Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Palaszczuk’s one day, and also the next

You may not have noticed, and that was the whole idea. The moment it was clear Labor’s Annastacia Palaszczuk had won a thumping victory in the Queensland election, Scott Morrison disappeared from view.

The prime minister, who had spent a week on the campaign trail in the Sunshine State, sent Palaszczuk a congratulatory text message on Sunday morning and then spent the next five days holed up in his office.

Morrison’s reputation as a gifted reader of the electorate’s mood failed him badly in Queensland. His criticism of Palaszczuk’s border closures and his joining the pile-on over the refusal to allow an exemption for a stepdaughter to attend her father’s funeral backfired. Another daughter accused him of politicising their grief and the premier said she would “not be bullied” out of keeping Queenslanders safe.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese, who was a notable absentee from the campaign, said he didn’t think Queenslanders appreciated Morrison coming into the state and as a southerner telling them what to do.

There’s no doubt the prime minister had picked up on the enormous hurt suffered by businesses during the pandemic, particularly in the tourism sector, but what he had missed was people’s concerns about their health. To that end, older voters gave big swings in hitherto safe non-Labor seats on the Sunshine and Gold coasts.

It was left to one of Morrison’s cabinet ministers from Queensland, David Littleproud, to put the government’s preferred spin on the result. On Monday he told ABC TV the premier did “a great job … articulating her sole message, which was keeping Queenslanders safe”. If the federal Liberals and Nationals really believe this, they may miss another crucial factor in Labor’s win, one that could go a long way towards an improved performance at the next federal election.

Albanese flipped the factors in Labor’s victory: he said the premier “got the campaign right. She campaigned on jobs and the future.” To unpack that further you only have to look at the results in the resources-sector seats up the coast in Mackay, Rockhampton and Townsville. Labor was widely expected to suffer losses based on the failure of Bill Shorten to pick up seats in these areas last May.

But in this campaign, Palaszczuk set about checkmating the Adani mine as an issue. Coal workers had seen Labor’s ambivalence, if not opposition, to the mine as a harbinger of their own demise. The premier adopted a “both/and” approach, green-lighting Adani and announcing support for new mines while at the same time pushing the jobs of the future in renewables and manufacturing.

It’s a balancing act that is a real challenge for Morrison, as much as it is for Albanese. Morrison’s refusal to commit to net zero emissions by 2050 is increasingly untenable given our major trading partners in Asia and Europe have done so. China has committed to achieving this target by 2060. According to a new report from Deloitte Access Economics, Australia risks $3.4 trillion in economic growth by 2070 and the loss of 880,000 jobs unless the country gets more serious about dealing with the “existential threat of climate change”.

Albanese will go into the next election with a commitment to net zero by 2050, pledging support for gas or coal expansion providing it is consistent with this target. To help achieve net zero emissions, there will be ongoing support for renewables.

At the weekend, Nationals coal warrior Matt Canavan warned Morrison not to take the blue-collar resources vote for granted. He said the “Bob Brown, Bill Shorten and Adani 2019 lightning storm won’t strike twice”.

Ironically, Labor is convinced the Liberal National Party’s decision to preference the Greens ahead of it sent a very helpful message to north Queensland seats. Senator Murray Watt, who played a big part in the campaign, says the fact those preferences delivered an extra Greens MP into the state parliament was a clincher. It blew apart claims from Matt Canavan and fellow federal Nationals George Christensen and Michelle Landry that Labor is in alliance with the Greens and a threat to central Queensland.

Watt puts the collapse of the One Nation vote down to Pauline Hanson’s near invisibility and the fact that she, almost more than Morrison, kept urging Queensland to open its borders. But the pièce de résistance was Hanson’s Sky News interview where she said older people and sick people should just lock themselves away so the rest of us can get on with our lives. The shock for the LNP was that more of One Nation’s vote went to Labor rather than to it, a sure sign Hanson had alienated her core demographic by misreading their fears of Covid-19.

Morrison’s lot gets worse when you consider warning signs in the economy. On Tuesday, the Reserve Bank board took the extraordinary – but in its view utterly necessary – step of cutting the official cash rate to 0.1 per cent. Governor Philip Lowe said the board would not consider raising rates until inflation was more than 3 per cent. “Given the outlook,” he said, “the board is not expecting to increase the cash rate for at least three years.”

As significant was the announcement that the RBA would buy $100 billion worth of Australian government bonds over the next six months. Lowe was at pains to say this was complementary to the government’s massive fiscal splurge.

But shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers read between the lines. He said “these extraordinary steps are a vote of no confidence in the government’s JobFaker budget”.

Lowe took heart from recent data being better than forecast, but said, “Even so, the recovery is still expected to be bumpy and drawn out and the outlook remains dependent on successful containment of the virus.”

David Littleproud has a different take. He says that besides keeping ourselves safe we also have to keep the economy going. The states, he says, can stick to Palaszczuk’s mantra, “but unfortunately it’s the Commonwealth government and the Australian taxpayer who’s got to pay for it”. It’s as if the Commonwealth has a different set of taxpayers who don’t live in the states.

Morrison’s ducking for cover this week is a neat metaphor for his government’s aversion to scrutiny in general. On Monday, Attorney-General Christian Porter finally unveiled his draft legislation for a Commonwealth integrity commission. To get there he is proposing two bills with more than 390 pages of detail to wade through between them.

Porter kept a straight face when he said the new commission “will have greater powers than a royal commission”. Of course, it depends which royal commission he is talking about, because they all depend on the terms of reference and powers a government gives them. In this case, a raft of legal experts are completely unimpressed with the attorney-general’s handiwork and his six-month timetable of consultation.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus describes the proposal as the government’s “cover-up commission”. He says it is “designed to allow the government to pretend it is acting to address corruption while ensuring it could never be held accountable for its multiple scandals”.

Greens leader Adam Bandt called the draft a “sham” and a “toothless tiger”. Others on the crossbench in both houses were similarly disgusted. South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick conceded the proposed watchdog had some teeth “but it’s on a very short leash, held by the government”. He told ABC TV: “It’s trapped in a kennel and has got a bung eye as well. It’s not a healthy-looking dog.”

Geoffrey Watson, SC, former counsel assisting at the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales, says the Porter proposal “will only facilitate covering up corruption, not expose it”. It has entrenched double standards – harsher on police and law enforcement agencies and more lenient on public servants, political staffers and politicians. In all cases, secrecy prevails and the ability to instigate inquiries is severely limited. Public hearings would be banned.

Watson says it would be better if the plan were scrapped because as it is it “could do more damage than good”. That’s as damning an assessment as you can get from one of the country’s leading corruption fighters.

In Queensland, the returned Palaszczuk government is planning new laws to ensure truth in political advertising. Its target is Clive Palmer and his multimillion-dollar advertising blitz against “Labor’s death tax” – a lie he also spread during the federal election. The laws would go a long way towards limiting the spread of misinformation during campaigns and holding parties to account. No one imagines the prime minister, tucked up in his bunker this week, is contemplating similar measures. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2020 as "Palaszczuk’s one day, and also the next".

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