Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
All quiet on the Morrison front

Scott Morrison is assiduously doing nothing much of consequence. In fact, this week he appeared to have taken a leaf out of the opposition leader’s book and, like Anthony Albanese, is doing a lot of listening. He has apparently decided this is the safest way of dealing with the press freedom brouhaha that has engulfed his government since its unexpected return to power.

Events have a habit of shaping politics and the past two weeks have proved no exception. The raids by the Australian Federal Police, invading the privacy of a News Corp journalist in Canberra and trooping into the ABC’s Sydney headquarters brandishing search warrants, are still reverberating.

The vacuum created by a reinstalled Coalition with practically no agenda, certainly not one that captures the imagination of the nation, has been filled by the spectre of an incipient police state. When the prime minister was asked earlier in the week what he was going to do about it, he said: “What I’m going to on this issue is listen carefully.” His initial response was there is nothing to see here, let’s move on and let the police do their job. That, however, only made matters worse.

This week he and his newly installed communications minister, Paul Fletcher, hit on a different form of words. They are meant to sound reassuring but they don’t amount to a row of beans. “If there is a suggestion or evidence, or any analysis, that reveals that there is a need for further improvement of those laws, well, the government is always open to that,” Morrison said, but he went on to insist the principles of maintaining national security and freedom of the press both have to be honoured and that “I intend to proceed calmly, and soberly, and consultatively”.

Fletcher repeated this form of words three times in an interview on RN Breakfast, as he declined to commit to any specific action while, like the PM, he waits for the “suggestion, or evidence, or analysis” to persuade him something is needed. As one of the government MPs put it: “The government hopes it will just go away.”

A clue to this lack of political will comes from Morrison’s first party-room pep talk to his elated troops after the election. Morrison warned the assembled Liberals and Nationals: “Remember, journalists are not your friends.” He cautioned them not to be flattered by invitations to go on the various television or radio programs, because the media is intent on catching out politicians and embarrassing governments. Press freedom may be the “bedrock principle in a democracy”, as Fletcher insists, but keeping pesky journalists in their place is also a priority.

Fletcher and Morrison attempted to put the national broadcaster in its place, in a meeting with ABC chair Ita Buttrose and managing director David Anderson. The government will not match Labor’s election promise of restoring the $84 million cut from the ABC’s budget through a funding indexation freeze. Fletcher says “practically every other government organisation” faces the same austerity. Clearly, to the government’s thinking, there is nothing special about the national broadcaster.

Morrison may be listening in the post-election vacuum he’s created, but as far as the country’s biggest private news organisation is concerned, he has a tin ear. Campbell Reid, a senior executive at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia, told The Australian that the government had been cautioned over the past decade about “the ever-expanding dossier of laws that can put journalists in jail”. Reid says the government should stop ignoring what it’s being told.

The protestations of commitment to press freedom ring hollow in light of the government’s failure to protect it. There is no will to enact a proper shield law to protect journalists and their sources, as exists in other democracies, such as Britain. Instead, according to constitutional expert George Williams, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there have been 75 new sets of legislation regarding national security. He says overbreadth of these laws “may erode the very democratic freedoms, including the rights to freedom of speech and liberty, that they are designed to protect”.

The shadow minister for home affairs, Kristina Keneally, is calling for a parliamentary committee to scrutinise “the national security framework we have in place”. She says it would review the balance between national security and press freedom. The former intelligence analyst and whistleblower Andrew Wilkie blames Labor for being largely complicit in the incremental erosion of our freedoms. Keneally pleads that the party has been in opposition since 2013 and has sponsored many amendments but ultimately it is the government that needs to show leadership on the issue.

Morrison is more concerned with getting his $158 billion three-stage tax cuts package through the parliament. He is so worried that he had Peter Dutton carpet the powerful Home Affairs secretary, Mike Pezzullo, for upsetting crossbench senator Rex Patrick. Patrick and his Centre Alliance colleague Stirling Griff hold two votes that could be crucial as the government scrambles to get four of the six crossbenchers to support the entire package.

No one has been more strident in criticising the police raids than the South Australian senator. Patrick accused Dutton and Pezzullo of hating media scrutiny. He said the raid on journalist Annika Smethurst’s apartment reeked of “intimidation and retribution”. Pezzullo called Patrick to hit back at the criticism. The senator was not amused, telling Australian Associated Press he believed the purpose of the phone call was to stop him criticising the department. “In effect, this is the head of our security apparatus ringing up saying, ‘Senator, I don’t like you commenting the way you did.’ ”

The prime minister was asked if he thought the call was appropriate. He said it could be seen as inappropriate and he’d discussed it with the Home Affairs minister, who had “an appropriate conversation with the secretary”. Just how appropriate is highly debatable. In a statement to the ABC, Dutton said he advised the secretary, “it was counterproductive because I have always found Senator Patrick to be a person of the sort of character who would seek to misrepresent the secretary’s words, and the secretary agreed the contact was not appropriate and that is where the matter ends”.

As an exercise in mending fences, it was as heavy-handed as the police raids Patrick condemned. More schmoozing from government senate leader Mathias Cormann will be needed to win Patrick’s support for the tax package. He is in no hurry to sign up, demanding as one condition long-term assistance for pensioners because of rising energy costs. His reluctance is being matched by Pauline Hanson. One Nation’s two votes would come at some cost. Hanson wants billions spent on a new coal-fired power station in Queensland, “to reduce electricity prices”. As well, she told Channel Nine, “I want to see the Bradfield Scheme to ensure water security in Australia. Those two alone will cost $20 billion to $25 billion.”

The government senses some movement in Labor’s attitude, with speculation the opposition may support stages one and two of the package and maybe even the whole scheme. But despite all options being canvassed, the shadow cabinet has not finalised its discussions. Anthony Albanese told Leigh Sales the second and third tranches of the proposal are beyond elections to come in 2022 and 2025. He is sticking to his view that it is “a triumph of hope over economic reality for anyone to be able to say they know what the economy will look like in 2025”.

Albanese was more exercised by the latest reported outrage from Victoria’s notorious union leader, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union’s state secretary, John Setka. Setka was reportedly denigrating the work of domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty during a union executive meeting last week. It was the last straw for Albanese, a long-time critic of the Victorian militant. He told a news conference in Perth that he had written to the national secretary of the Labor Party, instructing that Setka’s membership be suspended as a prelude to his expulsion.

Setka claimed he had been taken out of context, but Albanese’s uncompromising action against the leader of one of the biggest unions sends a strong signal federal Labor is under new management. Unlike his predecessor, Bill Shorten, Albanese doesn’t come from within the union movement. He sees himself as beholden to no interest group. Indeed, his unchallenged path to the top job this time, both among the rank-and-file membership and within the parliamentary party, has given him the authority he needs to be a strong leader, and he intends to use it.

In this he is emulating his friend Kevin Rudd, who did not hesitate to take on “union thugs” in the run-up to his 2007 election win. Former Rudd strategist Bruce Hawker believes the Setka expulsion sends a more welcoming message to voters who are wary of Labor’s union roots. But Morrison may beat Albanese to the punch on a move even the late Bob Hawke supported: the deregistration of the construction union.

Last time the Liberals tried it, Labor and the crossbench blocked them in parliament. Still, a controversial deregistration would give the prime minister something he can talk about, rather than just listening to his critics.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 15, 2019 as "Listening in a vacuum". Subscribe here.

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