Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison gears up for last-ditch budget

The government is rushing at breakneck speed towards its date with destiny. On Tuesday night the treasurer will unveil the first budget of the Morrison government, which the polls suggest will almost certainly be the last fiscal prescription of the shambles that has been the six-year-old Coalition government.

The budget will be Scott Morrison’s attempt to buy his way back to the Treasury benches. But many of his troops believe it is too late. One MP who is battling hard to hold his marginal seat says, “Nothing can save us now.” Not even massive tax cuts, which are sure to be the budget’s centrepiece, nor the promise to build roads, bridges and rail in every marginal seat in the country.

All of this despite a morale-boosting scrape home by the Berejiklian government in New South Wales last Saturday. The reaction was neatly summed up by Imre Salusinszky, a former adviser for the Mike Baird NSW government, who tweeted: “ ‘Banking’ a competent, united and moderate state Coalition Government is part of the process of getting the baseball bats ready for the chaotic federal version.” Bill Shorten, benefiting from two terms at the helm of a stable Labor Party, asks of the government: “What are they miraculously going to do in the next six weeks that they didn’t do in the last six years?”

Deloitte Access Economics’ Chris Richardson is forecasting that fiscal rectitude will be thrown out the window. And there are plenty of precedents: Peter Costello tried to save the Howard government with his last budget, only to lock in structural deficits for a decade. According to Morrison, his budget will offer the first surplus budget since then – one rabbit already pulled out of the hat. Of course, it will be a forecast for 2019-20 and may – as with former Labor treasurer Wayne Swan’s surplus forecasts – not actually materialise. There are plenty of headwinds already slowing the economy.

Shorten is not far off the mark when he says this budget, brought forward from May – essentially to give the Morrison election manifesto gravitas – may not survive beyond polling day. The Labor leader is expecting the numbers to be held together “by rubber bands, sticky tape and ice-cream sticks” – designed to avoid the sort of scrutiny regular budgets receive.

Labor members and staffers expect Scott Morrison to announce the election date at the end of next week – after Shorten’s Thursday budget reply and before the scheduled senate estimates the following week. The previous round of senate committees left the government reeling and there’s not much appetite in cabinet for a repeat dose. A quick five-week campaign for a May 11 poll is on the cards. Labor is moving its staff and volunteers to its campaign headquarters in Parramatta in seven days’ time. The Liberals won’t be far behind, heading to campaign central in Brisbane – a sure sign of just how crucial the government sees the Sunshine State for its survival.

It is not a case of the old tourism slogan though – “Queensland: beautiful one day, perfect the next.” The northern state is proving as problematic for Morrison as it did for John Howard in 1987. The idiosyncratic Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen then derailed the Coalition’s campaign. Another controversial banana bender, Pauline Hanson, is today more than matching his disruption.

Hanson has been defiant in her racism and bigotry after the Christchurch mosque atrocity, even standing by her senate maiden-speech sentiments on RN Breakfast. In that speech she said Australia was “being swamped by Muslims”; the following year she said in an interview that “Islam is a disease” we need to be vaccinated against. For good measure, Hanson will not support a senate censure next week of independent Fraser Anning, who blamed the victims of the massacre for their own fates. Anning came into the senate thanks to his position on the One Nation ticket.

This week, any shred of decency, let alone credibility, disintegrated for One Nation after explosive revelations that Hanson’s svengali and chief of staff, James Ashby, and her Queensland senate candidate Steve Dickson met with the United States National Rifle Association in Washington, DC. Secret video, filmed by an undercover Al Jazeera journalist, showed the pair bragging to the gun lobbyists that for $US10 million – or even better, $US20 million – they could grab the balance of power in Australia’s parliament and weaken the country’s gun laws.

The media sting was a double embarrassment because Dickson, who had been a minister in the Queensland state government under Campbell Newman, embellished his pitch with overt racist comments about African gangs and stories of Muslims invading Australia – echoing his leader’s sentiments. Ashby, meanwhile, says in the footage, “This shit goes through my head every single minute of my day” – he is well aware that if their covert mission to America’s powerful gun lobby ever got out “it will fucking rock the boat”.

Ashby and Dickson called a late Tuesday news conference to blame foreign interference and media deception for their behaviour. Ashby said that during one of the documentary’s scenes they had been drinking scotch for hours and it was “the sauce” talking. None of which explains their original intentions. David Oldfield, co-founder and former deputy leader of One Nation, told ABC Radio he didn’t think the debacle would worry Pauline’s “rusted-on supporters”. They will only see it as more evidence she is victimised by the media. But Oldfield conceded the brazenness of it all would enrage most Australians. And therein lies the danger for Scott Morrison.

Shorten asked, “What else does Mr Morrison need to hop off the fence?” demanding the Liberal Party put One Nation last in its voting preference advice. On Thursday the prime minister finally announced that the Liberals (but not the Nationals) would preference Labor over One Nation. Given John Howard came around to demanding the Liberals preference Hanson’s candidates last, Morrison’s previous position – that he would wait for nominations to close – looked weak. Beyond that, though, it would have only guaranteed the issue would flare up again in the campaign.

Severely restraining Morrison had been the fact that the Queenslanders – much like Bjelke-Petersen in the late ’80s – were likely to snub their noses at him. Several MPs had come out saying they would be putting the Greens and Labor last on their how-to-vote cards. In a show of bravado, Morrison fulminated against One Nation, saying that he doesn’t want One Nation’s preferences, he wants their primary votes. He is still hoping the party’s voters will see Ashby and Dickson’s behaviour as “abhorrent” for “basically [seeking] to sell Australia’s gun laws to the highest bidders, to a foreign buyer”.

Liberals outside of Queensland have been clear about their position. Cabinet ministers Simon Birmingham and Kelly O’Dwyer say One Nation should be put last. Melbourne MP Tim Wilson, too, says it is where they should be on his ticket in the blue ribbon seat of Goldstein. Health Minister Greg Hunt even went so far as to “like” a Bill Shorten tweet calling for Morrison to “show leadership and put One Nation and parties like them last”. Hunt, of course, was on Peter Dutton’s leadership ticket.

Now that the NSW election is out of the way – and Gladys Berejiklian has been re-elected, “a real liberal” who “is not a climate change denier”, according to Malcolm Turnbull – old scores from last year’s coup are finally being settled. In an extraordinary series, Sydney Morning Herald and Age journalist Peter Hartcher has had insiders past and present singing to him like canaries. Not much of it is flattering to Morrison.

In his interview with The Project on Network Ten, Morrison didn’t blame journalists – including Hartcher – for reporting back in 2011 that as a shadow minister he wanted to leverage anti-Muslim sentiment for political advantage. Rather, he said the lies about him came from “anyone who may have talked to a journalist to smear me in that way”.

There is no doubt, as I have previously written in The Saturday Paper, that a number of Liberal MPs and ministers – not only those in the Turnbull camp – believe Morrison was no innocent bystander in the coup. Rather, as Hartcher wrote this week, they believe Morrison was a “schemer … in it right up to his neck”.

Furthermore, Hartcher has been told by “multiple former and current ministers and officials” that in 2014 Morrison wanted close to $10 billion for a mass detention plan to take out of the community 30,000 asylum seekers who were on bridging visas. Joe Hockey, treasurer at the time, “hit the roof”; his objection was not on budgetary grounds but on humane ones. Hockey said the government was not about to start rounding people up off the streets and putting them in detention centres. Then prime minister Tony Abbott was persuaded to veto the scheme. A spokesman for Morrison told the Herald the prime minister had “no recollection of such a proposal”.

Looks like Morrison may be punch drunk as the final round approaches.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 30, 2019 as "Time is almost up". Subscribe here.

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