Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison’s ‘momentum’ peters out

Forget the Muppets, Scott Morrison took the nation into Strawberry Fields this week. That’s where John Lennon sang, “Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about, Strawberry Fields forever.”

The prime minister called a news conference to talk about the crisis rocking Australia’s strawberry growers thanks to criminal sabotage of the fruit. He resolutely refused to take questions on any other issue. He said, “We have a real issue going on here ... I’m not going to get distracted ... I’m going to stay 100 per cent focused on those issues.” You can’t blame him, the real issues tearing at his government seem to only worsen. No wonder he fobbed off questions about them with lines such as this: “Why don’t we talk about strawberries and not politics for a second?”

In the government party room on Tuesday Morrison told incredulous members that “we have momentum”. One quipped later: “Yeah, the sort of momentum you get when you jump off a cliff.” Maybe Morrison was taking heart from the fact he was more popular than Bill Shorten in the latest Fairfax Ipsos poll, though not quite as popular as the man he replaced, Malcolm Turnbull.

The same poll had Labor ahead comfortably, probably because it also found that the unpopular Shorten has his party more united behind him than Morrison does his. Disunity is death in politics and there is still plenty tarnishing brand Liberal.

Morrison began the week with a bold ploy to change the subject, or at least to get voters to look somewhere other than at how he and his colleagues are running the shop now it is under new management. The prime minister put enormous energy into announcing he was planning a royal commission into the aged-care sector.

Morrison followed his Sunday announcement with interviews on The Project and next morning on radio as well as Today and Sunrise. It was as if the crisis in the sector was something he had never heard of before becoming PM. Indeed, his minister Ken Wyatt had told the ABC Four Corners crew preparing its exposé on the industry that he thought a royal commission was a waste of time and money.

There have been at least 30 inquiries into the aged-care sector since the kerosene bath scandal in 1997. And stung into action after the 2017 Oakden scandal in South Australia, the government was already putting in place a number of recommendations from various inquiries.

Wyatt had even accused Shorten of fear mongering that amounted “to abuse of the elderly” when the Opposition leader raised concerns in May. Wyatt argued with considerable credibility that mandatory reporting and a tougher enforcement that he had instituted were beginning to bite. The Department of Health has closed one aged-care service a month in the past year.

It is hard not to be cynical about the politics of this royal commission, if not of the need for a very bright light to be shone into what are clearly some very dark corners. Labor did not quibble with the need, though it kicked off a debate over funding cuts to the sector instituted by Morrison himself as treasurer.

Morrison’s efforts to set the political agenda to his liking came to a shuddering halt after 24 hours. The Liberal member for the ultra-marginal New South Wales seat of Gilmore, Ann Sudmalis, dragged it back on to the failure of the Liberal Party to deal with bullying and announced she was quitting at the next election. Here was another woman adding credibility to the damaging perception that the party was no fit place for a woman, and that it really didn’t want them anyhow.

Sudmalis accused state Liberal MP Gareth Ward of “bullying, betrayal and backstabbing”. She said Ward had “flexed his vengeance on strong Liberal women. He doesn’t just get even: he annihilates anyone who opposes him.” She tried to shield Morrison from her broadside, saying it has nothing to do with his leadership and that “he is a truly good man”. She sheeted home the blame to the “NSW state division and their lack of action”. That’s the same division that was unable to deliver a woman candidate for the Wentworth byelection to accommodate Morrison’s wishes.

Ward denied bullying and won support from his friend and state premier Gladys Berejiklian. There was little sympathy for the Sudmalis accusations from colleagues in Sydney and Canberra. Some saw them in the context of a hard-fought preselection she was losing. One, exasperated by her failure to see the damage she was causing Morrison, said it was because she was “too thick”.

Her Liberal Senate colleague, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, chimed in with the observation that politics is a tough business and “if you can’t stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen”. The party’s federal vice-president Teena McQueen went on Sky News to denigrate the sisterhood, saying “women always want the spoils of victory without the fight”. She gave this advice: “Fight for a spot ... you must have that DNA in you to be in politics.” McQueen’s observation is particularly egregious given the seats Liberal women hold are in the main marginal, and they win and hold them with extraordinary hard work and determination.

To say Morrison was exasperated by it all would be an understatement. Midweek he offered Sudmalis a three-month sabbatical to the United Nations in New York. It’s the same job retiring Victorian MP Julia Banks knocked back after her speech condemning bullying. Banks was unwilling to have her silence bought.

Morrison is trying to persuade voters that the bullying and women’s issues are “nothing to get hung about”. Nothing to see in Canberra, it’s all in the court of the state divisions. That was his response when Sudmalis’s speech derailed a media opportunity he was holding at an aged-care facility. Journalists asked five questions on aged care and nine about her outburst. Morrison was even asked if he was “100 per cent confident it was not an issue in the parliamentary party”. “I am,” was his terse reply.

Labor’s Tanya Plibersek wasn’t buying it and reminded the prime minister in parliament that six of his women colleagues, a quarter of his female cohort, said bullying was happening. Morrison launched a political counterattack on Labor. But the reality was staring back at him across the chamber. Shorten has almost 50 per cent women representation in parliament. Morrison has just under 23 per cent and all the indications are that number will shrink further at the next election.

The Liberals have a 50 per cent target for women by 2025 but no effective policies on how to reach it. That’s much like the vacant space that has become their climate and energy policy. Denialist Energy Minister Angus Taylor assured parliament the renewable emissions target set to end in 2020 is doomed. “We won’t be replacing that with anything,” he said. He claimed the 26 per cent target, signed up to in Paris, can be reached by 2030 without any new commitments for the electricity sector, something the Energy Security Board says is wrong.

Former Liberal leader and one-time member for Wentworth John Hewson believes both issues will play badly for the party in the byelection. They proclaim loudly that the Liberals are out of touch with contemporary Australian sentiment. Independent candidate Kerryn Phelps has made gender equality, commitment to climate action through renewables and treatment of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru key planks in her platform.

One Labor apparatchik says Wentworth is the Liberals’ Batman. That’s a reference to the Melbourne inner-city byelection where Labor was on notice for the same issues. Then it was not that the party didn’t have policies but it was being challenged on them from the left by the Greens. The Liberals in Wentworth are being challenged from “the sensible centre” by Phelps and from the centre-left by Labor and the Greens.

With an eye to Wentworth and the broader electorate, Labor has asked Morrison 21 times why Malcolm Turnbull is not the prime minister. On Tuesday Morrison outlined the achievements of the Liberals in power during the past five years. Shorten jumped in: “He is explaining why Malcolm Turnbull should still be prime minister; I’m asking why he isn’t.” Morrison dismissed the gibe as a “zinger” but it was more a stinger that he can’t answer without drawing more attention to the divisions still racking his party.

There was stark evidence this week of the disarray the government is in. It ran out of legislation to debate in parliament. Government backbenchers in the Senate were told to filibuster on non-controversial bills. On Wednesday the Senate went back to debating the address in reply to the governor-general. That outlined the Turnbull government’s agenda back in 2016. Much of that agenda, as with its prime minister, no longer exists.

Morrison has three weeks before parliament sits again to get real.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 22, 2018 as "Strawberry shields". Subscribe here.

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