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Porter is another example of the government’s method of scandal management

Crikey logo Crikey 5/03/2021 Kishor Napier-Raman
a man holding a sign © Provided by Crikey

What’s become clear from the Christian Porter scandal is this: for the Morrison government, ministerial accountability requires no less than a criminal conviction.

This is a scandal-ridden government which has taken a punt — that most voters are too disengaged, desensitised, or convinced everyone in Canberra is a crook already to care much about their crookery.

Since 2018 there have been an eye-watering number of incidents which, once upon a time, might have triggered a resignation — from rorting and branch stacking to police investigations.

Now Porter will remain in his job despite calls for an independent inquiry into historic rape allegations from several quarters, including the alleged victim’s own family.

The alleged victim died last year. Porter vehemently denies all allegations against him. The NSW Police say they could not question Porter because the alleged victim had not made a formal statement before she took her own life last year. The prime minister says that’s the end of it.

The Morrison government’s approach to any kind of scandal — deny, deflect and dig your heels in — has so far worked. If it is successful, it joins a long list.

The serial offenders

You’ve got to feel for Bridget McKenzie. The former Nats deputy leader and agriculture minister resigned over a small part of her involvement in the sports rorts affair, and is the only senior Coalition MP to ever face a consequence since Morrison became PM. But of course McKenzie’s fall was calculated, taking considerable heat off Morrison over his office’s involvement in the rorting.

Other rorters have been more fortunate. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton allegedly turned community safety grants into a multimillion-dollar slush fund, news of which broke three weeks ago and is already forgotten. We still don’t really know why Dutton’s department gave more than $400 million in contracts to a tiny private security firm called Paladin. We still don’t really know what the go is with the au pairs.

Dutton, though, is far from the government’s worst offender when it comes to getting away with anything. That would probably be Crikey’s 2019 Arsehat of the Year Angus Taylor. There was grassgate, when the Department of Environment weakened protections for endangered grassland owned by Taylor’s family. Watergate, when the government bought millions in water from a subsidiary of a Cayman Islands-based company founded by Taylor. Then there was the time his office allegedly doctored City of Sydney Council documents for some reason.

Fantastic. Great move. Well done Angus.

The robodebt stench

In January, the entire Dutch government resigned over a scheme that wrongfully accused people of welfare fraud. It’s a sign that another world is possible, one where any of the number of Coalition ministers who presided over the destructive, cartoonishly evil robodebt scheme might have faced some consequences.

Nothing of the sort. In fact every minister who touched robodebt actually has binders full of screw-ups. Porter, of course, we know all about. Worth also rehashing his brazen, partisan stacking of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Alan Tudge also appeared in that Four Corners episode along with Porter over his treatment of a female staffer with whom he had an affair. And last year, a Federal Court judge accused him of engaging in “criminal conduct” over his treatment of an Afghan asylum seeker (Tudge’s excuse: the judge must’ve got me confused with Dutton).

Also worth mentioning the gormless Stuart Robert, who tried to take credit for ending robodebt. He actually resigned from the ministry in the Turnbull days (back when such things were done) over an unfortunate trip to China which revealed his shares in a trust linked to a big Liberal donor’s mining company.

Morrison brought him back — but he was most recently in strife for charging taxpayers $2000 a month for home internet bills.

The forgotten ones

Once your government is involved in an eye-watering number of scandals and improprieties, there are plenty that are completely forgotten. We’ve pretty much forgotten assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar’s alleged involvement in branch stacking, or his close ties with a Liberal donor being investigated by ASIO.

Or how acting Attorney-General Michaelia Cash ended up in court over a police raid on the Australian Workers’ Union.

There’s the time the government paid $30 million — 10 times the actual value — for land owned by Liberal donors in western Sydney. Paul Fletcher, minister responsible at the time, has blamed the department.

Behind the frontbench where there’s no threat of demotion outside election day, the consequences are even fewer. Nothing happened to Tim Wilson, who used a taxpayer-funded inquiry to run a partisan campaign against Labor’s franking credits policy — with a fund manager at the helm.

George Christensen spent enough time in the Philippines to earn the nickname “Member for Manila” and a stern talking to from the AFP. All he got was an 11% swing to him in the last election.

Eric Abetz demanded Chinese Australians undertake a loyalty test before giving evidence at a Senate inquiry. Not a peep from anyone senior in his party.

All these incidents are very different from the Porter allegations. But they represent an approach to an indifference to accountability.

And without the Morrison government’s death by a thousand papercuts approach to ministerial responsibility, we might never have reached a situation where someone in Porter’s position could keep their job.

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