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PRESS GALLERY SKETCH: Christmas Island and the Helloworld scandal

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Parliament this week saw a surprise move by Bill Shorten regarding Christmas Island as well as questions over the Helloworld scandal, writes Canberra correspondent John Passant.

BILL SHORTEN has backflipped on the  Medevac Bill for refugees and asylum seekers imprisoned without charge on Manus Island and Nauru. Last week, Labor supported the Bill to bring sick people from these two concentration camps to Australia, but watered it down to limit its application to those already on the two islands.

Then, this Tuesday, the Government confirmed that the real reason for re-opening Christmas Island was to continue brutalising asylum seekers and refugees, even very sick ones. This rotten trick by the Government was its way of showing it was supposedly for strong borders, or border protection, or stopping the boats, or whatever the latest slogan of xenophobia and racism is.

Labor capitulated. In an ABC interview, Shorten said about re-opening Christmas Island on Tuesday:

“If the medical treatment is required and it is delivered on Christmas Island and it makes people well, well that’s fine. The issue here is the safe treatment of people, within the context of safe borders.”

Shorten knows as well as I do – and as well as Christmas Island Shire CEO David Price does – that the island is not suitable for treating sick refugees and asylum seekers.

As Price told Perth ABC Radio:

“We've got a hospital [but] it doesn't do operations. People are medevaced out quite regularly here for medical reasons as it's only a small regional hospital.”

Gordon Thomson, the President of the Shire, said on the 7.30 Report that the six-bed hospital was inadequate for the people of Christmas Island. All childbirth happens in Perth. So, too, does surgery. There are no mental health facilities. He thought that the people of Christmas Island overwhelmingly reject the Government’s move.

In my opinion, Shadow Minister for Immigration Shayne Neumann got it right the day before when he said in a BBC World Service Report:

Labor believes that the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has engaged in a ridiculous decision to reopen Christmas Island detention centre. It’s an hysterical and unhinged response from a desperate and dishonest Prime Minister who has lost control of the Parliament. It’s a blatant stunt.

 

This is a government that actually has brought 900 people to Australia for medical reasons and at the same time closed Christmas Island. Now that he’s lost control of the floor of Parliament – and a very good Bill has been passed by Labor, the crossbenchers and the Greens, to improve the medical outcomes for people on Manus and Nauru – he has decided on a whim to reopen Christmas Island. It really is a ridiculous decision.

Tanya Plibersek seemed to be hesitant about fully supporting Shorten, although she later denied any rift. Labor’s support for the Medevac Bill was an attempt to appeal to humanitarian voters, but at the same time appearing tough on asylum seekers. Hence the internal differences over Christmas Island. Labor is attempting to be the caring concentration camp guard, the “good cop” if you like.

The fact remains that Manus Island and Nauru are concentration camps and bringing people to a concentration camp on Christmas Island for medical treatment that likely does not exist doesn't alter that. There are no nice concentration camps.

In Question Time on Wednesday, the Government played to what is perceived to be its strengths on refugees, asylum seekers and border protection. Most Dorothy Dixers from its backbenchers were on border security in some convoluted fashion. In response, the Government beat its chest and unleashed its “we are tough” rhetoric. The Government also misrepresented the views of the member for Corio on mining jobs and made merry with accusations that Labor wants to sack 55,000 workers in Queensland.

Labor started off with a question mentioning the Queensland floods and insurance company rip-offs and the need to extend sitting days to legislate for the protection of consumers from rapacious insurers (in part, dealt with in the Banking Royal Commission). The Prime Minister waffled on about all the support the Government is giving those affected by the floods.

As time went on, Jim Chalmers, Labor member for Rankin and Shadow Finance Minister, asked a series of questions about the Helloworld scandal and, in particular, the apparent conflict of interest Joe Hockey, Australia’s Ambassador to the U.S. and a significant shareholder in Helloworld, has in relation to the travel company and its bids for – and travel contracts with – Government and agencies.

The Government fobbed him off suggesting these were mere accusations – not facts – and obfuscated with smokescreens about Hockey’s declaration of interest in 2018 and not being involved in any decisions on the contracts. Chalmers pointed out he was referring to meetings in 2017 on other matters.  

Chalmers also mentioned the difference between the Government’s treatment of its “Chumgate” mates (Chalmers’s description of this “travel for friends” line of enquiry) and people on government payments, like Centrelink. At a time when wages continue to fall, the Government is getting its mates to organise their free travel, or so Chalmers argued. 

At one stage, Christopher Pyne (representing the Foreign Minister in the House) praised Hockey as an outstanding Australian, unlike many Labor politicians.

Deep into Question Time, Chalmers moved to suspend standing orders to allow debate on a multi-pronged motion that basically said the Helloworld circumstances of Cormann, Hockey and the PM stank and the Government should come clean. That motion and debate revealed that Andrew Burnes and the Prime Minister are old colleagues from Tourism Australia days.

The motion stated:

I seek leave to move the following motion:

 

That the House

 

   (1) notes that:

(a) yesterday, it was revealed the Finance Minister received free flights to Singapore from Helloworld, which he booked by calling the CEO of this ASX-listed company directly, just before it was awarded a multimillion dollar whole-of-government contract by the Minister's own Department;

 

(b) today, it's been reported that U.S. Ambassador Joe Hockey – who has a million dollar shareholding in HelloWorld – helped a Helloworld subsidiary lobby for the Embassy's travel contract;

 

(c) the CEO of Helloworld and one of its largest shareholders, Andrew Burnes, is a Liberal Party heavyweight and current Liberal Party Treasurer, with connections to a number of Liberal Party politicians;

 

(d) the Finance Minister told Senate Estimates yesterday that he had “a close personal relationship” with Mr Burnes;

 

(e) Mr Burnes was previously a colleague of the now Prime Minister during the Prime Minister's time at Tourism Australia;

 

(f) since being awarded Government contracts, the share price of Helloworld has skyrocketed, making shareholders like Mr Hockey and Mr Burnes rich; and

 

(g) this morning, it was reported that the Herald Sun asked almost all of the 82 Liberal MPs in Parliament whether they had received free travel from Helloworld, but only 14 said they had not; and

 

(2) therefore, calls on the Prime Minister to investigate and report to the House how far this Helloworld scandal reaches into his Government.

Chalmers also mentioned that Melbourne’s Herald Sun had asked almost all the 82 Liberal Party members and senators if they had ever received free travel from Helloworld. At the time of going to press, 14 had responded they had not. What then of the other 68? Paul Bongiorno is hearing that there are at least four other Liberals who did not declare their free transport.

Chalmers also mentioned that since winning Government contracts, Helloworld’s share price had risen significantly. Hockey is a major shareholder.

The implication is clear — is this a case of mate's rates travel, contacts and contracts? Only by airing the dirty linen can the Morrison Government get rid of the rotten smell. Don’t hold your breath.

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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