Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The haunting of Scott Morrison

Not even the west coast of Australia was far enough away from New York to protect Scott Morrison from the ghosts of governments past. In full campaign mode the prime minister headed to Perth to pick a fight with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and to establish his can-do credentials with the increasingly restive voters of the sandgroper capital.

But day one of his visit was haunted by his deposed predecessor – Malcolm Turnbull, still smarting from the betrayals and plotting that saw him bluffed out of his leadership, will not let it go. To be more precise, any audience the former prime minister goes before inevitably asks him what happened. It’s a question ministers are confronting when they pursue their duties in Europe and the United States. One says even the Italians are bemused.

So when it came to question time at a United Nations Forum – which ironically Morrison says he asked Turnbull to attend – the issue of the “coup” was raised almost immediately. It’s a question the current prime minister can’t or won’t answer. He avoided it the previous day on Insiders, insisting he didn’t vote for the spill and that the leadership of the Liberal Party is the “gift of the party room”.

Turnbull allies in the parliamentary party are increasingly sceptical of this “I knew nothing” stance. One says Morrison confidant Stuart Robert, a former soldier, planned the manoeuvre with military precision, dudding Peter Dutton and Turnbull in the process. So with emotions still so raw it is little wonder the newly minted prime minister runs for fairly unconvincing cover every time the issue is raised.

Not so exercised, Turnbull told his Big Apple audience the “coup” was “crazy”. Its motive could not have been electoral survival because the Newspoll and the party’s own tracking had him on course to win or at least be highly competitive in the looming election.

Turnbull said, “We were very, very competitive, but for reasons that they’ve not been able to explain, you know there was an element of the party, and of the media, that wanted to blow the government up, and they did.”

He went on to say, “When you stop being prime minister, that’s it. There’s no way I’m going to be hanging around like an embittered Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott – well, seriously, I mean, these people are just sort of miserable, miserable ghosts.” For good measure he described Abbott as “very conservative”.

Rudd shot back on Twitter with a “quick reality check” on “miserable ghosts”. “First,” he tweeted, “having told the world you’ve left politics behind, you seem to be in the media every day talking about it.” And with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek: “Second, in case you didn’t notice I left parliament for NYC 5 years ago. Why not come over for a cuppa?”

Confronted with this colour and movement, Morrison was far from amused. He told reporters, “I will leave all ghosts in the past, that’s where they deserve to be.” The trouble is the past defines the present. Morrison’s present certainly constrains his efforts to pretend the past ceased to exist on August 24.

So even though Turnbull has put his $2.5 million Kingston Foreshore penthouse in Canberra on the market and culled the number of media outlets and journalists he is following on Twitter to 26, his absence from parliament, as Rudd unkindly reminded him, doesn’t exclude him from the “miserable ghosts” club. It assuredly means his capacity to disrupt Morrison is every bit as potent as Abbott’s was for him.

Turnbull is certainly going to defend his legacy. There is no shortage of people in the parliamentary party happy to help him. They point out much of what Morrison is doing now by way of “barnacle scraping” was already part of Turnbull’s “comeback plan”.

That plan could not be complete without addressing the festering sore in Western Australia of the goods and services tax distribution. Turnbull and Morrison , with up to five seats in the balance, hatched a plan based on the Productivity Commission’s work. A year ago Bill Shorten and his treasury spokesman, Chris Bowen, promised the Fair Share for WA Fund. And Labor this year promised to be on a “unity ticket” with the government.

But if you really want to be noticed, it’s best to pick a fight. So Morrison, who had earlier ridiculed Labor’s calls for the new distribution formula to be legislated, adopted it as his own and challenged Shorten to support it. The media in Perth couldn’t quite work out the change of heart between now and his previous trip to the city.

His answer was curious for its silliness. He said, “We’re legislating to put in place the 70 and the 75 per cent floor forever.” Raising the volume a notch or two, he said, “You can’t trust Bill Shorten on this. Why would you leave it to a future government 10 years from now, five years from now, 20 years from now to go and change the rules on Western Australia again?” Apart from the implicit acceptance that Shorten would lead a future government, no parliament can bind another one “forever”. Legislation can be difficult to amend or repeal but it happens regularly enough.

Morrison’s insistence that he must legislate for certainty went only so far. In the face of every state – both Liberal and Labor – demanding that he also legislates his promise that “no state would be worse off”, he said it wasn’t necessary. For that he is depending on modelling done by the Productivity Commission of economic activity during the next decade. The states are far from convinced. The Victorian Treasury came up with other modelling that showed worst-case scenarios contradicting this.

Morrison says he’s not in the business of writing blank cheques. That in itself admits his assurances are limited. This is a point Labor is sure to push hard when the legislation comes into the parliament in two weeks’ time. Bowen is signalling that the Opposition will move an amendment to give the states the guarantee they are demanding, but failing that will deny Morrison the knockout blow he is playing for, by passing the bill.

Back in their electorates Liberals fear voters have stopped listening. “There’s an ominous silence out there,” was the way one put it. “They’re waiting for us with baseball bats,” was the view of another. There are doubts Morrison is the leader to turn it around. While he is clearly more at home on the campaign trail than Turnbull was, his authenticity can be undermined by his “carnival barker” style.

Apart from the price the government is paying for dumping yet another sitting prime minister, who “appeared” again this week, Morrison is carrying a lot of political baggage. Some of it plays badly in Wentworth where pre-poll voting has begun. It is no accident the main contenders challenging the Liberals’ Dave Sharma – independent Kerryn Phelps, Labor’s Tim Murray and the Greens’ Dominic Wy Kanak – are making climate change and energy policy, the future of an independent ABC and the treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus very prominent in their campaigns.

But perhaps the biggest credibility deficit for the prime minister is his handling of the banking royal commission. He claims credit for establishing it, and is counting on the punters forgetting he vigorously fought it for months. Labor’s mission is to keep reminding them.

Shorten says Morrison voted against the royal commission 26 times, “he denied we needed a royal commission for 600 days and when he was finally dragged kicking and screaming … he didn’t give the royal commission enough time”. Morrison hit back accusing Shorten of politicising the commission and “disrespecting the commissioner”.

However, Shorten’s call for more time was backed by the Nationals’ indefatigable campaigner against the banks, Senator John “Wacka” Williams. He told RN Breakfast “the more witnesses you get, the more you learn. So the more [Commissioner Kenneth] Hayne hears from people, the more he’ll be helped in his recommendations to government.”

Australians will be gobsmacked if criminal prosecutions aren’t recommended in the commission’s final report. It is one thing for Hayne to find greed and a failure to meet community standards, it is another not to prosecute frauds and thieves with the full weight of the criminal law. Shorten says “the crazy thing in Australia for the last number of years is that if you steal from a bank, you go to jail, but if a bank steals from you, the top end get a bonus”.

Morrison’s dismissal of Shorten now has a hollow ring to it given that for so long he slammed the Opposition for pursuing a populist whinge and wanting to “wreak havoc with the banking and financial system”. His assurances last year that he already had “tough cops on the beat” in the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority are equally unbelievable in light of the commission’s findings.

Morrison will need more than a hard hat and hi-vis vest to bust these ghosts.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 6, 2018 as "Miserable ghost stories". Subscribe here.

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