The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - PAUL BONGIORNO is a colum­nist for The Satur­day Pa­per and a reg­u­lar com­men­ta­tor on the ABC’s RN Break­fast.

Back in June, then prime min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull hatched a cun­ning plan – he would end the year on a high by flag­ging a sur­plus in the bud­get up­date, and at the same time La­bor would be be­set by in­ter­nal brawl­ing at its na­tional con­fer­ence.

Turn­bull timed the Su­per Satur­day by­elec­tions for July 28, the pre­cise time the ALP was to hold its three-yearly con­fer­ence. A mad scram­ble to resched­ule fol­lowed, as La­bor stood to for­feit $100,000 out­laid for the Ade­laide Con­ven­tion Cen­tre if the gath­er­ing wasn’t held this year. On Sun­day, the post­poned con­fer­ence be­gins and its agenda has plenty of con­tentious is­sues that Bill Shorten, if he had his druthers, would have pre­ferred not come up on the eve of an elec­tion year. In­deed, La­bor sus­pects the elec­tion could be just over three months away.

The other arm of the Turn­bull plan will play out on Mon­day, when trea­surer Josh Fry­den­berg un­veils the MidYear Eco­nomic and Fis­cal Out­look (MYEFO). It will be vy­ing with day two of the La­bor con­fer­ence, which sug­gests the cur­rent Lib­er­als are not as con­fi­dent of La­bor fall­ing apart on the banks of the River Tor­rens as the dumped prime min­is­ter was. One Lib­eral says John Howard, if he were still leader, would have left the me­dia space to La­bor any­how be­cause, even with­out blood­let­ting, the more peo­ple who know about its scary poli­cies the bet­ter.

Scott Mor­ri­son says the MYEFO will demon­strate that his gov­ern­ment is a re­spon­si­ble eco­nomic man­ager: “We promised to bring the bud­get back into sur­plus and that’s ex­actly what we’re do­ing.” He proudly claims it will be the first such sur­plus in 12 years. Ex­cept it is in the same cat­e­gory as for­mer La­bor trea­surer Wayne Swan’s pro­jected bud­get sur­pluses. Like desert mi­rages, they kept dis­ap­pear­ing. The ac­cu­racy of Mor­ri­son’s boast won’t be tested un­til the fi­nal bud­get out­come in Septem­ber next year – well af­ter the elec­tion that must be held by May at the lat­est.

Anal­y­sis by econ­o­mist Stephen Kouk­oulas says the sur­plus “is no cer­tainty”. It is based on hard data for the first four months of the 2018-19 fi­nan­cial year. Trea­sury will be fac­tor­ing in on­go­ing eco­nomic growth, no in­crease in un­em­ploy­ment and buoy­ant iron ore and coal prices over the rest of the fi­nan­cial year. “These num­bers do look strong … and if the trends on rev­enue and spend­ing con­tinue, the bud­get will prob­a­bly be in sur­plus,” says Kouk­oulas. How­ever, the lat­est na­tional ac­counts show the econ­omy slow­ing, wages stag­nat­ing and con­sumers keep­ing their wal­lets shut.

Kouk­oulas, echo­ing warn­ings from the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment and the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund, says: “If, as is dis­tinctly pos­si­ble, the econ­omy stalls in the March and June quar­ters 2019, com­mod­ity prices con­tinue to weaken, and if there are some un­ex­pected in­creases in gov­ern­ment spend­ing … [it] could leave the bud­get in deficit. It is a danger­ous game, po­lit­i­cally at least.”

These con­sid­er­a­tions could per­suade Mor­ri­son to stick to Turn­bull’s other strat­egy, a March 2 elec­tion an­nounced af­ter Aus­tralia Day. On the other hand, the lat­est Newspoll, which shows the gov­ern­ment again trail­ing La­bor by 10 points, sug­gests go­ing to the peo­ple any time soon would re­sult in a Lib­eral mas­sacre. But such is the malaise grip­ping gov­ern­ment MPs, there is an emerg­ing view that Mor­ri­son should go be­fore their sit­u­a­tion gets worse. “If the peo­ple are itch­ing to take to us with base­ball bats, de­lay­ing the day will only in­fu­ri­ate them more,” says a veteran back­bencher.

On Mon­day, Mor­ri­son and Shorten were key­note speak­ers at Bri­tish bil­lion­aire San­jeev Gupta’s un­veil­ing of his plans for the South Aus­tralian steel city of Whyalla. Mor­ri­son was a very late ac­cep­tor of the in­vi­ta­tion. His of­fice was fu­ri­ous when they learnt the La­bor leader would also speak. At first, Gupta’s peo­ple were told the prime min­is­ter would be a no-show un­less Shorten lost his slot. When they re­fused to ac­cede, Mor­ri­son in­sisted on speak­ing af­ter Shorten.

Shorten re­ferred to Mor­ri­son as “the cur­rent prime min­is­ter” when he ac­knowl­edged dig­ni­taries. He seized on the fact Gupta is spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars on re­new­able en­ergy to power the ex­panded steel mill. This shows

“the fu­ture for this coun­try: co-op­er­a­tion not con­flict. Re­new­able en­ergy, work­ing with heavy man­u­fac­tur­ing.”

Mor­ri­son ac­knowl­edged Shorten with­out com­ment, but he be­trayed how wor­ried he is. He noted that Whyalla is the “come­back city of Aus­tralia” – a ref­er­ence to the col­lapse of the Ar­rium own­er­ship of the steel­works. He said, “I’ve got a keen in­ter­est in come­backs”, and later claimed he would take in­spi­ra­tion from the Whyalla story.

Mor­ri­son sure needs some­thing. His shoot­ing from the lip for quick po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage on queer kids in re­li­gious schools and mov­ing the em­bassy in Is­rael is a symp­tom of a po­lit­i­cal in­ept­ness beyond re­pair. His prom­ise to leg­is­late away dis­crim­i­na­tion “within two weeks” for LGBTQIA school­child­ren is now shunted off for a pro­tracted in­quiry, while at the same time he wants to have a bun­fight at the elec­tion over a new re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion act. The fact it took a year to re­lease the Rud­dock re­port into the is­sue is con­fir­ma­tion of just how fraught and di­vi­sive it is, as much in­side the Lib­eral Party as in the broader com­mu­nity.

Psephol­o­gist Kevin Bon­ham says Mon­day was the first time any gov­ern­ment since Ju­lia Gil­lard in 2013 had had three con­sec­u­tive Newspolls where their twoparty-pre­ferred vote was 45 per cent. His opin­ion is the gov­ern­ment is fin­ished, no mat­ter whether the elec­tion is held in three months or six. “No gov­ern­ment has re­cov­ered from this far be­hind with this lit­tle time to go,” he says.

The Lib­eral ma­chine went into dam­age con­trol, telling The Aus­tralian Fi­nan­cial Re­view that its in­ter­nal track­ing of key mar­ginal seats “was not as bleak”. The 10-point gap in the pub­lished poll is be­ing driven by big swings in safe La­bor and Lib­eral seats. The spin didn’t im­press one mar­ginal seat-holder. He pointed to swings of up to 30 per cent against the Lib­er­als in New South Wales by­elec­tions and in the Vic­to­rian state elec­tion. An­other Lib­eral says: “We are fucked, fucked, fucked.”

La­bor strate­gists say Mor­ri­son and the gov­ern­ment are ob­sessed with Shorten. In ques­tion time this year, they have per­son­ally re­ferred to him 1260 times.

Shorten says, “I don’t know what they would do if they couldn’t talk about me.” The fact is they be­lieve, as does John Howard, that the Op­po­si­tion leader is the chink in La­bor’s ar­mour and they will keep at­tack­ing Shorten in the hope that wary vot­ers will not risk him. Ex­cept neg­a­tive views of the La­bor leader pale into in­signif­i­cance when com­pared with the dis­gust at the gov­ern­ment’s dis­unity and dys­func­tion over the past five-and-a-half years.

On Tues­day on 10 News First there was yet an­other win­dow into the tur­moil and con­flict that has not gone away with the re­place­ment of Turn­bull. At the time when arch-con­ser­va­tive and coal-cham­pion Craig Kelly was un­der siege by the mod­er­ates for pre­s­e­lec­tion, for­mer Na­tion­als leader Barn­aby Joyce hatched a plot for Kelly to de­fect to the Nats. The play was kept se­cret from the Na­tion­als leader, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Michael McCor­mack, and it is not clear if Mor­ri­son was told.

Mor­ri­son ap­peared more wor­ried that Kelly was hint­ing he would quit the gov­ern­ment for the cross­bench. Joyce says he cer­tainly did “reach out to Kelly”. The worst op­tion would have been to lose him from the par­lia­ment. Had the plot worked, Kelly would have been an­other num­ber in the Na­tion­als party room for Joyce, who has am­bi­tions to re­place the bland McCor­mack be­fore the elec­tion.

It’s not as if the gov­ern­ment needs any more prod­ding on coal. Mor­ri­son’s en­vi­ron­ment and en­ergy min­is­ters are prov­ing to be fos­sil fuel war­riors. The en­ergy min­is­ter, An­gus Taylor, is work­ing on ways to fund a new coal-fired power sta­tion to achieve “bal­ance” in elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion. The en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter, Melissa Price, took her scep­ti­cism over cli­mate science to the United Na­tions cli­mate con­fer­ence in Poland this week. Though chair­ing a key com­mit­tee, she lent no weight to the dis­cus­sion on whether to note or wel­come the lat­est IPCC spe­cial re­port on lim­it­ing ris­ing global tem­per­a­tures to 1.5 de­grees Cel­sius. She pre­ferred to stay silent. Is it any won­der vot­ers are unim­pressed with this gov­ern­ment on an is­sue a sig­nif­i­cant ma­jor­ity be­lieves needs ur­gent ac­tion?

The gov­ern­ment is sali­vat­ing at the thought of the La­bor con­fer­ence de­scend­ing into a pitched bat­tle over refugees and bor­der se­cu­rity. It’s the third leg of the tri­fecta it hopes will help it to a mirac­u­lous elec­tion win. The econ­omy and Shorten are the other two. John Howard, at the un­veil­ing of his gov­ern­ment’s cab­i­net pa­pers from 20 years ago – yes, no new tricks from this old dog – says “[the] La­bor Party once again is start­ing to wob­ble on bor­der pro­tec­tion. They wob­bled af­ter Rudd was elected, they haven’t changed.” Mor­ri­son and Home Af­fairs Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton chimed in, as­sert­ing La­bor’s sup­port for a hu­man­i­tar­ian pol­icy to bring sick refugees off Nauru would “end our suc­cess­ful sys­tem of bor­der pro­tec­tion as we know it”.

Shorten goes into this week­end’s con­fer­ence with the backing of key left fig­ures such as Tanya Plibersek and An­thony Al­banese for boat turn­backs, off­shore pro­cess­ing and re­gional re­set­tle­ment. He fully ex­pects pas­sion­ate de­bate – in­deed, La­bor for Refugees is promis­ing one – but the num­bers aren’t there to roll the leader. Shorten says what we will see at the end of the con­fer­ence is “a lot of unity”, adding that the La­bor Party na­tion­ally is the brand for unity. By con­trast, he says, the gov­ern­ment is the brand for dis­unity.


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