There was the revelation ministers Michaelia Cash and Michael Keenan refused to give formal witness statements to the Australian Federal Police during the investigation into leaks about raids on the Australian Workers’ Union.
It was also revealed that taxpayers have now forked out more than $800,000 in legal fees associated with the case.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said he had no direct oversight of the contract awarded to Paladin, while his department claimed everything was above board despite the small firm’s chequered history.
There was ongoing unease around Liberal MP Tim Wilson’s conduct as head of a committee inquiring into Labor’s franking credits policy.
House of Representatives Speaker Tony Smith cautioned the backbencher for skirting close to the line on parliamentary conventions, but said there was no evidence at this point to hold Wilson in contempt.
Then there was Helloworld. Senators spent hours grilling Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and others about a three-year, $1 billion government contract awarded to the company run by Liberal Party federal treasurer and donor Andrew Burnes.
Cormann had received free flights from Helloworld after ringing Burnes directly to book a family holiday, just months before its subsidiary won the lucrative contract. The freebie was apparently an error.
US ambassador Joe Hockey became embroiled in the scandal when it was revealed he asked embassy staff to meet Helloworld before it lobbied for government work. Burnes and Hockey are also good friends. In bombshell evidence given to the Senate estimates committee, former Helloworld executive Russell Carstensen claimed he was able to arrange the meeting with Hockey at short notice because Burnes had told him «Hockey owes me». Burnes vehemently denies he said this.
Meanwhile, several senators and their staff are under investigation for potentially sharing market-sensitive information contained in a draft Senate committee report into AfterPay and the broader buy-now, pay-later sector.
The firm’s share price plunged 11 per cent on Wednesday morning after the inquiry’s draft recommendations were circulated among the committee on Tuesday night.
And, finally, Attorney-General Christian Porter put legal noses out of joint with a string of 34 new appointments to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which included at least a dozen former Coalition MPs and staffers.
Labor accused Porter of stacking the tribunal with «Liberal mates», while the Law Council said it had serious concerns about the process and warned it could undermine the integrity of the tribunal.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison dismissed much of the muck as an obsession of the «Canberra bubble», his preferred label for matters of politics or process he doesn’t want to discuss. And it is broadly accepted on both sides that few details of these alleged transgressions will seep into most voters’ minds, either now or when they go to the polls in May.
But some of the mud will stick. And it will stick most solidly to the government — not only because most of the mud concerns the government, but because when politics looks grubby, it reflects most poorly on the government of the day.
One old hand looking despairingly at the mess is former Nationals leader Tim Fischer. He served as deputy prime minister in the first term of the Howard government, which lost seven ministers in 12 months over travel rorts and shareholding conflicts.
«As the 45th Parliament comes to an end, you’d have to say that there has been a slippage in adherence to ministerial standards,» Fischer says. «In the broad, I think on both sides there has been a tendency to skate around things, and that’s unfortunate.»
The seventh minister forced to quit in John Howard’s first year was Peter McGauran, who claimed $1500 in expenses for a charter flight taken by National Party officials, but not by himself. «We’ve come a long way away from that level of compliance [to the standards],» Fischer says.
In retrospect, many of the ministerial resignations of yesteryear seem harsh or even silly. Hawke government minister Mick Young was forced to quit after failing to declare a teddy bear on his customs form. Fraser government ministers Michael MacKellar and John Moore walked the plank for bungling the importation of a colour television.
Political scientist Rodney Tiffen says the most absurd example was the Coalition’s call for then foreign affairs minister Bill Hayden to resign over a bungled Australian Secret Intelligence Service training exercise at Melbourne’s Sheraton Hotel in 1983 — an operation he knew nothing about.
Tiffen, an emeritus professor in government and international relations at the University of Sydney, says a government’s approach to ministerial responsibility is often dictated by the circumstances in which its leader comes to power.
Fraser was particularly sensitive to matters of ministerial propriety — as was Howard, who promised higher standards when he took office after railing against the behaviour of Labor ministers such as Graham Richardson.
«We have quite good codes of conduct overall. The issue is who enforces them,» says Tiffen. «In a sense, successive governments have become more and more resistant to ever enforcing a punishment. They see this as an admission of defeat, a scalp for the other side. I think that attitude has definitely hardened over the years.»
Independent South Australian senator Tim Storer has been bruised by the government’s handling of the refugee medical transfers legislation, which he helped create and usher through the Senate. He accuses Morrison of undermining it by «innuendo» rather than respecting the will of the Parliament. Storer is also exasperated at this fortnight’s events.
«Ministerial accountability and responsibility appear to have all but disappeared,» he says. «There was a time when ministers resigned or at least stood aside when they had made mistakes, inadvertent or otherwise. Now, however, ministers routinely blame their departments or claim to know nothing.»
Plenty of observers are shocked that Cash has been able to blame her former staff for her troubles. In a statement that will set a standard for Labor should it form government after May, Labor senator Kimberley Kitching accuses Cash of trying to set a precedent where «not only was a minister not responsible for what her department and agencies did, but also not responsible for what her personal staff did in her name».
Tiffen calls the behaviour unacceptable: «To not co-operate with the police … that’s pretty amazing.»
Some Liberal MPs have noted their West Australian colleagues are over-represented in the current scandals: Cash, Keenan and Cormann are all from the west. In particular, some felt Cormann’s sloppiness was the worst part of the week. His «free holiday» ran prominently on the 6pm news on Tuesday, complete with footage of him acknowledging the «embarrassing» stuff-up. Hockey’s involvement got a good run on the commercial networks the next day.
Cabinet colleagues were a little more forgiving. One, a frequent traveller, suggested it would be easy for Cormann to overlook the absence of expenditure — as opposed to a rogue charge, which he would be more likely to notice. Cabinet ministers are also very busy people.
Kernot, no stranger to scandal herself, has been talking about the news with friends this week. «This is the first time I’ve heard people say they’ve got a level of contempt for all MPs,» she says.
«Everybody’s tarred with the same brush. They just think everybody’s in it for themselves now, more than ever. And I just think that’s really, really unfortunate.»
Kernot, who was Democrats leader for four years before defecting to Labor, says times have changed since the hardline attitude to enforcement during those early Howard years.
«You couldn’t get away with this before. There was a contract between people who were elected and the people who elected them, and an expectation of the accountability of the executive that was so much stronger in those days. They’ve lost all pretence of trying to be serious about it.
«What happens now is the big-picture stuff is kind of dismissed and people think they can get away with it.»
One reason politicians may feel they can ride out a storm is the speed of today’s media cycle. Especially in a week like this one, it can feel like survival is simply a matter of running down the clock.
«It is true that none of these things are biting in a sustained way,» says Tiffen. «You would have thought the Paladin thing would be the subject of days and days of media inquiries, follow-ups and whatever.
«It’s not just that the news cycle is so quick, it’s that news consumption is lower and lower. We have a crisis du jour and then move on to tomorrow’s crisis du jour.»
Tiffen says it’s hard to tell what political consequences, if any, the scandals might bring. «One of these by itself would very rarely swing many votes, but maybe a build-up of them does. People start to think, ‘Oh that’s a sleazy government.’ There’s been so many in quick succession it may be having some impact.»
What can be done? Tiffen, Kernot and Storer all say the past fortnight reinforces the urgency of a federal integrity commission, to which both sides of politics are now committed in some form.
Tiffen says some rules might require tightening, particularly in relation to the cosy nexus between politics and lobbying: former ministers Stephen Conroy, Andrew Robb and Martin Ferguson all took well-paid, influential lobbying jobs shortly after leaving politics.
Kernot says the stink over the past fortnight — the last parliamentary sitting week before the early April budget — has also raised the bar for Labor if it wins government in May.
«Every member of the Labor Party needs to be absolutely certain … that they are not going to embarrass Bill Shorten or anyone else,» she says. «Because Australians won’t forgive them.»
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.