Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
A trip down memory pain

Scott Morrison wants us to forget why he is prime minister. Instead, he assured a national TV audience he was “getting on with it”. The problem is his own MPs, party members and supporters – and the electorate – remain vividly aware of the turmoil that delivered the nation its third Liberal prime minister in five years. And they are also onto the fact Morrison is not getting on with very much.

The prime minister’s economic pitch this week was symptomatic of the deep malaise in the Liberal Party, which is prompting disgruntled high-profile members to quit and run as independents in hitherto blue-ribbon seats. The speech in Brisbane on Tuesday was billed as a “major” announcement, the first for the year from the prime minister. He waxed lyrical about the creation of 1.2 million new jobs, with the promise of a repeat over the next five years.

Absent from this manifesto, though, was any mention of climate change, energy policy or stagnating wages – all issues critical to the performance of the economy that are, not surprisingly, weighing strongly on the minds of voters as well. If nothing else, their absence points to the extreme sensitivity these policy areas hold for Morrison. It has not been so long since the first two played a major role in the demise of his immediate predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.

This sensitivity explains why the PM skirted Leigh Sales’ question on 7.30 about why Turnbull was rolled, given much of the successful record Morrison pointed to happened under Turnbull’s leadership. “Doesn’t that pitch simply confuse voters?” she asked. “Along the lines of, well, hang on, if your record is so good, why did you need to dump Malcolm Turnbull?” Morrison dismissed her query. “Well, that was last year, Leigh, and what we’re focused on is the plan,” he said. Never mind that a jobs forecast is not a plan or that the government’s tax take is 2 per cent higher as a share of GDP than it was under Labor.

The Turnbull demise is playing badly with those in the Liberal Party who see themselves as “sensible centrists”, the people in leafy Liberal safe seats who are deeply concerned about the environment and climate change. In the past, they were dismissed as “doctors’ wives”. Never an accurate moniker, it was coined as a put-down of Liberal moderates by harder-line conservatives. But the Victorian state election, the overwhelming “Yes” vote in the marriage equality survey and consistent appalling opinion polls since the most recent federal election are all strong evidence these Liberals are more in touch with the broader electorate.

The weekend saw a confluence of bad news for Morrison. Two more ministers, Nigel Scullion and Michael Keenan, announced they were quitting, while a high-profile independent, the self-described fiscal conservative Zali Steggall, put her hand up to run against Tony Abbott in Warringah. Steggall, a former world champion skier turned barrister, became an instant magnet for national media coverage. Her message is unequivocal: Abbott’s conservative social views – his abstaining from the vote for same-sex marriage when Warringah voted 75 per cent in favour of it – and climate-change scepticism do not represent the electorate. “He doesn’t represent us, he represents himself,” she said. Steggall gives voice to Liberals who resent the straitjacket Abbott and his fellow travellers have placed on the government’s climate and energy policies. “The policies of the wider party are simply not good enough,” she said.

In numerous media appearances this week, Steggall hammered the call for “real action on climate change”. She sees renewables as the key to clean, cheaper power and new job opportunities. The ABC’s election expert, Antony Green, says the former Olympian is an ideal candidate. Polling analyst Andrew Catsaras says Abbott is in huge trouble. He cites the fact that in the 2016 election Malcolm Turnbull was called on during the final week to make robocalls to voters, after Liberal Party research found Abbott was so unpopular in his own seat he risked losing in a landslide.

Catsaras says Steggall will need to shift fewer Liberal votes towards her than independent Kerryn Phelps had to in order to win Wentworth. Liberal voters may not be as rusted on as one might think, either – Catsaras points to the way Liberal voters switched to Labor’s Maxine McKew in 2007 to oust then prime minister John Howard. His assessment is also informed by the betting markets having Steggall at shorter odds to win the seat than Abbott, who told Radio 2GB Steggall was the “carbon tax candidate”. Clearly he’s hoping an old scare is still a good one, despite the fact his policies led to a rise in electricity prices – not a fall – after the tax was removed.

Midweek, another Liberal branch member, Oliver Yates, quit the party to announce he would run as an independent against Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong. A Victorian Liberal insider says Yates – a long-time party member and son of a former Liberal MP – has plugged into the resentment many grassroots members feel at the takeover of the state division by Christian fundamentalists and Mormons. As in Warringah, anger over the dumping of Turnbull has not abated, and it dovetails with concerns over inaction on climate change.

Yates, who was a Macquarie Group banker and former head of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, says he’s running as an independent because “the Liberal Party has lost the plot”. Like Steggall, his announcement attracted huge national media interest. An articulate crusader for renewable energy, he told Guardian Australia this week that he wants “to hold accountable environment ministers who have disregarded their responsibility to the environment … [to] take out their environment ministers if they do not care for the environment”.

Yates’ prospects for success are bolstered by the result in the Victorian seat of Hawthorn – another historically conservative stronghold – which fell to Labor for the first time in more than a century at November’s state election. Its boundaries are completely within the federal seat of Kooyong.

Some of the same factors disturbing the peace in Kooyong’s Liberal branches are at play with a vengeance in the seat of Flinders, held by the health minister, Greg Hunt. An opinion poll commissioned by the CFMMEU on January 24 in Flinders found a collapse in the Liberal primary vote. Almost half of the respondents cited Hunt’s role in the coup against Turnbull as a reason for them deserting him. It was widely reported that Hunt had been working against Turnbull and was angling to be deputy leader under Peter Dutton.

Hunt and the federal Liberals are so on the nose in Victoria that at the state election, according to party insiders, David Morris, the MP for Mornington, asked Hunt not to hand out how-to-vote cards at his polling booths. On Thursday, Julia Banks, who quit the party to sit on the crossbench after the Turnbull coup, announced she will run against Hunt in the seat. The uComms poll suggests Labor is in a strong position to take the seat even though it hasn’t preselected a candidate yet.

The first Newspoll for the year showed an improvement in the government’s position after preferences. Instead of the 10-point gap that ended 2018, there was a six-point gap. Catsaras says this brings Newspoll more in line with the trend in other published polls and suggests the December poll was an outlier. There have been 23 national opinion polls since Morrison became leader and in only two of them has the gap been less than six percentage points. Never has he closed it to two points, as Turnbull did in his last months as prime minister.

Ominously for Morrison, his net satisfaction rating in the Newspoll has fallen 14 points since its peak last October, and he is now in negative territory. And while Labor’s Bill Shorten is more unpopular, he has not proved a block to Labor’s fortunes as the Liberals were hoping. This is due in no small part to the fact governments lose elections and this one – with its disunity, rivalries and unbridgeable policy divides – is proof positive of this proposition.

Shorten’s bus tour up the Queensland coast, according to the ABC’s Laura Tingle, revealed a calm and strategic Labor leader who has comfortably assumed the mantle of “prime minister in waiting”. One old hand to political campaigns says Shorten’s reception was positive, even if he lacks the charisma of a Kevin 07. He received standing ovations at his town hall meetings that clearly were attended by the party faithful but were open to all comers.

The policy proposal that drew most flak was Labor’s plan to stop paying tax credits to investors, many who are self-funded retirees, on shares for which they have paid no tax. Shorten defended it on fairness grounds. His treasury spokesman, Chris Bowen, did the same except he raised eyebrows by telling Fran Kelly on Radio National that if people didn’t like it “they were perfectly entitled to vote against us”. His braggadocio was not appreciated at the highest levels of the party.

Reckless or not, it wasn’t enough to dent Shorten’s attack on the government for ministers “walking out the door” and long-time Liberals deciding to run against it as independents.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 2, 2019 as "A trip down memory pain". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.