Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The shadowy corridors of power

A citizen’s right to know should be a motherhood statement in our liberal democracy, but too much vested interest gets in the way. Most essentially, the pursuit of power – and the holding on to it – is the primal force distorting the way our Commonwealth operates.

Ideally those in power are there to serve the public interest; however, the nation’s largest mainstream media companies are accusing governments – particularly the federal government – of treating voters with contempt by hiding what they are really up to most of the time. Worse than that, they say, the government is setting up a panoply of laws in the name of national security to deter and prosecute those who dare to scrutinise it or expose wrongdoing. The most egregious result of this approach was the internationally embarrassing police raids on journalists, which have led to the unleashing of the high-profile Right to Know campaign.

Since World War II, no political party has been more successful in the exercise of power than the Liberal Party. At the gala dinner to celebrate the party’s 75th anniversary, Prime Minister Scott Morrison spelled out just how successful the Liberals had been. He told the 600 or so black-tied and glammed-up diners that Sir Robert Menzies, the founder of the party, led it to a string of victories. In its first 25 years the Liberals won nine out of 11 elections. “Not bad,” he said. In the second 25 years, thanks to Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, the Liberals won only three out of 10 polls. In the past 25 years, however, it has won seven out of nine: “As Christopher [Pyne] would say,” Morrison added, “an election-winning machine.”

Morrison said the driver of that renaissance was John Howard. “There is no leader of our party who has done more for our party than John,” he said. He could have referred to his predecessor’s ramping up of national security after the 2001 terror attacks in New York. Howard set the template for the demonising of boat-arrival refugees and using extreme legislation such as excising Christmas Island and other offshore islands from Australia’s migration zone.

To boost his government’s flagging fortunes, Howard also began wedging Labor with a raft of draconian laws that led to the erosion of civil liberties, privacy and accountability that his successors have followed in expanding. By one count there are upwards of 70 such laws introduced since Howard’s time. So spooked has Labor been in the past six years that it has attempted to be in lockstep on these issues with the Liberals to neutralise the political potency.

Howard became our second-longest-serving prime minister and therefore, not surprisingly, was the main event at the gala dinner. He spent much of his time outlining Menzies’ legacy, paying particular attention to his signing of a trade pact with Japan just 12 years after that nation was our mortal enemy. Howard said Menzies made the first big trade thrust into Asia, which set up this country’s prosperity.

All this was thrilling for the party faithful, but in a series of radio interviews to mark the occasion the former prime minister sounded more like a prophet of doom. On 2GB, Howard said, “It’s been a very successful political movement but we should always remember that following success in politics is often a bit of doom and disaster around the corner.” He cautioned, “You’ve always got to keep that in mind because you can suddenly career off the road and hit a big tree. That can happen to everybody.”

Nick Greiner, the re-elected federal president, was similarly dour. He warned against hubris and taking this year’s election success for granted. So exercised by the risk of alienating the general public with a show of self-congratulation, particularly so soon after winning the unwinnable election, the party closed the anniversary dinner to the media. In doing so it only confirmed the accusations of its critics in the fourth estate and its political opponents that it is averse to scrutiny and addicted to manipulation.

The federal council wanted no repeat of the Labor Party’s 1993 “True Believers” dinner. It was held in the same venue, the Great Hall at Parliament House, to celebrate Paul Keating’s similarly “miraculous” victory in March that year. There, senior Labor figures let their hair down and partied into the night in the full glare of the networks’ TV cameras.

Images of then foreign minister Gareth Evans merrily – maybe too merrily – dancing later showed up in Liberal Party ads condemning Labor for being self-focused and oblivious to the electorate. And, as an added precaution for the Liberals, this year there was no band and definitely no dancing. You can’t be too careful in an age when every mobile phone is a high-definition video camera.

At Tuesday’s government party room meeting, Morrison returned to the theme of caution. He told the gathered Liberal and Nationals MPs, “We’ve done a good job so far … Our opponents have a few problems that won’t last.” The fact that the prime minister and other heavyweights in the Liberals are urging this kind of discipline is a reality check for anyone who thinks the one-seat majority gives the government the sort of insurance against setbacks a more convincing win does. “Some are behaving as if we have a 25-seat majority,” is the view of one veteran Liberal.

For that, look no further than the infighting at Monday’s Nationals party room meeting. One interstate National lamented that the Queenslanders were revolting. In the sights of the member for Wide Bay, Llew O’Brien, was the party’s deputy leader, Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie. To make sure the unhappiness wasn’t missed, the story was leaked to the ABC, ensuring extensive coverage in rural and regional Australia.

O’Brien talked of moving a leadership spill motion but didn’t get around to it. Still, the message was stark: he and others north of the New South Wales border believe McKenzie is doing a dreadful job as Agriculture minister, a job she took from Queenslander David Littleproud after the election. She is blamed for allowing Pauline Hanson to upstage the party by taking ownership of the senate inquiry into milk pricing. The Nationals had been demanding the inquiry but McKenzie had stalled on it, and Hanson won the support of Labor and the crossbench to sideline the government.

Adding to the unhappiness is the way the prime minister has muscled in on the drought. He pre-empted an announcement the Nationals thought they were to make about the extension of income support for hard-hit farmers. The Nationals leader, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, is getting the blame for that. The view is that the lacklustre McCormack isn’t assertive enough when it comes to dealing with Morrison.

The Nationals aren’t the only unhappy campers. The Labor Party, still reeling from its election defeat, is yet to get back on an even keel with its new leader, Anthony Albanese. The prime minister, who believes he has Albanese’s measure, seized on a column in The Australian by Labor historian and former party staffer Troy Bramston to mock the opposition leader. In parliament, Morrison quoted the unnamed Labor frontbencher who told Bramston: “For a guy who wanted to be leader so bad … he [Albanese] does not know what to do with the job.” Bramston reports disillusionment with the leader, especially from elements in the NSW Right faction who followed their convenor, Joel Fitzgibbon, in backing their hitherto factional rival Albanese.

The fact that such murmurings have emerged just five months after the election is an ominous sign for Albanese. One Labor MP who has played a role as a party strategist says one of the lessons of the Morrison coup is that changing leaders can override worries about displays of disunity and result in an election win. But there could be another lesson too: no one is unelectable, and negative judgements on leaders can often be proved wrong at the ballot box – Tony Abbott as well as Scott Morrison come to mind.

Albanese wants to put the election review and 2019 behind the party and begin showing the electorate what he has to offer. Already he has sent a strong message that he is not beholden to the union movement or its most militant leaders. It’s risky, but he has taken a leaf out of Kevin Rudd’s 2007 election-winning book. Midweek, his initiative to expel notorious union boss John Setka from the party was finally achieved.

Setka claimed he quit Labor, instead of fighting to stay, because Albanese was “selling out Australian workers and turning his back on the values that underpin both the party and the union movement”. Setka’s attack will probably help Albanese in the broader electorate but his criticisms of the leader’s strategy give voice to the sort of concerns abroad in the parliamentary party.

Morrison is doing his best to maintain the focus on Labor by keeping up as many shutters on the government as he can get away with. Holding on to power is much more important than transparency and accountability.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 26, 2019 as "The shadowy corridors of power". Subscribe here.

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