Monday, March 15, 2010

On the QT: There Won’t Be Blood

Last year when Turnbull was making a charge at Rudd over the Grech Affair, there was a distinct feeling that Question Time could get bloody. When Turnbull asked Rudd a question on something seemingly innocuous, there was the feeling that there would be a follow up question that would pack a decided sting. You half expected Turnbull to lean over the Dispatch Box and say to Rudd “I drink your milkshake”. 2007_there_will_be_blood_013  Similarly when the opposition was targeting Joel Fitzgibbon they would ask what appeared to be innocent questions that would then be followed up that day or the next with a question that would reveal the Minister to have totally stuffed up – or more than that, quite possibly lied to Parliament.

Today’s Question Time (and indeed all this year) there was none of that feeling. Throughout the entire time the Opposition “attacked” Garrett, never did he seem to be taking body blows, let alone any hits to the head. Garrett was demoted not because the Opposition revealed anything, but because it was a story that the media was not going to leave alone – regardless of fact – and thus politically Rudd had to be seen to do something. If Abbott had really had Garrett on the rope in Question Time, he would have been sacked – not even Rudd is going to keep a Minister who is seen in Parliament to be floundering. 

Today Abbott and Greg Hunt, as they did last Thursday, tried to go after Rudd regarding certain letters written by Garrett to Rudd last year regarding the insulation scheme. Abbott started by wanting to know why Rudd didn’t mention four briefings he was given on the scheme by his Department when Rudd was answering questions on the issue last week. Rudd played a straight bat: said the Government was getting on with fixing the scheme and that was that. Hunt asked when would Rudd release the letters. Rudd said bugger off (well words to that effect) and said if you want them so bad do a Freedom of Information request – otherwise wait 30 years for it and all the other Cabinet documents to be released.

Hunt tried the line again, Rudd told him to bugger off. Abbott tried it again and Rudd replied that nothing in the briefings he had received contradicted anything he had said in Parliament on the issue.

Now here’s the thing – were this last year, and were Turnbull asking the questions, there would be the distinct feeling that Turnbull would be about to reveal the letters and show that Rudd had indeed misled the Parliament. But with Abbott and Hunt today (and last week), there’s no feeling that that is about to happen – rather they seem to be on a fishing exercise (or perhaps hunting trip is the operative phrase). Turnbull seemed to be asking questions to which he already knew the answers (like a lawyer always does); Abbott and Hunt seem to be just hoping Rudd might let slip something.

Now you might say, “look what happened to Turnbull” – but that was because he was given bum intelligence from Godwin Grech (and he was dopey enough to believe it), not because his Questions were poor. Indeed on Friday June 19 last year, many politics watchers thought there was a very real possibility that Rudd might have to resign (within 24 hours it seemed like Turnbull was the one in trouble…). The only issue you could have with Turnbull is that he should have got someone else to target Rudd – but I suspect Turnbull didn’t think anyone else could do it as well as he.

Now the question has to be asked – why is Abbott asking Rudd these questions? Does he seriously think he will get Rudd’s head over this? Question Time gives the opposition, ten or eleven opportunities to target the Government – in effect 10 or eleven chances to let everyone know what it wants the issues to be. There’s no reason to waste questions to Rudd on issues dealing with letters received or not, unless those letters contains some real political dynamite. And the indications thus far are that even if the letters were revealed they wouldn’t actually lead to Rudd resigning or being other than somewhat annoyed that the issue is still running. And no one in the media is really suggesting the letters could contain anything lethal either.

So let’s look at what the Opposition asked about today:

to Rudd – Paid Parental Leave (saying the Government should introduce its Bill this week – a dopey question really)
to Rudd – The Insulation Scheme briefing
to Rudd – The Insulation Scheme letter
to Rudd – The Insulation Scheme briefing
to Rudd – The Insulation Scheme letter
to Rudd – The Insulation Scheme – carcinogenic fibres from evil imported batts (the type of question only The Australian would report)
to Gillard – Building the Education Revolution “waste”
to Gillard – Building the Education Revolution “waste”
to Rudd – Building the Education Revolution “waste”

A few things to note: the question about the PPL was not about the Liberal's plan, but the Government’s – Abbott saying the Govt should introduce it now. It was another indicator that the Libs are running away very quickly from their own dog of a scheme. Six days ago it was all about how poor Jenny the hairdresser would be thousands of dollars worse off compared to the Government's “Mickey Mouse” scheme. Now the Libs want the Government to bring in that scheme as soon as possible!

Another thing to note – the issue of Health got more attention from Tony Abbott after Question Time than it did during. Straight after Question Time Abbott claimed to have been misrepresented by the Government when it says he “ripped $1b out of the Health system”. The line is obviously hurting Abbott, and he wants to kill it off – the problem is he can’t, because it is a political line – not an issue of truth or lying. The ALP says Abbott reduced the Health Budget by $1b in the forward estimates of the Budget; Abbott says the Health Budget went up not down while he was Health Minister and thus he could not have “ripped money out of the system”. Who is “correct” is up to whoever you believe, so Abbott can claim to have been misrepresented all he likes, it won’t stop Roxon or Rudd or Gillard or Swan or Tanner from repeating the line over and over again.

There was an interesting line of questioning about the insulation scheme that the Liberals did not surprisingly pursue – surprisingly, because this morning it was getting wide coverage: Namely that insurers would not insure a house that had been insulated under the insulation scheme unless there was a certificate showing the insulation had been checked. In effect saying all 1.1 million homes would need to be checked. Here was the issue being reported on AM:

Insurance may be denied over insulation bungle

TONY EASTLEY: The Federal Opposition is calling on the Government to pay for a safety inspection for every one of the more than one million homes that have been insulated under the bungled Commonwealth scheme. The Opposition says if not, many Australians could be left without home insurance.
The Government has pledged to inspect 200,000 houses, but the Opposition says that is not good enough.
From Canberra, Alexandra Kirk reports.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The Government will pay for safety checks for all 50,000 homes with new foil insulation to ensure roofs aren't electrified and it's paying for 150,000 inspections of homes with insulation batts, targeting the work of "dodgy" installers. But the Opposition says many, many more inspections will have to be done.

GREG HUNT: We know that there are 240,000 dangerous or dodgy roofs out there. We don't know which of the million roofs are these dangerous and dodgy roofs. The Government has no excuse and no choice to do other than inspect all of those roofs.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The Coalition's environment spokesman Greg Hunt, who says there's another reason for a 100 per cent inspection rate.

GREG HUNT: Some householders have been told by insurance companies that if they have had insulation installed under the Rudd program then they must have an inspection.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Even from installers who have been in the business for a very long time?

GREG HUNT: It is impossible to say what the final demands of insurance companies will be but it is absolutely clear there are new pressures on householders and the Government has a duty to give householders peace of mind and to make sure that each house is safe.

Now I listen to AM every morning on the way to work, and it does great work with interviews, but often it does a poor job of actual questioning of statements. Because it is out first thing each morning, often it reports things without completely checking their veracity – purely in the interests of driving the news narrative of the day. If the Opposition claims something AM often reports the claim, and leave it up to the Government to refute it. And so we have the case we have here – a claim by the Opposition, that is reported without question.

Thankfully the ABC has The World Today to do some quality journalism. This program actually decided to ask insurers whether for not Hunt was talking out of his backside. Guess what?

Insurers deny Opposition insulation claims

ELEANOR HALL: Australian insurance companies say there is no substance to the claims by Federal Opposition politicians that they won't sell policies to homeowners who have had insulation installed under the Commonwealth program.

The Opposition says the Federal Government should pay for a safety inspection for every home that has been insulated, saying that unless that happens, many Australians may be left without home insurance.

But an insurance broker says insurers won't force homeowners to prove that they've had their houses inspected.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: The World Today contacted several large insurers. None would go on tape, but all said they don't ask if a house has had insulation installed when considering whether to insure a home. What's more, insurance brokers say they haven't been contacted by underwriters, as is often the case when there's a looming problem that might stop insurance companies from allowing customers to take on a policy.
Andrew Faber is an account director with MGA Insurance Brokers.

ANDREW FABER: Quite often you'll get an email coming out with an embargo on placing new business in certain areas for a 48-hour period so that, you know, if there is obviously a bush fire on the door step that someone is not going to call up with and take out a policy when the fire is literally a couple of kilometres from their home. So the underwriters are generally concerned about something in a large scale, they'll send out some sort of notification or embargo but no, we haven't had anything at this stage about the insulation batts.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Andrew Faber says it's probably not worth it for insurance companies to insist on a safety certificate, when the chance of a fire is still relatively small.

Hang on? “The chance of fire is still relatively small”??? And here I thought every grandmother in the country should be losing sleep because her roof might catch on fire tonight.

Excellent work by The World Today – that is called journalism.

And thus not one question about insurance and insulation…

Here was the list of topics the Government asked Dorothy Dixers on:

to Rudd – Health (the Government’s plan to spend an addition $600m on GPs and Doctors)
to Roxon – Health
to Bowen – Medicare and changes to it being blocked by the Libs
to Swan – Health
to Roxon – Dental Health
to Gillard – Building the Education Revolution
to Macklin – PPL (actually about costs of living prices)
to Tanner – PPL (taxation distortions)
to Combet – Climate Change
to McClelland – Disability laws

Now the Government's answers were not exactly Oscar winning stuff (unless you’re talking Sandra Bullock level, Oscar wining stuff). Roxon had a good line about the choice between the Government and the Opposition was the Government was for 6000 doctors, the Opposition was for 6000 g0lf balls. But it was pretty much a by-the-numbers response, especially on the day of such a big announcement. 

Bowen had a few good quips about the negotiations between the ALP and the Libs, and saying “A funny thing happened on the way to the Senate”. And when revealing that proposed amendments to the legislation to the Medicare refunding Bill were actually unconstitutional, he sneered that “The Leader of the Opposition isn’t the sort of bloke to let a little thing like the Australian Constitution get in the way” . He then compared Abbott with Geoff Boycott –“the great blocker”. I give his effort a “B”.

Gillard revealed that while Abbott, Hockey and Joyce have all been saying they would review the Building the Education Revolution funding if they were to win office, Chris Pyne had apparently written a letter to Principals saying the funding would not be cut. It was good, but hardly up to her effort of last Thursday.

Tanner was ok, but he set up a joke about a mile out on Abbott not exercising his brain. The problem was he started saying “how the Leader of the Opposition enjoys exercising…” and everyone in the room knew he was going to make a pun about exercise.

So what was the wash up of the day? Not much really. All we learned was that Abbott hates talking about Health or his own PPL scheme, and he thinks he can trouble Rudd by bowling him slow medium pacers (though we knew that already).

Tomorrow morning Newspoll will be out. It will be interesting to see how the various PPL schemes fare. In today’s Essential Media Report the Abbott scheme did not go all that well – and by “not all that well” I mean is died a horrible death – only 24% supported it. 40% supported the Government's scheme (a scheme I should add which has had hardly been marketed by the Government up till last week, and even then they talked mostly about the Abbott scheme).

Unless Newspoll reveals something massively different, expect no more questions from Abbott on his own PPL scheme. Will he find a topic that can actually land some blows, let alone draw some blood? Unlikely – and this is the last week before Budget season, so time is a wasting., especially in an election year…


C@tmomma said...

I would love to read your thoughts about tonight's 4 Corners program on Abbott.
To my eyes it looked like Abbott doesn't mind throwing verbal hand grenades into the government's tent, then running away from them. As long as he snags the headlines in the media as a result. Consistency of position isn't the point. Undermining the ALP in whatever way, shape or form, is. If he can erode their support enough, then he can defeat them at the election, then he's free to introduce whatever the hell policy he wants.

Grog said...

put C@tmomma - Abbott says things hta make a headline then the next day he's all "what I really meant to say was..." - eg the $250m to the TV networks was "a bribe".

The problem as I see it however is that such a stratgey makes it very difficult for anyone to keep taking everything you say seriously.

And to be PM, everything you say needs to be taken seriously.