The art of failing upwards

In this country, the powerful always fail up.

Consider Barnaby Joyce, a man restored to the second most important job in the nation after resolving precisely none of the issues that precipitated his departure.

Joyce, you will recall, denounced the free provision of the Gardasil cervical cancer vaccine as a licence for girls ‘to be promiscuous’– and then dumped his wife for the staffer with whom he was having a baby.

He resigned from cabinet when rural advocate Catherine Marriott accused him of sexual harassment. The National Party subsequently declared itself unable to make a determination over Marriott’s allegations.

Neither that less-than-resounding result nor subsequent claims about his reputation as a groper prevented Joyce from clambering back into his old $433,000 a role – and, into the bargain, replacing Michael McCormack on the special cabinet taskforce into the status of women.

The tide that floated Barnaby’s boat also elevated his ally Bridget McKenzie, restored to a ministerial position despite a finding by the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet that she breached the code of conduct in the small matter of $100 million worth of grants. As the Guardian’s Amy Remeikis commented, McKenzie’s resurrection means ‘there is now no-one who has suffered any long term consequences for any actions in this government.’

The Robodebt saga provides an even more comprehensive demonstration of the prevailing culture of impunity.

In the Federal Court, where the taxpayer has been lumped with some $1.8 billion in payouts, Justice Bernard Murphy declared Robodebt a ‘shameful chapter’ and a ‘massive failure in public administration’ that resulted in  ‘financial hardship, anxiety and distress, including suicidal ideation and in some cases suicide’.

Yet the same government that deemed it appropriate to present single parents, the unemployed and the mentally ill with algorithmically-calculated debts and then demand they prove their innocence now fights to prevent the release of documentation about which ministers signed off on the illegal scheme.

You can thank Scott Morrison for paving the fail-trail up which his carefree subordinates now so happily clamber. ‘I don’t hold a hose, mate,’ he told a 2GB host as he phoned in from his Hawaiian holiday during the bushfire catastrophe.

He doesn’t, we now know, hear an allegation, either, responding to Brittany Higgins’ claims of a parliamentary rape by disciplining his staff for somehow keeping him in the dark. Nor does he jab a syringe, with his government insisting that vaccination ‘is not a race’, while where two-thirds of staff in aged care homes remain unimmunised.

Harry Truman supposedly maintained a sign on his desk explaining, ‘The buck stops here’. The Morrison version would read: ‘Daniel Andrews infected the buck.’

A few days ago, a draft of the next report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change leaked to AFP. The UN’s science advisors explained that the acceleration of global warming was bringing ‘species extinction, more widespread disease, unliveable heat, ecosystem collapse [and] cities menaced by rising seas’.

Think of that when you see the famous photo of Scott Morrison caressing a lump of coal in the House of Representatives, with Barnaby Joyce beside him, beaming with the satisfaction of a toddler that’s just filled its nappy.

Of course, back in the day, Morrison and Joyce were assisted in their crusade to burn fossil fuels by the former finance minister Mathias Cormann, described by environmental journalist Ketan Joshi as ‘central to the Abbott Government’s attempts to raze every single clean energy and climate policy to the ground’.

After retiring from the senate, Cormann deployed a government jet, a full time staff of eight people and million dollars or so of taxpayers’ money to secure himself a $383,000-a-year tax-free job heading up the OECD.

In that capacity, he somehow keeps a straight face as he piously lectures the nations of the world on the name for ‘ambitious’ plans to reach net zero emissions.

On climate, as on everything else, our leaders know they can soar away from the disasters they create, lifted skyward by their own privilege and the hot air from the conservative commentariat. The rest of us will not be so lucky.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

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  1. When I visited Paris just before the pandemic I had the feeling French people would burn buses if their government did what ours does. I know that’s not necessarily the answer but I believe our government does whatever it wants secure in the knowledge any breaches or dishonesty will just blow over. Whatever happened to the land purchased at excessive prices for a second Sydney airport? Perhaps we are all too busy at home catching up on Married at First sight to care.

  2. How does this change? Squashed between the forces of apathy, hopelessness, and new middle-class desperation for a home and stability, where can we gain a foothold against this metastasised rot?

    Excellent summary all the same.

  3. It makes my blood boil and yet, no one around me seems outraged or angry. People around me suggest that paying attention to politics is somehow beneath them while others turn a blind eye to what is going on because they’ve always voted for the Liberals (for the economy). The local papers barely report these issues, so unless you read widely, people barely know what’s going on. I wish I had an answer.
    Well done Jeff, an excellent article and summary.

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