Morrison raises the flag again

The Scott Morrison version of the Liberal government – “first elected in 2013”, as he insists – continues to be one of relentless activity and half-baked ideas. Anything to grab attention and push the buttons of the voters he is desperate to win back.

Morrison’s hand-waving, an early feature of his prime ministership, became flag-waving during the week as he replanted the Union Jack on the shores of Botany Bay. The arrival of the First Fleet from Britain on January 26, 1788 was, the PM proclaimed, “the birthday of modern Australia”. He also raised the prospect of another national day to celebrate the first 60,000 years of the continent’s history.

The strategy was copybook. One of the government’s favourite campaign organs, The Daily Telegraph, screamed on page one: “Exclusive – PM’s New Day”. This new day would acknowledge and recognise the history of Indigenous Australians. A new national holiday would seem to be a welcome excuse for a barbecue as well as go some way to addressing the reality of prior possession by “traditional custodians of this land”.

Except, by the end of the day, Morrison’s office had to correct an impression it and the prime minister had been giving – he was not talking about a new holiday, just about opening a conversation. A conversation his new Indigenous special envoy Tony Abbott was cool on anyway. By next morning whatever goodwill Morrison was hoping to garner among the descendants of the First Australians evaporated.

It was clear they weren’t the voters he was after. Morrison assured RN Breakfast that Australia Day is the “top national holiday ... where all Australians come together”. He was, however, happy to have “a chat about how we can have greater recognition and honouring of our Indigenous peoples”. That conversation won’t pay any serious attention to constitutional recognition as proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. He dismissed that as a “third chamber of parliament” that won’t be happening. It was a misrepresentation that betrays a wilful ignorance that would play better with One Nation and hard-right voters.

So, as Abbott runs around with his agenda to “close the gap”, there is no real listening to a broad spectrum of Aboriginal leaders themselves. Morrison needs to be careful not to squander the spoils of the Newspoll and Essential surveys this week that showed he has increased his lead as preferred prime minister over the perennially unpopular Bill Shorten. He’s still not back to the heights of Malcolm Turnbull, but it’s encouraging.

Both polls showed the honeymoon has not translated to his government. Though there has been a slight tightening, Labor would still win in a landslide if the election was held now. Labor focus group research in the past fortnight has found uncommitted voters mark down the Liberals for shambolic disunity and self-centred rivalries. It’s an impression that would have been reinforced in New South Wales with the Berejiklian Liberal state government tearing itself apart in a fashion reminiscent of their Canberra colleagues.

How this plays into the Wentworth byelection is a worry for the Liberals. There are reports that the party is preparing to throw $1 million at the campaign. Labor is preparing for “a thumping” in the historically safe Liberal seat. But independent Kerryn Phelps told The Project she’s “in it to win it”. She explained her about-face on preferences in those terms. Now rather than urging people to “put the Liberals last”, she is going to preference them ahead of Labor.

Those close to her campaign say the reset was necessary because Phelps’s biggest task is to persuade Liberals angry over the dumping of Turnbull that she is a friendly independent alternative. She is hoping to win over a chunk of the 62 per cent who gave their first preferences to Turnbull last time. And, to reassure them, she says she “would not lightly support a no-confidence motion in Scott Morrison” because she believes prime ministers and governments should run their full terms.

Phelps believes most Liberal voters in the electorate do not support the agenda of the hard right as championed by the likes of Abbott and Eric Abetz. Her Liberal opponent Dave Sharma seems to share this assessment. In interviews this week he said he believed in anthropogenic climate change and the need to do something about it. He said he supported marriage equality in the postal survey.

But Sharma was less sympathetic to the cause of the ABC, telling RN Drive that he didn’t support more funding for the national broadcaster. There can be no doubt that the crisis at the ABC is building as yet another issue – not only for Wentworth but for the general election as well. There are dangers here for the Liberals because their voters are among the biggest users of its various platforms. John Howard’s one-time chief of staff Grahame Morris describes the ABC as “our enemies talking to our friends”.

The Essential poll this week found the ABC is one of the nation’s most trusted institutions. It scored 54 per cent support, a result that is consistent over the past four years of polling. Tony Abbott’s broken promise not to cut funding to the ABC was a real factor in his demise as prime minister. Abbott set the trend. The Liberals have cut $366 million from the national broadcaster’s budget since 2014. Scott Morrison’s last budget as treasurer cut $83.7 million. Labor is now promising to restore that funding.

Labor’s shadow minister for communications, Michelle Rowland, says this government has subjected the ABC to both “financial and ideological attack”. Some of these assaults have been at the behest of One Nation. The cuts have led to 800 job losses, and even more “efficiencies” are being demanded. The Liberals demanded a competitive neutrality probe to placate the commercial interests of News Corp and Fairfax Media. Nobbling the ABC has been pursued with missionary zeal. Leaked emails indicate the chairman of the board, Justin Milne, at the very least read this mood by urging former managing director Michelle Guthrie to “get rid of” journalist Emma Alberici because the Coalition government “hated” her, although Milne states the emails were taken out of context.

Governments of both stripes have resented the broadcaster’s dedication to holding “power to account” – the very essence of the media’s role in a democracy. John Howard was no different but, unlike the Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison administrations, he did not cut funding in a way that threatened the ABC’s existence and ability to deliver the services Australians appreciate. Bill Shorten says the ABC is owned by Australians and not the government and he will fight for its independence.

Liberals in regional seats are already feeling some of the backlash. One is furious that Nationals in neighbouring seats are presenting themselves as champions of the ABC. The fact that his local ABC gives them more airtime than himself rings alarm bells for him.

But what would be ringing even louder alarm bells is the storm created by last week’s ending of the school funding wars. That optimistic claim was made after Catholic and independent schools happily accepted a $4.6 billion boost over a decade to address their claimed “Gonski” funding shortfall. The deal has infuriated state and territory governments of all stripes. The Liberal NSW government and the Labor Victorian government are threatening to sink any new national agreement unless their own shortfalls are addressed.

The shadow minister for education, Tanya Plibersek, promises Labor will look after the five million parents with their kids in public schools. Her claims of unfairness are boosted by analysis from the respected Grattan Institute that found the private school deal was 10 times more generous than it needed to be to fix the Gonski shortfall.

It is hard to see Morrison not moving to quell this unrest before he marches off to the polls. The latest final budget outcome for 2017–18 certainly means he is in better financial shape to do so than previously projected. That presumes, of course, that he will ditch the policy of offsetting any new spending with cuts elsewhere.

An analysis of the better-than-expected outcome that some economists say could create a small budget surplus as early as next year shows that, besides higher prices for our export commodities, higher company tax receipts and increased employment, much of the fatter bottom line was achieved by underspending.

Spending on infrastructure was $1.3 billion below budget. The states are blamed for that but Labor’s Anthony Albanese points out there has been a failure to deliver $4.9 billion worth of promised projects over the past five years. He ascribes this to a “revolving-door parade of infrastructure ministers” – seven in the period. He says they have lacked the competence to deliver on their promises.

The numbers also give a clue as to why Morrison was keen to be seen doing something to placate older Australians with his royal commission into the aged-care sector. Age pension payments were $900 million below budget estimates. These payments are being affected by the impact of the Abbott government’s assets test knocking out more senior Australians than forecast.

Morrison needs to push a lot more buttons before he’s done.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Waving or drowning?".

During the final week of the election campaign we are unlocking all of our journalism. A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

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

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.