Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The Morrison muppet show

Scott Morrison thought it was a good idea at the time when he dismissed the power plays bringing down a Liberal prime minister as “a muppet show”. But as a metaphor for a dysfunctional troupe it is proving apt.

The show came to town on Monday when our elected members of parliament returned to Canberra. The TV cameras were invited into the first meeting of the government party room chaired by Morrison as prime minister. His opening spiel sounded as if it were written by Jim Henson. It certainly was more fantasy than reality.

Morrison began his pep talk with evangelical zeal: “Colleagues, we have a big mountain to climb. We all know that. Bill Shorten thinks he’s already there. The Australian people are coming quickly to the realisation of what a Shorten government will look like, and they recoil. They recoil. The events of the past few weeks have been very difficult for us all. That’s done. We all know that. And we have a mountain to climb together. All of us standing together.”

If the published opinion polls are anything to go by this week, the people of Australia are recoiling more from the bloody stage show provided by the five-year-old Coalition government: another 12-point lead, after preferences, to Labor in the Newspoll and an eight-point lead in the Essential survey. Both harbingers of a landslide defeat.

Maybe Morrison was taking heart from the fact he was preferred prime minister in both polls. That metric showed Malcolm Turnbull consistently ahead of Shorten the whole time he held the top job. The party room ignored it. In fact, the week his colleagues politically knifed him, Turnbull was 12 points ahead of the Labor leader. No one really believes it means anything. Shorten-led Labor won both the Braddon and Longman byelections. Those results gave the anti-Turnbull forces the pretext to remove him.

Contributing to the pall over the Coalition party room was the stinging rebuke the Liberals received in the Wagga Wagga state byelection in New South Wales. Normally state byelections are irrelevant to Canberra. This one had a particularly local sting in it. The vacancy was created by a Liberal member being forced to quit because of corruption allegations. “That would have shaved 5 to 10 per cent off our vote,” was the view of one veteran Liberal, “but not the 30 per cent swing suffered against us.”

Liberal NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian was prepared to take much of the blame but not all of it. She made the point, widely shared by her federal colleagues, that the bloodletting in Canberra in the middle of the campaign played a big part in turning voters off the party. Liberal polling, reported by the ABC, found voters deserted the party in droves after Turnbull was dumped.

The NSW Liberals are privately wishing the federal election is called before the fixed-term state election is due in March. Turnbull, a factional ally of Berejiklian, was looking at doing just that, according to party sources. Apparently under NSW legislation their election date can be moved to avoid a clash. But if the current dire polling continues, Morrison would hardly have an appetite to bring forward his date with destiny.

What is clear is that the Liberal brand is on the nose and the next big test of that will come with the Wentworth byelection. The Liberals are beside themselves with apprehension. No one is taking any heart from the 18 per cent margin delivered courtesy of Turnbull in 2016. On paper it is the safest of safe seats but it wasn’t safe enough to persuade the putative frontrunner for preselection, Andrew Bragg, to pursue it. He pulled out of the race citing private polling showing a collapse in the Liberal vote and the party’s best chance being a woman candidate. Spooking them all is the emergence of a high-profile independent, the Sydney city councillor and former Australian Medical Association president Kerryn Phelps.

It is not outside the bounds of possibility that preferences could see Phelps or the Labor candidate, Tim Murray, fall across the line in a repeat of the Wagga Wagga state result, which saw the Liberals lose a seat they had held securely for more than 60 years.

The stakes are extremely high in Wentworth. A loss there would see Morrison lose his majority in parliament. The truce provided by crossbencher Rebekha Sharkie – promising not to vote down the government this side of the byelection – is not guaranteed to last after it. The prime minister is understood to have urged his state division to preselect a woman in what is an acknowledgement that he and the party have a “woman problem”. It is more accurately described as a “man problem” – too many men unwilling to share power. And Morrison himself is unwilling to push for a quick fix by way of imposing quotas to get to the target of 50 per cent representation by 2025.

Former Liberal leader John Hewson says he has reluctantly come to the realisation that the only way to solve the woeful under-representation of women is to follow Labor’s example and impose quotas. Hewson told RN Breakfast it is clear the “merit” argument doesn’t work. “You only have to see some of the men who get up,” he pointed out. They did it more by manipulating the system than through their superior talents. The party’s boys’ club image is out of tune with contemporary Australia and could, in Hewson’s view, harm it in Wentworth, his old seat.

Not helping Morrison’s cause with women is his crab-walking away from taking seriously the charges of bullying within the Liberal Party made by five of his female colleagues, including his minister for women, Kelly O’Dwyer, and former deputy leader Julie Bishop. The fastest retreat from pursuing such a complaint was taken by Senator Lucy Gichuhi after she had a meeting with the prime minister.

Even though Gichuhi’s original charges were in the context of number-crunching in the leadership putsch, the prime minister told the ABC’s Leigh Sales that the senator had told him very plainly she was not bullied by “anybody in Canberra in relation to that matter”. The rewrite of history is about as convincing as the Liberals’ efforts to achieve their women’s target.

Morrison defines bullying in those circumstances very differently from Bishop. She does not resile from criticising the appalling behaviour she has witnessed in her parliamentary career. Morrison says the behaviour – standover tactics and arm-twisting – was not gender specific. He refers to it as “very intense lobbying, which is fairly normal in the political process, albeit not edifying”.

Certainly not edifying was the outburst in parliament on Tuesday when Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton launched a shocking personal attack on former Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg. In a display of cold, calculated fury, while attacking Quaedvlieg’s character Dutton accused him of “grooming a girl 30 years younger than himself”. The Liberal back bench looked on in stunned silence. The former commissioner’s partner is now and always was an adult in their relationship. Quaedvlieg is demanding a right of parliamentary reply and an apology for this egregious abuse of privilege, where he was baselessly characterised as a paedophile.

Morrison made no effort to condemn this over-the-top smear. Instead, he excused Dutton for his “frustration at the continued and repeated reporting of false claims about him”. Those claims, supported by leaks from within Dutton’s former department, are taking any gloss off the not-so-shiny new government. Labor and the Greens’ Adam Bandt have pursued Dutton’s use of ministerial discretion over visas, which has all the appearances of “looking after mates”, of “double standards” and of “misleading parliament.”

Still hanging over Dutton is the question of his eligibility to even sit in the parliament. Morrison has no intention of referring his minister to the High Court despite being urged to do so by Malcolm Turnbull. Others outside the parliament are preparing legal challenges to do just that. The failed leadership aspirant is certainly proving an unwelcome distraction for Morrison’s project of reinventing himself and the government.

There was further evidence this week that the civil war within the Liberal Party is not over. Another leak to the Herald Sun was clearly aimed at undermining Morrison. It claimed Turnbull had to sideline him during critical GST negotiations with Tasmania. The report said then treasurer Morrison angrily told state Liberal treasurer Peter Gutwein he was a “fucking mendicant”. Morrison denies the report as rubbish. Gutwein in a statement said he “enjoys a constructive and positive working relationship with Prime Minister Morrison”. But he did not deny the conversation or that the comments were made.

Labor’s Chris Bowen hazarded a guess that the leak did “not come from the Apple Isle but from the Big Apple” – New York – where Turnbull is holidaying. He said the former prime minister has worked out his treasurer was undermining him the whole time. And he said Liberals in the party room know Morrison doesn’t have clean hands.

Bowen’s prediction that it is not going to get any better for Scott Morrison is a statement of the bleeding obvious.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 15, 2018 as "The most sensational, unrepresentational, confrontational, Muppetational Morrison show". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.