Morrison’s delivery failures pile up
Vengeance, it is said, is a dish that is best served cold. Six months after being “humiliated” by the Prime Minister and “bullied” by the Australia Post Chairman, Christine Holgate vented her anger. And while the former chief executive of the nation’s Postal Service came to the Senate investigation into her death wearing the white livery of a suffragette, gender discrimination was far from the whole story.
What it turned out was the government’s hidden agenda to dismantle and privatize Australia Post. Holgate’s followers now see her as a kind of Joan of Arc: the heroine was ready to thwart the government’s secret plan and save her jobs. Almost 50 years after the word “Watergate” entered the political lexicon as an abbreviation for a scandal, we now have an Australian version: “Holgate”.
And in one week there was no shortage of other applications that provided even more evidence for “NDISgate”. The Saturday newspaper of the past few weeks has shown determined efforts to significantly reduce the scope and purpose of the national disability insurance system. Now there are reports of yet another stealthy attack aimed at reducing costs and services.
There was also a spectacular “vaccine gate” on which the Prime Minister closed the gate on a promise that everyone in the nation would receive at least their first Covid-19 bump by October.
All of these questions, in different ways, raise real questions about the values and competence of the Morrison administration. The prime minister is caught. Chairwoman of the Senate inquiry that Holgate appeared at this week, Green Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, says Morrison’s dealings with Holgate show he “just doesn’t get it.”
It’s a tough point of view, but Holgate herself believes that the approach would have been very different if she had been a man. Hanson-Young is not the only one to compare and contrast Morrison’s summary execution of the former Australia Post chief on the floor of Parliament with the way Christian Porter was defended with due process and a presumption of innocence.
During the week, Morrison still denied having sacked Holgate from the pulpit in Parliament. He conveniently erased the roar, “She can go.” It was a “willing day in parliament,” he admits, but it was not his intention to “cause distress”. The closest thing he got to an apology was to say, “I regret any distress that strong language has caused her and that it has actually caused.”
At his first press conference the day after Holgate’s bitter evidence, the Prime Minister was not asked by the Perth media package about Holgate’s opposition to the dismantling and sale of Australia Post. Emphasis has been placed on the misogynist aspects of her position related to the government swamp since Brittany Higgins alleged almost two months ago that she was raped by an elderly colleague in her parliamentary workplace.
Who can blame Holgate’s supporters, especially the small business postal licensees, for the fact that Morrison’s outburst in Parliament was a cynical opportunism? It’s certainly blasted in his face.
But if Morrison had any further regrets, it would be that his privatization Druthers would have been revealed. Holgate took advantage of a mood, certainly in regional Australia, when she called the Australia Post “an asset to all Australians” and said “we should stop having classified reviews”.
This was an indication of the Boston Consulting Group’s analysis being put together to facilitate a sale. The government refused to release it. The Senate investigation and Holgate’s bill finally flushed it out. The report recommended shedding up to 8,000 jobs, closing 190 post offices and reducing services.
Holgate supporters within Australia Post have little doubt that the board and its chairman, Lucio Di Bartolomeo, were aware of Morrison’s privatization plans. When they hired Holgate, they misjudged that they would share the same goal.
Holgate believed their job was to get the business in better shape and let the profitable parcel delivery service subsidize the loss-making mail. In addition, without the help of the board of directors or the Prime Minister or Australia Post’s so-called shareholders – the Minister of Finance and Communications – Holgate has signed multimillion-dollar contracts with three of the country’s major banks to provide hundreds of financial services from licensed post offices throughout Australia.
Ironically, a chance meeting with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg at the 2018 AFL Grand Final was the breakthrough she needed. Frydenberg became a white knight at the last minute, according to a source close to the deal. He ruled that the Bank @ Post idea that drove them would give the Big Four banks a chance to repay themselves in the face of the blows they received at the time with the Royal Banking Commission and after their near-complete desertion of regional Australia .
However, Australia Post’s Prime Minister and Board of Directors have not given up. Under the guise of the pandemic, emergency regulations were put in place that cut off postal services and fed the narrative that a state-owned postal service was an expensive and inefficient dinosaur. Stories surfaced in the media about the expensive extravagances of Holgate and her executives, regardless of the fact that she ran a multi-billion dollar government business that had been corporatized to mimic private companies.
Morrison carelessly ignored this weekday context and the fact that the four Cartier bonus watches were purchased for a total of $ 20,000 two years before the pandemic and did not violate the company’s protocols. In fact, Holgate told the investigation that it was entitled to pay even higher cash bonuses, but it refused to do so.
Who can blame Holgate’s supporters, especially the small business postal licensees, for Morrison’s outburst in Parliament being a cynical opportunism? It’s certainly blasted in his face. Labor hopes Senate Crossbench will ban service cut and priority mail regulations the next time they come up for review. After all, Pauline Hanson is one of the makers of the Senate investigation. Michelle Rowland, Secretary of State for Shadow Communications, says Labor is certainly against privatization. She whipped the Australia Post board this week, calling them a “swamp of liberal hacks and pals”.
The opposition’s early opportunism towards Cartier watches had an outcome that they did not quite expect. Senator Kimberley Kitching first raised the gifts in estimates last year. Union leader Anthony Albanese jumped on the bandwagon and reiterated the feeling that Holgate was showing poor judgment and that their position was untenable. During the week, Albanese said his statement was made in parliament after Morrison’s outbreak, and he is no doubt to note with some relief that Holgate’s problems are not his but the Prime Minister’s.
Equally angry with the Prime Minister was the disabled services sector this week. His anger exploded in public on Monday when Andrew Richardson, executive director of Aruma, one of the country’s largest suppliers, told ABC it was “shameful” that neither of the 1,500 residents in the company’s 350 specialty accommodations, nor one of them your “thousands of employees have been vaccinated”. He said it was an experience that is common across the disability sector.
On Wednesday, The Age reported that geriatric carers and the disabled made efforts to get their own Covid-19 recordings from general practitioners after being ignored in the Commonwealth rollout. The office of the new Secretary of State for Government Services, Linda Reynolds, says the distribution is the responsibility of Secretary of Health Greg Hunt and that Reynolds would discuss the rollout bug with him. People with disabilities and in the elderly are considered to be the most vulnerable in the community.
If that’s not bad enough, there has been more evidence this week of the government’s attempts to core the NDIS.
Back in 2015, when he was Minister for Social Services, Scott Morrison made a distinction between support for the disabled and welfare. He argued that there would have to be cuts in social benefits in order to finance the introduction of NDIS. Its difference was that the welfare recipients are somehow guilty, or at least tend to cheat the system. People with a disability, meanwhile, have been seen as unfortunate victims of fate worthy of support so that they can live with as much dignity as possible.
But now people with disabilities are seen through the same prism as those who care about welfare. The Morrison government believes that they are a budget strain and a task force has been set up to reduce the growth in funding packages and attendance. This coincides with the discovery that the officials who designed the illicit computerized “robo-debt” system are busy collecting the debts of the disabled.
One of the original NDIS architects, Bill Shorten of Labor, says the plans are a shame and a betrayal. There is also trouble on the government bench. So much so that former Portfolio Minister Stuart Robert feared his plans to introduce privatized tick-and-flick ratings would not be approved by the party room.
Seasoned Liberal MP Russell Broadbent says people with disabilities and their families “deserve special care and consideration.” He says, “You need the support that the NDIS promises.” New NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds does not inspire confidence, telling The Age that she supports high quality outcomes that are “fair and affordable” – a burdened maternity declaration, if there ever was one. What is affordable is what the government is willing to spend based on its value judgments.
The overlook of people with disabilities in the introduction of vaccines is symptomatic not only of poor government priorities, but of the mess the whole project has become.
Morrison started the week resorting to Facebook to back off and regroup. He ended it by putting the national cabinet – the Zoom meeting with prime ministers and prime ministers – on a weekly war basis. What exactly this means and how it will address the almost inexcusable shortage of vaccines is not clear. We may have to rely on more public service leaks and revelations from the disgruntled to find out.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 17, 2021 as the “Raft of Government Delivery Errors”.
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