Rich vitriol shrouds budget extravagance
I preferred Robotic Julia. Now we have Furious Julia. Is there no middle course for the Prime Minister? Are we now seeing the cumulative strain of the cost of attaining power and maintaining a minority government whose legitimacy is based on the votes of a pathological liar, a disgraced Speaker and two rural independents who can't add up?
Furious Julia has become obsessed with the Leader of the Opposition, a level of personal animus that has reached the point of becoming the defining issue of federal politics. It may provide a voyeuristic soap opera for the political class and the Canberra press gallery but it is unhealthy politics and it is toxic policy.
With power comes responsibility. The government controls the funding, the resources, the policies, the Parliament. It thus owns the tone.
The tone is vicious and it comes from the very top. I have compiled a database of Gillard's personal attacks on Tony Abbott's character and they now number in the hundreds. Last Monday's column provided a salty sample but that was barely a spritz of Gillard's acid rain.
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister indulged in yet another insulting commentary on Abbott's character but this time it leached into diplomatic spheres and indirectly insulted the President of Indonesia, a staunch friend of Australia.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was sucked into Gillard's fixation when, as Abbott was still in meetings with Indonesian officials, the Prime Minister described his discussions with the President as ''cowardly'', even though she was not privy to the talks. Such meetings should be beyond the pale of domestic political brawling.
This was a breach of protocol over an issue, asylum seekers, which has been an unmitigated disaster for the government. It is now spending $1.4 billion a year on a problem of its own making. The waste is mind-boggling. The opposition spokesman on immigration, Scott Morrison, pointed out last week that the spending in the 2011-12 financial year averaged $12.8 million for every illegal boat arrival, or $172,700 for every person on board.
Abbott was in Indonesia trying to get a handle on this mess when Gillard launched her second smear-and-smokescreen in successive weeks. On October 9, after getting caught out protecting the unseemly conduct of her chosen speaker, Peter Slipper, Gillard responded in Parliament with a squall of acid rain about Abbott's character.
But we now know, thanks to the bungling Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon (herself no stranger to the vituperative spray as a diversion), that the government had been aware of Slipper's stream of crude sexual comments when the Prime Minister launched into Abbott.
Her flame-throwing about ''sexism'' and ''misogyny'' was thus not just hypocrisy, it was personal animus masked as principle, a smear without content, a smokescreen without shame.
All this proved a convenient distraction from the political substance of the past week, the Senate hearings into the budget estimates, which revealed a rolling series of policy debacles. If you were wondering how the government could spend so much money maintaining a failed border security policy, the Senate estimates hearings offered gold nuggets such as these:
Already $2 million has been spent flying 260 asylum seekers from Christmas Island to Nauru, an average cost of $7600 per person, or four times the price of an economy round-trip fare from Australia to London.
The government paid the Tasmanian ambulance service $543,000 for what turned out to be 11 trips to the Pontville detention centre near Hobart, a cost of $49,363 per trip.
Other lowlights from the Senate estimate hearings:
After 3½ years, the NBN Co had signed 6400 households to its network, a rate of five households a day, even though the company has one employee for every 15 customers.
Fair Work Australia has spent $1.8 million on outside legal and accounting advice for its investigation into the Health Services Union. This does not include the cost of the department's legal action against the MP Craig Thomson for his alleged role in the widespread rorting of union funds while he was an official with the HSU.
The Home Insulation Program, infamous as the pink batts scheme, has cost $2.15 billion in installation and clean-up costs, a wild blow-out in government forecasts.
The Attorney-General's Department used 19 lawyers and spent $730,000 to settle and pay $50,000 in damages to a former aide to Slipper, all while the Attorney-General was dismissing the case as vexatious.
Officials from the Department of Defence confirmed that the $200 billion cost of acquiring the capabilities outlined in the government's 2009 defence white paper is almost completely unfunded.
Spin: the Department of Industry spent $156,000 trying to prevent The Australian Financial Review from publishing details of government subsidies to the union-dominated car industry.
More spin: the Department of Broadband prepared articles extolling the benefits of the national broadband network and sent them to 22 ''NBN champions'' urging them to get the articles published under their own names.
The Department of Climate is spending $20.5 million on a fit-out of its new headquarters building in Canberra, including a stainless steel executive wine cabinet and Nespresso machines in all eight staff kitchens.
Today, the government will release a revised set of budget estimates. They will show, of course, a deterioration since May. The Treasurer will attribute this largely to a shortfall in revenue caused by the decline in commodity prices. It will have nothing to do with waste, incompetence and excessive spending. It will also be Abbott's fault, for talking down the economy with his ''reckless negativity''.