Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Scott Morrison fails to persuade voters

The question dogging Scott Morrison as he rubs shoulders with world leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Port Moresby this weekend is how long he will remain a member of this exclusive club.

By his own admission, the chances are slim. The accidental prime minister – catapulted into the job when a majority of the Liberal Party room 12 weeks ago preferred him over Peter Dutton – is failing miserably. The futility of the rescue mission thrust on him hit home with a big deterioration in the latest Newspoll. It posted a 10-point deficit to Labor, and Morrison’s own approval ratings dived into negative territory.

While pleading for time, Morrison reminded Sky News that the election “is next year”. He conceded, however, that “there is a very strong prospect of Bill Shorten being the prime minister after the next election, of course there is. Anyone reading that [poll] couldn’t draw any other conclusion. So the question is, do you want Bill Shorten as your prime minister?”

Morrison believes his rhetorical question is a no-brainer. The economy is purring along like it hasn’t since the global financial crisis. Unemployment is falling and the budget is almost back in the black. And of course, the “boats have stopped”, because he, Scott Morrison, stopped them. On the other side, he says, Shorten will raise taxes – on home owners, pensioners and everybody else.

This narrative has proved an unconvincing failure when put to the test – not the opinion poll test, but the actual test of real elections. The Longman and Braddon byelections, characterised as referendums on leadership between Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull, provided the first cases in point. Both major parties went for broke in their campaigning.

The Liberals in Longman swamped Bribie Island with billboards targeting the area’s large population of older Australians and pensioners, claiming Labor’s plans not to give a tax refund to people who don’t pay tax on their shares was a vicious tax hike. The swing to Labor in the island’s booths was 3.5 per cent, and 10.5 per cent against the Liberal National Party.

In Wentworth, the Liberals spent close to a million dollars with mailouts, billboards and advertisements pushing digitally distorted images of independent Kerryn Phelps with a scary Shorten over her shoulder. The tag line: “A vote for Phelps is a vote for Labor.” Shorten remarked as the results came in, “Well, that’s one scare that doesn’t work.”

Something else is definitely at play and we need look no further than the analysis provided by Turnbull himself on the ABC’s Q&A special. This is a government gripped by what the dumped prime minister says is “madness”. He named the “insurgents” who “destroyed the government of Australia”. They were “Dutton, Abbott, supported by Cormann, Fifield, Cash and Hunt and Ciobo and Michael Keenan and Angus Taylor – there’s a long list of them – they effectively blew up the government. And that created a situation of enormous instability”.

Those who moved on Turnbull because they believed he was leading them to a certain defeat are now facing real doubts about Morrison’s ability to do any better. “Scott hasn’t got it” is the pessimistic conclusion of one veteran Liberal. Talk of Morrison doing a John Howard and pulling the government back from the brink of defeat as in the 2004 election is a faint hope.

After raising eyebrows by not going to Paris to join the leaders of nations that fought in World War I, where 60,000 Australians were killed, Morrison jetted out midweek for two major regional summits in Singapore and Port Moresby. This time, Donald Trump will be the absentee, denying the new prime minister the chance to personally press his credentials with the United States leader. Again, Morrison’s lack of political nous was to the fore.

For his meeting with Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo, Morrison needed a mop and bucket to clean up the mess caused by his Israel embassy announcement, which came out of the blue during the final week of the Wentworth campaign. On the eve of Morrison’s arrival, Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, said the much-vaunted free trade deal would not be signed until Australia completes its review on whether to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. She left no doubt that the trade deal would be off if the move went ahead. Anyone with the most rudimentary understanding of Indonesian politics would understand why.

In his “friendly and respectful conversation” with Widodo, Morrison gave no assurance he wouldn’t change the 70-year-old bipartisan policy withholding recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He did stress his commitment to a two-state solution accommodating Israel and the Palestinians. He also assured the leader of the world’s most populous Muslim nation that “Australia has a long history of respecting Security Council resolutions”.

That Morrison couldn’t just come out and say he has no intention of moving the embassy, as Shorten urged him to do, is more evidence of the “instability” in the government. Conservatives such as Abbott ally Senator Eric Abetz called on Morrison to cut the $360 million yearly aid to Indonesia if it didn’t like what we were doing as a “sovereign nation”. The after-dark commentators on Sky News – the ones Turnbull accused of having “branch meetings” with Liberal grassroots conservatives – were indignant at the thought Australia should make decisions on foreign relations that actually looked to possible downsides for our national interest as a trading nation.

Morrison wisely ignored Abetz’s foolish provocation. He also refused to echo the views of another conservative warrior, former international development and Pacific minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, on how to deal with China’s growing influence in the region.

Rather than stoke Sinophobia and undo the intense behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts over the past two years to repair the relationship with our biggest trading partner, he welcomed Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. He said Australia’s $2 billion infrastructure financing facility to promote developments in the region was not attempting to exclude others. Rather it was about “working with a whole range of different nations within the region to advance the prosperity and stability of the Pacific”.

One key Labor strategist is sceptical of this show of statesmanship. He says Morrison is into “shapeshifting” – a neat way of accusing the PM of being a chameleon, someone who shapes his message and persona to the audience. Social media picked up the meme after the Morrison “bus tour” of Queensland with the hashtag #FauxMo. Shorten and his colleagues on the frontbench, bolstered by focus group research, have started to call Morrison the Demtel Man – a glib salesman into advertising gimmicks. This could be as lethal for the prime minister as John Howard’s defining of his opponent Kim Beazley as “lacking ticker”.

The PM has vulnerability on another front: his record running Tourism Australia and the New Zealand Office of Tourism and Sport. The opposition in the senate this week seized on The Saturday Paper’s exposé of Morrison’s sacking from the Australian job halfway through his contracted term.

Labor’s senate leader Penny Wong led the attack by asking her government counterpart, Mathias Cormann, if he could confirm whether an auditor-general’s report shows numerous anomalies and concern over contracts worth $184 million during Morrison’s term as managing director of Tourism Australia between 2004 and 2006. Cormann was initially unprepared and took a series of questions on notice only to return the next day to table his reply. It was effusive in its praise of Morrison’s record at the agency. Among other plaudits was this one: “I can confirm that the performance requirements for the prime minister’s contract at Tourism Australia were fully satisfied.”

If this were the case, Labor’s Glenn Sterle asked, why was Morrison sacked “only a year-and-a-half into his contract by a unanimous decision of the board without any dissent whatsoever?” Cormann’s answer was breathtaking for its chutzpah. He accused Labor of “living in the past, whereas we are focused on the future”.

This is from a senior minister in a government that sent a royal commission after Julia Gillard over 17-year-old allegations, which were found to be spurious or highly contestable. Not to mention similarly dubious partisan motivation for going after Shorten and Kevin Rudd with expensive judicial inquiries that failed to nail them, unless you put the worst possible construction on some of the findings. Cormann says “Labor is indulging in juvenile student-type political attacks”.

If embattled government marginal seat holders are hoping Morrison has not only put this past behind him but learnt from it, the Foodbank fiasco wouldn’t have inspired confidence. Again the political antennae were not attuned to consequences. Cutting the charity’s funding in half at a time when 40 per cent of its food handouts go to the drought-stricken bush was just stupid. The swiftness of the reversal within 24 hours was ample proof of that.

At this point, Shorten is counting down the weeks. By his reckoning there are 25 to go before the voters pass their judgement.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2018 as "Death of a salesman". Subscribe here.

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