Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Opposition ignore PM, focus on Taylor

Scott Morrison, who famously shrank the Liberal Party to near-invisibility to win the May election, was this week confronted by his party’s reappearance, and he doesn’t much like it. In just the second government party room meeting since polling day, Morrison read the riot act to backbenchers for unhelpfully freelancing in the media.

In parliament, he sat frustrated as Labor mostly ignored him in question time. On Tuesday, every question from the opposition went to the minister for energy and emissions reduction, Angus Taylor. When Labor’s Justine Elliot asked Taylor if he would rule out a nuclear power plant being built in her seat – encompassing Tweed Heads and the neighbouring Gold Coast – Morrison appeared agitated. He swung around to Taylor as he approached the despatch box and mouthed “rule it out”. But Taylor, who has been accused of being a climate change sceptic, and was somewhat cynically appointed by Morrison to this uber-sensitive portfolio, missed the cue.

Instead, Taylor wore his druthers on his sleeve. He said the government’s priority was keeping the lights on while bringing energy prices down. “We will focus on outcomes, not the fuel source.” He said there were no plans to change the moratorium on nuclear power generation but then went on to declare “we always approach these things with an open mind”. The Labor benches cheered. Across the chamber, one MP yelled: “Great work, Angus. Well done!”

The singling out of Taylor paid early dividends for a change in tactics that Anthony Albanese flagged to his dispirited troops at Labor’s caucus meeting on Tuesday morning. He told them Morrison was a “negative, nasty pollie. All about tactics”. He said to counter Morrison, Labor needed to keep its questions tight and targeted, relying on the element of surprise. Government ministers, particularly the more controversial or poorer performers, need to be exposed. A key Labor strategist says the opposition also intends to ignore the one-man band leader as much as possible. “We’ll treat Morrison as if he is just another minister,” he says.

In Taylor, they have more than enough to target. After trying to avoid admitting that emissions have in fact risen in every year of the Coalition government – especially after the repeal of the carbon price – he still couldn’t quite admit the truth of the situation. The closest he got was that “from year to year and quarter to quarter, emissions go up and down”. Again, it was almost certainly not the answer Morrison would have preferred, nor the one scribbled on notes he had passed to the sweating minister during his hour-long grilling.

Labor is also pursuing Taylor’s alleged conflict of interest over the poisoning of about 30 hectares of protected grasslands on a Monaro property owned by a company named Jam Land. As Guardian Australia reported in June, the minister himself holds an interest in the firm via his family investment company, Gufee. After lobbying by Taylor in 2017, the office of then environment minister Josh Frydenberg canvassed whether protections for the grasslands could be weakened and if any change had to be published. On the face of it, Taylor may have misled parliament by saying he had “no association” and had remained at “arm’s length at all times from the company Jam Land”. Taylor says he has always declared his interest in Jam Land and denies he lobbied for a change in compliance for the company.

Morrison was certainly miffed at being ignored. As he closed down question time with the usual formula, he added, “I would invite the opposition to perhaps ask me a question tomorrow. They didn’t do that today.” But if he was dark with his political opponents, he was even more disconcerted by his own Liberal and Nationals MPs taking the agenda out of his hands.

Morrison’s problem, of course, is that he has a majority of just two. This empowers and emboldens backbenchers, who can quickly threaten to plunge the government into minority if they don’t like what the prime minister is delivering, or failing to deliver. The risk for Morrison is they can empower themselves even more by becoming a crucial number on the crossbench.

The push for nuclear power has considerable backbench support. Even Morrison was predisposed, before political expediency saw him back away in the run-up to the election. But another issue – the push to increase the Newstart unemployment benefit – is building a head of steam. It was raised in the government party room and one of its highest-profile advocates is former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce. Meeting these calls could derail the government’s ambitions to deliver a budget surplus, not only for this year but for the next three as well.

Just how anxious Morrison is about all this was revealed in a report by The Age. Immediately before the election, the government ordered a bipartisan parliamentary committee to remove its call for an increase to the Newstart allowance. The inquiry was into the causes of long-term welfare dependency. Then social services minister Paul Fletcher ordered the committee chair, Liberal Russell Broadbent, to remove the specific Newstart recommendation. The committee reluctantly complied.

Labor was merely calling for a review into the unemployment payment at the election. It has now hardened its position on a review to establish how big an increase is needed. Whatever the increase, it will not come cheaply. Deloitte Access Economics priced a $75 a week boost at close to $3 billion a year. But it will be a sad commentary on our national politics if it’s reckoned the poorest and most vulnerable in our society should be sacrificed on the altar of dubious fiscal rectitude. And apart from lifting 722,000 out of a meagre subsistence, economists such as Chris Richardson and the Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe point out there is a real economic benefit from a boost to spending power.

A fed-up prime minister scolded his MPs for taking their concerns outside the government’s internal forums. He told them “government is not a blank cheque” and that they disrespect their colleagues by pursuing their own policy agendas. By that he obviously meant they disrespected him. Morrison told the joint party room meeting they needed to be “mindful of what we took to the election and what we didn’t take to the election”.

The group carpeting had little effect. Within a couple of hours, Barnaby Joyce gave Network Ten an interview again spelling out why Newstart should be raised. Outspoken conservative Craig Kelly told The New Daily he wanted the family home to be included in the pension asset test, if the pensioner in question had accessed their super to purchase the home. Kelly is also among a group of government backbenchers calling for a freeze to the 9.5 per cent superannuation guarantee. He says he doesn’t believe voters would regard it as a broken promise if Morrison delayed the transition to 12 per cent super. As with Malcolm Turnbull before him, Morrison may come to regret intervening to save Kelly’s preselection as a Liberal candidate.

Earlier, in parliament, Morrison ruled out extending the freeze to the super guarantee. In the senate, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann gave a terse “yes” to guarantee the higher employer contribution. But Labor is not convinced. Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers says Kelly and the backbench Liberals are giving a clue to what the treasurer’s retirement incomes review is really all about. He claims it is “more cuts to super and more cuts to the pension”.

There are two retirement incomes that the government definitely doesn’t want to talk about. And those come from the after-politics jobs that Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne have lined up for themselves. The former defence minister is now working in defence consultancy for consulting giant EY, while former foreign minister Bishop has taken a position with Palladium, a company that has won multimillion-dollar contracts to run Australian aid projects. The prime minister tabled a report from the secretary of his department, Martin Parkinson, that found the two recently retired ministers were not in breach of the ministerial code. The code bans ministers from taking jobs for 18 months after leaving office in areas where they had direct dealings in their portfolio.

The non-government parties in the senate were unimpressed with Parkinson’s findings and they have set up their own inquiry. Also perturbed was one of the government’s newbie members – the recently elected Queensland Liberal senator Gerard Rennick. He made the prime minister’s mood even darker when he told the party room that anyone who is friends with Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop needs to tell them to stop taking jobs that are impossible to defend.

Both Pyne and Bishop were on the old parliamentary super scheme; their pensions would be in the vicinity of $200,000 a year. Russell Broadbent accepts neither has breached the guidelines but, as he told ABC TV, he is concerned about the perception voters might get that all politicians are in it to “gain financial advantage”.

Morrison began the week by asking Labor, “Whose side are you on?” It’s a question he could just as well have posed to his Coalition colleagues.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 27, 2019 as "One man banned". Subscribe here.

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