Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Nowhere for Scott Morrison to hide

How much easier would life be for Scott Morrison if he was a Liberal prime minister seeking his third term in government? He could point to the delivery of an agenda outlined back in 2013 and his leadership of a united, cohesive team of senior ministers who have mostly delivered and become household names.

Sadly, for Morrison, that is not his reality, and it is showing. He dare not mention the war.

It is clear in one of the thinnest “small target” government election manifestos we have seen in a long time. Thin, because he fears treading where Malcolm Turnbull went before him, particularly on energy and climate change. When put to the test before a hand-picked studio audience of swinging voters in Monday’s first leaders’ debate, Morrison failed to convince the majority – 52 per cent awarded the debate to Bill Shorten, while just 25 per cent were convinced by the prime minister and 23 per cent were unable to pick a winner.

Even Morrison’s closing spiel, his essential message, sounded thin: “Now is not the time to turn back. Now is the time to ensure that we keep our economy strong.” Evidently, too few believe that his good fortune of better prices for our commodities, as well as higher revenue windfalls from companies returning to post-GFC profitability, is Morrison’s work alone. An attitude summed up by one successful small businessman at a weekend market: “The good thing about this country is the politicians can’t fuck it up.” In other words, there is not a lot of reward for “keeping the economy strong” if voters aren’t convinced it has all that much to do with your leadership.

This is all the more pertinent in the face of the turmoil of the past three years. The Liberals, after passing judgement on themselves as a failing Turnbull government, now pretend deposing that prime minister’s administration made no real difference at all to the party’s ability to govern. Morrison has never claimed he is a better prime minister than Turnbull, only as good as he was. At least that’s the implication of Morrison’s oft-repeated view that both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull were good prime ministers.

For all his bluster and interrupting in the TV debate, Morrison failed to speak to the concerns of the swinging voters. Shorten filled that breach. “Keeping the economy strong for whom?” he asked. He said he wanted to tackle the big issues that are affecting everyday Australians: “Cost of living, everything’s going up in Australia except people’s wages.” Shorten said he had a plan to “help cap private health insurance fees, to help a million Australian households with their childcare costs”, to help three million pensioners and health card holders with their dental care, and to restore weekend penalty rates.

In elections gone by, the cry would be, “Where’s the money coming from?” This time, Morrison is more than happy to provide an answer. He claims Shorten wants to increase taxes by $387 billion.

If Shorten’s tax plans were dropped on the nation this week, there may be greater mileage in this scare. But Labor’s tax reform agenda has been out there since the last election, and the arguments have been well canvassed. The tax grab portrayed by the Liberals is, in fact, Labor not agreeing to tax cuts for higher income earners in five years’ time, and the curbing of tax concessions for negative gearing, capital gains tax and dividend imputation. These amount to a cut in government spending so as to direct resources to budget repair and promises. There is one flagged “tax grab” – the reintroduction of Joe Hockey’s budget repair levy until 2022.

Shorten is unapologetic when he says Labor can afford to pay for its promises. “We’ve made the hard decisions going forward. We acknowledge that some people won’t be happy, but what we want to do is to stop providing tax loopholes to the top end of town and those who are already very well off,” he said.

It’s a strategy that has won approval from economist and former Liberal leader Dr John Hewson. In his Sydney Morning Herald column, Hewson wrote “just as Rudd did in 2007, Shorten has neutralised the issue by claiming to be at least as ‘fiscally conservative’, promising larger surpluses and earlier repayment of debt, moving on to define a more visionary strategy on other issues”.

Shorten was more than happy to refer to the elephant in the room during the debate over his emission reduction targets and its costs to the economy. He said if the Liberals “were fair dinkum on climate change, Malcolm Turnbull would still be prime minister”. Still, Morrison believes he has his opponent cold after Shorten admitted he could not give a one-figure answer on costs. “If he doesn’t know the cost of his policies, you can’t vote for him” is now a recurring Morrison mantra.

The audience was more impressed with Shorten when he said he could “categorically say that if we don’t take real action on climate change, it’ll be a disaster for our economy”. His statements on climate drew spontaneous applause. One of Labor’s key strategists says this reaction squares with Labor’s tracking of the issues. Climate change has gradually climbed up the list of voters’ concerns to be near the top.

This is real trouble for the Coalition. The Australian Conservation Foundation gave the government just 4 per cent on its climate change policy scorecard. Labor got a pass mark with 56 per cent, while the Greens were top of the class on 99 per cent.

The ACF said the Coalition’s $2 billion top-up of its renamed Climate Solutions Fund was “grossly inadequate”. In a media release, ACF chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy said: “For the Coalition to again offer this ineffective policy as its main plan to tackle climate change shows a disregard for farmers, survivors of natural disasters fuelled by global warming and the next generation of Australians.”

Conspicuous in their absence from the frontline Liberal campaign are Environment Minister Melissa Price and Energy Minister Angus Taylor. He is too busy threatening to sue journalists who question his role in the Cayman Islands-based company Eastern Australia Agriculture and the Murray–Darling water buybacks. Price’s absence is an admission of the Coalition’s utter vulnerability, not improved by her 11th-hour environmental green light for the contentious Adani coalmine.

The one “gotcha” moment of Monday’s debate came when Shorten did not know the current price of a popular electric car. Morrison was full bottle on it. However, Shorten’s 50 per cent target of electric vehicles sales by 2030 is 11 years away and, as he has explained, it won’t be imposed by law. More likely, technology and global car makers will have intervened before then.

Shorten received a boost midweek when billionaire steel entrepreneur Sanjeev Gupta visited Whyalla and announced his plans to manufacture electric vehicles – whether he receives subsidies or not. Gupta told reporters, “within a short space of time, electric cars will be viable without any help from anybody.”

The whole electric-car hysteria, whipped up by Murdoch’s papers, simply serves to confirm an impression Dr Hewson wrote on – that on key policy issues, the Coalition is “a team of (mostly) men of the past, lacking a vision or the policies to back it up”.

A sure sign of Morrison’s desperation in the election was his willingness to sign off on a preference-swap deal with eccentric billionaire Clive Palmer and his United Australia Party. The Liberal–UAP deal specifically preferences the UAP no matter where its candidates are on the ballot paper and will make it that much easier for Palmer to win a senate seat in Queensland. The Libs are hoping his preferences could be crucial in several Queensland marginal seats and maybe elsewhere if his party is doing as well as the recent Newspoll suggested.

Morrison has been most reluctant to attack Palmer for his obscene boasts of extreme wealth, even though the UAP leader refused to pay $70 million to hundreds of his former nickel mine workers. Still outstanding is $7 million in payments. The deal has already compromised Morrison. He seems oblivious to the fact the Commonwealth is pursuing Palmer in the courts for the entitlements money. Nor has he condemned Palmer for holding his workers hostage by saying they will get the $7 million still owed them only after the election. That’s a payment Palmer has spent three years not making.

If the Palmer deal is tawdry, the Nationals’ thumbing of their noses at the Liberals to preference One Nation in return for its support is just as bad. Morrison excuses it on the grounds the Nationals are a separate party – except, in Queensland they are not. We are a long way from the leadership John Howard and Nationals leader Tim Fischer showed in 1998.

Mainstreaming racism, bigotry and blatant conflict of interest is a retrograde step for our nation. Shorten says it’s a recipe for more chaos and division.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Nowhere for Morrison to hide". Subscribe here.

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