Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Foolish Endeavours

The Morrison government this week did its best to relive the shipwreck that Captain James Cook suffered almost 250 years ago. The prime minister spent much of the week in the run-up to Australia Day trying to reignite the culture wars and restart an old fight with Bill Shorten’s Labor Party. Instead, he stoked the division and chaos that has marked much of the past three years for the Coalition.

Cook was able to refloat his ship, HMB Endeavour, off the Great Barrier Reef and find a safe harbour for repairs in what is now Cooktown on the Cape York Peninsula. But there are now fatalistic doubts at the highest levels of the Liberal Party, inside and outside the parliament, that Morrison can emulate the survival abilities of the British mariner he wants us all to “rediscover”.

The latest manifestation of political maladroitness if not sheer incompetence was the “captain’s pick” midweek of former Labor Party national president Warren Mundine to run as the Liberals’ candidate in the ultra-marginal seat of Gilmore in New South Wales. It was more than enough to blow away the prime minister’s efforts to match, if not best, Shorten on the campaign trail in the battleground state of Queensland. With as many as eight marginal seats in play the stakes are high.

Both leaders began the election year spending most of their time in the Sunshine State and throwing millions of dollars’ worth of promises at voters up and down the east coast. The Sydney Morning Herald tallied up the largesse at the beginning of the week. It said since the budget update in mid-December the government has announced more than $5.5 billion worth of projects and commitments, or “$160 million a day”. As the salesman says, though, “but wait there’s more” – the prime minister still has $9.2 billion up his sleeve for electoral sweeteners.

Since the Christmas break, Shorten also has been playing Santa, announcing almost $400 million by Monday and adding $800 million more on Tuesday for a ring road for Rockhampton, with its two marginal seats.

The day the Mundine shock appointment leaked, Morrison was in Cairns jumbling his history, saying $12 million was being allocated for a “re-enactment” of Cook’s first voyage “around Australia”. Cook, of course, did not circumnavigate Australia. That was Matthew Flinders, 31 years after the Endeavour’s visit in 1770. But callers to the prime minister’s Radio 4CA interview weren’t distracted by quibbles about who did what centuries ago, they were more exercised over what’s happening now – to them and their businesses.

A businesswoman named Linda rang in to complain about the cost of insurance in extreme-weather-prone Far North Queensland. “The flow-on effect,” she said, is that “our economy is going nowhere. It’s been going nowhere since the GFC, which is a decade now.” The prime minister – much like the local member Warren Entsch, or “Entschy” as Morrison keeps calling him – had nothing much to offer except sympathy.

Another caller, Phil, who claimed to be a long-time Liberal voter, was very angry and emotional that “a hell of a lot” of small businesses are making a “lark of” not paying their workers their superannuation entitlements. “It’s not fair,” he said. “People are actually getting sick. They’re dying, and the money is still owing to them.”

John’s gripe was for tougher laws on flag burners, although before he got to that issue he dismissed the millions the PM had promised to splash around during his visit to Cairns. “I’ll make it brief,” John said. “We’ve been over-promised to buggery by Warren Entsch and there hasn’t been too much achieved.”

This forced Morrison to spell out the millions “Entschy” had won for the electorate over the years. But the persistent bad polls for the Liberals – Essential last week showed no shift from 53-47 Labor’s way – suggest voters have stopped listening. One despairing Liberal MP says money won’t buy us this election. “We’re too far gone for that,” they said.

Shorten, who began his Queensland Bill bus tour late last week, says the overwhelming sentiment he’s heard from people over the summer is that “they think the government is a shambles, they think it’s divided. And … they’re concerned that everything is going up except their wages.”

Ironically, on the last point, Morrison seems to agree. He told David Koch on Seven’s Sunrise the message he’s been getting over the holidays is that “people want jobs and they want to be sure about their jobs. They want to be able to keep pace with the cost of living.”

Morrison would hardly nominate voters’ concerns over the disunity of his government as a live issue, but his actions midweek sure stirred that possum. As much as TV vox pops can be held as any indication of voter sentiment, the people of Gilmore were very unimpressed. As one older woman told Sky News: “I’ve always voted Liberal, but I don’t like what’s going on.” Another man said it “was outrageous” that an outsider would be parachuted in from North Sydney over the rank-and-file decision of the local Liberals.

Morrison’s choice of a former Labor Party president, who left the ALP after 20 years in it and after unsuccessful attempts at preselection for the lower house or a winnable spot on the senate ticket, has created uproar within the Liberal Party. It triggered resignations from the local party branches. The president of the biggest one, Berry’s David Gregory, was among those who quit. He says Morrison’s move is an absolute disgrace and a betrayal. He told 10 News First: “It’s absolutely insane. The Liberal executives have the impression that they’re kicking goals, but they’re kicking own goals.”

The dumped Liberal candidate, Grant Schultz, whose backers say has 80 per cent support in his branches, has quit the party and will run as an independent. He says he can “no longer be a member of a party that does not support democracy and integrity”. But Morrison dismisses this charge, instead accusing Schultz and his supporters of “undermining a sitting member”, the outgoing Ann Sudmalis, and of bullying her. It’s a strange view given Liberal holy writ is the right of members to run for preselection against every MP.

Further undermining Warren Mundine’s credibility is that up until last week he was a member of the Liberal Democratic Party and was seriously engaged in discussions to take over David Leyonhjelm’s senate seat.

Leyonhjelm is none too impressed with the duplicity of it all, especially as both Morrison and his star candidate say they had been in discussion for some time. The Liberal state executive, in fact, used a ReachTEL poll to test Mundine’s viability. Apparently at that time it was higher than Schultz’s in the electorate, which is not to say it found Mundine a winner, just less of a loser. When Mundine was tackled on his behaviour at the news conference with Morrison he offered no explanation.

Labor’s candidate, Fiona Phillips, came within a whisker of winning Gilmore last time. Polling since then has suggested Phillips is in a much stronger position now to take the seat. One Liberal hardhead says: “We were never going to win Gilmore.” His assessment of Morrison’s performance is that “chaos is reigning. The PM is jumping at shadows and doesn’t know what to do.”

A more astute handling of the situation would have had Morrison and the state executive intervening months ago, if they were convinced Schultz wasn’t their best candidate. There was even a rules loophole they could have used to dump him. Shorten says the Liberals need a stint in opposition to sort themselves out, a proposition some Liberals find hard to argue with.

The Mundine imbroglio follows the announcement by cabinet minister Kelly O’Dwyer last weekend that she was quitting politics at the next election. Her “family reasons” explanation rang true when she bravely revealed she’d had a miscarriage at Parliament House last year, away from the support of her husband and her two small children.

Her announced departure only served to highlight the dearth of women in the parliamentary Liberal Party. Almost 47 per cent of Labor MPs are women; the Libs have 23 per cent. But there is no quick fix for the Liberals to close this gap.

The party has nominated what it says are a number of strong women candidates in Labor marginal seats but concedes in the current climate they are unlikely to succeed. While Morrison is promising to work towards having more women in the parliamentary ranks after the election, his options are limited. According to a senior party strategist, the state divisions run preselections. He says there is rank-and-file resistance to quotas – the very mechanism that turned Labor from a boys’ club to an inclusive outfit more closely mirroring the population.

Morrison has a lot of work to do on many fronts if he hopes to find a safe harbour for his foundering government.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 26, 2019 as "Foolish Endeavours". Subscribe here.

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