It is one thing for politicians to duck politically sensitive or embarrassing questions, but it is quite another when they opt for providing answers that are devoid of meaning.
Take the response by Brigid McKenzie who, as Sports Minister in the run-up to the 2019 election, presided over the use of a $100 million community sports program to fund initiatives in key marginal seats the Coalition hoped to win. She defended this disregard of due process with the observation that ‘all of the projects selected for funding were eligible to receive it’. She followed this up by reporting that those who emerged victorious from this corrupted process were all pleased to have received their grants.
Her answer is the latest example in a disturbing trend that adds insult to the intelligence of the electorate to the original injury of playing fast and loose with the revenue taxpayers provide. It is what my grandmother would have called ‘a load of tommyrot’.
Of course all of the projects sent to the Minister were eligible. Any ineligible applications would have been weeded out through the assessment process conducted by Sport Australia. The Minister’s task was to ensure that funds went to those eligible projects judged as best meeting the program’s stated criteria.
This form of ‘bloviating’ that is now becoming a characteristic of the Morrison government was evident as a characteristic of the prime minister himself in his earlier role as immigration minister.
Remember when he justified his refusal to provide details of asylum seeker boat turnbacks by defining them as ‘on water’ matters as if there were a longstanding and widespread recognition that this made public scrutiny of the policy impossible. And what did the prime minister Morrison mean in his election night victory speech when he proclaimed that he would ‘burn’ for us? Burn what and when? Is ‘burning’ for other people a new thing of which I am unaware?
Having left the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce out of his new ministry, the prime minister created a politically expedient position of Drought Envoy for him.
Now, to be fair, there was no rational basis for anticipating that Joyce’s tenure would be made memorable by a series of in-depth, informed and intelligent public reports. But when there was no sign of the envoy having produced any skerrick of information or advice to justify the salary increment which his bespoke position entailed, Joyce stated that he had reported to the prime minister by phone. Then an FOI request was submitted. The request was denied. And the reason given for this denial was that the prime minister was too busy to find these reports on his phone!
For a former teacher, this response evoked memories of the kind of ‘dog ate my homework’ answers proffered by teenagers too lazy to make up a plausible excuse for their shortcomings.
Throughout this bushfire crisis and over many years past we have seen many Australians showing true leadership, respecting the dignity of the various forms of public office they hold and placing this above their own immediate personal interests or convenience…the mayors, those leading the fight against the fires, the state premiers, the ABC’s journalists. We see members of our parliaments who remain at their post, who think before they speak and who seek wise counsel from those with recognised expertise in formulating policies.
By contrast, we are insulted almost daily with pronouncements, particularly from the Coalition government in Canberra, that are disingenuous and specious at best and downright inane at worst. And if this is how its spokespersons handle some of the issues above which are relatively insignificant, how can we trust them in relation to the life and death issues?
What does the Prime Minister’s reference to the ‘quiet Australians’ mean? Is he speaking about those who have simply been ignored? At the top of that list then would be the indigenous Australians whose special relationship with this continent has been so rarely acknowledged. But ‘silenced’ would then be a more appropriate word than simply ‘quiet’. What about the Australians who weren’t quiet: the many voluble, responsible, informed, rational experts in their own fields of work and study who warned of impending risks to our rivers, our soil, our air quality. It is hard to imagine how incensed they must be.
Not only were their informed prophecies ignored but, from the start of the Howard era, it became fashionable to lampoon them. From memory, this started with reference to the Chardonnay set, then the café latte brigade, the inner-city, ‘woke’, virtue-signalling, vegan types duped by things like science and logic.
Now at the age of 78, I have neither the time nor the patience for this gobbledegook. My days are now spent between hopes and fears for our grandchildren and disappointment at the sins of commission and omission that my generation will be visiting upon them. If there are many people who share my exasperation this will affect the Coalition’s chances of re-election.
But there are far more serious consequences.
Words matter. It is difficult to have confidence in leaders and ministers who are either unwilling or unable to provide meaningful answers to fair questions. Can we be sure they are capable of reading and discussing cabinet papers? This lack of confidence has the potential to weaken our democracy by undermining the respect for the laws they make and thus the legitimacy of the authority on which our democracy depends.
Words matter. As Barry Jones reminded us in his 1982 Sleepers, Wake!, one of the essential pre-conditions for an open society, a workable democracy is ‘the free flow of comprehensible information’.
Attempts to block or to degrade the quality of that flow need to be resisted at all costs.
Lyndsay Connors AO has held senior positions in education at both the national level and in NSW. In 2015, she was the co-author with Jim McMorrow of the report Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research.