Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison doubles down on security

What a week for the Morrison minority government. It started with the prime minister promising to keep Australians safe and secure. It ended with him and his government looking less assured they will be around long enough to deliver. Tuesday’s historic defeat on the floor of the parliament was a direct legacy of the same turmoil that led to the demolition of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. In its wake, the prospect of the government’s recovery is looking more remote by the day.

The trigger for the amended government bill came from Dr Kerryn Phelps, independent member for the seat of Wentworth, which of course is Turnbull’s old seat. His demise was also credited as the reason another Liberal, Victorian Julia Banks, quit the party in disgust and went to the crossbench. Along the way she attacked the culture of bullying in the party, accusations she repeated in a recent interview with Nine News. Banks and Phelps gave Labor, the Greens and the crossbench the numbers to defeat the Coalition in the house, 75 to 74.

In a frank interview with The Sydney Morning Herald this week, a scene-setter for parliament’s return, Christopher Pyne gave a sober assessment of the damage done by the August 2018 coup. One of the most senior members of cabinet, Pyne said politics is trapped in a self-obsessed and panic-prone spiral – one that is damaging parliament’s ability to work for the common good.

At a time when Scott Morrison is trying to airbrush the inconvenient truths of the past from memory, Pyne linked his damning view of current politics to Turnbull’s overthrow. He said, “I felt that the constant social media, shouty segment of the press, that keeps everybody on edge in this building [parliament] all the time – and might actually not reflect at all the way the public think – had won, and that sensible people had bowed to that irrational pressure.”

Pyne also fessed up to the numbers manoeuvre that saw him organise for his fellow moderates to desert Julie Bishop in favour of Scott Morrison to block Peter Dutton’s lunge for the leadership. He judged that Dutton was “electorally unpopular” outside of Queensland and would have damaged the Coalition’s chances of holding on come election time more than Morrison. Pyne is standing by his assessment, and one of his colleagues isn’t surprised. “Pyne’s right,” he says. “We’re all stuffed.”

On Tuesday, during the refugee medivac debate, Pyne suffered the ignominy of Labor’s Tony Burke moving that Pyne – as leader of the house – no longer be heard while he tried to head off the inevitable defeat. The parliament supported the gag on Pyne, the numbers holding through a series of votes to deliver the government’s humiliation. There are two precedents of a government losing in similar fashion – 78 and 90 years ago – which led the respective prime ministers of the day to immediately advise the governor-general to call an election. These governments were both defeated.

Morrison has no intention of following suit. As he told the assembled press gallery midweek, “I know you don’t like the phrase, but the ‘bubble nonsense’ of people going on about all sorts of precedents, all the rest of it – frankly, not interested. I’ve got too many other important things to focus on.”

Morrison is pinning his hopes on turning his defeat on sick refugees into a rerun of John Howard’s 2001 border security election. Along the way, he will attempt to massage an April budget surplus, and more tax cuts and pork barrelling, into a win.

The wisdom is that Labor is always on the back foot when the issues of border security and “boat people” are raised. But the government will be hard-pressed to elevate these to the dominant concerns they were in 2001. The main reason is Morrison’s success in stopping the boats. The polls suggest people are more worried about their wages and the struggle to cope with the rising cost of living – especially electricity prices and extreme weather events. If they have been thinking about “boat people” at all, it is largely their concerns about the fate of children in indefinite detention and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers holed up on Manus Island and Nauru.

Morrison’s acknowledgment of this came by his completing Turnbull’s task of getting all the children and their families off Nauru. But the campaign by doctors – 6000 signed petitions urging the government to stop impeding the medical evacuation of sick detainees to Australia – was also resonating. It’s something Kerryn Phelps, a former president of the Australian Medical Association, tapped into in the Wentworth byelection.

Bill Shorten was picking up similar sentiments. But contrary to the impression peddled by the government’s media cheer squad, Shorten was never interested in achieving anything other than the outcome articulated by Phelps. She puts it succinctly: “It is time for the Australian government, having done the job of stopping the boats and preventing unnecessary deaths at sea, to now prevent unnecessary deaths on Manus Island and Nauru.”

Morrison and Dutton, having first claimed the Phelps initiative was “unnecessary” because 800 detainees had been brought to Australia for treatment in the past six years, now claim that the new laws have ended offshore processing and already “the beast is stirring”. The beast being the people-smuggling trade.

Senator Derryn Hinch was not impressed by the government’s new tactic to smear all refugees as rapists, murderers, child abusers and drug pushers. His vote was vital for the senate to accept the house of representatives amendments on the bill. He told the senate the Labor amendments meant the medivacs only applied to those currently detained. “It was no encouragement for people smugglers,” he said, pulling the plug on the government’s “big lie” that the bill would allow criminals to run free in Australia. Hinch said the Department of Home Affairs assured him those transferred will remain in detention and that they will come here for medical attention only if doctors determine they can’t get the treatment they need on the remote Pacific islands.

In parliament, clearly drawing from focus group findings on the doubts some voters have about Shorten, Morrison and Dutton bellowed that the opposition leader’s support for this humanitarian arrangement meant he “lacked character” and was “not fit to lead this nation as prime minister”. During the debate, Shorten made the point the amended bill does indeed go to character. “This bill and our amendments are about Australia’s character. It’s about how we treat sick people in our care,” he said. Sick people who are then sent back to offshore detention after treatment.

Labor’s senate leader Penny Wong was passionate in her counterattack on Morrison. She accused him of a “pattern of deceit and desperation from a man who is desperate to cling to office, a man who has nothing left but deceit, fear and smear”. If the tactic of demonising asylum seekers blows up in the government’s face, it will not be without precedent. Morrison and his colleagues have learnt nothing from the “children overboard” affair. John Howard’s tough stance on the sort of people “who throw their children overboard” seemed to work in 2001 but it only served to undermine his credibility after the election when the truth of the situation came to light.

Labor certainly doesn’t want to keep giving oxygen to this debate. The day after the government’s loss the opposition didn’t ask one question about it, preferring to move on to banks and the government’s delaying legislation to give effect to the royal commission recommendations. No doubt for the thousands of victims this is a more immediate issue than the overhyped arrival of boats.

Labor strategists admit there is an element of risk in their attempt to be humane to refugees while being tough on border security. But this week’s Newspoll and the Essential poll would have calmed their nerves. The average of the published polls – including a Morgan poll midweek – is 54 per cent in favour of Labor to 46 per cent for the Coalition. This continues an entrenched trend – not only since the August putsch against Turnbull but also since the last election. Closer analysis finds eerie similarities to the run-up to Howard’s 1996 defeat of the Keating Labor government and the 2007 prelude to Kevin Rudd’s defeat of the Howard coalition.

There can be little doubt the major factor in this government’s malaise is the churn of prime ministers. As one Liberal says, “Three prime ministers is just unacceptable.” The first question Morrison got after his National Press Club speech went to the nub of the problem: “The Liberal Party has voted ‘no confidence’ in its own leadership twice now. Why should the Australian people show confidence in this government in May?” The best Morrison could come up with was to agree there have been three prime ministers, but to argue “We’ve had three good ones…”

As my mother used to say, “Tell that to the marines.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 16, 2019 as "Coalition’s fate seems medivac sealed". Subscribe here.

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