Abbott chickens come home to roost

Jul 19, 2022
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Ministry leaving the swearing in ceremony
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Tony Abbott, as prime minister nearly a decade ago, had more than a few bees under his bonnet. He thought his election had redeemed the nation from an intolerable scourge of a government of criminals. Other opposition leaders have engaged in this sort of hyperbole, but scarcely ever with the zeal and lack of restraint, of Abbott.

One example of how he had come to this conclusion involved the roof insulation scheme. Treasury proposed it as a good way of getting cash quickly into hundreds of communities when the 2008 global financial crisis threatened to seize up the money supply. A similar scheme involved pouring money into an instant program of building libraries and other facilities in primary and secondary schools. From the Rudd government’s point of view the proposals had a double advantage: they kept people, particularly in the building trades in work and kept cash circulating in communities. But they also achieved a lasting public good in themselves, in a way that was objectively desirable but would have struggled for priority against competing calls on government. They were not make-work programs with no lasting footprints.

Of course, there were criticisms, and some were justified. Both schemes, and some others as well, were conceived and put into action very quickly, because the need to keep cash in circulation was urgent. Not enough time was spent dotting Is and crossing Ts. PM&C, Treasury and Finance were impatient with any delay and inclined to see caution and deliberation by line departments as pettifogging, resistant and time-wasting. The schemes were highly effective in getting the cash out, insulated many thousands of homes to the great benefit of the environment and reduced energy consumption. But they might have been twice as efficient had bureaucrats had months to work out a scheme of administration.

It is doubtful that even the most elaborate preparation would have conceived the need for telling builders to take care not to hammer nails into live electrical wires. Governments, as commissioning agents for building and construction, or as refunders of building projects theoretically commissioned by householders, do not usually descend to that level of detail, which were, in any event, a matter for state building codes, building licensing arrangements, and broad occupational health and safety legislation. And common sense.

The take-up of the scheme was an enormous success, which created its own problems. Beyond hard working tradesmen, every spiv, wide-boy, rent-seeker and smarty realised quickly that there were virtually unlimited sums of money available for roof insulation schemes, provided one had house-owning clients with empty roof spaces. Touts combed neighbourhoods and knocked on doors making offers to do the work for nothing. Some used call centres. PM&C gave itself brownie points for inventing a system of payment with minimal bureaucracy through neighbourhood pharmacies.

Some installers were not well-qualified to be installing. Some were hiring inexperienced youth and giving them little or no training in what to do. A few, tragically, electrocuted themselves. The employers were small businessmen – much loved by everyone, salt of the earth, etc etc. The coalition was soon alleging that deaths were not because of the fecklessness, negligence and incompetence of those on the gravy train. It was instead somehow the fault of the government, and its failure to warn of the dangers of electricity. Soon Abbott, as leader of the opposition was almost implying that it was the personal fault of Rudd, and of the minister for the environment, Peter Garrett, each of whom should be before the courts, perhaps the gallows.

Shattering long-standing conventions for short-term gain

Another of Abbott’s obsessions, with Murdoch media assistance, involved the idea that the deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard (soon to be prime minister) had been guilty of aiding and abetting some sort of criminal fraud committed by a trade union boss at a time, before she had gone into politics, when she was both the union’s lawyer and the fraudster’s girlfriend. The facts were murky and complicated, and perhaps Gillard acted unwisely. But there was little evidence establishing that she was a knowing party to the fraud. Even so, Gillard became politically handicapped by the non-stop innuendo and allegation, almost all privileged.

The Labor government did not lose office because of these “scandals” and personal attacks. But both undermined its reputation for competence and judgment. In that sense, Rudd and Gillard paid a political price at the ballot box for anything they had done wrong.The big price was less for their culpability than for their hopelessness in properly defending their actions, albeit in the face of a Murdoch newspaper crusade. They seemed to think that shrinking from direct battle under continual artillery fire was wiser than confronting the critics. When the politicians themselves are making a balls-up of defending themselves, who could be surprised that journalists were not volunteering support?

But Abbott came to government wanting more than his victory at the polls. He wanted his condemnation of those involved formally confirmed. He determined on inquiries with the powers of royal commissioners to probe everything that had occurred in a search for sticks with which he could beat Labor. The departure of Rudd and Gillard from politics did not slow him. He decided that the commission should have unlimited access to all the papers of the previous administrations.

Public servants warned him that this was in breach of a long-established convention that incoming governments did not have access to such papers. This convention did not have the force of law, but it had a common-sense base. If such papers were available, for example, politicians might not speak frankly in cabinet, instead preparing alibis in advance.

Perhaps Abbott did not understand the convention. Or he did not care, because, as he saw it, there was immediate political advantage to be had. He often said it was better to act first and apologise later.

The commission of inquiry into the wheat for oil scandal under the Howard government, had been politically exploited by Rudd with great success while he was in opposition. Despite the constrained terms of reference, designed to steer the inquiry away from ministerial involvement, Rudd’s suggestions that ministers and senior bureaucrats knew a lot more than they pretended gained traction. In the tradition of a highly politicised AFP, senior officers frustrated, then closed down, a decent investigation, and even implementation of recommendations of prosecutions of wheat board officials. In the election campaign Rudd made much of the cover-up.

But once Rudd was in power, he respected the conventions. As prime minister, he dropped the idea of any further inquiry, even into matters Howard had deliberately left out of the terms of reference. It was past business: it was not proper for the new government to call for such papers (or such as had not already been shredded, including by the department, soon after the inquiry was mooted).

Abbott also had an inquiry into corruption within the trade union movement, confidently expecting that close questioning would inculpate the new leader of the opposition, Bill Shorten, a former AWU official, in all manner of improper use of union funds and power, as well as Gillard. The mission was accepted with enthusiasm by the retired High Court judge asked to conduct the inquiry, but, alas, the most extensive and zealous investigations could not hit the intended targets. As it happened, the commissioner found later disgrace as a sexual harasser.

All this is now ancient history. No one, not even Bill Shorten, the last one left in active politics, has any interest in vengeance. Not against Abbott, or others, such as George Brandis who lent themselves to the inquiry path, including a relentless search for relevant cabinet documents. Nor against deputy Liberal leader, Julie Bishop, whose remarks about Gillard had been particularly vicious. It’s all water under the bridge.

But the precedent is not. And the convention is dead. Murdered. Strangled by Tony Abbott, if without his hopes for great partisan advantage being realised.

Because of the Abbott precedents, the Albanese government can, if it wants, set up as many inquiries as it wishes into aspects of coalition government administration, and, in the cause of doing as much political damage as possible, demand of its public servants complete access to any relevant cabinet documents of the Abbott, Turnbull or Morrison administrations. It need not stack the inquiry, or play it simply for politics. We could all stand to learn lessons from the corruption of purpose, the subversion of public interest and the mismanagement of ten years of coalition government. Ten years from now, I expect, we will be able to say the same of the late Labor government.

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