Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison Broad-sided

Scott Morrison disappeared from view for most of the week. He was in the Middle East, visiting our remnant military still trying to mop up after the miscalculation 15 years ago of joining the invasion of Iraq. But in many ways the TV news pictures of him mingling with our Defence Force men and women in their seemingly hopeless task of claiming a decisive victory sums up the prime minister’s political situation.

Morrison, or more accurately the Coalition government, finishes the year in as parlous a position as it began it. And the reason is mostly of its own making. Principally, the house is divided and, more to the point, exhibits no gumption on the basics of political management. There is simply no internal cohesion, with communication non-existent between the constituent parts, because of a lack of trust and competence. The upshot of this has been on display in the past seven days.

Despairing backbenchers on Monday lamented that the government “couldn’t take a trick” after a sex scandal involving Nationals assistant minister Andrew Broad blew the relatively good news of the midyear budget update out of the headlines. It didn’t have to be this way, but the problems aren’t just a result of the married Broad putting his “family values” in jeopardy in Hong Kong by arranging a tryst with a woman 20 years his junior. They arose because his leader, Michael McCormack, completely misread and mishandled the situation.

The Prime Minister’s Office insists Morrison only learnt about Broad’s use of a website for “sugar daddy” arrangements on the day New Idea broke the story. It is simply an incredible and grave dereliction of duty on McCormack’s part. He lamely claims he doesn’t “tell the prime minister everything about every member of parliament” because he “has enough on his mind”.

McCormack is deputy prime minister and a member of the expenditure review committee of cabinet who was intimately involved in the preparation of the midyear budget update. More tellingly, he is also a member of the leadership committee that plans government strategy and tactics. He clearly did not tell his fellow senior ministers that New Idea, published each Monday, was onto a bombshell story involving his own assistant minister.

There is a view in cabinet that, at the very least, McCormack could have advised against a Monday launch of the update they were all putting so much store in to kickstart a political recovery. The breakdown in communication and street smarts is also clearly at the level of senior staff in the offices of the PM and DPM. They are not talking to each other, perhaps because they are all so new in their jobs. This in itself is another downside to the churn of leaders: dozens of experienced staffers are lost to the inner workings at the highest levels of government.

One government insider says McCormack and Broad knew the magazine was working on the story six-and-a-half weeks ago. Even so, the Nationals leader was so inept when the story broke he couldn’t get his lines straight, claiming he was told about it only “a couple of weeks ago”. The insider says, “They thought the magazine had lost interest when nothing was published for weeks after the initial approach.”

Broad had had a similar letoff when News Corp journalists approached him for comment on claims by several women about alleged inappropriate behaviour towards them. He denied the allegations so vehemently and convincingly News Corp dropped the story. It was resurrected the day after the New Idea report.

The Prime Minister’s Office insists it was Morrison, not McCormack, who sacked Broad from the frontbench. But the Nationals’ leader did belatedly agree his colleague’s behaviour was not appropriate for a government minister, even though he did nothing about it for six weeks. McCormack still praised Broad as a good and diligent local member who would continue in the role.

Then, a day later, Broad announced he would not recontest his seat, Mallee, which has a 20 per cent margin. It is a wise decision. Vox pops done by the television and radio news reporters who descended on the electorate found universal hostility to Broad. A Nationals strategist admits that one of their safest seats is now vulnerable to a strong independent, or at the very least a contest with a Liberal candidate. That would force both parties to spend a lot of money campaigning to keep it in Coalition hands, which will make it that much harder for the minority government to survive.

The mess has further undermined McCormack’s leadership, making him vulnerable to a Barnaby Joyce challenge in the new year. Colleagues say the former leader is itching to return. Joyce’s “appalling behaviour”, as Turnbull described it, by having “sexual relations with one of his staff” and thus ending his marriage, is apparently no deterrent. Metropolitan Liberals don’t see it that way, given that the Coalition is widely seen as having a problem with women voters.

McCormack made a late bid to provide satirist Shaun Micallef with one of his zingers when, straight-faced, he proudly told a media conference both his women MPs were ministers. The deputy PM seemed oblivious to the fact he was actually highlighting a gross imbalance of female representation because his other 19 members are men.

Morrison missed a golden opportunity to be seen as a champion for women with the appointment of the next governor-general. Instead, he opted for another Christian military man: General David Hurley. The decision reinforces the idea that the PM lacks imagination and is insensitive to acknowledging contemporary Australia.

Morrison made the announcement at the exact moment Bill Shorten was to give his opening speech at Labor’s national conference – a spoiler aimed at preventing the networks carrying the Labor leader live and stealing his thunder in the subsequent news coverage. Labor welcomed the appointment of Hurley, who is currently the governor of New South Wales, although it complained about not being consulted, given Hurley will not take up the role until after the election.

Just as Joyce’s shenanigans trashed Malcolm Turnbull’s tentative recovery earlier in the year, Broad’s contribution was another nail in the Coalition’s coffin. The average of the latest published opinion polls is an 8 per cent lead to Labor. It is an entrenched trend since the knifing of Turnbull in August.

Polling analyst Andrew Catsaras can’t see Morrison turning this around. “Where would this improvement come from?” he asks. The budget update confirmed it won’t come from the economy. On closer inspection, figures reveal a recovery due more to the “most benign international environment” in 10 years. Economist Chris Richardson says this is mostly due to China buying more and paying higher prices for our iron ore and coal, which the markets don’t expect to last indefinitely.

While Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says the forecast return to budget surplus next year confirms the “government’s plan is working”, Labor’s Chris Bowen says the government’s own update shows “growth is down, investment growth is down, wages growth is down, consumption growth is down and the only thing that is up is terms of trade”.

Labor’s national conference was widely reported as a well-managed, albeit staged, event that gave credibility to Shorten’s claims the party is “united, determined and ready to govern”. The Essential Poll on Tuesday found most Australians expect to see Labor take the prize no matter when the election is held.

Apart from the government’s palpable disunity, which resulted in two bloody changes of prime minister, it is being outplayed on the politics of key issues.

The Liberals seized on the ALP conference’s commitment to change the rules on wage-fixing. Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O’Dwyer painted this as a power grab by monster unions. But as with the WorkChoices campaign that felled the Howard government 11 years ago, the Coalition is seen to be on the side of business at the expense of working men and women. Shorten told the conference: “We are seeing growth without wages growth. We are seeing rising corporate profits and witness stagnating workers’ wages.”

Shorten is promising “a renewable energy revolution”, tying in climate change action with cheaper electricity – something Turnbull was cut down for attempting and Morrison is not addressing. A sure sign Labor is on the wavelength of mainstream opinion is the embrace of the same agenda by the NSW Liberal government, which is soon to face the people.

Its energy minister, Don Harwin, slammed the Morrison government “for being out of touch” on energy and climate policy, discouraging new investment and prices from falling. He says it is not serious about reaching zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Even if Morrison wanted to pivot on these issues – and he doesn’t – his party wouldn’t let him. The best guide to the next five months is the past five months, or indeed five years. So, the only question going in to 2019 is not who will win the election but how many seats the government will lose.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Morrison Broad-sided". Subscribe here.

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