Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Julia Banks and the Coalition’s loss of a sensible centre

The day the Morrison government sank deeper into minority with the desertion of backbencher Julia Banks, the Opposition leader went for the jugular. Bill Shorten’s first parliamentary question summed up the dreadful situation the government of Australia has found itself in.

“Given that his minority government is consumed by division, dysfunction and chaos, was it a mistake for the current prime minister to replace Malcolm Turnbull?” Shorten asked. But he didn’t leave it there: “And again today, I ask: Why isn’t Malcolm Turnbull still the prime minister of Australia?” Scott Morrison avoided the second question and denied the premise of the first by asserting his government was getting on with the job followed by a long, detailed list of achievements. One member of the visibly forlorn Liberal backbench later said: “The trouble is the voters have stopped listening.”

When asked again why Turnbull was no longer prime minister, Morrison answered that the simple truth was the “former prime minister had lost the support of the Liberal party room” and “I was elected leader of the Liberal Party. That’s why I am here”. The real answer, however, came an hour earlier in Banks’s resignation speech.

She said her “sensible centrist values, belief in economic responsibility and focus on always putting the people first and acting in the nation’s interests have not changed. The Liberal Party has changed, largely due to the actions of the reactionary and regressive right wing who talk about and to themselves rather than listening to the people.” It was these people, she said, who ended the inspiring sensible leadership of Malcolm Turnbull and of his deputy, Julie Bishop. These are the party’s destroyers and, upon reflection, she doesn’t want to be part of what’s left.

So alienated had she become she didn’t ever bother to warn Morrison of her decision to quit. In a cruel coincidence for the prime minister, Banks delivered her blistering appraisal at the same time as he was trying to seize back the political agenda. He had called a news conference with the treasurer to confirm the election timetable outlined in this column last weekend.

The budget will be on April 2, a month early, so an election can be held for the house of representatives and half the senate by May 18 at the latest. Morrison said it was “absolutely our intention to have the budget before the election and to deliver a surplus budget”. Few doubt that budget will also be chock-full of electoral bribes, almost certainly featuring income tax cuts. Deloitte Access economist Chris Richardson is bracing for responsibility to give way to desperation. He told The Australian, “Now is the phase when mistakes get made.”

But the prospect of Morrison being able to buy his hold on government is looking increasingly slim. The rout of the Liberals last weekend in Victoria has assumed much greater significance than normal for a state election. It certainly spooked federal Liberal MPs and senators who call the garden state home.

The Liberals’ culture war between the conservatives and the progressives is particularly fierce in Melbourne. The party’s high-profile Victorian division president Michael Kroger, who holds his ascendancy thanks to strong support from the “Christian right”, is no shrinking violet when it comes to stamping his harder right-wing druthers on the party. For many of his frustrated colleagues Kroger’s message confused voters in Victoria with those in Queensland. The stereotype is that the southerners are more progressive than those in the sunshine state. This is in fact a misreading of Queensland, which the Liberal National Party found out at the last state election and in the Longman byelection.

The essential point of the criticism of Kroger is, however, accurate. His identification with the narrow hardliners reinforced a very negative image of the Liberal brand. There is no more reliable witness for this than Melbourne-based cabinet minister Kelly O’Dwyer. She reported to a crisis meeting of Victorian federal members in Canberra on Monday that the party is widely regarded as “homophobic, anti-women climate-change deniers”. It is the sort of home truth that hurts, much like then federal party president Shane Stone’s warning to John Howard in 2001 that he and the party were seen as “mean and tricky”.

In fact O’Dwyer’s warning is closer to Theresa May’s to the British Conservative Party in 2002. She said the Tories had descended into “incestuous feuding and the electorally disastrous exclusion of women and minorities”. She told a stunned party conference: “You know what some people call us – the nasty party.”

No less a Liberal party figure than former deputy leader Julie Bishop added weight to the party’s savage self-assessment. She told an Ernst & Young conference in Sydney that the departure of Julia Banks saddened her because Banks was a “strong, centrist woman”. She said her defection to the crossbench only highlighted the depth of the Liberal Party’s problem with a dearth of women.

Banks, who complained of bullying at the time of the Turnbull leadership coup by people working for challenger Peter Dutton, told parliament “equal representation of men and women in this parliament is an urgent imperative, which will create a culture change”. She rejected completely the conservatives’ “merit” mantra. She said, “There’s the blinkered rejection of quotas and support of the merit myth.”

Labor in the Victorian campaign cashed in on the low standing of the Liberal government in Canberra. All of its negative advertisements, billboards, radio and TV, over 50 per cent of a huge spend, featured Morrison, Dutton and Tony Abbott. This was a none-too-subtle reminder of leadership instability, unpopular spending cuts and the absence of the much more popular Malcolm Turnbull. One strategist says: “Whenever we went negative we had Morrison in it. It was never about Matthew Guy [the state Liberal leader].” He said while the positive campaign for Premier Daniel Andrews was good, the negative one was “strong and effective”.

It certainly tapped into voter sentiment picked up by federal MP Tim Wilson as he worked the booths. He told Sky News, “Every second person either gave you deadly silence, which is a very cold deadly silence, or there were people mentioning energy, climate or the deposing of the prime minister.”

There is little doubt that the Liberal Party is more divided now than it was before the August putsch against Turnbull. It looks like the revenge of the moderates, who have spent the past three years enduring the undermining of Turnbull as well as the right’s refusal to endorse the very agenda that made him popular, the national energy guarantee being the last fatal example. This fed the mounting disappointment in Turnbull and the government.

Such is the distrust and suspicion in the parliamentary party that conservatives are convinced Turnbull, with the help of Bishop and other old allies, has now embarked on a retaliatory undermining of Morrison, Dutton and Mathias Cormann, who were seen as the plotters of the coup. One backbencher says while he doesn’t think Turnbull urged Julia Banks to quit, he would not have encouraged her to stay. They are known to speak to each other.

Labor’s Jim Chalmers says Morrison and the Liberals are “a dumpster fire of cuts, chaos, disunity and division”. His colleague Mark Dreyfus has been negotiating with the attorney-general to implement Morrison’s Wentworth byelection promise to legislate away the religious school discrimination exemption “within two weeks”. He told RN Breakfast the government is terrified of internal division and is paralysed in their efforts to end the discrimination against LGBTQIA students. Almost a month later, Morrison’s promise is in the too-hard basket along with a national anti-corruption commission.

These rivalries are poisoning sensible policy outcomes that would benefit the nation and indeed the planet. Another example is Julie Bishop giving voice to business concerns by telling The Australian Financial Review and the EY conference that the Morrison government should deal with Labor to deliver the NEG. She rightly says this would “ensure a stable investment climate for the industry”. Morrison dismissed Labor’s willingness to deal as a subterfuge to impose “economy-destroying renewable energy targets”. These are the targets scientists warn are a long way from what is actually needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

A senior Victorian Liberal, senate president Scott Ryan, says the massive swings against the party in its heartland seats show the hardline conservatives have miscued on just who is the party base. He says the “real base sent us a message”. These are people fairly conservative in their own lives but liberal in their political outlook. They don’t like seeing the party being pushed to the extreme right on climate, sexuality and race. Ryan said, “They don’t want views rammed down their throat and don’t want to ram their views down other people’s throats.”

Morrison is ending his hellish week in Buenos Aires attending the G20 summit. Even there he can’t take a trick. United States President Donald Trump couldn’t find time in his schedule for a formal bilateral meeting. His office says there are no pressing issues in the relationship anyway. Unlike back home in Morrison’s government.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 1, 2018 as "Minority report". Subscribe here.

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