Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Election fever grips parliament’s return

Try as he might, Scott Morrison can’t help letting slip his early-election ambitions. His most telling giveaway was in his first pep talk of the year to the Coalition party room in the Great Hall at Parliament House. But the prime minister merely confirmed the buzz of expectation that was already spreading through the corridors of power.

As they returned to Canberra this week after the summer break, it was clear that Coalition MPs were itching for an election – they are confident of winning, while Labor members are more apprehensive.

Morrison keeps talking about having “too much to do this year to think about an election” but he left his Liberal and National colleagues in no doubt that he is foxing. Addressing the party room, he reminded his troops that while an election “is not due until 2022”, they had to pull together to win every day between now and when they face the voters. But in almost the same breath, he said the agenda he had outlined at the National Press Club on Monday was about “winning the election this year”.

For its part, the Labor Party is taking no chances, with Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese telling the first gathering of caucus that he had re-established a national campaign committee. The failure of the Shorten-led ALP to have one before the 2019 election was credited in the party’s post-mortem as a contributor to its shock defeat. Albanese said such a committee had not been convened since Labor was last in government, a decade ago. He is counting on the committee to sharpen the election strategy and learn from past mistakes.

Labor’s wariness is well founded, in light of Morrison’s ambiguous statements as well as the tone of the support act in the party room – the Liberal deputy leader and treasurer, Josh Frydenberg. He warned his colleagues to “get their affairs in order” and be ready to fight a campaign. Frydenberg said they should not take any notice of commentators who say that “we have already got the next election in the bag”. Those commentators have been wrong before, as the unexpected 2019 election result showed. Frydenberg is worried about “a dangerous sense of complacency” and warned redistributions in Victoria and Western Australia could put three Coalition seats in jeopardy.

The treasurer’s reality check has firm foundations, if two opinion polls this week are any guide. Newspoll had the government and Labor lineball at 50-50 in the two-party preferred vote. After being caught out in 2019, the poll has revised the way preferences are allocated. More wary is the Essential pollster, Peter Lewis, who has adopted a “two-party preferred plus” approach, where he does not allocate undecided voters’ preferences. Essential has Labor in front in the two-party preferred, 47-44, with 8 per cent undecided. While some in Labor don’t believe the party is travelling as well as these polls suggest, the Albanese camp is not so diffident. One adviser hopes the polling calms the “bedwetters’ nerves”.

In both polls, Morrison’s high approval ratings have not translated into voting intention for the Coalition. Lewis, writing for Guardian Australia, says the message for the prime minister “is that listening to experts, working collaboratively and supporting people in need is not evidence of overachievement. It is actually just doing your job.” For Labor, he says, there are “no inherent barriers to winning the next election” but an “opportunity to provide an alternative future for Australians”.

Albanese believes this fits his strategy of now rolling out policies encapsulated by his new slogan, “On Your Side”. Next Wednesday in Brisbane, the Labor leader will unveil his industrial relations policy with a heavy emphasis on addressing the issue of insecure work and casualisation, which, among other things, blocks millions from access to credit and owning their own homes.

In parliament this week, Labor took an uncompromising stand over the government’s industrial relations omnibus bill. It will oppose the bill completely, claiming workers will be worse off in a return to Howard-era WorkChoices. Albanese accuses the government of doing this under the cover of Covid-19, something the Liberals reject as a lie. Morrison says the bill is about creating more jobs as employers struggle to recover from the pandemic recession.

But analysis by The Australia Institute finds the omnibus bill would lead to “a significant increase in employer-designed enterprise agreements that reduce workers’ pay and conditions”. Especially controversial is the ability the bill gives employers to waive the better-off-overall test for two years. Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter has signalled the government will not die in a ditch over the bill. The last thing the Liberals want to provoke is another WorkChoices backlash in the run-up to an election.

No one is surprised that Morrison is inclined to go to an election sooner rather than later. At the Press Club this week, as he lauded the fact the economy and jobs comeback is under way, a situation that “betters the experience of most advanced-economy nations in the world today”, there was a cloud over it all. Morrison said the pandemic was “still raging. It is not petering out … Indeed, it is morphing into new and more virulent strains.” While he outlined a massive outlay to buy more than 140 million doses of vaccine – “enough to cover the Australian population several times over” – he stressed that Australia must remain vigilant, which includes keeping international borders closed, a decision that is not without significant economic impact.

The vaccine rollout will begin in a few weeks’ time and all Australians will have the opportunity to be inoculated by October, which coincides with a curious gap in scheduled parliamentary sittings. This strongly suggests some planning for an election date, or at the very least a neat opportunity for one. Of course, it presumes that the current overwhelming public support for vaccination found in the opinion polls is not undermined, which would jeopardise the country’s success in dealing with the pandemic on both the health and economic fronts.

The very first question asked of Morrison at the Press Club was whether he was wasting taxpayers’ money spending $24 million to build public confidence on vaccine safety while at the same time failing to rein in his own MPs who were spreading disinformation on social media – notably, Sydney backbencher Craig Kelly. Morrison replied, “We’ve been very clear … Don’t go to Facebook to find out about vaccines. Go to official government websites.” He was both flippant about Kelly and supportive of him: “He’s not my doctor and he’s not yours. But he does a great job in Hughes.”

Neither the media nor the opposition was so easily dismissed, ensuring that Kelly’s campaign for Covid-19 treatments rejected by Australia’s top health authorities, and his questioning of the vaccines’ safety, escalated to an embarrassment for Morrison. It was also a huge distraction from the government’s preferred agenda.

The situation became almost farcical when Kelly did a series of interviews in the mainstream media on Tuesday claiming he had Morrison’s support and had never been disciplined. By late that afternoon, the prime minister’s office went into damage control, briefing out that the prime minister had made it clear to Kelly he was unhappy the backbencher was pushing unofficial medical remedies.

Whatever the truth of the briefings, Kelly was unabashed, and on Wednesday morning continued his round of media interviews, even interrupting a corridor press conference being held by Labor’s former Health minister Tanya Plibersek. Kelly told Plibersek to take notice of one dissenting immunologist’s view on two of the contentious remedies he was pushing. She asked him if the prime minister agreed with him, and accused him of risking the lives of people who refuse the vaccine “because of these crazy conspiracy theories you are spreading”.

The confrontation received instant widespread coverage on mainstream radio and television and social media. It forced the prime minister to stop his pussyfooting with the man whose political hide he had saved prior to the previous election. Proof that there was a real reprimand came with a statement from Kelly capitulating to the prime minister’s demands that he toe the government line. In the statement Kelly said he agreed “to support the government’s vaccine rollout which has been endorsed by the medical experts”.

By not pulling Kelly into line, Morrison might have been attempting to avoid amplifying the backbencher’s dangerous nonsense, but this tactic lasted weeks longer than was wise, especially as the prime minister is well aware of the fragility of the country’s economic recovery. A fragility spelled out by Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe in his statement on Tuesday, when the official cash rate was left at the crisis low of 10 basis points and the bank created another $100 billion to buy government debt. The RBA doesn’t see any significant improvements until 2024, especially in wage growth.

Even then, Lowe said, the recovery “remains dependent on the health situation and on significant fiscal and monetary support”. There’s no doubt the monetary support coming from the Reserve Bank’s initiatives is significant, but on the fiscal side the government’s decision to begin pulling back support is highly problematic and based on heroic assumptions of consumer behaviour.

Morrison’s return to conservative orthodoxy with his “you can’t run the Australian economy on taxpayers’ money forever” may not be shared by the millions who will see their incomes shrink when JobKeeper ends, JobSeeker is cut and wages continue to stagnate.

Morrison can’t risk voters’ anger swamping any gratitude for the pandemic being better handled here than elsewhere. It makes an October poll as the latest date with destiny all the more appealing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Election fever grips parliament’s return".

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