Lib­er­als fear the worst in Went­worth.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week - Paul Bon­giorno

THE LIB­ERAL BRAND IS ON THE NOSE AND THE NEXT BIG TEST OF THAT WILL COME WITH THE WENT­WORTH BY­ELEC­TION. THE LIB­ER­ALS ARE BE­SIDE THEM­SELVES WITH AP­PRE­HEN­SION.

Scott Mor­ri­son thought it was a good idea at the time when he dis­missed the power plays bring­ing down a Lib­eral prime min­is­ter as “a mup­pet show”. But as a metaphor for a dys­func­tional troupe it is prov­ing apt.

The show came to town on Mon­day when our elected mem­bers of par­lia­ment re­turned to Can­berra. The TV cam­eras were in­vited into the first meet­ing of the gov­ern­ment party room chaired by Mor­ri­son as prime min­is­ter. His open­ing spiel sounded as if it were writ­ten by Jim Hen­son. It cer­tainly was more fan­tasy than re­al­ity.

Mor­ri­son be­gan his pep talk with evan­gel­i­cal zeal: “Col­leagues, we have a big moun­tain to climb. We all know that. Bill Shorten thinks he’s al­ready there. The Aus­tralian peo­ple are com­ing quickly to the re­al­i­sa­tion of what a Shorten gov­ern­ment will look like, and they re­coil. They re­coil. The events of the past few weeks have been very dif­fi­cult for us all. That’s done. We all know that. And we have a moun­tain to climb to­gether. All of us stand­ing to­gether.”

If the pub­lished opin­ion polls are any­thing to go by this week, the peo­ple of Aus­tralia are re­coil­ing more from the bloody stage show pro­vided by the five-yearold Coali­tion gov­ern­ment: an­other 12-point lead, af­ter pref­er­ences, to La­bor in the Newspoll and an eight­point lead in the Es­sen­tial sur­vey. Both har­bin­gers of a land­slide de­feat.

Maybe Mor­ri­son was tak­ing heart from the fact he was pre­ferred prime min­is­ter in both polls. That met­ric showed Mal­colm Turn­bull con­sis­tently ahead of Shorten the whole time he held the top job. The party room ig­nored it. In fact, the week his col­leagues po­lit­i­cally knifed him, Turn­bull was 12 points ahead of the La­bor leader. No one re­ally be­lieves it means any­thing. Shorten-led La­bor won both the Brad­don and Long­man by­elec­tions. Those re­sults gave the anti-Turn­bull forces the pre­text to re­move him.

Con­tribut­ing to the pall over the Coali­tion party room was the sting­ing re­buke the Lib­er­als re­ceived in the Wagga Wagga state by­elec­tion in New South Wales. Nor­mally state by­elec­tions are ir­rel­e­vant to Can­berra. This one had a par­tic­u­larly lo­cal sting in it. The va­cancy was cre­ated by a Lib­eral mem­ber be­ing forced to quit be­cause of cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions. “That would have shaved 5 to 10 per cent off our vote,” was the view of one vet­eran Lib­eral, “but not the 30 per cent swing suf­fered against us.”

Lib­eral NSW premier Gla­dys Bere­jik­lian was pre­pared to take much of the blame but not all of it. She made the point, widely shared by her fed­eral col­leagues, that the blood­let­ting in Can­berra in the mid­dle of the cam­paign played a big part in turn­ing vot­ers off the party. Lib­eral polling, re­ported by the ABC, found vot­ers de­serted the party in droves af­ter Turn­bull was dumped.

The NSW Lib­er­als are pri­vately wish­ing the fed­eral elec­tion is called be­fore the fixed-term state elec­tion is due in March. Turn­bull, a fac­tional ally of Bere­jik­lian, was look­ing at do­ing just that, ac­cord­ing to party sources. Ap­par­ently un­der NSW leg­is­la­tion their elec­tion date can be moved to avoid a clash. But if the cur­rent dire polling con­tin­ues, Mor­ri­son would hardly have an ap­petite to bring for­ward his date with des­tiny.

What is clear is that the Lib­eral brand is on the nose and the next big test of that will come with the Went­worth by­elec­tion. The Lib­er­als are be­side them­selves with ap­pre­hen­sion. No one is tak­ing any heart from the 18 per cent mar­gin de­liv­ered cour­tesy of Turn­bull in 2016. On pa­per it is the safest of safe seats but it wasn’t safe enough to per­suade the pu­ta­tive fron­trun­ner for pre­s­e­lec­tion, Andrew Bragg, to pur­sue it. He pulled out of the race cit­ing pri­vate polling show­ing a col­lapse in the Lib­eral vote and the party’s best chance be­ing a woman can­di­date. Spook­ing them all is the emer­gence of a high-pro­file in­de­pen­dent, the Sydney city coun­cil­lor and for­mer Aus­tralian Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Ker­ryn Phelps.

It is not out­side the bounds of pos­si­bil­ity that pref­er­ences could see Phelps or the La­bor can­di­date,

Tim Mur­ray, fall across the line in a re­peat of the Wagga Wagga state re­sult, which saw the Lib­er­als lose a seat they had held se­curely for more than 60 years.

The stakes are ex­tremely high in Went­worth. A loss there would see Mor­ri­son lose his ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment. The truce pro­vided by cross­bencher Re­bekha Sharkie – promis­ing not to vote down the gov­ern­ment this side of the by­elec­tion – is not guar­an­teed to last af­ter it. The prime min­is­ter is un­der­stood to have urged his state divi­sion to pre­s­e­lect a woman in what is an ac­knowl­edge­ment that he and the party have a “woman prob­lem”. It is more ac­cu­rately de­scribed as a “man prob­lem” – too many men un­will­ing to share power. And Mor­ri­son him­self is un­will­ing to push for a quick fix by way of im­pos­ing quo­tas to get to the tar­get of 50 per cent rep­re­sen­ta­tion by 2025.

For­mer Lib­eral leader John Hew­son says he has re­luc­tantly come to the re­al­i­sa­tion that the only way to solve the woe­ful un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women is to fol­low La­bor’s ex­am­ple and im­pose quo­tas. Hew­son told RN Break­fast it is clear the “merit” ar­gu­ment doesn’t work. “You only have to see some of the men who get up,” he pointed out. They did it more by ma­nip­u­lat­ing the sys­tem than through their su­pe­rior tal­ents. The party’s boys’ club image is out of tune with con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralia and could, in Hew­son’s view, harm it in Went­worth, his old seat.

Not help­ing Mor­ri­son’s cause with women is his crab-walk­ing away from tak­ing se­ri­ously the charges of bul­ly­ing within the Lib­eral Party made by five of his fe­male col­leagues, in­clud­ing his min­is­ter for women, Kelly O’Dwyer, and for­mer deputy leader Julie Bishop. The fastest re­treat from pur­su­ing such a com­plaint was taken by Sen­a­tor Lucy Gichuhi af­ter she had a meet­ing with the prime min­is­ter.

Even though Gichuhi’s orig­i­nal charges were in the con­text of num­ber-crunch­ing in the lead­er­ship putsch, the prime min­is­ter told the ABC’s Leigh Sales that the sen­a­tor had told him very plainly she was not bul­lied by “any­body in Can­berra in re­la­tion to that mat­ter”. The re­write of his­tory is about as con­vinc­ing as the Lib­er­als’ ef­forts to achieve their women’s tar­get.

Mor­ri­son de­fines bul­ly­ing in those cir­cum­stances very dif­fer­ently from Bishop. She does not re­sile from crit­i­cis­ing the ap­palling be­hav­iour she has wit­nessed in her par­lia­men­tary ca­reer. Mor­ri­son says the be­hav­iour – stan­dover tac­tics and arm-twist­ing – was not gen­der spe­cific. He refers to it as “very in­tense lob­by­ing, which is fairly nor­mal in the po­lit­i­cal process, al­beit not ed­i­fy­ing ”.

Cer­tainly not ed­i­fy­ing was the out­burst in par­lia­ment on Tues­day when Home Af­fairs Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton launched a shock­ing per­sonal attack on for­mer Border Force com­mis­sioner Ro­man Quaed­vlieg. In a dis­play of cold, cal­cu­lated fury, while at­tack­ing Quaed­vlieg’s char­ac­ter Dut­ton ac­cused him of “groom­ing a girl 30 years younger than him­self ”. The Lib­eral back bench looked on in stunned si­lence. The for­mer com­mis­sioner’s part­ner is now and al­ways was an adult in their re­la­tion­ship. Quaed­vlieg is de­mand­ing a right of par­lia­men­tary re­ply and an apol­ogy for this egre­gious abuse of priv­i­lege, where he was base­lessly char­ac­terised as a pae­dophile.

Mor­ri­son made no ef­fort to con­demn this over­the-top smear. In­stead, he ex­cused Dut­ton for his “frus­tra­tion at the con­tin­ued and re­peated re­port­ing of false claims about him”. Those claims, sup­ported by leaks from within Dut­ton’s for­mer de­part­ment, are tak­ing any gloss off the not-so-shiny new gov­ern­ment. La­bor and the Greens’ Adam Bandt have pur­sued Dut­ton’s use of min­is­te­rial dis­cre­tion over visas, which has all the ap­pear­ances of “look­ing af­ter mates”, of “dou­ble stan­dards” and of “mis­lead­ing par­lia­ment.”

Still hang­ing over Dut­ton is the ques­tion of his el­i­gi­bil­ity to even sit in the par­lia­ment. Mor­ri­son has no in­ten­tion of re­fer­ring his min­is­ter to the High Court de­spite be­ing urged to do so by Mal­colm Turn­bull.

Oth­ers out­side the par­lia­ment are prepar­ing le­gal chal­lenges to do just that. The failed lead­er­ship aspi­rant is cer­tainly prov­ing an un­wel­come dis­trac­tion for Mor­ri­son’s project of rein­vent­ing him­self and the gov­ern­ment.

There was fur­ther ev­i­dence this week that the civil war within the Lib­eral Party is not over. An­other leak to the Her­ald Sun was clearly aimed at un­der­min­ing Mor­ri­son. It claimed Turn­bull had to side­line him dur­ing crit­i­cal GST ne­go­ti­a­tions with Tas­ma­nia. The re­port said then trea­surer Mor­ri­son an­grily told state Lib­eral trea­surer Peter Gutwein he was a “fuck­ing men­di­cant”. Mor­ri­son de­nies the re­port as rub­bish. Gutwein in a state­ment said he “en­joys a con­struc­tive and pos­i­tive work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Prime Min­is­ter Mor­ri­son”. But he did not deny the con­ver­sa­tion or that the com­ments were made.

La­bor’s Chris Bowen haz­arded a guess that the leak did “not come from the Ap­ple Isle but from the Big Ap­ple” – New York – where Turn­bull is hol­i­day­ing. He said the for­mer prime min­is­ter has worked out his trea­surer was un­der­min­ing him the whole time. And he said Lib­er­als in the party room know Mor­ri­son doesn’t have clean hands.

Bowen’s pre­dic­tion that it is not go­ing to get any bet­ter for Scott Mor­ri­son is a state­ment of the bleed­ing ob­vi­ous.

PAUL BON­GIORNO is a colum­nist for The Satur­day Pa­per and a reg­u­lar com­men­ta­tor on the ABC’sRN Break­fast.

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