Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
A question of characters

Anthony Albanese is convinced the tide is going out on the Morrison government. Scott Morrison senses it too, but, like King Canute, he is desperately trying to prove he’s still in control.

The embattled prime minister is being swamped by almost unprecedented disunity and defiance of his authority within his ruling Coalition. No one can miss the spectacle of Liberal and National party senators supporting a Pauline Hanson anti-vaccine mandate bill and refusing to take its defeat as the last word. Indeed, this revolt has spread to the lower house, with two Queensland Nationals, George Christensen and Llew O’Brien, threatening “to cause chaos” in this sitting fortnight unless the government secures time lines from the states “to end vaccine mandates”.

In the government party room on Tuesday Morrison pleaded with the dissidents in his ranks to stop wrecking the government’s chances of re-election. His warning was aimed not only at the anti-vaccination brigade but also at those threatening to vote against the religious discrimination bill if it is shown to wind back the protection and rights for queer Australians that were overwhelmingly endorsed in the 2017 marriage equality postal vote.

Liberal moderates expressed their concerns in the party room. Two – Warren Entsch and Trent Zimmerman – have taken them public. Entsch is so exercised by the prospect his 19-year-long commitment to the cause of minority rights, sexual and otherwise, will be undermined that he will cross the floor to vote against the bill if it fails the vetting of parliamentary inquiries.

Labor has so far kept out of the fight. Albanese says he’s committed to religious freedom and has consulted religious leaders from all faiths. He regrets that Morrison has not sought bipartisan co-operation as these leaders preferred. Labor MPs, particularly from Western Sydney, suspect Morrison is looking for any opening to brand them as anti-religion. Midweek, Albanese took out some political insurance by saying he is still willing to sit down with the prime minister but that Morrison “is someone who doesn’t bring people together and doesn’t try to, and hasn’t tried to up to this point”.

The prime minister warned his troops that the last sitting fortnight of the year was crucial to their prospects in next year’s election, which is only a matter of months away. According to the official briefing, he said: “You are allowing a Labor government to be elected, or you are ensuring our re-election. It’s up to us whether we let that happen.”

With rumblings in the ranks about his own less than convincing performance, Morrison appealed for continued support for his leadership and thanked the party room for their discipline and backing. He said this was the reason for their success so far and is the key to it in the future. Otherwise, he said, they would allow Labor to “sneak into government”. This view was reinforced by the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, who paid Anthony Albanese a compliment by acknowledging he is “no fool” and he is “where he wants to be right now”.

Of course, Morrison’s very appeal for support is a stark admission that it is lacking. But while some Liberals are sharing their despair with journalists over his prospects of winning the election, the new rules he introduced after rolling his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, make it almost impossible to replace him. A special majority two-thirds vote of the party room is required.

The fact is, though, that if just over half the party room wants to get rid of a leader, he’s gone. They can change the rules and proceed with the deed. Despite Defence Minister Peter Dutton publicly trailing his coat in recent print and TV interviews, not enough of the party room is convinced at this stage that changing to him would improve the government’s prospects.

Those prospects are already grim if for no other reason than at the last election the Coalition won only 77 of the 151 seats in the house of representatives. Its slim majority was trimmed even further with the defection of Craig Kelly to the crossbench and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. Electoral boundary redistributions since 2019 have notionally handed one seat to Labor in Victoria and removed a Liberal seat in Western Australia.

Put simply, Morrison cannot afford to lose any seats and will need to pick up a few from somewhere – New South Wales and Tasmania were thought to be his best bets.

On the latter, two scorching speeches in the senate this week from Jacqui Lambie may well have damaged the Liberals’ prospects. Her ire was sparked by the government’s doublespeak on vaccinations and its refusal to allow a debate on an anti-corruption commission bill. She said it was “shameful” Morrison had failed to establish a promised integrity commission. To a startled chamber, she yelled that he had said he was committed “to getting it done – another lie”.

Lambie attracted national media attention with her excoriation. She said the Coalition had gone from one prime minister to another “and this is the worst one on record”. Pointing to the government benches, she said Morrison was “incompetent, he’s not a leader and I’m enjoying watching him and you fall apart”.

Lambie claimed a role in ensuring the Liberals “were finished in Tasmania”. She said their two seats there “are gone” and she looks forward to running her own Jacqui Lambie Network candidates in Bass and Braddon and “passing those preferences where they deserve to go, not to political liars”.

Lambie’s no-holds-barred references to Morrison’s lack of character and truthfulness is yet more evidence that it is now a major political negative for him. She told the Nine Network that on the vaccination issue he needs to stop playing both sides because it’s dangerous to do so. She thought it was unhelpful that Australia didn’t have a solid leader and instead had one who wants to try to “please everybody”.

Yet another opinion poll, the Resolve Political Monitor in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, has shown a downward trend for Morrison’s personal performance. The prime minister’s net performance rating fell from 4 per cent to minus 9 per cent in the past month. One of Morrison’s problems is the fact his ham-fisted attempt to placate recalcitrant rebels on vaccine mandates last week failed miserably in parliament this week.

But worse for him, it drew the popular and powerful premiers of Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia into the argument. Victoria’s Daniel Andrews made rare appearances on the breakfast shows of the Seven and Nine networks to hit back at the prime minister for his calls for the states to “get out of people’s lives” with their vaccine mandates. Andrews said the lockdown in Victoria this year was because there were no vaccines. He asked, rhetorically, “Who forgot to order the vaccines? It wasn’t the state governments.”

Morrison’s crack at Queensland for requiring people to be vaccinated to have a coffee had his Queensland dissident MPs in mind, but he only succeeded in riling Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. She told state parliament she was extremely disappointed that “the prime minister of our country is now seeking to undermine Queensland’s strong vaccination program”.

Western Australia’s Mark McGowan savaged Morrison’s “very dangerous views” on vaccine policies and said he was chasing the votes of extremists.

Morrison saw a Labor conspiracy in the premiers’ counterattacks, briefing some journalists that Albanese was getting the premiers to do his dirty work. But one senior Queensland government insider ridiculed the paranoia, asking if Morrison really expected the states to sit back and cop his distortions.

Federal Labor didn’t leave it all to the premiers, either. From the first question time this week they targeted Morrison’s character and integrity and on Monday he played into their agenda. He was stung by a question from the member for Gilmore, Fiona Phillips, whose electorate takes in the bushfire-ravaged south coast of NSW. Morrison claimed he had told Albanese in a text he was going on leave to Hawaii with his family, except he hadn’t and it took him three disingenuous efforts to sort of admit it.

The following day he claimed he didn’t know what Labor was talking about when they called into question his denials about calling former Labor senator Sam Dastyari “Shanghai Sam”. The opposition cited 17 times when he did. The idea that none of this really counts – because Australians cynically believe all politicians lie – fails to grasp what has been established here. John Howard could ask who Australians trusted on interest rates, even after he was caught out lying about “children overboard”, but what has been firmly established in Morrison’s regard is that he lies about what he himself has previously said on numerous occasions. This debases his currency and the polls are reflecting that.

The shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, drew this together powerfully in parliament. He said, “If this prime minister won’t tell the truth about a trip to Hawaii … or about the submarines deal, or electric vehicles or vaccine mandates, he can’t be trusted about the economic recovery as well.” Chalmers said the families of middle Australia can’t trust the economic recovery on a “prime minister who simply can’t be believed”.

There is evidence that the tight election win for Morrison last time hinged on the electorate’s judgement that Bill Shorten didn’t have the character to entrust with the government of Australia. That could be the difference again, except there’s a shift: this time everything is pointing to it counting against Morrison.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "A question of characters".

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

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