Ju­lia Banks on loss of sen­si­ble cen­tre.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Paul Bon­giorno

The day the Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment sank deeper into mi­nor­ity with the de­ser­tion of back­bencher Ju­lia Banks, the Op­po­si­tion leader went for the jugu­lar. Bill Shorten’s first par­lia­men­tary ques­tion summed up the dread­ful sit­u­a­tion the gov­ern­ment of Aus­tralia has found it­self in.

“Given that his mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment is con­sumed by di­vi­sion, dys­func­tion and chaos, was it a mis­take for the cur­rent prime min­is­ter to re­place Mal­colm Turn­bull?” Shorten asked. But he didn’t leave it there: “And again to­day, I ask: Why isn’t Mal­colm Turn­bull still the prime min­is­ter of Aus­tralia?” Scott Mor­ri­son avoided the se­cond ques­tion and de­nied the premise of the first by assert­ing his gov­ern­ment was get­ting on with the job fol­lowed by a long, de­tailed list of achieve­ments. One mem­ber of the vis­i­bly for­lorn Lib­eral back­bench later said: “The trou­ble is the vot­ers have stopped lis­ten­ing.”

When asked again why Turn­bull was no longer prime min­is­ter, Mor­ri­son an­swered that the sim­ple truth was the “for­mer prime min­is­ter had lost the sup­port of the Lib­eral party room” and “I was elected leader of the Lib­eral Party. That’s why I am here”. The real an­swer, how­ever, came an hour ear­lier in Banks’s res­ig­na­tion speech.

She said her “sen­si­ble cen­trist val­ues, be­lief in eco­nomic re­spon­si­bil­ity and fo­cus on al­ways putting the peo­ple first and act­ing in the na­tion’s in­ter­ests have not changed. The Lib­eral Party has changed, largely due to the ac­tions of the re­ac­tionary and re­gres­sive right wing who talk about and to them­selves rather than lis­ten­ing to the peo­ple.” It was these peo­ple, she said, who ended the in­spir­ing sen­si­ble lead­er­ship of Mal­colm Turn­bull and of his deputy, Julie Bishop. These are the party’s de­stroy­ers and, upon re­flec­tion, she doesn’t want to be part of what’s left.

So alien­ated had she be­come she didn’t ever bother to warn Mor­ri­son of her de­ci­sion to quit. In a cruel co­in­ci­dence for the prime min­is­ter, Banks de­liv­ered her blis­ter­ing ap­praisal at the same time as he was try­ing to seize back the po­lit­i­cal agenda. He had called a news con­fer­ence with the trea­surer to con­firm the elec­tion timetable out­lined in this col­umn last week­end.

The bud­get will be on April 2, a month early, so an elec­tion can be held for the house of rep­re­sen­ta­tives and half the se­nate by May 18 at the lat­est. Mor­ri­son said it was “ab­so­lutely our in­ten­tion to have the bud­get be­fore the elec­tion and to de­liver a sur­plus bud­get”. Few doubt that bud­get will also be chock-full of elec­toral bribes, al­most cer­tainly fea­tur­ing in­come tax cuts. Deloitte Ac­cess econ­o­mist Chris Richard­son is brac­ing for re­spon­si­bil­ity to give way to des­per­a­tion. He told The Aus­tralian, “Now is the phase when mis­takes get made.”

But the prospect of Mor­ri­son be­ing able to buy his hold on gov­ern­ment is look­ing in­creas­ingly slim. The rout of the Lib­er­als last week­end in Vic­to­ria has as­sumed much greater sig­nif­i­cance than nor­mal for a state elec­tion. It cer­tainly spooked fed­eral Lib­eral MPs and sen­a­tors who call the gar­den state home.

The Lib­er­als’ cul­ture war be­tween the con­ser­va­tives and the pro­gres­sives is par­tic­u­larly fierce in Mel­bourne. The party’s high-pro­file Vic­to­rian di­vi­sion pres­i­dent Michael Kroger, who holds his as­cen­dancy thanks to strong sup­port from the “Chris­tian right”, is no shrink­ing vi­o­let when it comes to stamp­ing his harder right-wing druthers on the party. For many of his frus­trated col­leagues Kroger’s mes­sage con­fused vot­ers in Vic­to­ria with those in Queens­land. The stereo­type is that the south­ern­ers are more pro­gres­sive than those in the sun­shine state. This is in fact a mis­read­ing of Queens­land, which the Lib­eral Na­tional Party found out at the last state elec­tion and in the Long­man by­elec­tion.

The es­sen­tial point of the crit­i­cism of Kroger is, how­ever, ac­cu­rate. His iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the nar­row hard­lin­ers re­in­forced a very neg­a­tive im­age of the Lib­eral brand. There is no more re­li­able wit­ness for this than Mel­bourne-based cab­i­net min­is­ter Kelly O’Dwyer. She re­ported to a cri­sis meet­ing of Vic­to­rian fed­eral mem­bers in Can­berra on Mon­day that the party is widely re­garded as “ho­mo­pho­bic, anti-women cli­mate-change de­niers”. It is the sort of home truth that hurts, much like then fed­eral party pres­i­dent Shane Stone’s warn­ing to John Howard in 2001 that he and the party were seen as “mean and tricky”.

In fact O’Dwyer’s warn­ing is closer to Theresa May’s to the British Con­ser­va­tive Party in 2002. She said the To­ries had de­scended into “in­ces­tu­ous feud­ing and the elec­torally dis­as­trous ex­clu­sion of women and mi­nori­ties”. She told a stunned party con­fer­ence: “You know what some peo­ple call us – the nasty party.”

No less a Lib­eral party fig­ure than for­mer deputy leader Julie Bishop added weight to the party’s sav­age self-as­sess­ment. She told an Ernst & Young con­fer­ence in Syd­ney that the de­par­ture of Ju­lia Banks sad­dened her be­cause Banks was a “strong, cen­trist woman”. She said her de­fec­tion to the cross­bench only high­lighted the depth of the Lib­eral Party’s prob­lem with a dearth of women.

Banks, who com­plained of bul­ly­ing at the time of the Turn­bull lead­er­ship coup by peo­ple work­ing for chal­lenger Peter Dut­ton, told par­lia­ment “equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of men and women in this par­lia­ment is an ur­gent im­per­a­tive, which will cre­ate a cul­ture change”. She re­jected com­pletely the con­ser­va­tives’ “merit” mantra. She said, “There’s the blink­ered re­jec­tion of quo­tas and sup­port of the merit myth.”

La­bor in the Vic­to­rian cam­paign cashed in on the low stand­ing of the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment in Can­berra.

All of its neg­a­tive ad­ver­tise­ments, bill­boards, ra­dio and TV, over 50 per cent of a huge spend, fea­tured Mor­ri­son, Dut­ton and Tony Ab­bott. This was a none-too-sub­tle re­minder of lead­er­ship in­sta­bil­ity, un­pop­u­lar spend­ing cuts and the ab­sence of the much more pop­u­lar Mal­colm Turn­bull. One strate­gist says: “When­ever we went neg­a­tive we had Mor­ri­son in it. It was never about Matthew Guy [the state Lib­eral leader].” He said while the pos­i­tive cam­paign for Pre­mier Daniel An­drews was good, the neg­a­tive one was “strong and ef­fec­tive”.

It cer­tainly tapped into voter sen­ti­ment picked up by fed­eral MP Tim Wil­son as he worked the booths. He told Sky News, “Ev­ery se­cond per­son ei­ther gave you deadly si­lence, which is a very cold deadly si­lence, or there were peo­ple men­tion­ing en­ergy, cli­mate or the de­pos­ing of the prime min­is­ter.”

There is lit­tle doubt that the Lib­eral Party is more di­vided now than it was be­fore the Au­gust putsch against Turn­bull. It looks like the re­venge of the mod­er­ates, who have spent the past three years en­dur­ing the un­der­min­ing of Turn­bull as well as the right’s re­fusal to en­dorse the very agenda that made him pop­u­lar, the na­tional en­ergy guar­an­tee be­ing the last fa­tal ex­am­ple. This fed the mount­ing dis­ap­point­ment in Turn­bull and the gov­ern­ment.

Such is the dis­trust and sus­pi­cion in the par­lia­men­tary party that con­ser­va­tives are con­vinced Turn­bull, with the help of Bishop and other old al­lies, has now em­barked on a re­tal­ia­tory un­der­min­ing of Mor­ri­son, Dut­ton and Mathias Cor­mann, who were seen as the plot­ters of the coup. One back­bencher says while he doesn’t think Turn­bull urged Ju­lia Banks to quit, he would not have en­cour­aged her to stay. They are known to speak to each other.

La­bor’s Jim Chalmers says Mor­ri­son and the Lib­er­als are “a dump­ster fire of cuts, chaos, dis­unity and di­vi­sion”. His col­league Mark Drey­fus has been ne­go­ti­at­ing with the at­tor­ney-gen­eral to im­ple­ment Mor­ri­son’s Went­worth by­elec­tion prom­ise to leg­is­late away the re­li­gious school dis­crim­i­na­tion ex­emp­tion “within two weeks”. He told RN Break­fast the gov­ern­ment is ter­ri­fied of in­ter­nal di­vi­sion and is paral­ysed in their ef­forts to end the dis­crim­i­na­tion against LGBTQIA stu­dents. Al­most a month later, Mor­ri­son’s prom­ise is in the too-hard bas­ket along with a na­tional anti-cor­rup­tion com­mis­sion.

These ri­val­ries are poi­son­ing sen­si­ble pol­icy out­comes that would ben­e­fit the na­tion and in­deed the planet. An­other ex­am­ple is Julie Bishop giv­ing voice to busi­ness con­cerns by telling The Aus­tralian Fi­nan­cial Re­view and the EY con­fer­ence that the Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment should deal with La­bor to de­liver the NEG. She rightly says this would “en­sure a sta­ble in­vest­ment cli­mate for the in­dus­try”. Mor­ri­son dis­missed La­bor’s will­ing­ness to deal as a sub­terfuge to im­pose “econ­o­my­de­stroy­ing re­new­able en­ergy tar­gets”. These are the tar­gets sci­en­tists warn are a long way from what is ac­tu­ally needed to pre­vent cat­a­strophic cli­mate change.

A se­nior Vic­to­rian Lib­eral, se­nate pres­i­dent

Scott Ryan, says the mas­sive swings against the party in its heart­land seats show the hard­line con­ser­va­tives have mis­cued on just who is the party base. He says the “real base sent us a mes­sage”. These are peo­ple fairly con­ser­va­tive in their own lives but lib­eral in their po­lit­i­cal out­look. They don’t like see­ing the party be­ing pushed to the ex­treme right on cli­mate, sex­u­al­ity and race. Ryan said, “They don’t want views rammed down their throat and don’t want to ram their views down other peo­ple’s throats.”

Mor­ri­son is end­ing his hellish week in Buenos Aires at­tend­ing the G20 sum­mit. Even there he can’t take a trick. United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump couldn’t find time in his sched­ule for a for­mal bi­lat­eral meet­ing. His of­fice says there are no press­ing is­sues in the re­la­tion­ship any­way. Un­like back home in Mor­ri­son’s gov­ern­ment.


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

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