Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Dark clouds descend on PM in the Sunshine State

A beaming Scott Morrison gave the TV news crews the sort of picture opportunity they really appreciate. Perched behind a machinegun in the turret of a military tank, the prime minister was having a fun ride.

The fun, however, didn’t last and the image became an apt metaphor for Morrison’s six days of scheduled campaigning in Queensland, selling the federal budget and supporting struggling LNP leader Deb Frecklington’s campaign for the state election in two weeks’ time. The prime minister needed all the armoured protection he could get as both Frecklington and the Liberal New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, drew heavy fire over issues of propriety and questions of corruption.

The Sunday event was billed as the official opening of the multimillion-dollar Military Vehicle Centre of Excellence in the Ipswich suburb of Redbank. The prime minister apparently had no qualms involving the chief of army in what was clearly a politically partisan event. With the state opposition leader present, Morrison used his opening spiel to back Frecklington’s promise of cheaper vehicle registration should she win the election.

Conspicuously, according to the Queensland premier’s office, Morrison neglected to invite Annastacia Palaszczuk. Her government actually constructed the Ipswich premises and leases them to the German military manufacturer Rheinmetall, which has a huge slice of the Australian government’s $5 billion investment in new defence procurement.

Why Morrison dedicated his entire post-budget week to Queensland is something of a mystery. Covid-19 border restrictions could have a lot to do with it. Morrison revealed he had himself complied with Palaszczuk’s border rules by spending the previous 14 days in the Australian Capital Territory. He said he noticed Labor leader Anthony Albanese hadn’t done the same and maybe wasn’t “so keen to come up here”. On the other hand, he said, “Deb has been keen for me to come for some time.” She chimed in at their first campaign appearance together that she was “happy to have him here”, no doubt hoping some of the federal leader’s popularity in the state will translate into votes for her.

Palaszczuk is defending a string of ultra-marginal seats right up the Queensland coast to Cairns and only has a majority of two in the 93-seat parliament. Labor sources say the party’s polling shows them tracking well in the state’s south-east corner, particularly in metropolitan Brisbane. The premier dismissed suggestions that, like Frecklington, she could do with some help from her federal party leader. She said she didn’t “need anyone to hold my hand” and was quite capable “of travelling around the length and breadth of Queensland with my own team”. If Albanese wanted to come, Palaszczuk was more than happy to have him, she said. But given the federal Labor leader has spent most his time in Sydney and NSW in the past week, that option is no longer available.

Ironically, Morrison’s insistence a couple of months ago that Queensland should reopen its borders, which was backed by Frecklington, has backfired as the second wave of infections swept through Victoria. Now Covid-19 cases are also increasing worryingly in NSW. Palaszczuk’s handling of the pandemic and her pledge to “keep Queenslanders safe” has won wide support, particularly with older voters, and has given nervous Labor insiders a quiet confidence.

According to a Liberal strategist, a Labor victory in Queensland would help Morrison’s plans to hold a federal election next year. Queensland has a habit of voting one way federally and another way in the state poll – a sort of check and balance. Feeding this view is how unwelcome it would be if Frecklington won and set about returning to a budget surplus within four years – she actually promised three years before falling in line with her Treasury spokesman, Tim Mander. Either way, bad memories of the ultra-austerity of Campbell Newman’s LNP government still linger. Frecklington was assistant treasurer in that government, something the Labor campaign is reminding voters.

To the embarrassment of the prime minister, Frecklington’s campaign was rocked when the ABC revealed she had been referred by her own party to the election watchdog for potential soliciting of illegal donations from property developers. The LNP leader denies any breaches, but she and her ally, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, defied party headquarters by attending a series of fundraisers with high-flying developers on the guest list.

Money certainly flowed into party coffers after the events but exactly who gave it is open to speculation. That was enough to sound alarm bells at LNP headquarters, prompting the party to investigate, take legal advice and, in September, hand a brief of evidence to the Electoral Commission of Queensland.

LNP state director Michael O’Dwyer, in a memo dated August 23, warned the party’s candidates to avoid any “private events” that might be fundraisers “attended by prohibited donors”. Labor senator Murray Watt on Sky News pointed to the feud within the LNP involving Frecklington, Dutton and members of the organisation who were forced out of their positions. “I’ll leave it to you to work out where these allegations may have come from,” Watt said. The campaign-disrupting bastardry of it is breathtaking.

Asked about the scandal, Morrison tersely told reporters, “Everybody should comply with the law.” But on Tuesday as he campaigned, Frecklington was nowhere to be seen. A fundraising lunch was closed to the media and, according to news camera operators, the prime minister entered by one door while the LNP leader snuck in through another, away from the media pack.

On the same day, the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission issued an extraordinary open letter to all candidates. Commissioner Alan MacSporran disclosed that the agency was collecting data on political donations and was concerned by its intelligence assessment indicating “the lines between government and the private sector are blurring, with overlapping networks of association involving consultants, influencers, lobbyists and executives”.

The commission, which is a legacy of the Fitzgerald royal commission in the late ’80s after the corruption of the Bjelke-Petersen Nationals government, reminded candidates that its mandate is to ensure the political process works in the state’s interest and not in the vested interest of anyone else.

Muddying the waters in Queensland is the United Australia Party, a wholly owned subsidiary of Clive Palmer’s business empire. Back in 2014, Palmer sued Campbell Newman for defamation after the premier accused him of trying to “buy” the Queensland government. The two fell out when Newman did not allow Palmer to develop a port at Abbot Point or give him exclusive access to a rail corridor to the Galilee Basin. The then deputy premier, Jeff Seeney, accused Palmer of using his political donations as leverage. Palmer’s action was settled in private mediation two years later.

This time, Palmer is running 53 candidates, many of them his relatives and employees. The businessman now has a legal spending cap of close to $8 million. He is already festooning the state with billboards urging voters to “give Labor the boot”. His private company, Mineralogy, is listed as a major donor to the party.

On Monday, Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s appearance before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption was another shock to the campaigning Morrison. The prime minister said they were “very new revelations and obviously came as some news to me”. He was cautious and said he was leaving it to ICAC to follow its own course. He didn’t say what exactly was new or whether he, like many other senior Liberals, both state and federal, was unaware of Berejiklian’s five-year “close personal relationship” with disgraced former state MP Daryl Maguire, who is facing further corruption allegations.

By Tuesday, Morrison had regained his composure and put his full weight behind Berejiklian, “a tremendous premier”. “She has my absolute support,” he said. By Wednesday, he was agreeing with 2GB’s Ben Fordham that Berejiklian should not resign, despite new and damaging claims appearing in the media, likely sourced from within the state Coalition government.

Anthony Albanese highlighted Morrison’s failure to deliver on his promise two years ago to establish a national integrity commission, saying that “we need to restore faith in our democratic processes”. But the prime minister’s reluctance is shared by many in the government party room. “We don’t support a national integrity commission,” Queensland LNP senator Gerard Rennick told Sky News. He said the criminal justice system is where evidence of wrongdoing should be handled, and he kept the option open not to support any government bill to establish one.

Attorney-General Christian Porter blames Covid-19 for his failure to deliver a corruption commission, even though he boasted in January the “draft consultation bill is now all but complete”. But the sad fact is that if the final bill emerges as earlier outlined by Porter, then, as shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus told parliament in August, it will be “a sham”. Under the Coalition’s plan, politicians would receive special treatment, the commission could not initiate inquiries but would have to wait for a government reference, and there would be no public hearings.

One legal source says Porter is also proposing to have a new crime of “official corruption”, which means that even if he does get around to establishing some sort of integrity commission, it could not retrospectively look into the Morrison government.

Fresh from his visit to Queensland, the prime minister has little if any appetite to give an independent body the sort of ammunition it would need to hold him and his government to real account.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "Dark clouds descend on PM in the Sunshine State".

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