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February 23rd 2010 print

David Flint

Profligacy, incompetence, and panic

The danger for the government is that its distinguishing features seem to be captured by the acronym PIP - Profligacy, Incompetence, and Panic.  If the Howard battlers agree, a second term is no longer assured.

Is the government about to give the Howard battlers the PIP?

The government line to the Press Gallery seems to be that they will be able to distract a gullible electorate from thinking about what was until recently the world’s greatest moral issue.

This distraction has become necessary because anthropogenic global warming seems to have been exposed as something between a theory which is at least questionable and an attractive money spinner to many of those involved.

Rather than a double dissolution on the ETS, the government line is to emphasise they will have one on the private health insurance rebate. This may give well give them a double dissolution trigger, but a resulting election would not be about the rebate. It is just not big enough or relevant enough for that. But governments don’t determine what the election issues will be. Events do.

The government spin doctors seem to be saying, as Michelle Grattan’s column in the Sun Herald (21/2) suggests, that the health insurance rebate double dissolution election is likely in the second half of this year. This  could be held as late as late as 16 October.

In any event the government is hoping that by the second half of the year the electorate will have forgotten about the greatest moral issue of our time. This is unlikely – too many in the media have a fervent religious belief in anthropogenic global warming and the need to take harsh even unilateral measures about that.

And other issues will dominate the news. As Copenhagen approached and the commentariat decreed the coalition had committed electoral suicide in electing Tony Abbott, who was thinking about roofing insulation?

In the meantime Peter Garret and Senator Conroy have ensured that there is a growing realisation among the more aware members of the general public that the distinguishing features of this government are not reassuring and they are not attractive.

These features are best covered by the acronym PIP: Profligacy, Incompetence, and Panic. The “I” could also include the  whiff of Impropriety evidenced by the most blatant of political appointments seen since the elevation of Lionel Murphy to the High Court, and in a time of alleged belt tightening, the gift in an election year of a quarter of a billion to the television networks.

The government is still protected by a reluctance of much of the mainstream media to apply the same standards of rigorous investigation applied with relish to the Howard government.

The plight of about 150,000 Australians who cannot access all or part their savings in various property and mortgage funds is a splendid case in point. The funds were frozen in late 2008 when there was no threat on the banks, which under the Howard government had been among the best regulated in the world.

Was it that the Irish had done it, was it to impress the G7 and G20?  Was it to say they had done something? Or was it that the government merely did what it is good at doing, and panicked?  

In any event the guarantee had unintended but predictable consequences. One was that money poured out of sound funds into the accounts of the very well off and already safe banks.

The guarantee is now being relaxed but that of deposits of less than $1 million is yet to be reviewed. The point is that thousands of Australians are suffering and almost nothing is said about them in the mainstream media.

Compare that with say, “children overboard” or Cornelia Rau.

When we add to the mortgage funds debacle such matters as the way in which the appallingly wasteful way the stimulus package has been administered in, for example  the schools or in roofing insulation, we can only conclude that the spending of the Howard surplus and the running up of enormous debt have involved a degree of negligence not previously seen even under the Whitlam government.

Tony Abbott was absolutely correct to observe that if he were an employer under NSW occupational health and safety laws, Peter Garrett could be charged with a serious offence concerning the roofing insulation debacle.

So could Kevin Rudd.

In a recent case which went to the High Court, Graeme Kirk, a hobby farmer, had been found guilty by a NSW industrial court of failing to provide a safe workplace and fined heavily. This related to his experienced part-time farm manager, Graham Palmer, who was killed while moving heavy steel using an all-terrain vehicle in 2001. Mr Kirk had no farming experience and took no part in running the farm due to ill health. While working on the farm, Mr Palmer had incorrectly loaded some steel on a vehicle, and had then cut the corner of a road. The vehicle overturned and he was killed.

Although the High Court quashed the conviction, the NSW law, which reverses the onus of proof for one class of Australians – employers – is still in place.  

In this case  Mr. Kirk had not run the farm as Kevin Rudd and Peter Garret ran the roof installation programme. Moreover he had had no warnings of the dangers involved in running his farm, as Peter Garret and Kevin Rudd had  about their dangerous roof installation programme. In fact they had many, including the damning Minter Ellison report delivered last April.

The roof insulation programme has resulted in four deaths, at least 86 fires and an unknown number of unsafe homes. It seems that in many cases the insulation is ineffective.

That programme is just the tip of an iceberg. It seems that whatever this government touches – diplomatic relations with India, China, with the Bush administration, Japan, whaling, border control, broadband, television levies will end in at least embarrassment if not worse.

There are those who say the government’s profligate spending this spending kept us out of recession, that it was a wise reaction to the GFC, the Global Financial Crisis – described as the worst it was said since the depression. This was a crisis the government and its experts did not see coming, and when Peter Costello warned about its likely advent, he was derided. 

While most Western countries have experienced far worse recessions, it is a feature of the modern media to exaggerate these things so that, for example, the advent of a new version of influenza is likened to the Black Death.  

When it is not anything as dramatic as that predicted, the media just move on. And yet they wonder why the young do not read them or it seems watch them, the old are giving up and in so many places – airports, hotels, planes and the Opera House -  newspapers are just given away.   

The problem for the government is that once the PIP badge permeates into that crucial part of the electorate, the Howard battlers, nothing the government does will be able to remove it. Even if they do what the New South Wales government did, and get a pretty Prime Minister, they will not be able to remove the stain.

Tony Abbott has achieved what those who always recognized his abilities expected, he interests the public. What is interesting is his down to earth qualities, the fact that this strongly principled man became a life saver and a fire fighter out of genuine concerns and not the need for a photo opportunity. And when he speaks he does not sound as if the words were rehearsed with a spin doctor.

Few now believe that the government will increase its majority at the election as was likely when Malcolm Turnbull led the Coalition.

Some are even beginning to think the once unthinkable: will the government be under serious threat?