If this week’s hysterical rehashing of an old and all-too-familiar script in Parliament is anything to go by, a government facing oblivion is prepared to trash every convention to retain power.
The Prime Minister is likely to call the election for May after his Treasurer hands down the Budget next month, but he has been in campaign mode for some time.
With opinion polls staying south for the Coalition and pressure on his leadership from within, evidenced by a series of leaks, Scott Morrison and his Defence Minister Peter Dutton, threw away whatever bipartisanship there was on national security by claiming without substance that Labor was China’s choice and leader Anthony Albanese was soft on the new superpower.
They did so by seizing on the comments from ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess in his annual threat assessment about foreign interference and an unidentified and foiled plot to bankroll candidates, and media reports, based on unnamed security sources, which filled in the spaces to name the foreign country as China and NSW Labor as the target.
The “yellow peril” threat is as old as this country and “reds under the beds” was a winner during the Cold War, but for the PM to suggest that Labor Deputy Leader Richard Marles was a “Manchurian candidate” took what now passes for public debate in this country to a new low and reeks of desperation.
There are very real concerns about China’s more aggressive stance in the region and the trade punishment meted out to Australia for daring to challenge President Xi’s new order.
Both the Coalition and Labor share those concerns, but now Mr Morrison is ratcheting up his rhetoric to confect a difference and wedge Mr Albanese.
Where does that leave ASIO, the other security agencies and Defence?
They are in the invidious position a few months out from an election of being recruited to the Coalition’s cause whether they like it or not.
They cannot be sure how information provided to government will be used.
Mr Burgess twice this week, before Estimates and on the ABC’s 7.30, made it clear ASIO was non-partisan and would not be used for political advantage.
“ASIO is not here to be politicised. It should not be,” he said.
“We’re here to protect Australians from threats. We are guided by law and that law requires us to act in an apolitical fashion and not lend favour to one element of society or another, or one party or another,” Mr Burgess said.
He confirmed that political interference was not limited to one side of politics.
All governments use the power of incumbency and its access to the resources of the public service but the Coalition appears to take particular interest in spending taxpayers’ money in its own interests.
There are now three reports from the Auditor-General calling out the government’s administration of the multi-million dollar grants system and how it has tended to favour Coalition seats or be used to target marginal Labor seats at election time.
The Auditor-General has highlighted ministerial intervention and lobbying, breaching guidelines, unsupported approvals and a lack of fairness and equity.
It is now a tainted system in which a supposedly apolitical public service has been compromised.
In the lead-up to the election, the pressure from a desperate government to roll out the pork barrel and a long list of announcables will be enormous.
How will the public service cope with this pressure, whether it be grants or environmental approvals?
Will good economic policy be thrown out the window to frame a Budget full of election bribes?
If a panicky government is happy to play loose with national security to run the mother of all scare campaigns and paint the Opposition as treasonous, what else will it be prepared to do?
Public service chiefs insist that the professionalism is there for the APS to do its job properly, but there is enough evidence over the past decade that this reputation has frayed at the edges.
If Labor does win the election, there may be a reckoning for some when its Ministers get behind their desks.