Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
PM sets tone for May 18 election

The 2019 election campaign is off to an inauspicious start. The tone has been set by the prime minister, who admits he is the underdog and seems to have decided the best way to win over voters is to treat them like mugs, launching an absurd attack on electric vehicles and Labor’s 50 per cent EV sales target by 2030. Dumped prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called it “peak crazy”.

This is the dead end the government has created for itself. Instead of setting out to claim the future and to embark on visionary policies to shape it and avoid the catastrophic climate change warned of by scientists, it has resorted to shrill, unbelievable scare campaigns – campaigns that presume the populace is backwards looking, afraid of innovation and unconcerned by a summer of extreme weather events.

Scott Morrison began the week claiming Bill Shorten wanted to rob Australian families of their weekend – this based on claims debunked by Toyota that the electric cars and SUVs due on the market within a couple of years “won’t tow your trailer or your boat”. Morrison says the vehicles Labor wants to make available in the future cost “about $45,000 to $50,000. That’s the cheapest car Bill Shorten wants to make available to you to buy.” It’s a breathtaking assumption that there will be no change, no economies of scale, as the world moves to manufacture millions more electric vehicles and technology revolutionises their performance.

Morrison’s skills minister, Michaelia Cash, doubled down on the stupidity, telling apprentices Shorten was after them. She proclaimed that the Coalition is “going to stand by our tradies and we are going to save their utes”.

It was reminiscent of the supposed Donald Trump quote to People magazine in 1998 that if he were to run for president, he would run as a Republican because they were the dumbest group of voters in the country. He never actually said that, of course, and the meme claiming he did has since been debunked, but the scare campaign being run by the Liberals now suggests the party has a similar view of their potential voters. “Their problem,” one Labor strategist says of the government, “is the voters aren’t as dumb as they think.”

Shorten echoed Turnbull’s reaction, saying it was “peak absurdity” that somehow people are going “to lose their SUVs and utes now”, or have them confiscated in the future. Twice this week Shorten rolled out Senator Kristina Keneally to weaponise Labor’s counterattack. She is his “Bill Bus Captain” and will play a prominent role throughout the campaign.

Keneally didn’t miss: she produced several pictures showing senior ministers promoting electric cars as part of their climate solutions package. She quoted an opinion piece written by Josh Frydenberg saying, “A global revolution in electric vehicles is under way and with the right preparation, planning and policies, Australian consumers are set to be the big beneficiaries.”

Shorten says, “This is a scare campaign because they can’t take real action on climate change. They want you to be frightened of the future as much as they are frightened by their future.” Turnbull’s willingness to buy into the debate is a stark reminder of the Coalition’s inability to bridge its divide over energy and climate and come up with a coherent policy. It is no accident that Labor, in designing its policies, has taken Turnbull’s abandoned framework and built on it. That leaves the government wedged.

No one is more wedged than the energy minister, Angus Taylor. Forced to accept that Labor’s electric vehicle policy and his own are virtually the same, he says the government doesn’t “have a target, and we won’t impose a harsh new emissions standard or a tax on new cars to drive uptake”. Just eight months ago, Frydenberg trumpeted the government’s “vehicle emissions forum” which was “working on new vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency standards”. These are standards now adopted by Labor with the promise of driving a motorist’s dollar further.

Both major parties are grappling with the north/south divide over the controversial Adani coalmine. South of Gympie in Queensland, Adani is electoral poison because of climate change concerns. And further north, especially around Cairns, there are concerns for any impact on the Great Barrier Reef.

A threatened revolt by Liberal National Party MPs in Queensland forced the environment minister, Melissa Price, to finalise her review of advice on the future of the coalmine. They wanted a decision before the election was called. On Tuesday, they got it. The last thing the prime minister wanted was the Coalition imploding on the eve of the election. Morrison defended his minister for following the “process to the letter” and taking the advice of the CSIRO and Geoscience Australia.

Shorten, who was in central Queensland, accepted that the minister was acting on advice but raised the behaviour of LNP senator James McGrath. The Courier-Mail reported he had threatened to go public and call for Price’s sacking unless she signed off on the project. Shorten asked: “How can someone make a decision free of pressure when they’re being bullied?” The ball is now in the state Labor government’s court. No one is expecting a quick result there. Queensland Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch is not convinced the project is safe and says there are “a number of uncertainties” still around water management.

The Mackay-based co-ordinator of the #StopAdani campaign, Peter McCallum, says “voters in our region won’t be fooled by Adani’s glossy expensive ad campaign”. He says the company is now in court for polluting the Great Barrier Reef and has been fined for polluting wetlands. He says the company should tell the truth about what the project really means after construction. Its plans are focused on automation and a fly-in fly-out workforce.

Former environment minister Greg Hunt is nervous about the Adani decision, as are other Victorian Liberals. He has no doubt climate change is as potent an issue in this election as it was in 2007, when the Howard government was defeated. Hunt is facing a challenge in his seat from Liberal defector Julia Banks, who has tweeted a picture of herself wearing #StopAdani earrings and has claimed the electorate is committed to stopping the mine and to renewables. Hunt dodged a question on what the decision would mean for his battle to hold the seat. He said he would leave explanations to Price.

The published opinion polls this week saw a slight lift – one point – for the government in Newspoll, but the average of all of them was the entrenched trend of a six-point lead to Labor. Polling analyst Andrew Catsaras says the difference could be put down to statistical noise and that nothing much happened after the budget. But the government took heart from the fact Morrison is now in positive approval territory by two points while Shorten is languishing in the negative by 14 points. That means more people approve of the PM’s performance than disapprove.

Shorten’s relative unpopularity has not dissuaded many more voters from saying they will vote Labor. But to cover any negativity the opposition has adopted a strategy of pushing forward its frontbench performers. Focus group research finds positive reaction to deputy leader Tanya Plibersek, senate leader Penny Wong and other high-profile members such as Tony Burke, Anthony Albanese, Chris Bowen and Mark Butler. By contrast, the Liberals have been hit hard by the departure of Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne and are left with a relatively unknown ministry. This is a legacy of the churn of leaders and ministers, denying the government the chance to consolidate. A Labor insider says, “The penny has really dropped that their high-profile performers are no longer in the mix.” The biggest missing in action, of course, is Malcolm Turnbull.

But Turnbull was certainly not missing in action this week. He sensationally picked up on ABC Four Corners’ revelations about the role former Howard minister Santo Santoro played in cash for access between Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. Huang paid $20,000 to Santoro to arrange a meeting. The Chinese businessman was later pinged by ASIO for his high-level contacts with the Communist Party.

Huang was pushing for Australian citizenship and Dutton, at the request of Labor’s disgraced senator Sam Dastyari, authorised a private naturalisation ceremony for members of the businessman’s family. Dastyari says he was surprised at the speed of Dutton’s response but now understands why. Dutton denies doing any favours and subsequently refused Huang citizenship and cancelled his visa.

Turnbull says the revelations are “very troubling” and “Dutton has a lot to explain about this”. He said the same issues that led to Dastyari’s demise are at play and Morrison can’t wave it off and say “it is all part of gossip and the bubble”.

Shorten says it’s “more ongoing division in the Liberal Party” and they “need a rest on the opposition benches to get their act together because they are so chaotic”.

On Thursday, Morrison posed the big question “Who do you trust ?” when he finally called the election for May 18. The campaign will be short and sharp compared with 2016.

Still, it allows more than enough time for voters to deliver their verdict.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 13, 2019 as "Playing dumb". Subscribe here.

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