Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Will Scott Morrison go full-term?

It is always fascinating to watch the cat-and-mouse game that Australian prime ministers play with election dates. Unencumbered by fixed terms, convention dictates that the campaign starts whenever the incumbent believes they are in the best position to win.

On Tuesday, in the Coalition party room, Scott Morrison announced he was a “full-termer” and said “we’ll do it for the time we said we would”. According to the official post-meeting briefing, the message was “clear and deliberate”. It came in the context of the prime minister warning his troops against complacency following the positive reception of the budget and the fact the government was ahead in the published opinion polls.

According to the party room spokesman, Morrison said, “There’s a risk in good times, when things are going well, you can fall prey to complacency, to disunity, to the work rate dropping off. You get distracted.” Morrison identified with advice he said former prime minister John Howard had given him years before: that elections are “too hard to win”. Besides, he was enjoying the job and facing up to the enormity of the challenge of the economic crisis. The next election was, he said, “the furthest thing from my mind”. As gallery journalists filed out of the room, one veteran drew laughs when he said, “Well, that’s it: we’re heading to an early election.”

Of course, it could be a matter of definition. In his almost 12 years in power, John Howard never served a full three-year term. But if the Morrison statement was meant to set up a future ambush for the Labor opposition, it failed. “Bullshit,” was the reaction of one of Anthony Albanese’s most senior advisers. “Nobody knows, probably not even Morrison at this stage. Whenever it is held, we’re ready for it.”

Indeed, over in the Labor caucus meeting Albanese told his troops that “we’re in third gear”. By that he meant they were off and running already with a major childcare policy to promote and sell, and it wouldn’t be long before they got into fourth gear with a lot more. Albanese said the extensive Liberal talking points, inadvertently leaked to the media, were telling: “Even in the week after the budget [they] were all about us.”

In parliament the prime minister seized on Albanese’s public musings about the full implementation of the $95 billion stage-three tax cuts due in 2024. “Already,” he said, “the leader of the Labor Party has in his sights taking back the hard-earned earnings of Australians earning as little as $45,000 a year.” Warming to his subject, he said: “When Labor want to spend, they always want to tax.”

Showing considerable chutzpah, the prime minister complained about the cost of Labor’s alternative policies – at the same time as he delivered a $213.7 billion deficit and was heading to a record net debt of almost $1 trillion. It seems Labor can’t borrow $4 billion – the cost of its childcare package – from the same sources as the Liberals.

Albanese has defended the childcare policy as a productivity measure and not welfare. He sees it in similar terms to the right that Australians now have to free education and healthcare. Hardheads in the Labor caucus say the only way any government can deal with the mountain of debt still piling up thanks to the devastation of the pandemic is to grow the economy with measures such as this.

Still, Morrison’s complaint about the cost of it reminds me of former treasurer Peter Costello, who used to say there are two kinds of debt: “Labor debt” and “Liberal debt”. Labor debt was always bad in his view and Liberal debt was always good.

There were ominous signs during the week for Morrison’s attempt to contain debt by withdrawing some wage support. Latest Bureau of Statistics figures show the number of payroll jobs fell 0.9 per cent in the two weeks leading up to October 3. That’s the period in which the government cut the fortnightly JobKeeper payment from $1500 for all eligible employees to $1200 for full-time workers and $750 for part-time workers.

Applying ABS labour force data, this means businesses shed about 113,000 jobs in those two weeks. It may prove an amber light for government plans to cut the JobSeeker unemployment benefit at the end of the year. Other financial pressures will intensify in the coming months as people reckon with the depletion of savings, especially from superannuation accounts, and businesses cease being able to trade while insolvent.

Another fight at the end of the year will be the introduction of Christian Porter’s “omnibus” bill to amend industrial relations laws. Morrison asked the minister to brief the party room on his workplace reforms this week. Despite early involvement in the working groups alongside representatives from the business sector, ACTU secretary Sally McManus has already expressed misgivings about the outcomes.

Much will depend on the weight Morrison gives these reforms to deliver the promised economic recovery. It will test the courage of both the prime minister and the opposition leader if they draw a line in the sand on the bill’s measures. The senate crossbench will be crucial to any determined blocking of the bill, which could provide the trigger for a double dissolution, if that was still on the cards.

Many factors feed into a prime minister’s thinking when they ponder election timing. Without doubt one is the assessment of the electorate’s mood and how the Liberal brand is travelling. The pasticcio of the Berejiklian government in New South Wales is a definite negative in this regard.

The connections are hard to ignore. The man with whom Premier Gladys Berejiklian had a secret relationship, the disgraced former state Liberal MP Daryl Maguire, plied his trade with the Department of Home Affairs and federal members of parliament. Not surprising given he has already admitted that he received thousands of dollars from an alleged “cash for visas” scam, paving the way for Chinese nationals to work in Australia.

In senate estimates this week Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo said Maguire had made representations to the department and to federal MPs and ministers. He could not say which politicians, but the department has “ongoing investigations” and “will work in parallel with ICAC”. Those investigations could involve criminal or civil matters under the Migration Act.

In parliament, Labor asked Morrison if Maguire had made representations to the government about visas, “including to you, Prime Minister?” The PM was evasive, saying he receives representations from many people on a range of matters.

Morrison’s office later said a search of its database found no correspondence from Maguire to the prime minister. But a search of the database at Home Affairs found correspondence six years ago to Morrison when he was Immigration minister. The then state member urged him to deport a convicted child murderer.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack told parliament Maguire made representations to him about a local road in Wagga Wagga. But he denied point blank he had any discussions with the former state MP about G8way International, the business Maguire used for the alleged visa scam.

The speaker blocked Labor from asking further questions about a Daily Telegraph report that said Maguire had approached McCormack about changes to visa rules for skilled foreign workers. Shadow Immigration minister Kristina Keneally says the fact the alleged scam went on under the department’s nose “for some seven years at least” is “astonishing in and of itself”.

This imbroglio, along with the Badgerys Creek airport land sale scandal, points to the urgent need for a national integrity commission with teeth – well before Morrison’s full term runs out.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2020 as "Coming to terms with the Morrison government".

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