By David Tyler
Pleonexia … originating from the Greek πλεονεξία, is a philosophical concept which roughly corresponds to greed, covetousness, or avarice, and is strictly defined as “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others”, suggesting a … “ruthless self-seeking and an arrogant assumption that others and things exist for one’s own benefit”.
“We are dealing with other peoples’ money,” intones Malcolm Turnbull, taking the high moral ground as he fronts a thin press conference on the afternoon of Friday 13th. Other people’s money. Who would have thought? Tell Centrelink.
The conference room is almost empty. The Canberra Press Gallery is either on holiday or heading for happy hour. A bored government staffer stands to one side; a stage-manager, ready to call time on any questions after the Prime Minister’s hammy but low-energy performance. The atmosphere is let’s get this show off the road.
Turnbull grips the edges of the moulded podium with both hands: he could be a Border Force Control officer on the bridge of an intercepted vessel. He’ll turn this thing around. The kitsch set is so stagey that it shrieks defensive artifice while underlining his government’s monumental disconnect from its people. The national flags add to the travesty.
It’s time to put out the trash; bury bad news in a time slot where it will attract least media scrutiny. Two weeks into a new year, the Turnbull government is already mired in crisis. Dirty Captain Turnbull must spin scandal as good news.
He is here, he declares, drum roll – to announce a new system. Trust him. MPs are helpless as a kitten when it comes to moral choices. He can fix all that. Operation High Moral Ground will flush out the rorters. Besides, we are soon to discover, he has probity’s poster boy, Arthur Sinodinos, up his sleeve.
Sussan Ley has made a “personal decision” to resign, Turnbull mumbles, to a reporter’s inaudible question. It’s almost an aside. Ley’s personal decision includes a statement that she doesn’t believe she’s broken any rules.
Yep, it’s the damn rules that have broken her; that stupid system which supposes you know right from wrong. Ken Goodger, Acting Anglican Bishop of Wangaratta, holds a garden party at his church in Albury in support of the high flying Health Minister, pilot and Pythagorean numerologist whose wings are now clipped. Grounded. Dumped from the ministry.
A deafening silence ensues from Ley’s own party where one might expect calls of support, yet the news is full of reports of MPs jostling for what the Herald Sun calls her “plum job”. Former Health Minister Tony Abbott puts in job application in Friday’s The Australian, in the guise of an article in which he shirtfronts Turnbull for being all mouth and no trousers.
Turnbull’s call, cunningly packaged as Ley’s decision, he hopes, will soothe a nation inflamed by a week of revelations of pleonectic MPs, snouts in troughs, rorting travel allowances. We will cheer his decisive leadership. Ra. Ra. Fat chance.
A deep anger now dwells within Australians, a sense of betrayal and of loss. So profound now is the gap between rich and poor; between those who have work and those who have no work; between home owners and those who will never own homes. Between men and women’s career options and pay.
Years of neoliberal cuts to services, to wages and conditions; years of corporatisation, deregulation and privatisation and the voracious love of competition and profit above all else have cheated us and divided us. There is nothing any leader of the party of the IPA, the mining lobby’s puppet, the hand maiden of big business and banking can ever say or do which will assuage the people’s anger.
Abroad, vulgarian and fellow professional narcissist, Donald Trump also deals in lies; manufactures facts; abuses those who would dispute his version of events.
“We are not living in a post truth universe”, writes Robert Fisk, “we are living the lies of others”.
Just when he’d hoped to get by without any cabinet reshuffle, a badly wounded Turnbull, who must himself live the lies of his hard right captors, is caught up in another silly season turkey shoot. But he’s ready with the traditional trimmings. Dab hand with the corny theatrics. He falls back on a tried and true script.
A sacrificial resignation is followed by a (patently hollow) promise to fix the system. Cue massive spin from a servile media. By Sunday the ABC features teenage reporters explaining how huge is the grey area between right and wrong. The system’s rotten. Politicians can’t be blamed for any bad moral choice, really.
It’s what you’d expect of Turnbull. God forbid he’d assent to growing demands for a national ICAC. Or agree to a cease-fire in the automated debt recovery phase of his government’s war on the poor currently harassing 20,000 Australians per week.
We haven’t heard it yet but expect the term “welfare security” to be applied soon as the government seeks another phrase in its mission to demonise welfare recipients; its determination to behave with the same indifference and inhumanity towards the poor as it does toward asylum seekers.
Working “incredibly well”, says Christian Porter about Centrelink’s Robo-call debt extortion system which hounds victims of its own mistakes within an inch of their lives; those it alleges it overpaid, demanding repayment plus a ten per cent debt collection fee.
Porter boasts $300 million dollar has been found down the back of the couch or in Grandma’s funeral bond; $300 million which is clearly not money received but debts alleged. There’s $4 billion out there to collect. But only if you believe the figure is anything more than a wild conjecture.
Robot Alan Tudge, a perfect choice as Human Services Minister in an inhuman government, is equally immune to the grief, the fear, the anger, the human suffering his automated debt recovery blunderbuss is inflicting. The system is working well, he says on ABC, Wednesday -“and we will continue with that system”. You bet you are. You bet I am.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, also is utterly unrepentant, blind to anything but the dollars. He makes a virtue of being remote and unyielding. “We make no apology for the fact that we are trying to make sure we are more efficient, have a wider grasp of those who might have received payments in error.” Or those frightened into paying money they don’t owe. Those driven by despair into dark thoughts of self-harm.
Darren O’Connell, whose PhD is in economics, a teacher who has lectured at Curtin University, has tried eight times since November to get his inaccurate debt removed from the system, but the letters keep coming.
“The process and logic used by Centrelink is both flawed, dangerous and opaque,” he tells news.com.au. “This process assumes people are guilty and it is up to us to prove our innocence.”
A competent, compassionate, responsible PM – even an agile PM would have called the dogs off on well before now. Sacked Tudge. Scrapped a monumental failure. Made time for age pensioners. Raised welfare payments to make amends. Instead he’s helping create for himself and his government a mother of a perfect storm.
Changes reducing the allowable value of pensioners’ assets help magnify the anger and resentment from those in the debt-collector’s gun towards those living high on the hog; having fun in the sun.
World’s best minister, Greg Hunt books up $20,000 of summer holidays in Queensland at the taxpayers’ expense. It’s a similar story with Matthias Cormann. Many other examples follow, each one pointing up the gap between the ruling elite and the rest of the nation; the rapidly widening social divide. A Cabinet Minister buys an apartment on impulse when most ordinary Australians are priced out of the market. Any protest is dismissed as the politics of envy.
Sir Michael Marmot, President of the World Medical Association says the opposite to poverty is not wealth. It is justice. Closing the gap on health inequality would mean tackling the disproportionate distribution of global wealth, the epidemiologist argues in his latest Boyer Lecture and it’s exactly the same within nations.
“We have the knowledge and the means to improve people’s lives and reduce health inequality,” he reminds us, “The question is: what do we have in our hearts? Do we have the will to close the gap in a generation?”
Abbott has a go at his PM in his vanity publisher, The Australian, for being unready to deal with a protectionist world under Trump. Be agile; don’t just say the words. Make no mistake, the former PM is on the warpath. Here, he scores a technical point – yet neither PM nor his nemesis equates agility with the real need to seek a fairer, more just society.
The Coalition merely flicks the switch to damage control. When all else fails book in a review or an inquiry. Or a distraction. The perpetually befuddled Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, another politician with a charisma bypass, beholden to capital, is wheeled in front of cameras to signal that trade will boom and security will be strengthened thanks to Turnbull’s deftly steering around the 330 Minke whales Japan is about to kill and avoiding any questions about conservation or the ethics of slaughtering sentient beings for human consumption under the guise of scientific research.
After Tony Abbott’s silly, made to be broken, submarine deal promise, Turnbull’s government is reluctant to make waves. It will not send a patrol vessel to Antarctic waters to monitor the Japanese whaling fleet unlike in previous years.
On the other hand, the free trade agreement with Japan is achieving amazing things, says Steve Ciobo noting
“Exports of beef have climbed about 30 per cent as tariffs of up to 38.5 per cent are lowered as part of the deal and are now worth $793 million.” Wild cheers all round. No-one questions the place of tariffs in a free trade deal.
Sadly, the incredible Japan trade boost news fails to distract the media circus from its pursuit of politicians’ travel rorts.
Professional wave maker, Nick “Get-your-head-on” Xenophon pops up on the box again. He’s sure the system is at fault on ABC 7:30. Up bobs Michael Gordon in The Age. It’s another part of the blame the system ruse. MSM scribes agree to call their hounds off; turn their ire from MPs who cheat, to the rotten system whose main fault seems to be that it presupposes politicians can make autonomous moral decisions. Steve Ciobo argues, on cue, that he can’t tell a Grand Final from a trade deal. Jules Bishop pulls out of the Portsea Polo just in case. Shinzo Abe needs me more is her excuse.
She wasn’t going anyway. Reports of a Hugo Boss outfit suggest otherwise, according to Fairfax’s Julie Singer.
Smoothie Stan Grant is also recruited into grey-washing what to most of us appears very black and white. C’mon, Stan. Imagine you are Sussan Ley. You get to Brisbane, bore a few chemists witless with your talk on scripts which could have been an email or a letter and then you fly on to the Gold Coast to buy your apartment. If you can’t tell which part of the journey to book to your boss, you shouldn’t be a minister.
If you can’t tell you don’t need to charter a jet at $12 000 to do the trip, you shouldn’t be in government. Nor do you need anyone to tell you that flying your own plane along the same route used by commercial services is not only hugely more expensive but it looks as if you are trying to get your flying hours up to keep your pilot’s licence. What Grant doesn’t go into is the fudging that is done to dress up holidays as business.
There is a lot still, though, potential grey area, isn’t there? If you look at the entitlements, it’s full of that, and it’s left to a lot of discretion and self-regulation.
We heard from Steve Ciobo, the Trade Minister, saying that he thinks it’s appropriate that the taxpayer pays if you attend a sporting function. He would be there being questioned, potentially doing work, as well as enjoying the sporting event. Does he have a point?
In a word, Stan, no. Imagine you are Greg Hunt. From 2004 to 2006 you travel with your family to Noosa in late November, each time staying there between three and seven nights and for five nights in 2008. You talk up the political things you do during your holiday. The meetings, the electoral visits. Dress it up. Then you blur the issue by reference to the beaut job you do at other times addressing the Davos mob on Hayman Island as a Global Leader for Tomorrow’ by the World Economic Forum. Yet none of this justifies booking your holidays up to the government.
The rule is clear. If your trip was primarily a family holiday, that should really be the end of the matter. While it is true that there may be some complex areas, the cases reported are not that difficult to call. But Stan and others don’t think so. The government gets a big boost on the ABC’s 7:30 Report and on all other mainstream media. Mission accomplished. Focus can now shift from rorters to the system. Why, it’s even led the Finance Minister astray.
Belgian Borzoi, Mathias Cormann, who barks and growls incessantly about keeping government spending under control, is clearly at a loss when it comes to who should pay for what. He billed taxpayers over $23,000 for weekend trips to the beach resort town of Broome with his wife over five years. A spokesperson for Cormann points out that the Minister would have had a range of mission critical commitments in the beach resort town. A very junior reporter on ABC 24 reads out a list of all the top level negotiations and vital political stuff Cormann would have to do in Broome.
Never overburdened by an original thought, Turnbull looks to the UK for a solution, as he did when he wanted Alexander Downer to retire in favour of pin-striped megalomaniac George Brandis, whose boundless faith in his own infallibility has not advanced either his own career or his Prime Minister’s.
In the meantime, press hacks flock to admire Turnbull’s new baby- his you-beaut triple decker anti-rorting authority. Turnbull’s system fix gets a massive spin, happily diverting us from any thought of adding up the rorts or forming the view that, in Sussan Ley’s case, here dies a scapegoat or taking interest in how few will actually pay anything back.
A sacking, spun as a mutually agreed resignation means there’s no need to publish PMC secretary Martin Parkinson’s review. It’s the very least that the embattled thin-lipped PM can do – apart from wearing the black spectacle frame of gravitas and sobriety who daily appears capable of less and less. The incredible shrinking PM blinks. A shrewd bit of deflection. Then bugger all the preceding reviews, he’ll set up one of his own.
Why, he’ll copy the Poms; import the British system of transparency, its Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 – as befits a staunch republican. He’s even going to set up an Inquisitor or a panel of three of them called an Independent Authority. That’ll help cut red tape and boost the mission of smaller government. But there’s more.
The independent authority will be staffed by a member experienced in auditing, a member experienced in remuneration matters, the president of the Remuneration Tribunal, a former judge and a former MP. Jobs for the boys and growth!
This is a very strong board, the PM patronises us. It will have significant independence from the Government. (Whatever that means.) MPs and senators will be able to get advice and rulings from the independent agency if they are unsure about a claim. Genius. Outsource ethnical decision making. What could possibly go wrong?
“Transparency is the key”, Turnbull says opaquely – the PM who refuses to confirm how much of his own money he spent on the election campaign – a PM who vowed never to sloganeer. We won’t get to see Martin Parkinson’s review of Ley’s rorts. His government refuses permission to professionals working on Manus or Nauru to testify to their experiences. Transparency? The Turnbull government has yet to share with the nation its legal advice it said it needed before joining the US in its illegal interference in Syria.
A 2016 independent review into parliamentary entitlements, led by retired senior public servant David Tune, found a “focus of concern is travel ‘inside entitlement’ but outside reasonable expectations and standards”, The Age reminds us. Turnbull ignores it.
Bugger Tony Abbott’s review which has been lying around the Liberal Party lunchroom, yellowing, fading, curling at the edges along with Turnbull’s own clean-up vows, now a mouldering year old. Mal must make a stand. But it won’t staunch the Turnbull government’s bleeding. And it’s got Buckley’s chance of fixing the problem.
Ms Ley who added an extra S to her name to liven up her life will be remembered more for her travel and her numerology than her service to the nation’s health or the body politic. In May 2016, her wish to lift the Medicare freeze was blocked by departmental red tape helped pave the way for Labor’s Mediscare.
She’s also become a standing joke on social media and an emblem of government excess during its automated debt recovery extortion, part of a war on the poor which has at its heart a mean-spirited denial of welfare beneficiaries right to payments which will at least keep them above the poverty line. A Melbourne Cup field of other rorters soon join Ms Ley. Each one is a nail in the political class’s coffin.
The vivid contrast between the entitlement of the ruling elite and the deprivation of the poor highlights the expanding inequality and redistribution of wealth from labour to capital; worker to boss that began with Hawke’s accord and continued as the neoliberal Keating Rudd and Gillard Labor governments traded away workers’ wages and conditions.
Ley’s final touchdown is a welcome distraction from news that Trump’s team is hustling Congress to approve its members without adequate vetting rushing through the process in a way which shows contempt for the American voter. It brought relief from chortling and guffawing over news from America of a Shower-gate scandal in which Russian agents, it is said, compiled a dossier of compromising dealings on the president-elect including The Donald’s alleged dalliance with Russian prostitutes and deviant sexual preferences
But now Turnbull must rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, as former Health Minister Tony Abbott loiters with intent in the public eye. Abbott backers are active. Turnbull drops National Party Deputy Fiona Nash’s name. As Assistant Health minister, Ms Nash took down a healthy food rating website on the advice of her Chief of Staff Alistair Furnivall.
Mr Furnivall is married to junk food lobbyist Tracey Cain, sole director and secretary of Australian Public Affairs which represents the Australian Beverages Council and Mondelez Australia, which owns Kraft, Cadbury and Oreo brands, among others.
By Sunday, he’s giving the impression that the impeccable Arthur “see no donors” Sinodinos will get the nod. Sinodinos was questioned by NSW ICAC in 2014 but couldn’t recall, despite being a director of Australian Water Holdings, an Eddie Obeid company, on a salary of $200,000 a year for three years, what he did beyond the odd meeting and checking his bank account.
Sussan Ley is all done and dusted now that her resignation is in. Yet her trip to the Gold Coast, after a meeting selling prescriptions in Brisbane, to snap up a $795 000 apartment on the spur of the moment is not all it seems.
In fact, her bargain buy turns out to be a carefully planned purchase in which the Main Street apartment owner, Martin Henry Corkery proprietor of Children First, a child care business and a big donor who gave the Queensland Liberal Party $50,000 in 2011, sold the property at a loss to the MP. Doubtless he took pity on the impoverished Cabinet Minister.
Corkery, who disavows all knowledge of who was buying what, received a $109,977 grant for his day care business when Ley was assistant Education Minister.
Furthermore, a retired couple on the Gold Coast Hinterland helpfully come forward to claim Ms Ley made an unsuccessful bid on their house nine months before she purchased the apartment.
Ley should stand aside until the two inquiries , one by Finance and one by Martin Parkinson of the PMC under way are completed. All overpayments should be paid back with ten per cent recovery fee under the same terms and conditions as apply to Centrelink beneficiaries. The media should be encouraged to drop its spin that Arthur Sindodinos has been cleared. The report, released September last year does not exonerate Mr Sinodinos.
Operation Credo is yet to deliver its report. Happily, NSW’s Baird government made amendments to ICAC last November which are widely tipped to help Mr Sinodinos while a current review of laws banning property and other specified investors to make donations could clear things up nicely.
Despite his sacrifice of Sussan Ley, Malcolm Turnbull begins 2017 badly wounded by revelations not only of endemic rorting but of a political caste made up of ministers such as Steve Ciobo who don’t see a problem with pretending that their holidays or Grand Final tickets are for business and their own and their families’ recreation. Nor will it help him with the perfect storm brewing as a result of the Centrelink clawback debacle and the rising discontent spread amongst pensioners by changes to the assets test.
Most damaging of all, however, and irreparable is the disconnect revealed between his ministers and the Australian people in comments from the likes of Alan Tudge and Barnaby Joyce which indicate a damning lack of empathy if not a contempt for the welfare of ordinary people in a society which wealth is increasingly in the hands of the elite.
Above all, a government which promised openness, transparency and consultation has opted instead for secrecy, lies and diktat. No staged press conference, fake news, spin, arranged resignation or any other diversion can alter one jot the right of the people to a fair and just society; to the truth, Mr Turnbull.
This article was originally published on Urban Wronski.