Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Coalition takes water, presses on

His Labor opponents privately concede Scott Morrison is a much better campaigner than the deposed Malcolm Turnbull. And Morrison is taking full advantage of the unquestioning support he is getting from the dominant Murdoch papers around the nation. He is also providing plenty of warm and cuddly pictures for the nightly news bulletins. But as the campaign enters its final three weeks, the message out of the Shorten camp is: “There’s no need to panic.”

Morrison has not been able to resolve the political divides inside the Liberal and National parties that he inherited upon taking the prime ministership. Complicating the situation is the Frankenstein monster spawned by the creation of the Liberal National Party in Queensland.

Moderate Liberal voices in Queensland have been swamped by conspiracy theory extremists who have taken climate change denialism to new depths of absurdity. The emergence of the LNP’s No. 3 senate candidate, Gerard Rennick, is a prime example. His views that the Bureau of Meteorology tampered with weather data to “perpetuate global warming hysteria” is by no means unique to him. One LNP source says Rennick, who won his endorsement after donating $30,000 to the LNP last year, is backed by the same sort of people who successfully moved to dump Brisbane Liberal moderate Jane Prentice. The LNP denies there is any connection between the unusually big one-off donation and Rennick’s success in snaring a winnable senate spot.

Morrison was left to defend Rennick in the name of “diversity of views” in the Liberal Party, which “is not a dictatorship”. At the same time, Morrison tried to distance himself from the conspiratorial candidate by claiming to be serious about climate change while warning Labor’s prescriptions would destroy the nation. Rennick, should he be elected, would join other sceptics and deniers, such as Tony Abbott and Craig Kelly in Sydney, who would be sure to cause just as much grief for Morrison on the issue as they did for Turnbull.

The Morrison bonhomie and array of baseball caps cannot hide the desperation fuelling the midweek release of “government analysis” of Labor’s 45 per cent emissions reduction target that The Australian headlined “Labor’s carbon KO for top companies”. It claimed the analysis, based on a future international carbon price of $62 a tonne, could cost companies up to $1.6 billion each. Retail food giant Woolworths could be up for $77 million in credits. The inference is: grocery bills will skyrocket as a result.

Labor’s Mark Butler doubted the analysis had the credibility of any government department following assurances from Martin Parkinson, head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, that in the caretaker period the public service adheres to the proprieties.

Butler told RN Breakfast, “This is just a rolling series of weekly scare campaigns by the government all based on dodgy modelling and buttressed often by blatant lies.” While some key Labor strategists are bracing for more of the same during the next 21 days, Butler doubts the community will be taken in. Previous scaremongering claims, such as $100 lamb roasts and groceries going up across the household budget, did not transpire. And that was with a $23-a-tonne carbon price. This time there is no set price.

According to Butler, the first false assumption is that “not a single company in Australia does anything to reduce their emissions, which [is] just ridiculous”. He also asks: “Why would business buy international credits if they are four times as expensive as domestic credits?”

The Australia Institute this week released analysis estimating the cost of doing nothing on climate change. It found that Australia’s gross domestic product “faces a hit of an average $130 billion per year”, unless national action is taken to meet the Paris target to limit global warming to less than two degrees. That is the target we’ve signed up to reach by 2050, which, according to the CSIRO and other analysis, we are not on track to hit.

And just when many of his troops were beginning to believe Morrison’s Easter prayers might be answered, their hopes were shattered by Barnaby Joyce. The New England MP has form in derailing Liberal prime ministers when they appear to be making headway – just ask Malcolm Turnbull. The $79 million water buyback imbroglio had been simmering for more than a week, ever since The Project on the Ten Network picked up the work of business journalist Michael West in a major report.

The buyback without tender went to Eastern Australia Agriculture, of which Energy Minister Angus Taylor was a director. EAA had also been a donor to the New South Wales Liberal Party two years before the sale, to the tune of $55,000. When initially asked about the deal, Morrison defended Joyce and said the main beneficiary was the environment because the floodwater was purchased to go into the Murray–Darling system. However, there is no evidence a drop of it did, and there are plenty of questions over how then water minister Joyce handled the affair. He was certainly involved, while at the same time claiming “arm’s-length” propriety. It’s a curious defence given that, as the relevant minister, he signed off on the deal, with ministerial guidelines stating he can only do so “after due diligence”.

Joyce inflamed the situation when he gave an extraordinary half-hour interview to Patricia Karvelas on RN Drive. “Labor, Labor, Labor, Labor, Patricia,” he shouted repeatedly, attempting to blame the Queensland Labor government for it all. Joyce’s problem is that while the state minister recommended a buyback, the price, and the way in which it was handled, is entirely within the purview of the Commonwealth.

The issue had long concerned South Australian senators Rex Patrick, of Centre Alliance, and Sarah Hanson-Young, of the Greens. Both have been calling for a royal commission into the deal and Joyce’s controversial handling of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, ever since the Nationals bullied then PM Turnbull into putting Joyce in charge of it. Sensing the need to quickly cauterise a haemorrhaging political wound, the current water minister, David Littleproud, announced he would refer all water buybacks since 2008 – Labor and Coalition – to the auditor-general. This was widely seen as a convenient kick into the long grass. Labor kept the focus on Joyce, announcing it would hold a judicial inquiry into the Joyce sales alone.

The scandal over up-river water buybacks is political dynamite in South Australia. Voters in two seats – Boothby, which is held by the Liberals, and Mayo, which they hope to win back from Centre Alliance – won’t be impressed. Bill Shorten says it strengthens his resolve to set up a national anti-corruption commission, “because under this government there is too much dodgy behaviour when it comes to money and the government and the ministers”. He cites lucrative contentious contracts to other big donors such as Paladin Security, Helloworld Travel and now Eastern Australia Agricultural.

On Monday pre-polling begins for the election. All eyes will be on the performance of Clive Palmer’s new United Australia Party and the preference deal he has been working on with the Liberals. Not to be ignored is Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. She has been stridently anti-Shorten Labor and is not expected to do the ALP any favours this time.

What could be a stroke of luck for the Coalition, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, which did so well in the NSW election, is not running candidates in four Murray–Darling seats, including Barnaby Joyce’s. Party leader Robert Borsak told The Saturday Paper they had “no money and no quality candidates” and not enough time for planning after the state poll. He said, “We will plan for 2022.”

Newspoll earlier in the week showed Palmer, who has already spent $30 million on advertising, was polling well enough in four marginal seats to have his preferences make a difference. Analysis of the polling requires some caution, they are small samples and as the byelections proved last year less reliable as a guide than the general polling.

But Labor insiders took heart from the fact Palmer was taking votes from the Liberal National Party and One Nation. As with the Hanson party, this dilutes the preference flow back to the conservatives. In all seats there was a swing to Labor.

Shorten did not miss Palmer when he campaigned in the Townsville-based seat of Herbert during the week. “[Palmer] can find the money to advertise on billboards,” Shorten said. “But 787 employees had to be paid by the government $74 million.” Shorten said the government means “you and me, the taxpayers”. Palmer lamely hit back saying he had put $7 million into a trust fund to pay the workers the rest they are owed after the election. He didn’t mention reimbursing taxpayers.

Liberal insiders are no more confident now than they were at the beginning of the campaign. “We can’t detect a big enough movement back to us to save us” was the view of one familiar with party research. Doorknocking campaigners are finding voters completely over what Labor keeps calling the “chaos and dysfunction” of the past three years. Much as Labor found at the end of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years, this is one current that is hard to swim against.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 27, 2019 as "Taking water but pressing on". Subscribe here.

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