Michael Pascoe: The word from inside is that the government is a mess

Julia Banks’ insight about the Scott Morrison-led government speaks volumes, Michael Pascoe writes.

Julia Banks’ insight about the Scott Morrison-led government speaks volumes, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: TND

If you’re wondering how the Morrison government could be so consistently late to the party – energy policy, fire-fighting equipment, multiple vaccines, the “strollout”, RAT approvals, RAT supplies, Djokovic’s visa – there was a big hint in the ABC’s Ms Represented documentary last year.

Overshadowed by the major themes of that fine series was a telling insight from former Liberal member Julia Banks about entering Parliament.

“I assumed it would be like a slick-operating corporate machine, very much like a blue-chip company,” she said.

“But in fact, it’s the complete and absolute opposite. It is not the place of governance and order and control you’d expect, and professionalism.

“It just doesn’t have any of the sophisticated, institutionalised procedures or policies, particularly in regards to workplace culture, that every good corporate organisation has.”

Then Liberal MP Julia Banks claimed she could live off the payment. Photo: AAP

Julia Banks was shocked by the lack of governance, order and control in Parliament. Photo: AAP

So goes Parliament, so goes the government.

And Ms Banks’ stay in Canberra was 2016 to 2019 – before running the country became much more difficult.

Political aphorism #101 (courtesy of Bob Hawke): “If you can’t govern yourselves, you can’t govern the country.”

Hawke was sniping at Coalition disunity, rather than Parliament as a whole, but the lesson applies.

The decay in Parliamentary ethics may have reached its nadir when the government dismissed the Speaker’s referral of Christian Porter’s “blind trust” to the privileges committee, but there have been plenty of other recent lows.

When our Parliament refuses to even debate a federal integrity commission, we have an integrity problem.

It is now more than three years since Scott Morrison promised such a commission. The government can’t even bring its toothless version of such a body before the Parliament.

The Coalition has shut down the attempts of Zali Steggall to debate climate bills. Photo: AAP

Similarly, using a committee to reject Zali Steggall’s climate bills, further shutting down debate, shows a government barely hanging on.

With the concept of ministerial standards hosed out like the scene of (an alleged) rape in a ministerial office, little can be expected and little is delivered.

When the government effectively raises its middle digit to ethics when it is caught out flagrantly, repeatedly and corruptly abusing grants schemes on an industrial scale, billions of dollars used for Coalition political preferences, the end should be near.

Being consumed with prime ministerial image – the photo ops, announcement and evasive homilies – while lacking professionalism, good governance, and control, it becomes inevitable that the government will pinball willy-nilly from one bumper to the next when the pressure of crisis is applied.

The “Prayer Group” might be an adequate resource to marshal the numbers to win a Liberal Party leadership ballot, but it doesn’t provide the talent to govern a nation.

That helps explain why Niki Savva’s pithy insight will go down as the quote of the 46th Parliament. Leaving out a comma and a “who” it stands as “Morrison has a habit of allowing problems to become crises before mishandling them”.

The talent, the ethics and the governance principles aren’t there to handle crises.

The quality of the personnel in the Expenditure Review Committee – the body that ticks off every rort and fiddle – is not adequate for the responsibility.

There was a time when that did not matter as much. Parliamentary shortcomings were compensated for by a professional public service developing and guiding policy, but the APS has been steadily gutted and “put in its place”.

The process of Green Paper and White Paper, consultation and debate, is no more.

The APS balance has been replaced by increasing numbers of political advisers who are political first and not much second, plus the army of consultants smart enough to know to give the answer the client wants to hear to keep the billions of dollars flowing.

In such an environment, it’s no surprise mistakes multiply, wastage blows out and stunts blow up.

At one extreme, there is the tragedy of most aged-care residents still not having received their vaccine boosts and thus condemned to live in confinement, denied the companionship of family in their final days.

At the other, there is the “Novax Djokovid” embarrassment, a saga that has had the fingerprints of political interference all over it from the start but now too hard for the government to be able to make a quick decision, with Prayer Grouper Alex Hawke left holding the visa.

(It’s of passing interest that a Sydney Morning Herald profile of the Immigration Minister on Wednesday was much kinder than the 2007 SMH profile that marked his preselection.

Whether a tennis player’s visa or reacting instead of leading during a pandemic, a government that is a mess will result in a mess.

And we are all left wearing it.

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