Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
John Alexander turns on Scott Morrison

Former Australian tennis great John Alexander doesn’t like the way the game of politics is being played. Winning is everything and the biggest losers are Australians. Good policy and a genuine bipartisan search for what is best for the nation, in his opinion, comes a poor last.

People want political leadership with vision, and they are not getting it. “People,” he says, “are tired of the way we engage with each other. All we do is bash each other.”

Privately he reserves his biggest salvos for the leadership of the Coalition government: Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and Barnaby Joyce. He harbours the hope that if Labor’s Anthony Albanese wins the election, policies more fit to serve the national interest rather than narrow sectional interest might be served.

Just before the prime minister headed off for his politically disastrous trip to the G20 in Rome and the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Alexander told him he intended not to run again for the Sydney seat of Bennelong. Morrison, he says, thanked him for his 11 years of service but understood that, at the age of 70, Alexander would want to do other things, especially those involving his family.

The truth is that months earlier Alexander had told Liberal Party president John Olsen he intended to quit the seat he won back for the party in 2010 and spectacularly held in the 2017 byelection against Labor’s Kristina Keneally. His decision was less about his personal life and more about frustration at a government that doesn’t have the foresight or capacity to make the kind of long-term policy decisions he believes are vital. The Morrison government’s self-interest is starting to eat it from the inside.

John Howard, who in 2007 made history by being only the second prime minister to lose his seat in a general election, had previously supported the high-profile Alexander, a long-time Davis Cup representative and well-known television commentator. Howard judged him to be the candidate needed for the restoration mission in 2010. While Alexander lost some ground in 2019, he retained the seat with a 6.9 per cent margin.

Morrison, after his return from Glasgow, appears to have had a rethink on whether it was a good idea to lose Alexander’s pulling power in a seat the party has lost before. On the past seven Newspolls the government has trailed Labor by 6 to 8 percentage points, the sort of margin that would replicate Kevin Rudd’s 2007 landslide. One Labor insider says, “If we win Bennelong, we have already won the election.”

The prime minister’s troubleshooter, Special Minister of State Ben Morton, began calling Alexander. Rumour of a plan circulated, supported by the sudden and inexplicable resignation of Tony Smith as speaker. There was speculation among some Liberals that this was hatched to create a vacancy that might entice Alexander to stay: a frontbencher would become speaker and the member for Bennelong would be promoted to a ministry. Smith would be given a post-political job as a reward for his co-operation.

Alexander says this is just gossip and next Tuesday when a new speaker is voted on in the parliament, a backbencher, Andrew Wallace, is widely tipped to be nominated by the government. Anyhow, Alexander was not for turning.

Colleagues don’t blame him for being fed up. His policy work as chair of the standing committee for infrastructure, transport and cities has been largely ignored. He is a passionate supporter of faster rail and, even before the Liberals returned to government in 2013, he was introducing senior Abbott shadow ministers to overseas investors who were keen on the idea. As late as July this year Alexander found the Japanese ambassador, Yamagami Shingo, after his National Press Club address was similarly enthusiastic for Tokyo’s involvement.

In December last year Alexander tabled the results of his committee’s inquiry into fairer funding and financing of faster rail. The government has noted its work and appears to have left it there. Alexander has received a much more encouraging response from Labor. He occasionally has a hit of tennis with Albanese, who as a former Transport minister this month promised he would establish a high-speed rail authority to update the business case “for this nation-building project”.

Albanese sees high-speed rail as a key element in his response to climate change, with an eye to addressing Australia’s sovereign manufacturing gaps. He spelt it out on Monday, talking of a “future made in Australia” with the promise of further investment in renewables that will provide industry with cheap power to make things such as trains from green steel and aluminium.

Shadow Transport Minister Catherine King suspects Morrison is more interested in what she describes as “rats and mice” projects in targeted electorates – car parks, roundabouts or bus shelters – rather than a huge project that will take a few years to develop and begin building. Ten years down the track Alexander’s advocacy could be seen as time lost in realising this vision.

Alexander’s committee report spells out the huge advantages faster rail has for housing affordability, intercity and regional connectivity, emissions reduction, the environment and massive job creation in the building and servicing of the network. Australian-made rolling stock and electric- or hydrogen-powered locomotives further add to a compelling argument.

But a sticking point for a prime minister focused only on winning the next election would be a key tax mechanism suggested to substantially fund the mega project. The jargon in the report is “value capture and value sharing mechanisms”. Simply put it means the government and the Australian public should get a share in the massive windfall that property speculators get from projects such as this.

Alexander cites the example of Ron Medich, convicted over his part in the murder of a business associate, and his family, who reaped almost $500 million from the sale of a block of land they purchased for just over $3 million adjacent to the new Western Sydney international airport. The levying of a windfall tax would in the words of the report constitute a “just, equitable and fair” portion of value-sharing with all Australians.

Labor committee members have witnessed Alexander’s disgust at his policy work being ignored and have no doubt that Morrison and Frydenberg would see any new tax proposal as damaging their ability to attack Labor in the run-up to the election. After all, their answer to climate change action is “technology not taxes”.

Barnaby Joyce, wearing his Transport minister’s hat, is more interested in inland rail, a project beset by pork-barrelling, competing vested interests and an inability to arrive at a route into Melbourne and Brisbane. That scheme has started in the middle with the destination points still unplanned, according to Catherine King. Joyce was a champion in the fight against the Rudd government’s mining super-profits tax, so why would he be sympathetic to anything that upset the bottom line of can-do capitalists who might just be grateful donors?

This dynamic of pandering to short-term vested interest was on show on Monday. Joyce took his campaign to win coal seats from Labor in the Hunter region to Newcastle Harbour. There he gave one of the most extraordinary interviews to Patricia Karvelas on ABC TV. With the giant coal loader behind him he pretended he did not belong to the Morrison–Joyce Coalition government.

The deputy prime minister said he did not sign the COP26 final communiqué requesting countries to revisit their 2030 targets and strengthen them next year. Never mind that the only way Morrison could sign it is because Barnaby Joyce and his Nationals give him the numbers and the authority to be prime minister of Australia. Joyce, insulting the intelligence of every voter, including coalminers, said he was a National and not a Liberal. He similarly dismissed calls from Liberals such as Jason Falinski for more ambitious emissions targets, saying it was their business not his.

This farrago of deception means the government is going to the electorate hopelessly conflicted. Vote Liberal and you get Barnaby Joyce’s hostility to doing anything meaningful on climate change until 2050. That is the only way to make any sense of the Nationals’ veto on heeding the global scientific consensus that the next 10 years are critical to the prevention of catastrophic global warming.

Even if we accept the miracle technology that will bridge the 15 per cent gap in the Morrison plan to hit net zero in 30 years’ time, it will be too late. Joyce insists his highest ambition is for coal jobs. He ignores his own government’s projections that the demand for coal will phase down within two decades. And yet he is standing in the way of a smart transition for these workers.

If Bill Shorten was caught on the barbed-wire fence saying one thing to coal seats and another to metropolitan voters last time, there is no escape now for Morrison. No wonder he is desperate to look for new scares to run against Labor, away from climate change action.

If the best he can do is his claim on Tuesday that under Albanese petrol prices and interest rates will always be higher, he is in deeper trouble than the Newspoll suggests. After nearly a decade in power, blaming Labor for skyrocketing petrol prices and rising interest rates is more than a stretch.

Besides, Morrison is launching his attacks with his credibility badly dented. On Newspoll’s findings, the prime minister’s satisfaction ratings have fallen off a cliff this year. He trails Albanese on trust, likeability and understanding issues of concern for most Australians. John Alexander, for one, would not be surprised.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 20, 2021 as "The Alexander technique".

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