MUNGO MACCALLUM. Wallowing in the chum bucket

Feb 26, 2019

A slur, a smear, grubby tactics, thundered the outraged ScoMo. Labor is getting down into the mud.

Well, perhaps; but the reason is that there is a lot of mud around. The gaffes, blunders, scandals and general atrocities which his ministers have turned into a veritable swamp, irresistible to zealous drainers.

And in this context our Prime Minister’s invocation of the chum bucket was a most unfortunate analogy. What he meant, apparently, is a bucket of blood and guts fishermen use to entice their prey.

But as Labor’s Jim Chalmers pointed out, it can also be an appropriate metaphor  for the Liberal Party itself – a receptacle for its chums, mates and cronies to wallow freely in defiance of normal standards, ethics, or the rules that apply to mere mortals.

For Scott Morrison, any scrutiny is just a manifestation of the Canberra bubble – nothing to see here,. folks, move along  But in fact the chum bucket is not a bubble – it is a fortress, a stronghold, in the which the rich and the powerful, the well connected and the entitled, can run the business of the country unhampered and largely unobserved by those less privileged.

Until they are sprung, at which point they almost invariably bluff it out, relying on the loopholes they themselves have devised precisely for the purpose. And the last truncated session of our federal parliament has provided plenty of examples.

Take, for instance, our sea-green incorruptible Finance Minister, Matthias Cormann. He decided it was time for a family holiday. But rather than trotting down to his local travel agent, he rang the CEO, who happened to be a chum (of course) and also a major Liberal Party donor, the party’s chief bagman, no less, who by pure coincidence was lining up to tender of a major government contract.

And naturally Andrew Burnes from Helloworld obliged, even to the extent of forgetting to charge for it. And Cormann was so busy that he also forgot about the $2700 bill– a paltry amount, not really worth worrying about to a man in his position — right until the moment the media inquired, at which point he instantly repaid it.

Perfectly OK, beamed the Prime Minster. But then it transpired that the former Treasurer and now ambassador to Washington . Joe Hockey, was also an even closer chum to Burnes; indeed, so close that he invested well over a  lazy million in his enterprise – as you do. And the record showed that Hockey had instructed embassy staff to roll out the red carpet to Helloworld’s representative, who was doing a spot of checking out the prospect for the lucrative government contract.

And this was not a casual visit – a senior executive, Russell Carstensen, was instructed by Burnes to cut short his European holiday and fly straight to the United States, where Hockey and his entourage were waiting to greet them. Carstensen says that he expressed surprise that such a meeting could be set up so quickly, to which  Burnes replied: “Hockey owes me.”

When Carstensen testified to the exchange in a Senate Committee, Burnes flatly denied it; well, he would, wouldn’t he, as another witness of long ago said of the denial of another Tory grandee. But what is not denied is that Hockey sat in on the talks himself. He says he was not involved in the actual tender process, and that he had disclosed his interest in Helloworld –athough it is not clear the disclosure came before or after the event.

And the head of the Foreign Affairs Department, Frances Adamson, said Hockey had not actually broken any departmental rules, hardly a ringing endorsement. But enough for Morrison who praised Hockey as a great Australian and therefore beyond reproach.

At the end of the session Labor listed a few of the other recent shenanigans: the highly irregular grants of almost half a billion dollars to Malcolm Turnbull’s chum at the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and the hasty “restricted” tender for Paladin, a dubious company registered at beach shack for security on Manus Island, the blatant politicising of Tim Wilson so-called inquiry into Labor’s policies ( enthusiastically praised by Morrison and his ministers, but regard as shonky even by Liberal Speaker Tony Smith, the leaking and misrepresentation of ASIO advice later complained about  by the director, Duncan Lewis, who said it undermined everything the organisation stood for, the refusal of two senior ministers to give witness statements to the federal police in spite of repeated requests – the indictment goes on.

But Morrison was apparently uninterested and unfazed: this was all a distraction, a mirage in the Canberra bubble and he had no intention of trying to explain or justify it. What was important – indeed, the only thing that was important — was  to shout about how much he disliked Bill Shorten. Which he did, over and over again. This is called responsible government.

Morrison is obviously hoping that the voters have become so disillusioned and cynical about politicians that there is no longer any expectation that their elected representatives will observe any vestige of the standards and ethics that apply to the public in general; that they are not just out of touch. The lies, rorting, venality and even the corruption have now become endemic. Whatever you can get away with – and whoever you vote for a politician always gets in, so why bother trying?

Morrison is, essentially trashing whatever trust remains in the parliamentary system, but he is not too worried about that – he has an election to win and if he has to win it ugly, well, whatever it takes. And in case there is any doubt that a trace of moral restraint can emerge, last week it was revealed that Australia has approved a huge arms sale to Saudi Arabia, accused of war crimes in Yemen. Even Britain and America – yes, even Donald Trump – has balked at that.

But not our ScoMo. Australia’s merchants of death are not wimpy latte drinkers. Let’s get down in mud and blood. There should be plenty of that before May.

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