Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Symptoms of decay expose Morrison’s old and tired government

If the last fortnight of parliament for the year is any guide, Labor has its tail up and the government is in the doldrums. The lack of engagement from the Coalition backbench as the prime minister and his ministers slugged it out with the opposition was one thing, but the dead giveaway was the sitting schedule for next year.

The Morrison government is thumbing its nose at the foundational traditions of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy by shielding itself from the sort of scrutiny and accountability it presumes.

The manager of opposition business, Tony Burke, could scarcely believe his eyes when the leader of the house, Peter Dutton, tabled the program. He said you would have to go back a long way in history to find a year when there were so few sitting days.

The plan would see only 10 sitting days through to August next year, after providing for the earliest budget since Federation, in March, clearing the way for an election in April or May. In fact, the schedule also suggests the prime minister has given himself the option of calling an earlier election with no sitting, as is usual in the week after Australia Day.

Besides Scott Morrison’s aversion to answering for anything, another explanation is the need to hide from view his government fracturing on current hot-button issues. Despite his pleadings in the party room again this week for unity and cohesion, members in vulnerable seats judge it is not in their interests to toe the party line. This is particularly so on issues of vaccine mandates, government integrity, climate change action and conflict between religious and sexual freedoms.

Morrison goes into the election year needing to claw back ground from Anthony Albanese’s Labor. The Roy Morgan Poll this week has Labor’s lead extending after the ructions of the past month. While it doesn’t have the cachet of Newspoll, it is hardly counterintuitive after the floor-crossings and open dissent. These are the symptoms of decay displayed by old and tired governments. This one is entering its ninth year in office, giving Albanese the “It’s time” line to run against the Coalition entering a second decade in power.

Morrison’s palpable loss of authority within the government is manifested in his inability to achieve progress on two headline promises made at the last election. The prospects of his religious discrimination bill being voted into law before the election are receding. It is not only the opposition, the Greens and the crossbench demanding real scrutiny of unintended consequences; the clutch of moderates who spoke out last week will not support it if it entrenches discrimination on the grounds of sexuality.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash was strongly resisting moves in the senate to extend report-back dates for inquiries. She complained it would only leave three days next year to complete the legislative process. Her efforts blaming Labor for this can’t be taken seriously. The simple answer is to allow parliament to sit for more days. Still, better to blame your political opponents than to admit your real fears that if the legislation is pursued there would be a revolt of government members in both houses.

The same fears are clearly in play with the failure to move on the promised federal integrity commission. In this issue it is obvious that Morrison doesn’t really have his heart in it anyway. There has been no bona fide attempt to come up with a model that is effective and would win parliamentary support. In fact, when Cash became attorney-general after Christian Porter, she left his model on the shelf. It was roundly rejected by almost 300 high-powered submissions. She did nothing to amend the flawed model but, with time running out, ludicrously claimed it was Labor preventing her even introducing the bill.

Cash has been one of the most invisible of Morrison’s ministers. She has certainly done little or nothing to argue for the Porter model. The expert consensus is that it is more a corruption protection commission for politicians than a fearless watchdog.

This week another backbench voice joined the chorus of criticism. Former Turnbull government minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells told the senate that with an increasing number of political scandals “there are growing calls for a better national integrity commission than the one proposed by the government”.

In a scarcely veiled reference to the prime minister, she said “those who resist the introduction of an effective federal integrity body raise people’s curiosity”. She said the question has to be asked: “Are they conflicted?” And: “Why are they resisting the implementation of such a model?”

Morrison denies he has any conflicts. He has doubled down after his outburst in parliament last week attacking the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption as a “kangaroo court”. He says he has no intention of introducing one like it in Canberra. Fierravanti-Wells says lessons can be learnt from ICAC but the role of such a body “needs to uncover corruption and expose it publicly”.

The Liberal premier of NSW, Dominic Perrottet, also disagrees with the prime minister that ICAC is a kangaroo court. He says it plays a very important role in uncovering and preventing corruption. Unlike Morrison, he refuses to prejudge the findings of the commission into his predecessor, Gladys Berejiklian, over potentially corrupt conflicts of interest in dealings with her secret boyfriend and MP, Daryl Maguire.

Surely the real reason Morrison has not introduced the draft integrity bill into parliament is because he fears it would be drastically amended in both houses. The Liberals’ most marginal seat-holder, Bridget Archer in the Tasmanian electorate of Bass, crossed the floor last week to support independent Helen Haines’s robust integrity commission bill. This gave the bill the numbers to be passed, with the support of Labor and the crossbench. The government used a technicality to block it, which it could not do to stop its own bill being strengthened.

There is a view Archer’s rebellion was in response to Senator Jacqui Lambie’s threat to run a candidate against her who would not be preferencing “liars”, a reference to Morrison’s failure to deliver on his promise. But according to news.com.au, when Archer was escorted by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to the prime minister’s office immediately after her rebellion, she stuck to her guns on the need for a strong integrity watchdog. This elicited an attack from Morrison on ICAC and its treatment of Berejiklian, which he repeated in parliament.

The Archer episode, besides its demonstration of Morrison’s loss of control of his parliamentary numbers, also raised the issue of bullying in Parliament House. A Liberal source says the PM was not bullying the female politician and had every right to question her stance. Archer makes no claim of bullying, only saying she was pressed into the meeting before she regained her composure.

Coming in the week that Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins released her devastating findings into the workplace culture of Parliament House, it did nothing to enhance Morrison’s reputation for being insensitive to women’s issues. Former Liberal MP Julia Banks wrote a stinging opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, accusing Morrison of “textbook coercive control”. She said he had done the same to her when she quit the party days after Morrison took the leadership.

Despite all this, the prime minister is counting on the economy to save him next year. He assured the party room on Tuesday “we’ll have a fight that we will win in the new year”. He said the sitting calendar provides for a budget next year and he has done “more budgets and MYEFOs [mid-year economic and fiscal outlooks] than Albanese”.

The September quarter national accounts, despite showing a contraction of 1.9 per cent in the economy, point to healthier December quarter results, which will be released by no coincidence about the time of the brought-forward budget.

An economy on the mend would normally be a big plus for a government seeking re-election. But a healthier economy raises the issue of budget repair. If the time-honoured mantra of the conservatives to fiscal rectitude and paying back debt is to be honoured, plunging the budget deeper into record debt hardly fits. Already the legislated stage three tax cuts have committed the budget to $184 billion in lost receipts, beginning in the next term.

Morrison and Frydenberg will find it very hard to resist the temptation to go on a last-ditch vote-buying spree, especially if the polls still have them well behind Labor. They would be hoping voters don’t notice or care that the budget papers are forecasting a deficit of $100 billion for the next financial year.

Former Gillard government adviser, economist Stephen Koukoulas, says the Reserve Bank would not look too kindly on this. It would view more huge cash splashes as economically irresponsible. He says that could push the RBA to hike interest rates earlier than it has flagged. The calculus here may well be that even if that happens it would be politically worthwhile because it would be after another miracle election win.

Shutting down the parliament and accelerating gross debt beyond a trillion dollars gives new meaning to “whatever it takes”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 4, 2021 as "The final sitting".

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