The last par­lia­men­tary sit­ting shows noth­ing should be taken for granted

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - DEN­NIS SHANA­HAN

Shorten and La­bor are still well in front, but the last week of par­lia­ment is a warn­ing not to take any­thing for granted.

The par­lia­men­tary year has ended with a bang, not a whim­per, start­ing an un­of­fi­cial six-month elec­tion cam­paign for a May vote. Bill Shorten is favoured to win that cam­paign and be­come the next prime min­is­ter.

Mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment, Lib­eral losses in Vic­to­ria, a Lib­eral MP’s de­fec­tion, fail­ure to fi­nalise leg­is­la­tion on school dis­crim­i­na­tion and re­li­gious free­dom, no re­sult on en­ergy laws, sab­o­tage by Mal­colm Turn­bull, forced in­ter­ven­tions in pre­s­e­lec­tions, vi­cious fac­tional fights, crushed morale and par­lia­men­tary chaos be­dev­illed and be­wil­dered the Coali­tion’s last leg­isla­tive sit­ting of the year.

Scott Mor­ri­son, although des­per­ate and iso­lated at times, has not given up and is de­ter­mined to grab any op­por­tu­nity to im­prove his dis­as­trous po­si­tion. Out of the ashes of this week the Prime Min­is­ter snatched the peren­nial ad­van­tage for the Coali­tion that La­bor can’t be trusted on bor­der pro­tec­tion and na­tional se­cu­rity.

The Coali­tion will cam­paign hard and fast to re­in­force the im­pres­sion a La­bor gov­ern­ment would al­low “the boats” to start again, with the aim of driv­ing a wedge into the ALP as it pre­pares for a po­ten­tially fraught na­tional con­fer­ence next week­end.

The Coali­tion hasn’t been able to achieve suf­fi­cient pos­i­tive trac­tion over eco­nomic man­age­ment and Mor­ri­son is pre­pared to use any avail­able neg­a­tive tac­tic in the six months he has left.

Not since 2013, when Ju­lia Gil­lard an­nounced the Septem­ber elec­tion date in Jan­uary, has there been a longer un­of­fi­cial cam­paign; and not since John Hew­son in 1993 has there been an op­po­si­tion leader with such strong ex­pec­ta­tions of be­ing swept into of­fice.

Mor­ri­son faces sim­i­lar chal­lenges to Gil­lard in 2013: manag­ing a pre­car­i­ous par­lia­men­tary mi­nor­ity and a di­vided gov­ern­ment while be­ing un­der­mined by the leader he re­placed and fac­ing a tena­cious long-term op­po­si­tion leader.

Like Hew­son in 1993, Shorten has a com­pre­hen­sive pol­icy al­ter­na­tive for gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing rad­i­cal tax changes, but a high voter dis­sat­is­fac­tion rat­ing in Newspoll.

Per­haps none of this will have a bear­ing on the elec­tion next year, be­cause every elec­tion is dif­fer­ent, but it demon­strates any­thing is pos­si­ble — Gil­lard didn’t sur­vive to the elec­tion and Hew­son lost the un­los­able elec­tion to Paul Keat­ing.

The past two weeks of par­lia­ment are fur­ther proof of the un­pre­dictabil­ity of pol­i­tics and the foun­da­tion for Shorten’s wellad­vised be­lief that La­bor can take noth­ing for granted, that it can’t ap­pear to be as­sum­ing vic­tory and it can’t rely on Turn­bull’s sab­o­tage to al­ways work in its favour.

Shorten’s pow­er­ful ad­van­tages in­clude: he has been leader for five years; his col­leagues are dis­ci­plined and ac­cept his lead­er­ship; La­bor has de­vel­oped tax and eco­nomic poli­cies for gov­ern­ment; he’s of­fer­ing fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity; the ALP has an en­ergy pol­icy; the ALP is draw­ing in Greens sup­port­ers; there’s an over­whelm­ing polling ad­van­tage; and the Coali­tion is in chaos.

Shorten’s sum­mary of the year yes­ter­day was suc­cinct and con­tained no hubris­tic claims about the next elec­tion: “La­bor has had a pos­i­tive year. We have been a strong op­po­si­tion, but I be­lieve we’re emerg­ing as an al­ter­na­tive gov­ern­ment.” The key here is of­fer­ing “al­ter­na­tive gov­ern­ment”, not dis­rup­tive op­po­si­tion, and en­sur­ing vot­ers feel no alarm at the “al­ter­na­tive” poli­cies and de­cide they are a threat to the econ­omy.

So far op­po­si­tion Trea­sury spokesman Chris Bowen has balanced voter fears about rad­i­cal ALP poli­cies on in­vest­ment by “grand­fa­ther­ing” changes to neg­a­tive gear­ing and cap­i­tal gains and of­fer­ing a pos­i­tive of hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity for young peo­ple.

The Coali­tion has failed to ex­ploit con­cern among in­vestors, par­tic­u­larly re­tirees, and Shorten and Bowen have talked about Bill eco­nomic re­spon­si­bil­ity and main­tain­ing of the Coali­tion’s pro­jected bud­get sur­plus.

Shorten leaves eco­nomic ar­gu­ments in the back­ground as much as pos­si­ble and prefers to talk about so­cial agen­das and con­sumer in­ter­ests. In sum­ming up La­bor’s year, he nom­i­nated his cam­paign for a “na­tional in­tegrity com­mis­sion to re­store the faith of the Aus­tralian peo­ple in our po­lit­i­cal process” and the “work La­bor’s bank­ing royal com­mis­sion con­ducted” as the top is­sues.

He cut short talk about neg­a­tive gear­ing and qual­i­fied the prospect of con­tin­u­ing bud­get sur­pluses when asked if he would go into deficit to fund his pro­grams in gov­ern­ment.

“We will have a very pos­i­tive po­si­tion on sur­plus over the four years, and a much bet­ter po­si­tion than the Lib­er­als over the 10 years,” he said, re­peat­ing the mantra of the pre­vi­ous elec­tion that con­ceded La­bor had a worse short-term po­si­tion on debt and deficit than the Coali­tion.

Of course, he wanted to talk about the gov­ern­ment, which “this year has reached peak di­vi­sion”. “They have lost a prime min­is­ter and a deputy prime min- is­ter, a for­eign min­is­ter. They are racked by di­vi­sion. This gov­ern­ment is fa­mous for its cuts and its chaos and its di­vi­sion. It lurches from em­bar­rass­ment to em­bar­rass­ment, scan­dal to scan­dal, chaos to chaos,” he said yes­ter­day.

De­spite this, La­bor fin­ished the last week of par­lia­ment for the year on the back foot over na­tional se­cu­rity and bor­der pro­tec­tion, giv­ing Mor­ri­son a re­prieve from the dis­mal Lib­eral out­look. The Prime Min­is­ter was able to de­clare there would be a bud­get sur­plus next year, he changed Lib­eral lead­er­ship rules, in­ter­vened to stop a pre­s­e­lec­tion brawl, as­serted his au­thor­ity over Turn­bull and avoided an em­bar­rass­ing de­feat on the floor of par­lia­ment.

The Lib­eral Party is in a mess, Mor­ri­son is fac­ing de­feat and Coali­tion MPs can’t stop ill-dis­ci­plined in­fight­ing. What’s more, the Coali­tion fin­ished the year un­able to pass its “big stick” di­vest­ment laws for power com­pa­nies or agree on amend­ments to pre­vent dis­crim­i­na­tion against school stu­dents and en­sure re­li­gious free­dom. Yet at­tempts by La­bor, in­de­pen­dents and the Greens to change off­shore pro­cess­ing of asy­lum-seek­ers and to amend com­mu­ni­ca­tion se­cu­rity laws failed spec­tac­u­larly.

Mor­ri­son wanted laws changed to al­low po­lice and se­cu­rity agen­cies to have ac­cess to en­crypted com­mu­ni­ca­tions in their task of foil­ing ter­ror­ist plots, crim­i­nal acts and pe­dophile rings. La­bor didn’t want the laws to go too far, and the Greens and in­de­pen­dents wanted to in­tro­duce new laws to give doc­tors say over evac­u­at­ing asy­lum-seek­ers from Nauru and Manus Is­land.

Without con­trol of the Se­nate or the house, the Coali­tion faced em­bar­rass­ment by fail­ing to de­liver the new en­cryp­tion laws, which Mor­ri­son said were es­sen­tial, by Christ­mas or by hav­ing to ac­cept changes to the way asy­lum-seek­ers could be brought to Aus­tralia. Mor­ri­son over­reached on the en­cryp­tion laws, ac­cus­ing La­bor of be­ing “soft on ter­ror” and start­ing a game of brinkman­ship on na­tional se­cu­rity. La­bor blun­dered in play­ing its own par­lia­men­tary games and link­ing the en­cryp­tion laws with the med­i­cal evac­u­a­tion of refugees.

Mor­ri­son pounced. As the im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter charged with “stop­ping the boats” af­ter the 2013 elec­tion, he was uniquely placed to push the ad­van­tage. All the hor­rific and lurid de­tails of the re­al­ity of La­bor’s pol­icy changes in 2008 — sink­ing boats, deaths at sea, drowned ba­bies, thou­sands in de­ten­tion and $11 bil­lion in costs — were set against the fact a di­min­ish­ing hand­ful of chil­dren re­main in de­ten­tion.

For years Shorten has re­sisted pres­sure within La­bor to de­part from the bor­der pro­tec­tion poli­cies of John Howard and Tony Ab­bott and used every op­por­tu­nity to say there was no dif­fer­ence, that La­bor and the Coali­tion were “joined at the hip” on bor­der pro­tec­tion and na­tional se­cu­rity. On Thurs­day that changed.

La­bor now has a “point of dif­fer­ence” with the Coali­tion. It may go fur­ther at the La­bor na­tional con­fer­ence and may be aimed at at­tract­ing Lib­eral vot­ers “for the first time” who are con­cerned at the length of time peo­ple have re­mained on Nauru.

Shorten is ap­peal­ing to the com­pas­sion of vot­ers — demon­strated in the Went­worth by-elec­tion and blue-rib­bon Lib­eral Vic­to­rian state seats — over the small num­ber of peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly chil­dren, held in­def­i­nitely in de­ten­tion.

“It is not an au­to­matic cor­re­la­tion that you can only de­ter peo­ple-smug­glers by keep­ing peo­ple in in­def­i­nite de­ten­tion — that is not the Aus­tralian way,” he said yes­ter­day as he promised to get peo­ple pro­cessed more quickly and set­tled in third coun­tries. (That empty prom­ise has been made by every op­po­si­tion since a La­bor gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced manda­tory de­ten­tion for boat ar­rivals in the 1990s.)

Faced with an em­bold­ened left wing in his party be­cause of the par­lia­men­tary party’s sup­port for change, Shorten sought to play down the dif­fer­ences and ac­cen­tu­ate the com­mon pol­icy to stop deaths at sea: yes, he sup­ported turn­ing back the boats; yes, he sup­ported off­shore pro­cess­ing and set­tle­ment in third coun­tries; but no, he didn’t want to leave the power of med­i­cal evac­u­a­tion with the min­is­ter, although he con­ceded the gov­ern­ment al­ready was “qui­etly” evac­u­at­ing chil­dren on med­i­cal grounds.

Mor­ri­son de­scribed the stance as “gut­ting off­shore pro­cess­ing” and en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple-smug­glers to start “sell­ing tick­ets” be­cause La­bor would change the leg­is­la­tion in gov­ern­ment.

In the end, fac­ing po­lit­i­cal dam­age from block­ing se­cu­rity laws, Shorten passed what La­bor said were “aw­ful laws” without any con­ces­sion from the Coali­tion on bor­der pro­tec­tion.

Shorten and La­bor are still well in front, but the last week of par­lia­ment is a warn­ing not to take any­thing for granted.


Shorten, left, and Scott Mor­ri­son

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