Yesterday I made note that very, very little of what occurs in Question Time has a connection with the real world. Today was a nice example of that, which make you think “there is no sense in trying”.
Yesterday, as well, I made note that Joe Hockey was nowhere to be seen, well today he made up for it – stepping up to the plate no less than seven times. And all of his questions were directed to Wayne Swan. And all of his questions were on the one issue. So you’d have to figure the issue was a big one – you know the type that might end his career.
The issue related to the WA Government announcing in the state budget last week that it was increasing the the royalty rate on iron ore fines from 5.625 per cent to 7.5 per cent by 2014.
Wayne Swan a day after the decision went on AM on ABC radio and said this:
WAYNE SWAN: Well first of all Mr Barnett did not communicate that he was going to do this to us.
There were discussions before the budget last year about how he would support a resource rent tax and that there would be significant investment in Western Australia as a result of all of that.
And that is the road that the Commonwealth Government has gone down. We want to use the revenue from the resource rent tax to invest in infrastructure and mining communities, to give a tax cut to small business and a lowering of the corporate rate. That's what we are going to do with the revenue that we receive when that legislation passes the Parliament.
But what Mr Barnett has done here is just very strange. He didn't communicate with us about this move in this budget. He didn't get our tick. He didn't discuss it with us. And Mr Barnett I think is simply playing a political game.
Now this morning, via The Oz, WA Premier Barnett says that was a load of hooey and that Swan knew last year that WA was going to increase the royalty fines, because a letter was sent in May suggesting that they would do it.
Hockey, never one to miss a chance to make mountains out of molehills, came bounding up to the dispatch box off the long run and thundered to Swan seeking him to explain his misleading “the Australian public” (or at least the audience of AM).
Hockey – acting like he had found Swan with a walkie-talkie in the Watergate building – asked about letters from the WA Government, briefs from his Department to him suggesting that WA might raise the royalty rate, and other discussions he had on the issue. And then to top it all off, Hockey thought he really had the smoking gun, when he got Swan to admit that the day before the WA Budget Swan’s chief of staff was given notice of the change by the chief of staff of Barnett.
Swan could have got all defensive and suggested “someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press”. But he didn’t need to. The attack was hardly withering.
The Libs – predictably – launched a motion to suspend standing orders. But the wording of the very long motion is interesting and gives away just how dopey were the Liberal’s tactics:
Mr Abbott, 3:10:23 PM, moved—That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent the Member for Warringah moving immediately—That this House calls on the Treasurer to explain to the Parliament why:
(1) he falsely stated on ABC Radio on 20 May 2011 in relation to the removal of a concessional rate of iron ore royalty by the Western Australian Government that “Mr Barnett did not communicate that he was going to do this to us,.. But what Mr Barnett has done here is just very strange. He didn’t communicate with us about this move in this budget. He didn’t get our tick. He didn’t discuss it with us.”;
(2) he failed to disclose that in early 2010, Western Australian Treasury officials advised the Commonwealth that WA proposed to remove this concessional royalty rate;
(3) he failed to disclose that on 10 May 2010 the WA Treasury wrote to the Commonwealth Treasury advising that the WA Government proposed to remove this concessional royalty rate;
(4) he failed to disclose that on 17 May 2010 the Commonwealth Treasury provided a brief to the Treasurer advising that WA proposed to remove this concessional royalty rate;
(5) he failed to disclose that on 17 May 2010 he gave a press conference in which he acknowledged that WA was “looking at very substantial increases in the royalties”;
(6) he failed to disclose that on 17 May 2010 he gave a speech in which he stated “We’re prepared to talk further with state governments who might have been making their own plans to capture a fairer share of resource wealth through lifting royalties.”;
(7) he failed to disclose that the minerals resources rent tax costings prepared by Commonwealth Treasury assumed a state royalty rate of 7.5%, which is the iron ore royalty rate in WA with the concession removed;
(8) he failed to disclose that in February 2011 he directed the Commonwealth Grants Commission not to modify its methodology in response to WA’s proposals to remove concessional royalty rates;
(9) he failed to disclose that on 18 May 2011 the Chief of Staff of the WA Premier telephoned the Treasurer’s Chief of Staff to advise that WA would be removing this concessional royalty rate in its Budget on 19 May 2011; and
(10) after these examples of evidence that he was aware of WA’s proposal to remove this concessional royalty rate, that he stated on radio that WA had not communicated its intention to do this.
Now that looks like a long list. But when you look at all of them you see a lot of “proposed” (which is not the most definitive statement ever – and certainly not “announced”), and that the first six relate to a period before the Minerals Resource Rent Tax was thought up, which did change the policy ground rather a little. But the really big thing missing from the whole motion is the call for a censure of Swan. All they wanted was for him to “explain” himself.
Well big deal.
If they really had something they would have gone for his throat.
When it all boiled down, they had nothing of any real consequence.
The Libs might say Swan lied, but the key parts of Swan’s statement on the ABC are him saying this:
He didn't communicate with us about this move in this budget. He didn't get our tick. He didn't discuss it with us.
Well I think the WA Govt telling you 24 hours before they announce it in the budget is kind of the equivalent of someone telling you they’re going to hit you in the face just as they hit you in the face. The Libs certainly aren’t suggesting the Government gave the increase a tick, nor are they suggesting that there was any real discussion. So it all comes down to what you mean by “communicate with us”.
But here’s the real point. What does it matter even if the WA Government did communicate with Swan? Swan is not, for example, denying he contributed funds to an organisation without declaring it, or even lying on radio about bringing in a new tax.
If Swan had lied it does not mean the Commonwealth Government is suddenly liable for something which it otherwise would not, or that Swan had done something untoward. The actual impact of whether or not Swan lied is strictly political – there are no real world implications. It’s not like with the “Rudd-Utegate” emails, where if they were true it would essentially have shown that Rudd was trying to get his mate some special treatment.
And even more pathetic for Hockey's and Abbott’s attack is that they are suggesting all this “misleading” occurred to the ABC in a radio interview, not in Parliament. Now if Swan said in Parliament that his office had never received a phone call, or that his Department had never received any correspondence on 10 May 2010 etc. Well then he’d be in trouble, because he’d be lying to Parliament. But this? This is Swan making a political case in an interview on radio that the Libs disagree with. That’s not a lie; that’s politics.
But when it comes to lying to the media, the best defence on such matters was that given by a Minister:
"Misleading the ABC is not quite the same as misleading the Parliament as a political crime."
And when I say “Minister”, I mean Minister in the Howard Government.
And when I say “Minister in the Howard Government”, I mean Tony Abbott in 2000.
Back then he was found to have lied to 4 Corners about his involvement in funding the legal campaign of disaffected One Nation members to have it declared invalid under electoral laws. Abbott established the fund before the 1998 election, but did not declare it to Parliament until after the election. In 2003 Annabel Crabb reported:
But last night's statement confirms that only two weeks after making that denial, he established a formal trust, Australians for Honest Politics, which collected $100,000 to funnel into anti-One Nation legal actions.
Mr Abbott confirmed that at the time of making the statements to Four Corners, he had already promised to underwrite the legal costs of disaffected One Nation litigant Terry Sharples.
"Strictly speaking, no money at all had been offered," Mr Abbott said last night.
"The lawyers I organised were acting without charge and the support for costs which I had promised would only become an issue in the event of a costs order being made against Sharples."
Mr Abbott apologised for the "flippancy" of remarks he made to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2000.
Asked by the newspaper about his fund-raising work for the trust, he replied: "Misleading the ABC is not quite the same as misleading the Parliament as a political crime."
I guess things have changed for Abbott now.
But the real big ‘who gives a damn’ about all of this is that the Libs spent the entirety of Question Time asking Swan about the WA Government’s decision but focussed on Swan instead of focussing on the real issue of what will that decision have on the Budget.
What will happen to the budget surplus? Has the Government got a contingency in place? What will happen to the GST carve up? What will happen to proposed infrastructure spends in WA? What if QLD raise royalties? Will the MRRT need to be amended? Why didn’t the Government anticipate this increase? etc etc etc.
Playing the man is fine, but here the ball was there to be won and the Libs completely missed it.
It was a real “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is” moment.
In the Matter of Public Importance moved by Julie Bishop after QT on “The adverse impacts of Government policy on the mining sector” she reeled off dates of letters and correspondence and briefings and phone calls like she was some big-city lawyer, but she rather forgot to talk about the impact of the decision – and she sure as hell did not get round to actually talking about “The adverse impacts of Government policy on the mining sector” (mostly because for all the bleating by the mining sector and the Libs, the sector is doing quite nicely thank you).
Tomorrow night is the State of Origin, so the Libs probably won’t bother going for any big hits tomorrow – knowing full well the public and media on Wednesday night and Thursday morning will be focussed on Rugby League – and so today was a good day to attack the Government's policy. Instead they focussed on politics and wasted another Question Time.
Talk about mixed up confusion.