Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison in survival mode

Craig Kelly’s fulsome praise of Scott Morrison as Kelly quit the Liberal Party this week was akin to the Mafia sending roses to its next victim. Kelly said he sincerely hoped Morrison would “go on to be one of Australia’s greatest and longest-serving prime ministers”. Make no mistake, though, the departure to the crossbench of the outspoken salesman of Covid-19 snake oil remedies is a sickening blow to the Morrison government’s stability and authority.

And there is no better witness to this than another political maverick, Bob Katter. Last week over dinner, Kelly took the veteran Queensland MP into his confidence, telling Katter of his intention to follow his lead and become an independent. It was a courtesy the controversial Sydneysider did not show to Morrison.

Katter, who quit the Nationals 20 years ago, offered an ominous warning for the government soon after Kelly’s shock resignation. “Yesterday the government had a majority, today they don’t,” he told parliament. “Now the government and mainstream parties in Australia have to accept that they no longer issue the edicts and make us all jump when they crack the whip. Those days are over.”

To be clear, the government has lost its working majority on the floor of the house – it still has supplied the speaker, the Liberal Tony Smith. In the case of a tied vote, Smith can still break the deadlock, but convention, as laid out in the House of Representatives Practice, would often constrain him to voting for the status quo. This could stymie the government’s attempts to amend existing legislation.

Kelly, in a statement to the house, said he would “of course support the government on matters of supply, confidence and procedure”, and said he would vote consistent with the policies he took as a Liberal to the last election. But he made clear in a series of media interviews this week that he would freelance on everything else.

Morrison was stung by Kelly’s betrayal. Party room sources say the prime minister’s face darkened when the Sydney MP rose to his feet and without forewarning read his resignation letter. Almost immediately after the meeting, Morrison reached out to Bob Katter, inviting him to the prime minister’s office to seek his assurances on supply and confidence – a sure sign of what little trust, if any, Morrison has in Kelly’s promises.

There is trouble ahead confirmed by the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce, who told reporters Kelly’s departure from the Liberals strengthens the hands of remaining government backbenchers. The climate change-denying Kelly has signalled that he is much more in tune with the coal-championing Nationals than he is with Morrison’s tepid commitment to the cause.

Kelly supports the Nationals’ proposed amendments to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation Amendment Bill. The minor Coalition partner wants to extend financial support beyond gas – which the government dresses up as firming support for renewables – to coal, carbon capture and storage as well as nuclear. Energy Minister Angus Taylor quickly withdrew legislation relating to the CEFC to avoid putting on display these deep divisions.

Kelly says he would not vote for measures to achieve a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050 if Morrison gets around to making such a commitment. After Anthony Albanese’s rejected offer of bipartisanship on climate last year, there’s not much doubt that Labor will support any real action on climate change the government proposes. But Morrison is more likely to follow former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s example and not take anything to the parliament that relies on the opposition’s numbers to succeed. It’s the price we pay as a nation for dumb tribalism.

It is instructive that the Liberal minister for Energy and Environment in New South Wales, Matt Kean, welcomed Craig Kelly’s departure in a stinging post on Twitter.

Kean said Kelly’s “spreading of misinformation about Covid-19 and climate change and his disrespect for scientific evidence have no place in a major Australian political party. Good riddance.”

Wayne Swan, who was deputy prime minister in the Gillard minority government, says that on the face of it, Morrison’s remaining numbers in the house – 76 votes with the speaker – put him in a stronger position than Gillard’s 72. But Swan says the greater danger for Morrison is insurrection. The foment in the Nationals is hardly discreet and it is difficult to know what the harder driver of it is: leadership ambitions or deep-seated policy differences, particularly over energy.

In Barnaby Joyce the two meet. According to a party room source, his chances of regaining the leadership are nil – which may be true, but it was reported that Joyce is now within one vote of toppling Michael McCormack. The return of Llew O’Brien, the member for Wide Bay in Queensland, to the Nationals’ party room was certainly seen as a boost for Joyce. O’Brien became deputy speaker with Labor’s votes in defiance of the government and on Tuesday flagged another insurrection.

O’Brien told Morrison he could not support legislation that will raise the pre-pandemic Newstart benefit from $40 a day to $43.60 while slashing the raised Covid-19 supplement by two-thirds – from $150 to $50 a fortnight. O’Brien, like other Nationals, apparently believes there are more than enough jobs in regional Australia, such as fruit-picking, that the unemployed refuse to take. What is needed, in the party’s opinion, is the disincentive to stay on the dole and take any work on offer. This is gobsmacking from a man whose electorate has among the highest unemployment rates in Australia: 11.7 per cent overall, and a whopping 27.7 per cent for youth unemployment.

“Dole bludging”, of course, is holy writ for conservatives and reared its head again this week when the government announced a new punitive measure that would encourage employers to dob in anyone who refused to take a job that was on offer. This “dobseeker” provision, as it was quickly dubbed by its critics, left even employer groups feeling lukewarm as social service providers warned it was wide open for abuse. Labor’s Lisa Chesters condemned the new requirement that the unemployed document their search for 20 jobs a month from July. “Right now,” Chesters told parliament, “there are eight jobseekers for every job.”

Appeasing the Nationals and their fellow travellers on the conservative right, including Craig Kelly, is an even greater imperative now for the survival of the government. But Morrison discovered this week what his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull meant when he described his internal critics as terrorists. In the end, if they don’t get their way, they are happy to blow up the place.

The prime minister thought he had won from Kelly an agreement to be more of a team player. He also revealed on Tuesday that he had urged Kelly to dismiss his senior staffer Frank Zumbo in light of persistent allegations of inappropriate behaviour in regard to young women and an apprehended violence order against him. Zumbo’s alleged misbehaviour had attracted negative reporting in the local press and in The Daily Telegraph last year.

Kelly denies the pressure on him to sack Zumbo was another reason why he quit the Liberal Party. But he is staunch in his defence of his chief of staff, even claiming he investigated the matter personally and found nothing in the allegations. Zumbo, Kelly said, is entitled to the presumption of innocence. But the MP’s recalcitrance could come unstuck with the Department of Finance and the New South Wales Police Force now investigating.

The issue of the safety of political staffers and adequate mechanisms to deal with bullying, harassment and indeed rape are all of a piece. While Kelly ignored Morrison’s pressure, the prime minister was happy to confirm in parliament he knew about Zumbo and confronted Kelly.

It was another story though when it came to Brittany Higgins, the former staffer of Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds. In this case, Morrison was critical of the minister for not informing him of the alleged rape, which took place when she was Defence Industry minister. In the senate late last week, the minister broke down under heavy questioning of her handling of Higgins.

This week, Reynolds appeared to have recovered her composure but continued to stonewall in the senate. She was bracing to face the Canberra Press Gallery at the National Press Club midweek but cancelled on Wednesday after she was admitted to hospital on her cardiologist’s advice. Morrison checked with her doctor and the minister is now standing aside while she is treated for a pre-existing condition.

Speculation is rife within the government that Reynolds will not return to the ministry. Higgins has wished her well. Midweek, the former staffer formally lodged a complaint with the Australian Federal Police about her alleged rape at Parliament House.

Morrison is sticking with the story that he and his office knew nothing until Higgins’ story was about to break in the media. The picture he paints is of an incredible shambles. The PM told parliament he has asked his departmental secretary, Phil Gaetjens, to inquire into the “credibility” of what he was told by his staff.

Larissa Waters of the Greens failed to get the Coalition and One Nation to agree to have the government make public the findings of any independent investigation. Labor’s Penny Wong laments the fact no one has explained what led Higgins to believe that if she went to the police after her alleged assault, she would lose her job.

Brittany Higgins is now unemployed. Regardless, Scott Morrison earlier in the week, after Kelly quit, assured “all Australians nothing will distract me or my government from my pledge to save lives and to save livelihoods”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2021 as "Snake oil and ladders".

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