Cooking the books

NSW Budget becomes the excuse for fake news extravaganza … Item One: “World-class” hospital at Tweed Heads … Item Two: Massive taxpayer grant to NSW Art Gallery … World news in summary: Mrs May embraces Orange Order and Trump’s big dollar gamble. Stop Press: Winter break

Cooking the books

When I worked fulltime as State Political Editor of The Sun-Herald in the NSW Parliamentary Press Gallery the annual Budget was a big deal.

Its release was surrounded by an ironclad ritual developed over more than a century of subliminal warfare between politicians and the Fourth Estate. Journalists registered in advance for the “lock up”. They arrived with pen and notebooks – but no phones or computers – to read the Budget papers and ask questions of Treasury officials and department heads.

The system was designed so that journalists could not tip off their news rooms (or their mates who traded in shares) about budget decisions until after the markets closed.

Only Cabinet ministers saw the Budget in advance: that meant they could tell friends, family or their business cronies in the CBD. How else could banks and broking firms make such insightful plunges on the equities, commodities and money markets (as they did)?

Everything changed under ALP treasurers Michael Costa (2006-2008), former boss of the NSW Labor Council, and Eric Roozendaal (2008-2011), former general secretary of NSW ALP (Sussex Street). The annual Budget became a public relations exercise for the scandal-ridden Labor government with leaks galore handed to favoured and friendly sections of the press, radio and television.

Budgets as PR extravaganza

The PR exercise has been taken to new heights (depths?) by the Coalition government of Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Literally tens of millions of taxpayers’ money is being used by the Sydney CBD government to promote Coalition policies, program and propaganda. No wonder the Premier has no trouble ending campaign donations from developers and gambling interests – taxpayers are paying for her re-election campaign!

Over the past fortnight, a team of highly-paid spin doctors has been pumping out “good news” stories for ministers and backbenchers aimed explicitly at marginal seats where the Liberals and Nationals are going backwards.

With the disastrous by-election results in the Orange and Wollongong constituencies still fresh in mind, the Coalition is swamping the media with “fake news” stories. That is to say, the stories are supposed to be Budget commitments, but when read carefully, they are merely promises packaged in platitudes.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard with Tweed MP Geoff Provest

This week my own quiet parish in the Tweed River Valley on the border with Queensland was invaded by three Cabinet ministers – Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, MP for the out-Sydney seat of Hawkesbury, Health Minister Brad Hazzard from Sydney’s northern beaches and Regional Development, Small Business and Skills Minister John Barilaro from Queanbeyan.

Hazzard is the seasoned operator in charge of the Liberal Party’s marginal seats strategy while Barilaro, a tireless entrepreneur on behalf of his family interests, is a political novice who was only elected in 2011.

With local Tweed MP Geoff Provest (National) standing at their side, Perrottet, Hazzard and Barilaro announced plans to build a new hospital in the Tweed at a breathtaking cost of more than half a billion dollars ($534 million).

The press release by Julie Garvey (who she?) was headlined: “NSW BUDGET: NEW WORLD-CLASS HOSPITAL FOR TWEED HEADS”.

Unravelling “fake” hospital

The Tweed community was stunned. No one that I know of has ever called for a brand new hospital, “world class” or otherwise. On the other hand, there have been repeated calls for the Tweed Heads public hospital to be upgraded and extended with additional beds, staff and medical services for the ever-growing local population.

Only by reading the fine detail of the Coalition press release does the real story emerge from the swamp of obfuscation. “Over the coming months”, it said, a “design team” (no names!) will conduct a study to determine the “project design and construction program which should [sic] be finalised mid-next year.”

That’s in 2018 on the eve of the March 2019 State Election when Berejiklian’s Coalition is on track to be defeated by Labor. So, in reality it is not a commitment at all, but a distracting thought bubble designed to save Geoff Provest in the very marginal seat of Tweed.

(Incidentally, the grand ministerial announcement was attended by local Greens mayor, Katie Milne who gave her enthusiastic support. What are the Greens thinking?)

The visiting ministers were very short on detail: no site has been chosen; no commitment that the proposed facility will be a public hospital and not a privatised one; and no date when construction will begin or when it will be completed.

My question is this: Will the “state-of-the-art” hospital [D. Perrottet] ever be built, or are Tweed voters being treated like mugs by the Sydney spin doctors?

NSW Art Gallery: another phantom project

There was a similar “fake” announcement this week on the future of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Arts Minister Don Harwin, a Liberal marginal seats intriguer, announced that $244 million will be given to the AGNSW to expand itself into the proposed Sydney Modern. Plucking figures out of thin air, Harwin gushed: “The Sydney Modern Project alone is expected to inject over $1 billion into the economy over 25 years and create 240 fulltime jobs.” Really? Who says?

AGNSW Trust president David Gonski with Arts Minister Don Harwin

The Sydney Morning Herald (“Independent. Always”), which shares a commercial relationship with AGNSW management, splashed the Budget story all over its front page. Gallery director Dr Michael Brand was so impressed by the carefully vetted SMH article he sent an email to all staff asking them to read it.

The Herald reporter, Ms Julie Power, who enjoys Gold Pass access to Brand and his executive team, revealed that Harwin’s largesse would be inflated by a further $100 million from unidentified private sources.

This takes the total to $344 million, well below the $380 million previously quoted by the SMH.

Treasurer Perrottet, the sleek Treasurer and aspirant premier, was over the moon (again) telling Ms Power that Sydney Modern was “an exciting project for Sydney and for tourism to our great state … it will turn our 19th century gallery into a global museum of the future”.

Dr Brand’s email to staff was ecstatic. He wrote:

“Hi everyone,

“It gives me great pleasure to share with you this afternoon’s article in the SMH announcing the NSW Government’s $244 million funding commitment for our expansion.

“Please find the link to the article for your perusal. This is landmark day in the history of the Gallery that marks a key milestone on our journey of transformation” … blah, blah, cliché, blah, more clichés …

The truth of the matter

Once again, the truth of the AGNSW funding claim is in the fine detail.

Construction which was due to commence years ago will not start until 2019. That, if you remember, is the date of the next State Election when the unpopular Coalition is heading for a voter backlash.

If the Coalition is defeated, the incoming Labor government has been wedged: it will inherit a massively expensive new art gallery in The Domain in the centre of the city which it can ill afford to build.

Will the project ever go ahead?

Secondly, the current funding is simply for the construction of the new building – and does not include the recurrent funding to cover the future cost of air-conditioning, heating, humidity controls, plumbing, wiring, lighting, maintenance and increased staff. On any reasonable estimate, the ongoing maintenance costs will be $100 million a year. Who will pay that? Long-suffering taxpayers?

We don’t know that answer because the AGNSW management, the Arts Ministry and the NSW Treasury have declined to publish any cost analysis.

Thirdly, despite his boastful claims about the Coalition funding, Dr Brand fails to mention that when the project is due to start in 2019 and finish in 2021 – when he won’t be at the AGNSW!

Earlier this year he was given an extension of just one year to his contract and leaves the gallery early next year. Rumours abound that he is searching for a new gallery to direct. He has previously worked at the Getty Museum in California and the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Art in Toronto but left both positions before the end of his tenure. It’s getting to be a habit …

Meet the fockers

I have been inundated with messages from art lovers and arts commentators who are supporters of Judith White’s scholarly book, Culture Heist: Art versus Money, which has torn the veil of secrecy from the atrocious commercial and bureaucratic hi-jinks at the AGNSW.

All of these messages expressed totally cynicism about the claims made by the Sydney Modern’s circle of supporters. “It will never go ahead because the numbers don’t add up,” said one confidant.

Judith White, who is my partner and former Executive Director of the Art Gallery Society, has bravely weathered the appalling criticism which has emanated from the AGNSW since news of her book began to circulate.

In Canberra a couple of weeks ago she gave a terrific interview on local ABC radio about the ACT launch of Culture Heist and its relevance to Canberrans who have experienced budget cuts, job cuts, outsourcing, privatisation and efficiency dividends, especially at the ABC, CSIRO, Australia Council, universities, arts and sciences.

Moments before the interview, the station received a phone call from the AGNSW in Sydney warning the producer that the ABC would risk a defamation action if Ms White made any statements that were detrimental to gallery personnel.

This is the type of odious people she has been dealing with. They are in charge of the State’s most important public arts institution. The NSW Liberals are giving them [public] money and the Herald is showering them with egregious free publicity. Makes you want to weep.

How can their mess be cleaned up as quickly as possible so that the damage to staff, supporters, sponsors, curators, volunteers and guides ends as soon as possible?

To find out more, visit the Culture Heist website.


Mrs May doomed

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May is fatally wounded. The Tory Party will dump her as soon as it can agree on a successor.

Meanwhile she is keeping the minority Tories in office by organising a parliamentary agreement – NOT a coalition – with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a parliamentary offshoot of the sectarian, secretive Orange Order.

The backward, primitive sectarians of the DUP oppose gay rights, abortion and contraception and, despite contrary public claims, despise Roman Catholics (“Popery”).

Mrs May, the daughter of a free-thinking Anglican minister, is embracing the far right DUP obscurantists, thus demonstrating her utter loyalty to Tory paramountcy.

DUP leader Arlene Foster with British PM Theresa May

Just over one year ago London readers of the free afternoon newspaper, Metro, carried a four-page colour wraparound supporting Brexit. The $500,000 cost, the biggest single expense in Irish political history, was met by the DUP, even though Metro does not circulate in Ireland. The DUP’s leader Arlene Foster (now heading negotiations with Mrs May!) refused to say where the money came from or why her party was campaigning in London for Brexit.

Then it was revealed the DUP had spent almost $1 million in this year’s local government elections. The money came from a shadey organisation called the Constitutional Research Council.

The CRC is headed by Richard Cook, a business associate and adviser to senior members of the Saudi Arabian royal family and a man with close connections to far right Tories and the intelligence community. Ms Foster stonewalled every question asked by Sinn Fein and its leaders, the late Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams.

The DUP/CRC conspiracy is suitable treatment for a John Le Carré novel or a royal commission. I’d like to see both.

Trump’s dollar scam

President Donald Trump’s counter-revolution has thrown a hand grenade into Washington’s long-established relations with a host of Western allies and client regimes. But we ain’t seen nothing yet.

His big offensive is against the Federal Reserve Board, America’s central bank, and its control of money supply, interest rates etc. Trump and his economic advisers want to dump the Fed as a regulatory body and allow banks to become financial supermarkets.

If he survives until the end of the year and gets his business plans approved, Trump wants to enable Americans to obtain loans, mortgages, shares and pension funds by using their mobile phones, iPads and laptops. It will strip away the “red tape” and “over-regulation”, he claims, and turn credit into a commodity for everyone to enjoy.

It is designed to “make America great again” by making “the US dollar great again”. It is so mad that only a real estate hustler and casino owner like Trump could recommend it.

If he pulls it off, it is going to send world currency markets into spiralling chaos, particularly in the euro zone. One section of the US ruling class, chiefly Democrats, wants to stop Trump’s crazed paper credit “reflation” and have him indicted asap while the other half want to “give him a go”. Fasten your seatbelts.


This is my last Workers Notebook before going into Winter Recess. Apologies to all my regular readers, whom I promise to keep informed of future plans.

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