Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison’s race to the bottom

Scott Morrison and his nine-year-old daughter, Lily, had the thrill of their lives last Sunday as white-knuckle passengers in a Bathurst Supercar. They were in the capable hands of champion driver Mark Skaife who skilfully avoided the safety fences while gunning the vehicle at 200 kilometres an hour, creating g-forces that both terrified and excited the prime minister at the same time.

Morrison boasted he was the first prime minister since Bob Hawke to attend the revhead nirvana that is the Bathurst 1000. Hawke, like any prime minister, had more than his fair share of bumps and scrapes. For most of his time in the top job, though, his co-drivers were with him and he steered a middle course that kept the punters on his side. Morrison should be so lucky.

On Monday, the prime minister hit what many in his party see as the speed bump that is Sydney shock jock Alan Jones. The Jones agenda plays to the so-called conservative party base. Appealing to that base “would reduce our support to 28 per cent of the electorate” is the rueful observation of one backbencher. Make no mistake, there is a concerted effort to push back against this hardline conservative agenda. Concerned Liberals view the Wentworth byelection as their last chance, and best chance, to get Morrison to adopt a broader policy stance. That way they hope they might avoid a massive landslide defeat next year.

How else can you explain the leaking midweek of sections of the Ruddock report into religious freedoms? Former Howard government attorney-general Philip Ruddock handed his panel’s report to Malcolm Turnbull back in May. Turnbull, unwilling to provoke yet another brawl with his conservative critics, sat on it. Scott Morrison, facing a byelection in one of the most socially progressive seats in the country, is doing the same. Except Morrison is signalling he wants stronger laws exempting religious institutions from Australia’s discrimination laws.

Government sources say Morrison believes the Ruddock recommendations are too weak. For example, its recommendations on the legality of refusing gay students say a discrimination policy should apply only to new enrolments and when “the school has regard to the best interests of the child as the primary consideration in its conduct”.

What’s set alarm bells ringing is how Morrison would toughen it up. Bill Shorten challenged him to reveal the report before the Wentworth byelection “if you’re not planning anything nasty”. Shorten said he couldn’t believe the “prime minister hasn’t ruled out creating new laws to discriminate against kids in education”. Morrison says the report is yet to be discussed by his cabinet. He emphasised the not altogether accurate observation that religious schools can already discriminate against gay children or gay teachers seeking employment. Some states rule this out, Tasmania most explicitly.

But Ruddock does not recommend an easy waiving of anti-discrimination laws. In what could be a problem for mainstream religious schools, the report recommends any exemption would be tied to them first making public their discrimination to prospective enrolments or employees. For the more extreme fundamentalist schools such a policy would be seen as a welcome opportunity to trumpet their prejudices.

Ironically, the Ruddock review rejects the idea that religious freedom in Australia is in any “imminent peril”. It is against any conservative push to let businesses refuse services to people based on sexual orientation.

The Liberal candidate in Wentworth, Dave Sharma, who was the only hopeful not to attend a huge “meet the candidates” night in Bondi earlier in the week, couldn’t avoid buying into this. At a doorstop organised for him with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Sharma rejected any new measures to extend religious schools powers to expel gay students and sack gay teachers.

An interstate Liberal says Murphy’s law is at play: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Morrison could not have picked a worse time to be schmoozed by Alan Jones. Jones suggested that Shorten’s AFL team, Collingwood, defeated in the last minutes of the grand final, could be an omen for Morrison.

In the days leading to Turnbull’s demise, Jones used his show to urge the plotters to quickly finish the job of dispatching the prime minister. Now that Jones has a new Liberal leader, he believes he has someone he can support. He told Morrison, off air, “We’ll talk later but I’m here to help – give me a call.” If Jones’s offer of help is anything like what he provided to the New South Wales Liberal state government and the Everest horse race, Morrison is in real trouble.

Jones’s crude bullying of Sydney Opera House chief executive Louise Herron for wanting to veto a plan to turn the national icon into a crass commercial billboard degenerated into a public relations disaster for everyone concerned, deepened by the miscalculation of Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her hapless racing minister, Stuart Ayres.

Jones was thrilled Morrison had backed his attack on Herron’s position when he endorsed the idea of using the Opera House – “Sydney’s biggest billboard” – to promote the tourism opportunity of the horse race. The PM did not demur from that support. In the interview Morrison said he “just didn’t understand why we tie ourselves up in knots about these things”.

His lack of understanding here is as suspect as the Lara Bingle “So where the bloody hell are you?” promotion he pushed just before he was sacked from Tourism Australia. Wentworth hopeful Kerryn Phelps was quick to jump in on the controversy. The independent candidate got wide publicity on radio and TV as she attacked Jones’s misogynistic bullying and the debasement of the Opera House. Labor’s candidate Tim Murray was just as outspoken on ABC Radio.

“The whole saga was everything that’s wrong with politics as far as the constituents of Wentworth are concerned,” was the view of one campaign worker. These are voters who just hate the spectacle of politicians caving in to vested interests at the behest of the likes of Jones with no heed of the public’s disquiet. Whether it is a vote changer or simply further reason for middle-of-the-road Liberals to register a protest vote against the party’s brand will become clearer at the end of the month. But no one has any doubts that climate change policy is playing very badly for the Libs.

And not just in Wentworth. An analysis of polling on the issue by Peter Lewis of Essential Research finds that climate change is the one issue that has the strongest community consensus and the partisan divide less pronounced. Writing in Guardian Australia he said, “On nearly every question we ask around climate change and renewables, support for government action sits around two thirds of all voters.” Lewis said Australian voters have known for a long time that climate change is real and caused by human activity and we don’t think the government is doing enough to address it.

The response of Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Environment Minister Melissa Price to Monday’s release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report arrogantly disregarded this consensus.

Price made a virtue of saying she hadn’t read the report, though in her cabinet position she would have been given advance warning of its contents – if she could have been bothered. The day after its release, she joined other sceptics and deniers debunking the report’s key finding that fossil fuels should be phased out by 2050 to avoid catastrophic global warming. The former mining company lawyer said 90 of the world’s most eminent climate scientists were “drawing a very long bow”.

Nationals’ leader McCormack was just as dismissive, saying Australia won’t be bound by “some sort of report”. He, like Price, is in the “clean coal” camp, an oxymoron dreamed up by a lobbyist 10 years ago for an incredulous but grateful coal conglomerate. Against all the science, they think we can keep polluting at our accelerating rates – and despite Morrison’s assertions to the contrary, the government’s own figures confirm this is what’s happening – and we can do it right up until 2050, when miraculously carbon capture and storage will be viable and able to undo the damage of the previous
22 years. According to the best available science, the frog will be well and truly boiled by then.

Morrison, ahead of the report’s release, was badgered by Alan Jones to follow Donald Trump out of the emission reduction commitments made at the Paris conference in 2015. Morrison rejected this course of action because, in his assessment, the commitments are so puerile they amount to nothing. For good measure, he rejected international climate conferences as “the sort of nonsense” he wasn’t getting into.

Labor’s Mark Butler says the government’s response starkly demonstrated it was “incapable of taking the action we need to protect the interests of our children and grandchildren”. Former Liberal leader and member for Wentworth John Hewson is urging the voters of his old seat to seize the opportunity to send a message via a protest vote for a candidate that takes climate change seriously.

A senior Liberal moderate is pessimistic that the message will be heeded, even if the seat is lost. But it would certainly guarantee Morrison another white-knuckle ride, all the way to the general election.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2018 as "King of the mounting problems". Subscribe here.

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