Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison and the tide of Wentworth

The cascading waters of Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains are an apt metaphor for what happened to the Liberal vote in the seat of almost the same name in last weekend’s byelection.

Both were named after the explorer William Charles Wentworth and there’s no doubt the result has thrown Scott Morrison over the falls into dangerous new territory, in the sense that he is now the inheritor of the fractious divisions that his dumped predecessor Malcolm Turnbull was unable to manage.

Morrison told his party room on Tuesday, “We’re not shifting to the left or the right – it’s not hokey-pokey politics.” In a reality-defying rallying call he said, “We will continue to be a strong centre-right government with strong centre-right parties focusing on the things that matter.”

On Saturday night he rushed from the delayed Invictus Games opening ceremony to the nearby InterContinental Hotel to support despondent Liberal Party supporters. He likened them all to wounded soldiers and said they would show an indomitable spirit, recover and slay the terrible enemy, the Shorten Labor Party.

The only message Morrison seems to have heard from the 19 per cent collapse in the government’s support is that Wentworth voters were “very angry with the events of two months ago” when their then sitting member, Malcolm Turnbull, was ousted as party leader. He says he “will cop it on the chin” and is committed to coming together “as a united party to fight this Labor leader”.

Undaunted, Bill Shorten reminded parliament of the increasing swings against the government in recent byelections: 9 per cent in Longman with Turnbull, 19 per cent in Wentworth without him. “Why,” he asked, “is Malcolm Turnbull gone but you’re still here?” Morrison’s colleague, Defence Industry Minister Steve Ciobo, did what the PM wouldn’t do. On Sky News he said it “was because Malcolm couldn’t sell the government’s message”.

Morrison accused the Opposition of being obsessed with politics “in the Canberra bubble”. Consolidated Newspolls since the coup have shown a collapse in Liberal support in every state and territory. This is one bubble that has well and truly burst.

One backbench Liberal said, “Scott really thinks the anger at the coup will have dissipated by the time the election is held next May.” “It’s a faint hope,” she said, so great is the anger and disillusionment in the electorate.

Morrison is also convinced his best ally in the project of winning the next election is none other than Bill Shorten. Voters don’t like Shorten, or trust him, because, among other negatives, “he knifed two prime ministers”. But a new book by respected press gallery journalist David Speers, On Mutiny, casts serious doubt on Morrison’s “plausible deniability” that he had nothing to do with the decapitation of Turnbull.

Speers writes that Morrison’s closest supporters, Alex Hawke and Stuart Robert, had been on the phones “for more than twenty-four hours, albeit without a declared candidate”. We are expected to believe they were doing this without Morrison’s approval. It was before Turnbull said he would not run if the spill motion were carried. Tony Abbott is quoted saying, “Morrison parlayed his half-dozen votes into the prime ministership, manoeuvring to firstly bring on a spill and secondly then harvest Turnbull votes to get the top job.”

The simple fact that a tell-all book such as this comes out so soon after the events is significant in itself. Speers says the only condition interviewees made was that it was not to be published before the byelection. Some Liberals are angry it was published before the main event next year, aware that it calls into question the government’s – and Morrison’s – credibility.

The dumping of Turnbull has done nothing to bring the government together or to assuage some of its financial supporters. The Nationals’ disgraced former leader Barnaby Joyce told Ten Eyewitness News that “big Liberal donors” had contacted him and were furious with Turnbull for his failure to do more to support the party’s candidate in Wentworth. He says they told him: “That’s it, we’re out.” Turnbull’s old parliamentary allies are gobsmacked at the hide of this attack. As if Turnbull owes anything to the party that unceremoniously knifed him.

Joyce, like some others, blames Turnbull for the loss of the seat that he said “should have been held easily”. Joyce said this disloyalty to the party should not have been rewarded by Morrison sending him to a Bali oceans summit next week to represent “our government”. Tony Abbott told 2GB a minister should be going because “only a minister can represent the government”.

Turnbull is going because he is held in high regard by Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo and Morrison needs to assure Jakarta that he pays due regard to the importance of the relationship, especially after he disconcerted the Indonesians with his play for Jewish votes by floating the idea of moving our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Morrison was caught in the backlash. Someone – or, according to The Daily Telegraph, “senior Liberal sources” – said that while the prime minister would not rescind the decision to send Turnbull, he has “said to a number of senior Liberals that he doesn’t want anything further to do with Malcolm”.

Morrison was asked about it at a doorstop and said the “report was wrong” and answered a terse “yes” to the question if he is on good terms with his predecessor. Declaring open war on Turnbull is hardly the way to win back angry middle-of-the-road Liberal voters. Conservative Liberals, however, don’t seem so bothered. One said, “Wentworth is not typical of Australia.” The Nationals’ George Christensen said the concerns of Turnbull’s old electorate are a long way from his voters – a view shared by his leader, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.

This denialism is stark confirmation of the deep rifts within government ranks over key issues that were at play last weekend. Climate change and refugees on Nauru and Manus are the most prominent. Morrison gives every impression that he is flying by the seat of his pants in dealing with them.

The prime minister put resettling the refugees in New Zealand back on the table last week. This week, after the loss of Wentworth, he has taken it off again. Labor and the Greens signalled that the bill could be passed with amendment in the Senate to “shut the back door” on resettled refugees returning to Australia. Morrison rejected any notion of compromise, saying, “You don’t horse trade on border protection.”

Instead, Morrison is indicating that the children and their parents are coming off Nauru anyway; he’s just keeping quiet about it. This has won support from the three Liberals who fronted him last month demanding he act to stop the suffering that several thousand doctors in a petition to the prime minister have said is dramatically damaging the children’s health.

Labor is not so easily convinced, calling on Coalition backbenchers Russell Broadbent, Craig Laundy and Julia Banks to put pressure on Morrison to deliver more transparently on the offer he made to them in the heat of the byelection. Labor and the Greens could bring on the government’s bill that has stalled in the Senate and either vote for it to call Morrison’s bluff or amend it. As the bill stands, though, it would not apply to refugee children, because it excludes anyone under the age of 18 from the visa ban. There is no doubt the five years of detention has reached a tipping point in public opinion – something Broadbent and other MPs are picking up in their electorates.

Morrison has acknowledged that the perception the government is letting people rot in Pacific gulags is a big negative for public sentiment. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is more willing to keep playing politics with these people’s lives. He doesn’t want to cooperate with Labor because that would give the Opposition kudos in an area the Coalition believes is its strongest point.

Morrison is pressing on with his attempt to blunt the demand to do more on climate change by reheating midweek an old announcement on electricity prices. Apart from requiring energy companies to offer default price contracts, it is threatening them with “divestment of their assets” if they don’t offer reliable power and is examining special loans for new power generation that includes coal.

This “socialist” intrusion into the privatised market is as harsh a judgement as you can get on the failure of previous Liberal holy writ. But it is borne of its own political deadlock. Deloitte Access Economics partner Chris Richardson told The Australian “the current government’s inability to craft a compromise within its own ranks – leaves Australia locked in an investment landscape that looks more third world than first world”.

The emphasis on electricity prices is the best the government can do to address cost-of-living issues gnawing at working families thanks in no small way to stagnating wages. Unions mobilising tens of thousands of workers around the country for Change the Rules protests is an ominous sign for Morrison.

The sentiment fuelling the demonstrations is the same that powered the anti-Work Choices campaign 10 years ago. Employers and companies are enjoying surging profits and generous salaries while underemployment and low wages, particularly in the private sector, is now the norm.

And that wasn’t even one of the top issues in Wentworth.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 27, 2018 as "Wentworth falls". Subscribe here.

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