Scott Mor­ri­son’s Christ­mas wish.

As NSW Lib­er­als seek to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves from their fed­eral peers, Scott Mor­ri­son doubt­less hopes for a Christ­mas mir­a­cle. By Karen Mid­dle­ton.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Karen Mid­dle­ton

The New South Wales Lib­eral Party has writ­ten off any chance of Scott Mor­ri­son’s gov­ern­ment win­ning the 2019 fed­eral elec­tion and has be­gun a con­certed cam­paign to dif­fer­en­ti­ate it­self on pol­icy and to pres­sure him to go to the polls in early March.

Se­nior NSW Lib­eral sources say the NSW gov­ern­ment’s dra­matic pre-Christ­mas at­tack on its fed­eral coun­ter­part over en­ergy and cli­mate change pol­icy was just the start and would her­ald a se­ries of de­lib­er­ate pub­lic crit­i­cisms on a range of fed­eral Coali­tion poli­cies.

“This is the first one but there’s more to come,” one Lib­eral says.

The Satur­day Paper has been told se­nior NSW Lib­er­als are equat­ing the party’s fed­eral sit­u­a­tion with that of

1983, when La­bor un­der Bob Hawke swept the fed­eral Coali­tion into Op­po­si­tion for 13 years.

Just three months from their own state elec­tion – which NSW Lib­er­als fear could repli­cate the re­cent Vic­to­rian re­sult un­less they dif­fer­en­ti­ate from their fed­eral peers – the mes­sage to col­leagues is bru­tal: “This gen­er­a­tion of politi­cians is as out of touch as they were in 1983.”

NSW Lib­eral sources say that, un­til now, they “haven’t seen any­thing like it” and that the Lib­eral Party needs to com­pletely re­dis­cover its val­ues and re­build. “There is a strong view that op­po­si­tion can’t come fast enough,” a Lib­eral says. “The party needs op­po­si­tion. It des­per­ately needs op­po­si­tion.”

The com­ments fol­lowed the NSW Lib­eral gov­ern­ment’s ex­traor­di­nary pub­lic at­tack over cli­mate and en­ergy pol­icy – an is­sue that has been cen­tral to the dump­ing of lead­ers on both sides over the past decade.

NSW en­ergy min­is­ter Don Har­win said the state gov­ern­ment still sup­ported the na­tional en­ergy guar­an­tee (NEG), the pol­icy the fed­eral Coali­tion aban­doned af­ter re­mov­ing Mal­colm Turn­bull as leader, and which La­bor has now adopted.

“We are sup­port­ing the need to bring cli­mate and en­ergy pol­icy to­gether,” Har­win said af­ter a volatile meet­ing of fed­eral, state and ter­ri­tory min­is­ters on De­cem­ber 19.

Har­win in­sisted he had the full sup­port of the other states and ter­ri­to­ries and “the NSW team”.

“They want re-elec­tion and they want the silli­ness of Can­berra to stop and for us to fo­cus on get­ting a sen­si­ble na­tional ap­proach,” he said.

“Our po­si­tion hasn’t changed. It’s the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s po­si­tion that’s changed and it’s not good enough.”

The fed­eral en­ergy min­is­ter, An­gus Tay­lor, who had re­fused to let the meet­ing dis­cuss the NEG, said the gov­ern­ment was about get­ting “a fair deal” for busi­nesses and other en­ergy con­sumers.

“We got a good out­come,” Tay­lor said, af­ter also re­fus­ing to set a for­mal emis­sions re­duc­tion tar­get and ac­cus­ing La­bor of risk­ing a re­ces­sion.

“We didn’t get dis­tracted and we won’t get dis­tracted. We have a very clear fo­cus. Get prices down. Keep the lights on.”

The NSW gov­ern­ment is press­ing Mor­ri­son to do what pre­de­ces­sor Turn­bull had planned – go to an elec­tion in early March, be­fore the NSW state elec­tion at the end of the month, rather than wait­ing un­til May.

One Lib­eral said it was the only way the party could con­tinue to hold the state with “the big­gest econ­omy in Aus­tralia”.

An­other told The Satur­day Paper some key NSW fig­ures were also act­ing out of per­sonal, po­lit­i­cal and com­mer­cial self-in­ter­est.

A num­ber of other agen­das are run­ning, too, not least fury among Lib­er­als at the Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment’s moves to force en­ergy com­pa­nies to di­vest if they don’t bring down power prices.

Crit­ics say it di­rectly con­tra­venes the first line of the party’s own plat­form: “We be­lieve in the in­alien­able rights and free­doms of all peo­ples; and we work to­wards a lean gov­ern­ment that min­imises in­ter­fer­ence in our daily lives; and max­imises in­di­vid­ual and pri­vate sec­tor ini­tia­tive.”

“It’s flab­ber­gast­ing,” one re­marks. “… We’re re­ly­ing on the La­bor Party to be de­fend­ing free en­ter­prise?”

The Lib­eral brawl­ing con­trasted with scenes at the La­bor Party’s na­tional con­fer­ence, which wound up in Ade­laide with a highly or­ches­trated dis­play of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween for­mer prime min­is­ter Kevin Rudd and those he blames for dump­ing him eight years ago.

“You know, we had our oc­ca­sional dis­agree­ments,” Rudd told the con­fer­ence, a lit­tle face­tiously. “Just here and there, at the mar­gins, but you know some­thing, we all have writ­ten our bit and I just have a sim­ple sug­ges­tion: Let’s let his­tory be the judge of these things.”

La­bor be­stowed life mem­ber­ship on Rudd and his wife, a vis­i­bly emo­tional Thérèse Rein.

“Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion mat­ters,” Rein said. “And be­ing part of this great move­ment, the La­bor Party, has been an enor­mous part of my life and it’s good to feel like

I’m home.”

For­mer prime min­is­ters Paul Keat­ing and Ju­lia Gil­lard were sim­i­larly hon­oured in ab­sen­tia, Gil­lard post­ing a mes­sage of thanks on Twit­ter. Shorten paid trib­ute to them all. He and Rudd shook hands.

“There has been a lot of pain,” Shorten said. “But to­day I say to the con­fer­ence, it is time for heal­ing, to make peace with our past in the same way we are united about our fu­ture.”

La­bor’s all-is-for­given dis­play was at least as much about Shorten as it was about Rudd, de­signed to demon­strate that if Rudd could en­dorse the man in­stru­men­tal in his oust­ing then Aus­tralian vot­ers should, too.

The shadow fi­nance min­is­ter, Jim Chalmers, ac­knowl­edged it had not been easy for any in­volved, in­clud­ing newly el­e­vated party pres­i­dent and for­mer fed­eral trea­surer Wayne Swan.

Rudd’s bit­ter­ness to­wards Swan for back­ing Gil­lard’s chal­lenge – and Swan’s to­wards Rudd for sub­se­quently un­der­min­ing her prime min­is­ter­ship – is well doc­u­mented.

“I was re­ally proud of Swanny,” Chalmers told Sky News later. “… I thought that was a real sym­bol that we un­der­stand that we’ve had our bar­neys in the past but they be­long in the past and that we can’t mess around here. We are ask­ing for some­thing pretty sim­ple but pretty se­ri­ous. We’re ask­ing the Aus­tralian peo­ple for the op­por­tu­nity to gov­ern in their in­ter­ests.”

And for that, the La­bor Party needed a grand ges­ture of unity – the great­est it could muster.

The usu­ally ro­bust fac­tional de­bates at the three-yearly con­fer­ence were re­placed largely by prene­go­ti­ated com­pro­mises on im­mi­gra­tion, the level of New­start and other con­tentious is­sues.

The left fac­tion failed to se­cure com­mit­ments to abol­ish off­shore pro­cess­ing and boat turn­backs, and had to ac­cept a gen­eral prom­ise to re­view the level of un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits rather than a spec­i­fied rise.

The unions won sup­port, con­tro­ver­sially, to rein­tro­duce in­dus­try­wide bar­gain­ing, some­thing the gov­ern­ment said would jeop­ar­dise a stable econ­omy.

In NSW, anti-cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tors raided the party’s head­quar­ters in Syd­ney while se­nior of­fi­cials were away at the con­fer­ence, search­ing for ma­te­rial re­lated to fundrais­ing in the Chinese com­mu­nity. La­bor said the do­na­tions had al­ready been “fully in­ves­ti­gated”.

The gov­ern­ment had at­tempted to end the po­lit­i­cal year on a high, de­lib­er­ately sched­ul­ing the re­lease in Can­berra of its midyear bud­get up­date to co­in­cide with La­bor’s con­fer­ence.

The midyear eco­nomic and fis­cal out­look, or MYEFO, re­vealed em­ploy­ment growth, strong tax re­ceipts and cuts to welfare out­lays had fu­elled a fore­cast sur­plus next fi­nan­cial year dou­ble what was in the May bud­get.

It also showed the gov­ern­ment has squir­relled away more than $9 bil­lion in “de­ci­sions taken but not an­nounced” – ex­pected to be spent on tax cuts as a pre-elec­tion sweet­ener.

An­other $1.4 bil­lion was ear­marked for un­spec­i­fied spend­ing this fi­nan­cial year.

Econ­o­mist Saul Es­lake points to some 2019 down­side risks in both the MYEFO doc­u­ment and the also-re­leased min­utes of the Re­serve Bank board’s De­cem­ber meet­ing, in­clud­ing the hous­ing down­turn and a de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in the global econ­omy. MYEFO also showed growth last quar­ter had been slightly slower than ex­pected.

Es­lake told The Satur­day Paper that who­ever was in gov­ern­ment next year would have fewer levers to pull if re­ces­sion threat­ened than when the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis hit 10 years ago, with of­fi­cial in­ter­est rates al­ready much lower than they were then.

He said if the eco­nomic out­look were to de­te­ri­o­rate markedly over the sum­mer months, it might be smarter hold­ing back the $9 bil­lion for po­ten­tial di­rect stim­u­lus mea­sures, not spend­ing it on what fel­low econ­o­mist Stephen Kouk­oulas called an av­er­age-earner tax cut of “six bucks a week”.

Ahead of what would be mixed em­ploy­ment fig­ures to end the year, Josh Fry­den­berg was em­pha­sis­ing the up­side.

“These new MYEFO mea­sures and ini­tia­tives are only pos­si­ble be­cause the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment’s books are the best in over a decade,” he said. “… The Aus­tralian econ­omy is on the right track, giv­ing us much to look for­ward to.”

But less than an hour af­ter he and Fi­nance Min­is­ter Mathias Cor­mann had fin­ished their tri­umphant news con­fer­ence on De­cem­ber 17, the

Na­tion­als stole the head­lines with a sen­sa­tional own goal in the form of a new sex scan­dal, this one in­volv­ing as­sis­tant min­is­ter An­drew Broad.

The Vic­to­rian MP has an­nounced he won’t con­test the next elec­tion af­ter New Idea mag­a­zine pub­lished de­tails of a trip to Hong Kong to meet a woman he met on a “sugar daddy” web­site. He re­paid al­most $500 in tax­payer funds used as part of the jaunt.

Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Michael McCor­mack also came un­der pres­sure and was forced to cor­rect the record to ac­knowl­edge he’d been told about the in­ci­dent a full six weeks ear­lier, well be­fore par­lia­ment rose for the year. That may yet re­turn to haunt him.

The Greens weren’t spared a lit­tle dirty laun­dry to end the year either, with NSW MLC Jeremy Buck­ing­ham quit­ting the party to sit as an in­de­pen­dent, deny­ing al­le­ga­tions a fe­male col­league made un­der par­lia­men­tary priv­i­lege of sex­u­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour.

Scott Mor­ri­son ducked out on the worst of the Coali­tion clean-up, slip­ping away to visit troops in Iraq, thank­ing them for their ser­vice and pre­sent­ing them with foot­balls for Christ­mas.

The prime min­is­ter now has the sum­mer to con­tem­plate what next year may bring, doubt­less re­minded – not least by his own col­leagues – that it re­ally is

• bet­ter to give than to re­ceive.


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