To see the dysfunctional, debt-drunk, elected-by-fluke dominated Senate in action, I attended the final Senate question time of the year last Thursday to see if the most accomplished hypocrites of the Senate, the three malevolent monkeys – who see only ill, speak only ill and hear only ill – were up to their usual chimpcraft.
The first question of the day came from malevolent monkey number one, the chip-weighted shop steward from Scotland, Labor's Senator Doug Cameron. He did not disappoint.
Cameron: "I refer to [Defence Minister David Johnston's] spring culinary tour of Australia, which has currently clocked up over $6000 of spending in restaurants in Perth, Adelaide and Canberra. Can the minister confirm that his culinary tour included a $190 bottle of Henschke Mount Edelstone shiraz …" And so on.
The minister responded with the obvious: after Australia hosted the G20 summit he entertained 25 visiting defence officials, including the French Minister of Defence (can't offer mediocre wine to a French cabinet minister) and the cost of the hospitality was within official guidelines.
Senator Cameron popped up again: "With ADF personnel now receiving a real pay cut, isn't the minister's tax-funded fine-dining tour just another example of a government that has got its priorities all wrong, or is this just the minister's attempt to line up a job as a food and wine critic once he is shuffled out of the ministry?"
What a wit!
Next up was Labor's Senator Stephen Conroy, the machine enforcer who I first encountered using parliament by reading an anonymous smear sheet about a union rival, using the protection of parliamentary privilege.
Conroy: "Can the [Defence] minister confirm that two of his staff … were escorted out of Parliament House yesterday without being allowed even to clean out their desks? Does the minister take responsibility for the chaos and dysfunction in his office?"
This question was related to leaks coming from the minister's office, not unrelated to details emerging about a $190 bottle of Henschke Mount Edelstone shiraz, et al.
Given that the office of the Minister for Defence must have tight security, the identification of leaks appears to have been efficient rather than chaotic. The minister, of course, could not elaborate.
Through all this, the third malevolent monkey, Labor's Senator Kim Carr, who sits in the front-row of the opposition benches alongside Cameron and Conroy, completed the chorus of pettiness with a stream of screeching interjections, a habit made even more off-putting by his high-pitched voice.
The malevolent monkeys present a charisma-free political circus, without shame. It was Senator Conroy who gave the nation the monumental financial sinkhole of the National Broadband Network, which was never costed and immediately out of financial control and behind schedule. It was about to blow a $30 billion hole in the budget estimates by the time Labor lost office.
The irony of this circus is that Senator Johnston has been an effective defence minister who inherited a defence budget that had been cut to 1.56 per cent of GDP, the lowest level since 1938. With the budget cuts came a depleted operational capacity.
Within a year Johnston had implemented several major acquisitions to upgrade Australia's forward defence, notably ordering 58 Joint Strike Fighters, the P8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and the Triton long-range reconnaissance unmanned aircraft.
He restored the defence relationship with Indonesia. He upgraded the defence relationship with Japan. He improved defence ties with China.
To his credit – though also to his embarrassment – he became the first minister to acknowledge the serial maladministration of the Australian Submarine Corporation over many years when he said during question time on November 25:
"ASC was delivering no submarines in 2009 for $1 billion. They have not improved their output … They are $350 million over budget on three air-warfare destroyer builds. I am being conservative. It is probably more than $600 million but because the data is so bad I cannot tell you. You wonder why I am worried about ASC and what they are delivering to the Australian taxpayer. Do you wonder why I wouldn't trust them to build a canoe?"
At last the truth about this from a defence minister. Billions of dollars have been poured down the drain by both sides of politics on this giant pork barrel for South Australia. The ASC could build a canoe, but it would cost a million dollars and spend more time in repairs than on the water.
The ASC has accumulated an abominable record of cost over-runs and should never have been awarded the air warfare destroyer contract. Johnston's refreshing candour was an admission that the ASC has been a financial sinkhole for decades. It is more a strategic liability than a strategic asset.
Senator Johnston is also the first Defence Minister is a hundred years to seriously confront the bullying sub-culture in the Australian military, which has a recorded history of rationalising these practices dating back to 1913. The flow-on is the abysmal record of sexual assault inside the Royal Australian Navy and the large number of sexual abusers who have escaped sanction across the three military services.
The further irony in the outrage about costs by the three Labor senators is that the cost to the taxpayers of maintaining them in salaries, superannuation, allowances, accommodation, travel, staff and offices approaches $1 million a year. They ride the gravy train, drive the debt spiral, and screech about costs.
As I departed the chamber on Thursday, Senator Cameron was shouting across the chamber at a Liberal senator, "A big dummy spit! You big baby! Big baby!"
No wit. No shame. No irony. And on these three votes the fate of national policy is being decided.
Paul Sheehan SMH
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