When this Government decides on a program which distributes taxpayers’ money, it seems that they never start with a blank sheet of paper. The spreadsheets might be pre-populated with Coalition seats, as in the case of the “sports rorts affair”, although some of the cash went to vulnerable seats, which might, under favourable conditions, swing back to the coalition.
The arrival of the pandemic was akin to a miracle, in that it swept in just in time to save Morrison from the escalating scandal, which had already claimed Bridget McKenzie’s scalp. It would have eventually worked its way up to Morrison, because his fingerprints were all over this program. Morrison was implicated as the architect, and the chief beneficiary, of the cash splash.
The timing was, if not close to being criminal, at least cynical and immoral. Just before an election, arguably some crucial funding decisions were taken after the caretaker period began. Caretaker mode means that the Government refrains from making major decisions, because the House of Representatives is dissolved, as is half the Senate. There is effectively no legislative powers, until the next government is sworn in. Everyone in Canberra knows the rules. They also know it is a convention only, so no problem there.
There is another rule, about governing for the whole country. That is where funds are allocated on a needs basis. Not on where you live, or how you vote, but on your needs. So, every one of his team who received, and then announced, their ill-gotten gains had a moral duty to return the funds. But, as it is a moral question, the Morrison Government failed to admit to the rort, and failed to rectify it.
$1.1 MILLION TO UPGRADE AND REPLACE SPORTING FACILITIES IN KOOYONG
That is the headline from Frydenberg’s announcement pre-election. The local member, Josh Frydenberg, is the Treasurer, and he was when this program unfolded. He oversaw $150 million being squandered on buying votes, and he did not object. Was that because he didn’t expect to win the election, and they were shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic? His announcement of the grant to Kooyong sporting clubs was made on May 3, 2019, fully 15 days prior to the election. So much for fiscal rectitude, or for following the spirit of the conventions.
Not only is Kooyong one of the wealthiest areas in Australia, its sporting facilities are second to none. Kooyong should have been the last place chosen, if the program was decided on a needs basis. Do not expect the local member to hand anything back. He suffered a swing of 8.2% against, even with the electoral sweetener.
The car-parks rort was more of the same, except four times bigger, and even clumsier. $660 million was offered to MPs who didn’t even have to ask for the money. The scheme was launched by preparing a list of 20 top marginal seats, and inviting the sitting MP to nominate projects for funding. Both the sports rort and the car-parks rort involved the same staff member from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Keeping JobKeeper secret
So why are we surprised when Morrison and Frydenberg ‘design’ JobKeeper, and lo and behold, the main beneficiaries are Liberal supporters and donors. Already red-faced with excitement at the prospect of their promised tax cuts, here is the Treasurer offering them more free money, with no strings attached. They don’t even have to prove eligibility. All they need to do is guess that their turnover will fall, and the money starts to flow. If they erred, no problem. No need to pay it back, we don’t engage in the politics of envy.
Another quirk of the system is that public companies can be shamed into paying it back if it wasn’t needed, because the ATO released a list of the companies who claimed JobKeeper, but were later found to be ineligible, or not in need.
Private companies were protected by their veil of secrecy, which is even now being extended by the Government. Their latest recruit in protecting the names of the companies has been Pauline Hanson. She was apparently rewarded for her support, by being allowed to announce a Fitzroy Community Hospice upgrade in Rockhampton, to which the Treasurer had pledged $8 million. That is how things are done by this Government. Very transactional.
In his defence to charges that he had mishandled the scheme, Mr Frydenberg said the JobKeeper scheme deliberately did not include a claw-back provision, because it might have made the companies stop and think about their eligibility, which could have caused a delay.
I know, he is the Treasurer, and he does obsess about deficits, and he espouses small government. This was despite $6 billion in emergency funding flowing to 150,000 companies who actually increased their turnover last year. Labor MP Andrew Leigh has called it the biggest waste of taxpayer money in Australian history.
We know from the Parliamentary Budget Office that $13 billion was funnelled into companies whose sales rose during the period covered by JobKeeper, and a further $15 billion was given to companies whose sales didn’t fall by 30 or 50 per cent.
What Australian voters want is an honest Government which does not play games with our money, and does not spend most of its time devising tricky schemes to deceive voters. We also want to know that the Government is fair. Relentlessly pursuing Centrelink clients for tiny debts incurred by Centrelink’s own errors does not align with letting our largest private companies off, when we know many of them did not qualify for JobKeeper, but chose to keep the money, because the Prime Minister and his Treasurer told them they could.