Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Outgoing Liberals and parliamentary pensions

At the end of the most recent sitting fortnight of parliament, Scott Morrison invited his MPs and senators to the Lodge for drinks. During the evening, a couple of them ducked out for a smoke. “You know we’re fucked,” one said to another. “We’re fucked, we’re fucked,” he repeated, emphasising the depth of his despair at the prospect of losing government and potentially his own seat.

A week later, Christopher Pyne flipped on his “intention to contest the next election” and announced he was ending his 26-year career in federal parliament. He did so with his usual chutzpah. His departure, at age 51, had nothing to do with the leadership upheaval of last year, he told a news conference outside his Adelaide electorate office, or with the government’s prospects.

Ever adept at the time-honoured political tradition of putting lipstick on every pig, Pyne denied the bleeding obvious. “I believe we will win the election in May and I think we will win Sturt, too,” he said. Although Pyne has managed to withstand change of government swings during his two-and-a-half decades in politics, it seems he’s not up for the fight this time.

“It’s all about the money,” is the assessment of one of his colleagues. Certainly, as a member of the old parliamentarians’ retirement scheme – ditched in 2004 by John Howard under pressure from Labor’s then leader Mark Latham – Pyne is estimated to be looking at an annual pension of $172,196.35, based on the average of his senior ministers’ salary over the past three years.

Pyne’s disclaimer that the toppling of his moderate ally Malcolm Turnbull had nothing to do with his decision doesn’t quite square with his interview for The Sydney Morning Herald last month. In it he blamed the constant social media and a “shouty segment” of the press for panicking his colleagues. Though he did not name them, he was surely aiming his remarks at the conservative right of the party, led by Peter Dutton, who “might actually not reflect at all the way the public think”. He lamented that “sensible people had bowed to that irrational pressure”.

Pyne’s announcement came on the same day Steve Ciobo made official his plan to quit politics. A Dutton supporter, Ciobo, 44, was demoted from cabinet by Morrison and clearly read the tea-leaves that his best days were behind him. He says he didn’t enter politics “to be a time-server”, certainly not a backbencher in opposition. Ciobo is estimated to get an annual pension of $142,250 but he will have to wait until he turns 55 to claim it.

The weekend resignations were seized on by Labor’s senate leader, Penny Wong. She said Pyne and Ciobo were joining other ministers in the “stampede for the exit”. Wong reeled off the names – Julie Bishop, Kelly O’Dwyer, Nigel Scullion, Michael Keenan, as well as Pyne and Ciobo. “After years of cuts and chaos, division and disunity,” Wong said, “this lot have actually given up governing.”

The line pushed by every government minister is that seven Labor MPs are retiring, too. It’s true. However, all announced their departures a year or two ago and only Senator Doug Cameron remains a shadow minister. The rest of Labor’s frontbench is staying on, encouraged by the prospect of winning government. Jenny Macklin and Wayne Swan are leaving with what The Australian described as “gold-plated retirement” packages – $177,000-plus a year, the same as Julie Bishop, another 20-year political veteran.

The perception surrounding the Coalition’s late announcers is that they have waited until the eleventh hour in the hope the Morrison government’s fortunes would start looking up. More worrying for the government, though, is that its highest-profile female MP, Julie Bishop, is clearly not going to leave politics without taking the opportunity to hold accountable the men in the party who cruelled her leadership aspirations.

In an explosive interview with Perth’s Sunday Times, Bishop singled out Christopher Pyne for organising the numbers against her last August, leaving her with just 10 votes. And raking over the coals of the turmoil in the party, she said she couldn’t understand why West Australian party powerbroker Mathias Cormann played a critical role in Turnbull’s demise. “You still wish he would explain his motives in backing Peter Dutton,” Bishop said, “… and causing enormous instability within the Liberal Party.”

In an international women’s day speech, Bishop lined up Tony Abbott for a dishonourable mention. She recalled being the only woman in his 19-member cabinet. “So the prime minister, Tony Abbott, appointed himself the minister for women’s issues,” she noted. “I thought it was quite clear that we have some way to go in addressing issues of gender equality and discrimination.”

According to The New Daily, Abbott is “fed up” with what he says is Bishop’s latter-day conversion to feminism.

It’s all very messy and Morrison’s close ally and special minister of state Alex Hawke has warned that the lack of women in the Liberals’ parliamentary ranks is “a huge problem” that could cost them dearly. The prime minister went for some quick window dressing. He persuaded Ciobo to resign his ministry immediately so he could be replaced by Linda Reynolds. The WA senator was promoted straight into cabinet, taking the number of women to a record seven, as Morrison boasted, “… the highest level of female representation in the history of federation”. Nevermind that with just 12 women among the 74 Coalition members in the lower house, it is the lowest number in 23 years. And there is no real prospect of improvement at this year’s election.

Morrison also brushed aside the latest outbreak of internecine warfare. “Personalities will change from time to time,” he said, “but it’s what you’re doing that matters and what you’re going to do that matters.” The prime minister pointed to 1.25 million jobs he’s promising to create and he emphasises his plan for a stronger economy. He says the election will be all about “enterprise versus envy”.

That pitch struck turbulent waters midweek with the latest data showing the economy slowing on this government’s watch. The figures reveal that on a per person basis our economic output shrank for the second consecutive quarter, creating what economists call a “per capita recession”. Labor’s Chris Bowen says “it’s a damning indictment of the Morrison government’s economic management”. Economist Chris Richardson says this is indicative of a falling standard of living.

Bill Shorten rejected Morrison’s framing of the election. He said it would be a referendum on wages. Richardson agrees stagnating wage growth is making it tough for households to pay their bills but he can see it improving only at a “snail’s pace”.

In a recurring government attack, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says Labor’s $200 billion of tax increases will further damage the economy. Bowen has begun ratcheting up his counterattack. He says Labor has bigger and better tax cuts for 10 million Australians earning up to $125,000. Closing tax loopholes in negative gearing and dividend imputation will pay for it.

Liberal marginal seat-holders are picking up that voters are feeling the squeeze and that the “better economic manager” pitch isn’t working at hip-pocket level as they would hope. Shorten is fully expecting Morrison to allay his troops’ fears with a huge pre-election splurge in the April budget.

Already we have seen the government presiding over what The Sydney Morning Herald describes as “the most egregious wasting of public funds in Australia’s history”. It nominates the spending over the past six years of $7 billion on mandatory offshore detention of refugees and asylum seekers. And potentially the $1.4 billion earmarked for the re-opening of the Christmas Island detention centre for the possible arrival of 57 “paedophiles, terrorist sympathisers and an alleged murderer” the government claims to have identified as possible medical evacuees from Nauru or Manus Island. Why these evacuees cannot be transferred to Australian hospitals as intended by the parliament has never been satisfactorily answered.

The Christmas Island plan can be seen as nothing more than a brazen stunt. Far from the hyped flood, as of March 5 there have been no applications for medical transfers. Morrison, at an estimated cost of $60,000 to taxpayers, even took a planeload of journalists to visit the vacant facility. But a key Labor strategist says Morrison’s desperation to get “boat people” back on the agenda has lost potency. “There’s nothing new in it,” he says. Besides, “it is a confected crisis”, a long way from the surprise arrival of the Tampa mercy ship with 443 hapless people on board. There were also the farcical revelations this week that Border Force has 20 per cent fewer sea-going personnel than it needs thanks to funding cuts.

Desperate boat people are one thing. Government MPs deserting a sinking ship in order to secure their generous pensions are quite another.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 9, 2019 as "Outgoing Liberals and parliamentary pensions". Subscribe here.

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