-notorious membership of the Wangaratta Clay Target Club created a conflict of interest that she should have recognised.
That the report by the secretary of the Prime Minister’s department, Philip Gaetjens, took a week longer to materialise than it should have gave McKenzie a whole week where at any time she could have done the honourable thing and walked before she was pushed, given even Blind Freddy could see the Wangaratta membership made her position untenable. But no. McKenzie channelled Geoffrey Boycott and cravenly, selfishly, played for her mediocre self and not the team. She comes out of this humiliated, but the damage she inflicted on the political reputations of Scott Morrison, Nationals leader Michael McCormack and, indeed, the integrity of the Coalition government may linger longer than the memory of this affair. (Mind you, quite a few of McKenzie’s former staff, for whom she was no hero, will have quietly toasted her getting her comeuppance.)
Politically, McKenzie’s resignation should lance the pustule that she created. However, waiting until the eve of the resumption of parliament, rather than going a week or a fortnight ago, means it remains a fresh issue, ready-made for a revitalised Labor opposition to start the year on the attack. Forget that McKenzie used the same MO as similarly disgraced Keating minister Ros Kelly in Sports Rorts Mk I. Forget that Labor in government is far better than the Coalition than using incumbency to favour its own with taxpayer-funded largesse and patronage. London to a brick that Anthony Albanese and his Uriah Heeps will go into Question Time on Tuesday as the protector of public integrity, however tainted and hypocritical they themselves are in doing so. And expect the government to take every opportunity to point not only to Kelly but rort after rort on Labor’s watch. “Everyone does it” is a convenient – almost the only – defence, but it doesn’t pass the pub test.
If only that was the only political headache for the Prime Minister this week.
It’s not only on the McKenzie affair that Morrison and senior ministers have been on the defensive, reactive rather than leading. There’s the now-entrenched perception of the PM’s and government’s patchy, catch-up leadership in responding to the bushfire crisis, however well things were moving behind the scenes to get manpower, resources and money to where it is most needed. There’s also the coronavirus crisis blowing up from nowhere.
Both the bushfire and coronavirus outbreak, given what we know about the causal factors of both, were reasonably foreseeable. Long droughts and drier, hotter weather meant major fire catastrophes in the scale we’ve witnessed this summer were going to happen sooner or later. The Commonwealth may have restricted formal powers to take charge, but successive Labor and Coalition federal governments should have heeded the wake-up call of 2009’s Black Saturday fires to anticipate the day would come when massive fires would sweep large parts of Australia without heeding state borders or jurisdictions. Morrison did what he could within the constraints of what he could do, and has unfairly criticised for it, but even he would acknowledge it was not enough.
And as for the coronavirus, over the last two decades China has been the primordial ooze of pandemic viruses: first bird flu, then SARS, now this. Just as with the bushfires, we should have been prepared with a standing contingency plan to yet another viral outbreak from China. Instead, we have seen federal and state governments struggling to respond to the Whirlwind from Wuhan. It’s as if the lessons of bird flu, SARS and, more recently, the ebola virus scare of not much more than five years ago, were never learned and we are starting yet again from scratch.
Indeed, that’s really been the theme of the Morrison government over the last couple of months: the perception of making it up as it goes along, dealing with things as they arise rather than anticipating trouble and being prepared when it comes.
The Prime Minister’s address last week to the National Press Club, which was supposed to set the government’s agenda for the year ahead, and reset after Morrison’s horror month, gave little sense of a coherent political narrative, let alone concrete policies, priorities and plans. No wonder the climate change activists and zealots have been all over the government as they’ve disgracefully sought to turn the bushfire crisis, in particular, to their own propaganda and political ends, with no thought for the economic cost to the nation – and the ordinary punters and struggling businesses who will pay that cost – of their anti-fossil fuel flat earth approach. Trying desperately to balance economic and climate priorities, the government was between a rock and hard place even without the fires. Now, with no plan or narrative of its own on climate and emissions reduction that’s going to satisfy the Extinction Rebellion rabble and the Climate Emergency mob — and with most of the mainstream media in the activists’ corner — Morrison and his government were always going to be a hiding to nothing, but it failed to anticipate things getting so hot so soon.
If Labor can’t use question time this week to make Morrison and his government look tarnished and diminished compared to where it was when parliament rose for 2019, they don’t deserve to be the alternative government. It’s likely, though, that on the fires and coronavirus the opposition will pull some punches for fear of being seen (as opposed to actually) politicising crises with very human dimensions. And on McKenzie, it’s a sure bet that Labor will focus on McKenzie’s malfeasance and not the sleazy pork-barrel programmes and their drive-a-bus-through guidelines that enable governments of the day to divvy out millions of dollars to their favoured ones in marginal and target seats.
Morrison could reclaim much lost political ground if he disowned such rortable grants programmes as McKenzie’s and ensured a whole-of-government review of pork-barrelling opportunities with a view to ending them. He could use Parliament to better map a path into 2020 than his platitude-laden Press Club speech managed to do. And he could put down solid proposals for improving truly national leadership in times of national crisis, showing people his leadership is proactive and confident, not reactive and tentative when the opposite is needed most. There is too much policy drift in the Coalition just now: this needs to change, and the Prime Minister must use his political capital to make it change.
Will he? Let’s hope so. But he and his government must get their act together, and fast. Otherwise, the next election could suddenly become very loseable before they know it.
If it hasn’t already.
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