Scott Morrison has so far refused to release the report into the sports rort saga. (ABC News: Jed Cooper)
Among the (many) tensions of day-to-day political reporting is the need to reveal things that may seem inexplicably outrageous to those outside the political process, but also to explain why these inexplicable things have happened.
For example, a party room coup against a prime minister might seem like a cunning stunt to the political apparatchiks in the party, but like a really bad idea to voters who were living under the misapprehension that it was them who got to change the prime minister.
The challenge is to be able to see, and report, on things using two completely different parts of your brain, and sometimes magnetically opposing moral compasses.
Reporting just on the manoeuvrings is the sort of stuff that our Prime Minister likes to dismiss as coming from “the Canberra bubble”. (Flickr/ABC News)
Reporting just on the manoeuvrings is the sort of stuff that our Prime Minister likes to dismiss as coming from “the Canberra bubble”: that is, political machinations which the average punter doesn’t care about.
Reporting purely on the outrages of maladministration, or bad policy (without the context of the manoeuvrings) can equally sound just a little shrill and unworldly.
What’s the bigger picture?
And then there’s the grinding nature of stories that gradually unfold over days or weeks, leaving everyone a little glazed-eyed and confused about where the bigger picture is going.
How many people, for example, responded to stories on Friday about a $150 million electoral slush fund — known as the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream (FFWSS) — by asking out loud whether this was a different one to all the other grants programs that have been under the spotlight of late?
In fact, even the Prime Minister got confused when he was asked about the scheme in Townsville on Friday, thinking he was being asked about the $100 million Community Sports Infrastructure Fund, now so infamously overseen, in a colour-coded way, by Bridget McKenzie.
Stories rich in detail and political manoeuvring are not the sole preserve of Australian politics of course.
How many people in the UK, for example, had any idea at all what politicians — or journalists — were talking about in all the iterations of Brexit negotiations over the past couple of years?
And most spectacularly, before the caravan moves on, let’s stop and consider the impeachment of US President Donald Trump.
They voted not to know anything
Let’s put aside for a moment the actual issues at stake here — that the US President was prepared to use American foreign policy to achieve a domestic political hit on an opponent, in a particularly volatile part of the world — and consider the bigger, and smaller, picture.
This was a story which was always framed in much reporting by the context of previous impeachment attempts, particularly those of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
This was a story which was always framed in much reporting by the context of previous impeachment attempts. (Reuters: Leah Millis)
But, quite reasonably, the day-to-day reporting became about the machinations being used by the Democrats and Republicans to progress, or stymie, the process of impeachment. This is the normal stuff of politics.
But it is sometimes worth sitting back and just remembering what has happened at the end of the day.
With one or two honourable exceptions, the Republicans in the US Senate didn’t just vote not to impeach President Trump, they voted not to know anything.
They voted against hearing from witnesses.
And the potential witnesses who were already on the public record were hardly minor bureaucrats down the feed chain.
They included Trump’s own former national security adviser John Bolton, who confirmed that Trump had told him that he would withhold military aid from Ukraine until it acceded to Trump’s demands for politically motivated investigations. Bolton said he was willing to testify.
They also possibly included Trump’s former chief of staff, John Kelly, who backed Bolton, saying he believed his account.
Republicans voted not to hear from any more witnesses, even though many of them put on the record their belief that Trump had acted exactly as alleged.
There were all sorts of excuses for this, such as that it was the job of the House of Representatives to develop the case for Trump’s Senate impeachment trial.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said she would not vote to convict President Trump even though his attempts to get Ukraine to investigate the son of Democratic presidential aspirant Joe Biden were “shameful and wrong”.
“Based on what we heard, clearly a factor in that was the President was looking for a certain action from President Zelensky as it related to the Bidens,” she said. “I believe that.”
Apparently though, the real fault lay with the House and the “rank partisanship” in the Senate
“So many in this chamber share my sadness for the present state of our institutions. It’s my hope that we’ve finally found bottom here.”
With one or two honourable exceptions, the Republicans in the US Senate didn’t just vote not to impeach President Trump, they voted not to know anything. (Reuters: Leah Millis)
An unaccountable government isn’t unfamiliar
The path to getting to an impeachment vote lay in agreeing to hear more witnesses. And by denying that, the Senate was not forced to listen or expose the President’s actions
“No witnesses, no documents in an impeachment trial is a perfidy,” said the Senator Minority Leader, Democrat Chuck Schumer.
“It is a grand tragedy. America will remember this day, unfortunately, where the Senate did not live up to its responsibilities.”
The lack of curiosity, and the growing chutzpah of governments who think they can remain unaccountable, is sadly not unfamiliar to us here.
Senator Bridget McKenzie was forced to resign over the sports rort saga. (Supplied: The Wangaratta Clay Target Club)
In the past week, we have watched the Prime Minister rely on the report of our most public servant, Phil Gaetjens, to allegedly clear his Government of any wrong doing over the sports rorts affair, despite what the auditor-general, who is a legislated servant of the parliament not the executive, has said about this scheme.
Despite relying on the report, Scott Morrison refuses to release it, claiming dubious precedence and cavalier about the damage it does to the reputation of the public service when he asserts its contents.
And as the week ended, we have watched the reputation of the Australian Federal Police shredded by its splendid lack of curiosity about the involvement of ministers of the crown or their officers in distributing forged documents designed to damage political opponents.
This will be an important test
What hope for any of this to change?
The Senate has voted for an inquiry into the sports rorts affair. Its powers in relation to executive government are different to the relationship between the President and the Congress.
It can demand the appearance of ministers (if they are senators), and documents (potentially including the Gaetjens report), and even public servants, though not ministerial staff.
Governments of both persuasions have fought off Senate demands for information in the past.
This will be an important test of the Senate crossbench. Will Senators like Pauline Hanson sense the public mood is angry enough about all the pork-barrelling done by the Coalition in the lead up to last year’s election to back any Senate push for evidence, like the release of the Gaetjens report?
The Senate has procedural measures it can use to ramp up the pressure on the Government, like refusing to deal with government business unless a document is provided.
If the Senate crossbench backs such moves, we may actually find out a bit more about how the Government operates.
But the crossbench is at the heart of political wheeling and dealing.
Getting the Government out of a tight spot might just involve the sort of trade off on legislation to which have become so accustomed.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.