The PM’s sink­ing pop­u­lar­ity.

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

There is a sense that Scott Mor­ri­son’s gov­ern­ment has reached the point of no re­turn as the re­al­i­sa­tion dawns that Bill Shorten’s Op­po­si­tion is now the gov­ern­mentin-wait­ing.

The near 20 per cent shift against the Lib­er­als in Went­worth is the har­bin­ger of im­pend­ing doom for the Coali­tion gov­ern­ment. The third Lib­eral prime min­is­ter in five years ad­mits he has a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge ahead but says he’s “get­ting on with the job”. Ev­i­dence shows he’s not up to it – and frankly no­body is. Be­cause what is re­quired is a com­plete re­build of the ed­i­fice that is the fed­eral Lib­eral Party. That sort of re­make can only be un­der­taken in Op­po­si­tion, with time to sort out dif­fer­ences and test pol­icy di­rec­tions that are ac­cept­able to what John Howard called “main­stream Aus­tralia”.

That was the judge­ment of the peo­ple af­ter the po­lit­i­cal sham­bles that was the Rudd–Gil­lard–Rudd years.

If the lat­est Newspoll is any guide, a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers across the na­tion share the judge­ment of the good burghers of Went­worth – per­haps not as em­phat­i­cally, but it would take a uni­form swing of only 0.7 per cent to see a change of gov­ern­ment. In this week’s poll the swing was about 4.5 per cent, which trans­lates to a loss of 20 seats. Just two months into his prime min­is­ter­ship, Mor­ri­son’s ap­proval has fallen into neg­a­tive ter­ri­tory.

It’s true opin­ion polls take only the pulse – they are in­dica­tive not pre­dic­tive – but Went­worth was a taste of the real thing. And a sure sign that Lib­er­als ev­ery­where know it was Mor­ri­son’s ab­sence last Sun­day from the Lib­er­als’ cam­paign launch for the Vic­to­rian elec­tion on Novem­ber 24. He ad­mits he wasn’t in­vited. He vis­ited the state the day af­ter and was quizzed about his noshow. The venue of the news con­fer­ence was Prince­town on the “Ship­wreck Coast”, al­most po­etic in its irony.

The writs for the Vic­to­rian elec­tion have been is­sued and the time for niceties is over. The state

Lib­er­als have made the judge­ment that the prime min­is­ter’s pres­ence would only re­mind ev­ery­one of their col­leagues’ dys­func­tion in Can­berra.

The Vic­to­ri­ans’ judge­ment was vin­di­cated on Tues­day when the lat­est Newspoll of the state vot­ing in­ten­tion had them in the same par­lous po­si­tion, trail­ing Daniel An­drews’ La­bor gov­ern­ment by eight points. An­other ex­pla­na­tion for Mor­ri­son’s non-ap­pear­ance and half-hearted as­sur­ances that he would “cross paths” with state leader “Matty” Guy at some time in the cam­paign was that he does not want to be tarred with their loss. “Nei­ther of them wants to be as­so­ci­ated with each other,” was the com­ment of one fed­eral Vic­to­rian Lib­eral MP.

But there is no get­ting away from the view held in the state di­vi­sions of the party that the Can­berra in­fight­ing is do­ing them great dam­age. New South Wales state Lib­eral par­lia­men­tar­ian Peter Phelps summed up the sen­ti­ment in a widely re­ported com­ment on Twit­ter last week: “The best thing the Fed Libs could do now is de­lib­er­ately en­gi­neer a vote of no con­fi­dence in the Reps; go to an early elec­tion; get smashed; and stop driv­ing down the vote in NSW and Vic in the lead up to our state elec­tions. PS this is the near univer­sal view of my col­leagues.”

As if on cue, two dumped prime min­is­ters jumped into frame. Tony Ab­bott called for the war­ring fac­tions to sheath their swords now that Mal­colm Turn­bull has been despatched. He also in­ferred that, like John Howard, he would be bet­ter at man­ag­ing his col­leagues’ dif­fer­ences in a “sec­ond stint” as leader. The not quite “po­lit­i­cally dead” Turn­bull was on a del­i­cate mis­sion to In­done­sia. He was there to re­pair the dam­age done by his pre­de­ces­sor’s ex­tremely un­wise and crude play for votes in the dy­ing days of the Went­worth cam­paign.

Mor­ri­son put on a brave face in the party room af­ter the Went­worth poll, say­ing that his an­nounce­ment about pos­si­bly mov­ing the Aus­tralian em­bassy to Jerusalem ac­tu­ally saved some votes in the elec­torate, which has a strong Jewish pres­ence. The pub­lished opin­ion polls of the seat and the postal votes sug­gest oth­er­wise. But what Mor­ri­son wouldn’t have bar­gained for was Turn­bull pub­licly crit­i­cis­ing his thought bub­ble and com­par­ing it un­favourably with how he, Turn­bull, han­dled the is­sue while in gov­ern­ment.

Turn­bull told the me­dia in Bali he de­cided “af­ter very care­ful and con­sid­ered ad­vice ... a pol­icy that is well over 40 to 50 years old should re­main ex­actly the same as it is”. He said, “There is no ques­tion, were that move to oc­cur, it would be met with a very neg­a­tive re­ac­tion” in the most-pop­u­lous Mus­lim na­tion on earth – In­done­sia. At risk: eco­nomic, strate­gic and trade co­op­er­a­tion with our near­est pow­er­ful neigh­bour.

Mor­ri­son pleaded that “no de­ci­sion has been made” and he would al­ways act in the na­tional in­ter­est. “Let me stress,” he as­sured, “Aus­tralia de­cides what our for­eign pol­icy is, and only Aus­tralia.”

In a week in which Shorten gave a highly ac­claimed speech on for­eign pol­icy, at­tended by a bevy of em­bassy heavy­weights and other high-pow­ered ob­servers, the chaos was manna from heaven for the ALP. The Op­po­si­tion leader said “Lib­eral dis­unity and di­vi­sion” is mak­ing us “a laugh­ing stock around the world”. He asked peo­ple to “imag­ine what the In­done­sians think. Here’s Mal­colm Turn­bull, who they last met as prime min­is­ter, now no longer prime min­is­ter, go­ing up to ex­plain that the cur­rent prime min­is­ter didn’t mean what he said.”

For good mea­sure “the small-minded, ob­ses­sive con­ser­va­tive lobby with its anti-Turn­bull ma­nia”, as Paul Kelly de­scribes them, chimed in. Three told The Aus­tralian the dumped PM was out of line. Sen­a­tor James Pater­son ac­cused Turn­bull of fail­ing in his obli­ga­tion to up­hold the pol­icy of the cur­rent Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment. Barn­aby Joyce took a sim­i­lar view, never mind that Turn­bull was ac­tu­ally clean­ing up a sham­bles Joyce him­self feared could harm trade. But Queens­land LNP mem­ber Luke Howarth – the man pre­pared to move a spill mo­tion against Turn­bull that pre­cip­i­tated the events that led to the coup – takes the cake. He said, “Aus­tralia should go ahead with the move de­spite the threat of eco­nomic con­se­quences.”

Joyce, who makes no se­cret of am­bi­tions to re­turn to the Na­tion­als’ lead­er­ship, has never for­given Turn­bull for his scathing crit­i­cism of “his ap­palling be­hav­iour” in get­ting a staffer preg­nant. Mid­week, the for­mer deputy prime min­is­ter re­ceived an­other damn­ing as­sess­ment, al­though not quite so overt. His ac­tions as agri­cul­ture min­is­ter, ac­cord­ing to the Moss re­port, con­trib­uted in no small way to the dis­gust­ing cru­elty of the live an­i­mal ex­port in­dus­try. Philip Moss found that the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture “lacks the skills to en­sure the hu­mane treat­ment of an­i­mals in the live ex­port in­dus­try”. There was a cat­a­strophic fail­ure to reg­u­late the trade and it was due in part to a cul­ture of fear within the depart­ment.

The re­port found Joyce’s re­moval of the depart­ment’s An­i­mal Wel­fare Branch in 2013 led to many of the fail­ures iden­ti­fied. Coali­tion MPs say the is­sue is still a run­ning sore in their elec­torates. La­bor is promis­ing to phase out the in­dus­try, while Joyce’s suc­ces­sor as min­is­ter, David Lit­tleproud, is go­ing to ap­point an in­spec­tor-gen­eral of live an­i­mal ex­ports and says in­de­pen­dent in­spec­tors will be on board ships with cam­eras. This fol­lows La­bor pol­icy but Lit­tleproud says he “doesn’t care who thought of the idea”.

La­bor also first thought of the idea of putting asy­lum seek­ers in off­shore de­ten­tion cen­tres on Manus Is­land and Nauru. Five years later it has be­come a ma­jor neg­a­tive with vot­ers and fea­tured promi­nently in the Went­worth by­elec­tion. Mor­ri­son seems to have heard the mes­sage and says there are fewer than 50 chil­dren and their fam­i­lies left on Nauru and “it’s fallen by 30 in just the last few weeks … and we’ll con­tinue to work pro­gres­sively on that”.

Se­nior min­is­ters are qui­etly brief­ing that the fam­i­lies brought to Aus­tralia for med­i­cal treat­ment will not be sent back. But there was a jar­ring re­ac­tion from Ab­bott. He told 2GB Nauru was not a “hell­hole” and “med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties were a lot more ex­ten­sive than in most Aus­tralian re­gional towns”.

Against the ev­i­dence of doc­tors who work on the is­land and the re­cently ex­pelled doc­tors from Médecins Sans Fron­tières, Ab­bott said “they [the chil­dren] are be­ing very well looked af­ter on Nauru”. He also claimed, “If you like liv­ing in the trop­ics, it is a very, very pleas­ant is­land.”

Mor­ri­son agreed the is­land was be­ing un­fairly ma­ligned. He urged re­spect for the “10,000 Nau­ru­ans who live there. That’s their home.” That is be­cause they have cho­sen to stay and not em­i­grate else­where – a safe choice de­nied the asy­lum seek­ers. This false equiv­a­lence does the prime min­is­ter no credit. Nor does Ab­bott’s false state­ment that most of the de­tainees are “eco­nomic mi­grants”. The United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees has found dif­fer­ently.

Mor­ri­son’s ap­pease­ment of both Joyce and Ab­bott – borne of his own con­ser­va­tive sym­pa­thies and the los­ing hand he has been dealt – will do noth­ing to save

• his sink­ing gov­ern­ment.




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

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