Paul Bongiorno
PM travels as country burns

Scott Morrison’s year of living miraculously ended with our elected leader disappearing from view and his whereabouts being treated like a state secret. The  attitude that the prime minister’s location is nobody’s business is a strong indication of the arrogance – indeed the contempt – he and his government have demonstrated since their May election triumph.

As word spread on social media that Morrison and his family had been spotted at Sydney Airport boarding an international flight – which had Hawaii as one of its destinations – the prime minister’s office (PMO) became indignant and intimidatory.

Morrison’s chief flack sent a terse message to select media outlets, a copy of which came into my possession. It was “on background and not for reporting” and confirmed the PM had “taken a couple of quick days of leave with the family”.

Its defensive tone spoke volumes. The note went on to say Morrison was doing this “instead of taking leave between Christmas and New Year, and instead of taking leave during his wedding anniversary in January”. It said this was to enable the prime minister to make what are clearly very important visits to India and Japan.

Journalists unable to get even this “backgrounder” from the PMO called Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack’s office for confirmation that he was now acting PM, as is usual when the boss is on leave or out of the country. They were told: “You’ll have to call the prime minister’s office, we are not allowed to comment either way.”

A clue that even Morrison thought the idea of going missing was dodgy while catastrophic bushfires grip much of the nation came with the assurance that the prime minister “is still receiving regular briefings on the bushfire situation and the White Island operation”. But, says the briefing note, “we obviously can’t tell you the location due to privacy and security concerns. It would be great if the gallery could respect this.”

Many Liberal MPs, like their constituents choking on persistent smoke haze and worried witless by the persistent threat of monster flames, were gobsmacked. One said, “Why would you sneak out of the country and – worse – create a story that didn’t need to be there?” Indeed, and why have your senior flack signpost the reason you tried to hide your holiday by talking about “bushfire situation” briefings?

In 2009, former Victoria Police chief Christine Nixon came under heavy criticism when she went to dinner after receiving a briefing on the Black Saturday disaster. Her misjudgement contributed to her leaving the job and no one was more critical of her than Scott Morrison, then a shadow minister. Said one Labor insider: “Imagine what the tabloids would have done to Julia Gillard in similar circumstances – the headlines would have screamed ‘Gillard leaves fire victims in the lurch and flees the country’.”

Perhaps. But 29 former emergency services leaders have been very public in their disappointment about Morrison’s downplaying of the current fire disaster raging on both sides of the continent. On Tuesday, the group calling themselves Emergency Leaders for Climate Action said they will go it alone and call a summit on the crisis after the current bushfire season.

So far, the prime minister has refused to meet with them or concede such a summit is needed. Maybe his brief respite in clearer air will lead to a rethink, but the signs aren’t promising. One of the former fire chiefs, Greg Mullins from New South Wales, said Morrison reluctantly admitting that climate change was “one of many contributing factors to the current fire season” is wrong. “Those many factors are all related to climate change,” said Mullins. The consensus among the emergency chiefs is that less reliance on fossil fuels is urgently needed, as is a more determined effort to get to that point.

While Morrison jetted off on his secret holiday, his Energy and Emissions Reduction minister, Angus Taylor, was in Madrid, furiously trying to prevent the world from doing much to reduce emissions. Taylor joined Brazil and a handful of other recalcitrant countries to keep carryover credits and other emissions accounting fiddles on the table ahead of the next climate meeting in Glasgow at the end of next year. Australia also failed to back Europe and smaller states, particularly in the Pacific, pushing for countries to have more ambitious targets than their Paris commitments.

John Connor, chief executive of the Carbon Market Institute, was an observer at the climate talks. He told RN Breakfast, “It’s a real cancer on Australia’s climate credibility as we move forward.” Connor says Australia is in for a horror summer of fires, which may persuade the government to give more weight to its current policy reviews in this area, if nothing else. The Pacific Islands Forum in Vanuatu in September is a perfect opportunity for Morrison to show he understands our region’s concerns and take something really significant by way of emissions abatement to the meeting.

Taylor, in an interview with Channel Ten, said he didn’t hear any criticism of Australia while he was in Madrid. He insisted that our 26 to 28 per cent reductions by 2030 were serious and would be reached. Meanwhile, the minister is still awaiting the conclusion of a police investigation into his use of fake figures to attack Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore’s climate credentials. Why Morrison is standing by him is a mystery to many. It seems the prime minister has passed up the chance to move Taylor to another portfolio with the wholesale restructure of the public service slated for February 2020.

One theory is that Morrison cannot afford to sideline Taylor without threatening his government’s stability. The May “miracle” was no Boris Johnson landslide. Morrison’s “quiet Australians” were nowhere near as enthusiastic as Johnson’s voters, leaving the Coalition with a bare majority of one.

Just as the climate is giving Morrison nowhere to hide, so too is the economy. The marketing genius that was the April budget, which Liberal research found was the turning point in the government’s electoral fortunes, is not living up to the hype. It was left to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann to put lipstick on the pig this week, announcing the midyear economic and fiscal outlook (MYEFO).

The best explanation Frydenberg could come up with for downward revisions on practically everything was the downgrading of global economic growth and that “of our major trading partners”. But, he said, despite these challenges, “MYEFO demonstrates that the Australian economy continues to grow with the budget returning to surplus for the first time in 12 years.”

The revised surplus is a sickly child. Just $5 billion in a $500 billion budget, which has predominantly been achieved by iron ore and commodity prices being much higher than was forecast in April. But it is not only our commodity exports bearing the budget repair burden.

The Greens disability spokesperson, Jordon Steele-John, noted that a structural underspend to the tune of $4.6 billion in the National Disability Insurance Scheme cannot be ignored. This is money allocated to the scheme that has not been spent due to a “mishandling” of the rollout by the Liberals. Steele-John says, “This is a government who is boasting about balancing their books on the backs of disabled people and our families.”

Labor’s Bill Shorten seized on the fiscal update’s “Statement of Risks”, referencing the robo-debt review that is now under way following the government’s agreeing in court that the scheme was unlawful. Robo-debt has collected $660 million, which Shorten says was robbed from mostly vulnerable people, and will cost millions to remedy.

Not to be forgotten is the $3 billion the government refuses to inject into the Newstart unemployment benefit to lift it from a pitifully inadequate $40 a day to $50. Economist Chris Richardson says this would be worthwhile stimulus because it is money that would be immediately spent.

He says a boost to Newstart would only end up being an annual net cost to the budget of $1 billion, because of the stimulatory effect on spending. This is “trickle up” economics that the government refuses to embrace, preferring to stick with “trickle down” – looking after its wealthier mates – which has failed to deliver the stimulus that was promised in the pre-election April budget.

Labor’s Jim Chalmers was scathing after MYEFO’s release: “Growth downgraded, unemployment higher, wages growth weaker, business investment dismal, government’s economic credibility destroyed – that’s the midyear budget update in a nutshell.” Chalmers says the government has no plan to turn things around.

There is, of course, the May budget to come. It will also have the buffer of the iron ore price. If it stays where it is now – about $US30 a tonne above the treasurer’s initial reckoning – there may even be a bigger budget surplus. But without a radical rethink of the government’s own forecasts and projections, as well as the Reserve Bank’s, there will be no stronger wage growth – the ingredient that raises living standards for average Australians.

Australians may then be tempted to raise with Scott Morrison one of his other marketing failures at Tourism Australia: “Prime minister, where the bloody hell are you?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 21, 2019 as "Vanishing in a puff of smoke".

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