Paul Bongiorno
Morrison’s strong welfare cop-out

For a while, late on Monday afternoon in the house of representatives, you could be forgiven for thinking the Peter Dutton-led opposition had finally cast itself adrift from Scott Morrison.

As the former prime minister rose, on indulgence from the speaker, to give his first public response to the excoriating findings of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, you could hear a pin drop. Not because what Morrison was saying was riveting, but because the chamber was almost completely deserted.

In stark contrast to the defiant show of solidarity Coalition members gave their former leader when the house voted to censure Morrison last November for his secret acquisition of five powerful ministries other than his own, the whips pressed no one to turn up to support him.

But as the week unfolded it became very clear Dutton’s absence from the chamber was no signal from the opposition leader that he and the Liberals felt they had anything to apologise for or much to regret. Dutton told a national television audience within hours of his predecessor’s contribution that “Mr Morrison has put a very strong case in relation to his position”. Dutton added, “He is right to put it in parliament and he is right to serve in parliament after having been elected.”

The case put was strong at least in tone – a complete rejection of the key findings of robo-debt royal commissioner Catherine Holmes, a former chief justice of Queensland. Morrison wasn’t responsible for the scheme, he claimed he was misled by public servants and the commissioner was wrong in finding he did not give truthful evidence. Her determination was “unsubstantiated, speculative and wrong”.

Acting on the well-worn political tactic that attack is the best form of defence, Morrison accused her of doing the Albanese government’s political dirty work. Her commission was a “weaponisation of a quasi-legal process to launder the government’s political vindictiveness”. It was an attempt by the government to discredit him and his service, and a “campaign of political lynching”.

When Government Services Minister Bill Shorten rose to answer a Dorothy Dixer on the findings of the royal commission, Morrison yelled across the chamber, “Very personal, Bill” and “We all know why”. These comments were presumably referencing Morrison’s surprise victory over Shorten in the 2019 election – a victory few can doubt largely hinged on the undermining of the then Labor leader by the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, which was established by former prime minister Tony Abbott.

Shorten was undeterred. He accused Morrison of being a “bottomless well of self-pity, with not a drop of mercy for all the real victims of robo-debt”.

Morrison told the house his only regret was for the “unintended consequences of the robo-debt scheme” and the impact they had on individuals and families. It left one of his Liberal colleagues in the senate singularly unimpressed. Dean Smith drew audience applause on Monday during the ABC’s Q+A program when he called on Morrison to take personal responsibility for his role in the scandal. Smith said he thought the Australian community “is looking for parliamentarians to stand up, accept responsibility, to take responsibility”. He said failure to do so “undermines public confidence in our parliamentary system”.

Senator Smith said the “Liberal Party is in a rebuilding phase” and had a lot to do “in terms of rebuilding trust” between itself and the community. He made it clear Morrison’s continued presence in the parliament stood in the way “of us being able to rebuild this trust”.

Smith isn’t alone in this view. One Liberal backbencher said they thought the senator was looking beyond the Dutton leadership for the rebuilding the party needed to reconnect with voters.

Following Dutton’s defence of Morrison, Bill Shorten provided a template that would go a long way to meet the sort of renovation his political opponents need. “We need clarity from the leader of the opposition,” he said. “Does he accept the effects of the scheme were extensive, devastating and continuing?” Looking directly at Dutton across the dispatch box, he said, “Why don’t you just say, ‘We broke the law for four-and-a-half years and we are absolutely sorry.’ ”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told the Labor caucus Morrison’s performance and Dutton’s endorsement showed the “modern Liberal Party is prepared to be the nasty party”. He cited robo-debt, the blocking of the Housing Australia Future Fund (HAFF) and the party’s plans to block increasing JobSeeker and other social welfare payments.

Dutton clarified there would be no blocking of the government’s payment increases if the opposition’s amendments were defeated – a certainty he conceded “because we don’t have the numbers”. Indeed, the senate passed the bill midweek. But there has been no such rethink on the Coalition’s alliance with the Greens in refusing to pass the $10 billion HAFF.

The Coalition, unlike the Greens, has no concrete proposals on the table for rent relief or a boost to social housing construction. Their intent is palpably about making life as uncomfortable as possible for the government. The shadow minister for Housing and Homelessness, Michael Sukkar, rejects the fund as bad policy that won’t deliver a new house for five years, and wrongly claims the earmarked $500 million a year is hostage to the sharemarket. After negotiations with the crossbench, Albanese has already confirmed that amount is a guaranteed yearly “floor and not a ceiling”.

It is not clear how long the Greens will remain party to the “Noalition”, as the prime minister dubs it. The Greens party room decided to keep the pressure on for more immediate funding and rent relief until October, when the stalled HAFF bill is due to be dealt with in the senate. Some Liberals are convinced the Greens will pass it then, having extracted maximum political advantage from their months of hardball on the issue. They can already claim considerable credit for the extra billions the government has directed at the housing crisis since the bill was first introduced.

Albanese is obviously not so sure they will be so accommodating and has taken out some insurance by reintroducing the bill into the house. This set off a flurry of speculation about an election – albeit not so early – at the start of 2025. The prime minister fanned the flames with talk of a double dissolution trigger and then a joint sitting of both houses to break the deadlock. There is a whiff of Whitlam nostalgia about it all, given a similar scenario played out in 1974.

The prime minister says the HAFF will deliver 30,000 new homes in its first five years, and is “just one part of our housing plan”. It establishes a line of funding for social housing into the future, a point the frustrated prime minister made in several interviews this week: “You can’t say that you’re supporting housing supply and more public housing and then vote against it.”

The issue will reach some sort of resolution in October, as the Greens say, and that month is also likely to be when the referendum is held. In his party room, the prime minister linked the Liberal Party’s targeting of vulnerable people through robo-debt and their opposition to both his public housing fund and constitutional recognition as part of the same hard-hearted ideology.

The opposition targeted the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, all week in question time over the full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart including Voice, Treaty and Truth. Somehow, the Coalition claimed, the prospect of making agreements with First Nations people would disrupt the Australian way of life as we know it.

Albanese sees the stirring of these fears as straight out of the opposition’s “dirt file”, reviving the arguments that helped sink then prime minister Bob Hawke’s commitment to a treaty back in 1986. Albanese says since then we have recognised native title, and community attitudes on a range of human rights, especially for women and the LGBTQIA+ community, have changed for the better. But it is Voice, not Treaty, that is being put to the people at the referendum, and he points out that Commonwealth treaty-making isn’t in the Uluru statement, and two states and a territory have already embarked on it.

Dutton’s accusation that the prime minister lacks credibility for not linking the referendum to a Makarrata or Treaty drew a stinging reply. Albanese urged the opposition leader to change his mind on his decision not to attend the Garma Festival, a major Indigenous cultural event, in East Arnhem Land this weekend. He said Dutton “needs to spend less time on his dirt unit and more time in the red dirt of the Top End”.

Albanese offered Dutton a lift in his plane, but the invitation to “engage constructively … instead of this absolute nonsense” was rejected. The opposition leader, who has attended Garma in the past, will instead be campaigning for a rejection of the Voice. The Uluru statement was endorsed at previous festivals and no doubt will feature again, and more heavily, so close to this acid test for recognition and reconciliation.

Clearly, the near-empty chamber at the beginning of the week was no harbinger of a change of the Liberal leader’s heart.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 5, 2023 as "Morrison’s strong welfare cop-out".

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