Scoring political points against rivals is no substitute for governing. Yet this is the priority in Canberra: to try to damage opposition leader Bill Shorten. At a time when retail sales are feeble, wages growth is flat and private investment is faltering, the economic imperative should be to instil confidence through strong and decisive leadership. Instead, as if hooked on poker machines with a guaranteed losing result, the Turnbull government just can’t give up playing the game.
After demanding for months that Shorten provide documentary proof that he was not a citizen of a foreign country, the prime minister declared last week that the witch-hunts must end. That was after the senate president, Stephen Parry, belatedly outed himself as being a British citizen and the media raised questions about other Coalition parliamentarians. Shorten was considered fair game for a witch-hunt.
For the Turnbull government, ‘ending the witch-hunts’ means avoiding scrutiny about the eligibility of its MPs under various sections of the constitution. Yet it fully intends to continue its own witch-hunts. In the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC), the government has created a new apparatus of the state that it manifestly plans to use to smear political rivals.
Although the ROC is ostensibly at arm’s length from government, it enthusiastically acted on a ministerial reference to investigate the circumstances of a union’s donation to the activist group, GetUp! Which union? Bill Shorten’s old union, of course. And lest that rationale not be sufficiently obvious, the minister’s media adviser phoned television networks ahead of an Australian Federal Police raid on the Australian Workers’ Union to remind them that Shorten had been the union’s national secretary before entering parliament.
The documents the police were seeking had been provided to the $80 million royal commission into trade unions, which, despite requiring Shorten to appear before it over two days, didn’t think the publicly disclosed 2006 donation to GetUp! was worth raising with him. The royal commission made no adverse findings against Shorten on anything.
Undeterred, the ROC is in a court battle with the Australian Workers’ Union, seeking access to the 11-year-old documents that the federal police seized in front of the television cameras arranged by the minister’s office. The police are not to blame. They were doing what they were obliged to do.
Taxpayers are footing the bill for this expensive witch-hunt. The best that the ROC could hope for, even if it were able to prove that the paperwork was inadequate, is a fine of up to $11,000. That’s right, no criminality; a fine for a civil offence. The union maintains that its paperwork conformed with the union’s rules – which is all that was required under the law at that time.
Any rational government would not spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars investigating a trade union’s paperwork from more than a decade ago with the purpose of extracting a small fine. But that is not the purpose. The true purpose is to cut Labor’s lead in the fortnightly Newspolls, which Turnbull invoked as one reason for toppling Tony Abbott.
Only two weeks of parliamentary sittings remain this year. They will be dominated by Coalition party-room arguments over the results of the same-sex marriage survey and the adequacy of any same-sex-marriage legislation to protect religious freedoms.
The mid-year economic and fiscal outlook is due before the year’s end. Ongoing weakness in wages growth will call into question, yet again, the projected return to surplus at the end of the budget period – a surplus that relies heavily on everyday Australians paying more income tax as inflation takes them into higher tax brackets. Low wages growth equals no surplus.
But instead of debates about economic reform, the parliament will be dominated by the donation to GetUp!, same-sex marriage, the ongoing saga about who is eligible to remain in the parliament, and quite possibly leadership of the government. A despairing public has tuned out of Canberra, its confidence sapped and its willingness to purchase consumer goods eroded. It is unlikely to be a happy Christmas for the nation’s retailers as they despair about poor sales and a distracted national government.