PRESS GALLERY SKETCH: The Medevac Bill and Banking Royal Commission

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This week saw the Government lose a vote on own legislation for first time in almost 80 years (Screenshot via YouTube)

Canberra correspondent John Passant reports on the details of the two biggest parliamentary topics to happen this week.

THE MINORITY Morrison Government suffered a huge defeat on Wednesday. The Senate passed the Medical Evacuation Bill. It now awaits royal assent. The Governor-General will sign it soon and this bill, one the Morrison Government vehemently opposed, will become law.

Essentially, the new law will allow doctors in Australia to determine that an asylum seeker or refugee on our concentration camps of Manus Island and Nauru, given the nature of their illness, must be bought to Australia for medical attention.

The Government has responded by announcing it will re-open the Christmas Island Detention Centre for medical transfers and in anticipation of a supposed influx of new arrivals their fearmongering predicts. In other words, those we already make sick by imprisonment on remote islands for having committed no crimes will be sent to a remote prison in Australia far from prying eyes for medical treatment. 

For those who do not know, Christmas Island is an island close to Indonesia that the UK transferred sovereignty over from Singapore to Australia in 1958. It is 7,368 kilometres from Melbourne.

The hospital there is not suitable for dealing with severe mental and physical issues — the sort of severe issues likely to be suffered by those we imprison on Manus Island and Nauru. It was not suitable when it was functioning as a detention centre until it closed on 30 September 2018; it will deliberately not be adequate under this government for incoming transfers of sick people from Nauru and Manus Island.

There has been some discussion in the media about the defeat being a vote of no confidence in the Government. It is not about to resign or to fall. Three at least of the crossbenchers in the House who voted for the Medical Evacuation Bill will not support a no-confidence motion in the Government.

If question time on Wednesday is any guide for the behaviour of the Government until the election in May, then hold on to your hats. On their side, it was all Dorothy Dixers about border protection and national security. The answers included lies about murderers, rapists, and paedophiles being allowed into Australia. Let’s leave aside the fact that convicted criminals are entitled to health care. For example, doctors and nurses are working to keep Tony Mokbel alive.

In any event, Labor’s amendments exclude serious criminals. So, the Government has to talk in vague terms about suspects, people being investigated or even people who are charged. Its evidence to support this is flimsy and mere hearsay. “We are told”, “security agencies advise”, that sort of mealy-mouthed wording.

At one stage, the Prime Minister began pointing at Labor members while shouting “On your head, your head, and your head” when responding to a question about people drowning at sea.

Labor stayed well away from the Medical Evacuation Bill in Question Time. Its focus was the Banking Royal Commission. Why did the Government vote 26 times against establishing one? Why won’t the Government extend the sitting days to legislate the 76 recommendations of the Banking Royal Commission?

The answers ranged from the defensible once or twice to the bizarre or irrelevant more often. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg led the response. We should not rush these matters. Okay, but what then have you been doing as a government for the last 12 months since the Royal Commission began to reveal the dark truth about the very profitable Australian banks?

Most of the time, Frydenberg responded with a mantra about the 17,000 mortgage brokers Labor was supposedly going to bankrupt and their 28,000 employees they will send to the unemployment heap. It is not clear that removing tailing commissions will have any major effect, but the self-interested have begun their campaign.

Frydenberg’s other ploy was to ask where Labor’s responses were. Labor’s answer was they accepted all 76 recommendations — itself a non-answer. He also threw in references to Labor’s retiree tax hitting hundreds of thousands across Australia.

Interestingly, before Question Time, in the 90 seconds that backbenchers have to make whatever points they want, one Government backbencher mentioned he had constituents, whom he named by first name and suburb, who stood to lose $30,000, $40,000 and $50,000 from Labor’s reforms to franking credits. To suffer that sort of hit and assuming a very generous dividend return of 5%, such people would have share investments of $1 million or so. Not your ordinary Joe or Jenny.

Assuming a 5 per cent return, a full franking credit of $50,000 would arise on dividends of around $166,000. The tax payable on that amount, plus the $50,000 credit – in other words, the tax payable on $216,000 – would be $70,436. The credit would reduce that tax payable by $50,000, leaving this very wealthy person just $20,436 to pay in tax on their massive dividend income.

I suspect the backbencher is referring to his constituent’s superannuation fund. It is unclear to me why a person with a superannuation balance of $4M in shares should receive a payment from the Government of $50,000 to add to their fund. Workers pay 9.5 per cent in the form of wages forgone into their superannuation fund. The average male worker in the 60-64 age demographic – approaching retirement after 25 years of the Superannuation Guarantee – has a superannuation balance of just $270,000. The backbencher’s constituent has a superannuation fund 15 times that of the average worker. With a fund that size, they are much more likely to be a former banking CEO, such as Don Argus, than an ordinary worker.

I do not think the franking credits scare campaign is going to resonate if Labor can make the case that the people affected are well off and getting a tax-free ride. Using the example above to highlight the people affected are odds on more likely to be bankers or ex-bankers than workers on the average wage might help them prosecute the case.  That would require a class argument, something the conservative Labor leadership might not be prepared to undertake.

After Question Time finished, the Manager of Opposition Business raised a matter of privilege in relation to Tim Wilson and his conduct of the enquiry into Labor’s franking credit reforms. Nothing may come of it, but stay tuned.

Back to banking. I could imagine a government committed to addressing the Royal Commission recommendations introducing a bill into the Parliament before the election dealing with key, uncontroversial measures agreed to with the Opposition. Not this government.

Labor’s message that the Government is running a protection racket for the banks will continue to resonate. But so, too, will the Government’s propaganda that Labor is soft on refugees and asylum seekers. My own thoughts are that this seeming stalemate is resolving itself in Labor’s favour.

More people are beginning to recognise the cruel nature of the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. On top of that, there are tens of millions of Australians who are angry with the banks for the mistreatment they have meted out to customers. They do not understand why none of the banking crooks are in shackles before the courts, let alone why there is no legislation to stop ongoing and future abuses.

A number of the Labor backbenchers’ 90-second contributions before the start of Question Time mentioned it was the 11-year anniversary of Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. Yet, despite those fine words, kids are still being stolen. Will it be that nothing really changes for refugees and asylum seekers despite the Medical Evacuation Bill? Will it be business as usual for the banks, despite the 76 recommendations of the Banking Royal Commission?

If Labor were to produce a plan of action for dealing with the Banking Royal Commission recommendations before or during the election campaign, I think they will be on a winner. They seem some distance from that at the moment.

You can follow Canberra correspondent John Passant on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformedare available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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