Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Send in the clowns

The Australia Day holiday is now behind us. By convention, this signals that the nation is back at work. It also sets the clock ticking down for a federal election within four months. The sense of foreboding within the Morrison government is palpable. Likewise, excitement is mounting within the Labor Party that this time it will not be thwarted.

The foreboding within the ranks of the Morrison government has senior players wargaming survival strategies that are born of desperation rather than confident calculation. At the extreme end is talk of the prime minister doing something that has not happened for 50 years: splitting the election of the house of representatives and the senate. Constitutionally the half-senate election must be held by the end of May. The lower house can wait until September.

This scenario, so the thinking goes, would at the very least give Scott Morrison another five months in power. It may also further distance the government from its bungling of the pandemic, which spectacularly blew up in its face over the summer.

But it doesn’t take very long to realise the risks are much greater than any upside. Besides sending a strong message that Morrison is afraid to face the voters, it would turn the senate election into a giant byelection, giving voters the chance for a huge protest vote, something that would cost the Coalition dearly. A quick study of past split elections clearly demonstrates this.

Still, some on the government backbench wouldn’t be surprised if Morrison put his own interests ahead of the party. This jaundiced view of the prime minister is feeding into another subterranean discussion: whether to switch leader “to save the furniture” if the polls continue in their current dire direction.

The two possible contenders are Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Defence Minister Peter Dutton. Both are already high-profile members of the government, although it has been noted that Dutton is doing much more media this term than in previous years. While this is seen as him laying down a marker for after the election, few believe he’d forgo an earlier opportunity if one presented itself.

The Liberals may be emboldened by their past successes in dumping prime ministers with electoral impunity. The idea this time would be to make Morrison the scapegoat for the government’s failures and for the party to pass judgement on him before the voters get the chance.

Clive Palmer, for one, appreciates Morrison’s electoral weakness. Last week he released an advertisement attacking Morrison with laser-like precision. The ad was headlined “Scotty from Marketing”, with its subheading: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” It was more even-handed in its last line message: “We can never trust the Liberals, Labor or Greens again.”

Some Labor strategists welcome Palmer’s disruption on the right side of politics, particularly in the senate. He is the No. 1 senate candidate for his United Australia Party in Queensland, pitting him against Pauline Hanson and former Liberal premier Campbell Newman, who is running for the Liberal Democrats. But other Labor strategists see the maverick operator as nothing more than “adding to the Liberals’ media campaign spend”. One says, “He’s a Liberal and will shovel votes back to them at the end of the day.”

The fact the government has done nothing to contain the obscenity of a billionaire being able to distort the democratic political contest in such a blatant way gives weight to this Labor view. Federal Labor president Wayne Swan says the immediate solution is simple: “The parliament could legislate spending limits in campaigns.”

There is no doubt massive and multi-platform advertising can sway the votes of the disengaged and the resentful, particularly in the final weeks of a campaign. Labor’s research following its 2019 election loss found Palmer’s $83 million spend on ads largely attacking Bill Shorten was very damaging. This time, despite saying his spend will be the biggest in Australian history, there is a view Palmer is a more damaged political commodity, particularly in Western Australia, thanks to his failed court challenge to the state’s closed borders.

Unlike Shorten in 2019, Anthony Albanese has determinedly kept the focus on the Morrison government and has single-mindedly chosen the policy areas that he wants to fight the election on. Taxation is definitely not one of them, which has left the government scrambling to confect a scare campaign on “a hidden agenda”. Treasurer Frydenberg was quick to do this after the Labor leader refused to rule in or rule out taxing small business trusts at the National Press Club. That was after saying his policies are the ones he announces and that this has not been announced.

Also, it is highly doubtful the Palmer millions can compensate for the sheer incompetence of the government. Clowns are meant to serve as a distraction from a disaster, not add to it. This week was a compounding circus of gaffes and wishful thinking masquerading as announcements from the government.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s RN Breakfast radio interview on Monday was a standout example. Joyce claimed “people aren’t dying” from the Omicron wave, despite the month’s death toll approaching 1000 at the time of the interview. He had to quickly backtrack at the prompting of interviewer Patricia Karvelas.

Like Health Minister Greg Hunt, Joyce must think no one notices there is a desperate shortage of rapid antigen tests and that everyone believes the government propaganda that says they are now available at chemists free for six million pensioners and concession card holders. Millions of other Australians are left to scramble for themselves and at their own expense.

The taxpayer-funded TV and radio advertising led to queues of angry people looking for tests that weren’t there. Hunt talks about the number of participating pharmacies growing from 800 to 1000 “in the first phase”. But pharmacies must source and buy tests themselves, in competition with the government. This has led to some seeing their orders cancelled or postponed.

Ministers are living in an alternative universe where everything is what they say it is and voters have never had it so good. The latest soaring inflation figures and the treasurer’s response to them only adds to the incomprehension. Frydenberg this week saying “if you’re earning $60,000 today as a teacher or a nurse, you are paying $2160 less tax this year than under Labor” nine years ago may be true, but it does nothing to lessen the spiralling cost of living or reverse the fact their real wages are going backwards. Nor does the prospect of interest rates rising sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately for the government there are also clowns at the back of the tent. What on earth was Queensland Liberal National senator James McGrath thinking when he lit up social media with his attack on 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame? He accused Tame, who gave Morrison a frosty reception when he greeted her at The Lodge this week, of being “partisan, political and childish”. Morrison has refused to buy in but McGrath’s attack on this courageous campaigner for victims of sexual assault will do nothing to improve the Coalition’s poor standing with women voters.

The government’s credibility is taking a hammering on other fronts, too. The Essential poll has found more evidence that disillusion is growing over the Coalition’s handling of the pandemic. One year ago, Scott Morrison’s net approval rating was 37 per cent. Now it is zero. Approval of his handling of Covid-19 was 58 per cent. It is now 3 per cent in the negative. Morrison’s standing as preferred prime minister has plummeted. In all measures, the trend is down.

This summer the pandemic has scarcely left a family untouched. Confusion with changing rules and information at the government level is taking its toll. Essential pollster Peter Lewis says it’s a game changer. “When families are forced to manage the pandemic for themselves and their leader is doing nothing but playing the predictable strokes and pretending it’s all going to plan, then politics ceases to be a game at all,” he writes in Guardian Australia.

“And,” he continues, “when we are all told that it is our ‘personal responsibility’ to resolve this disconnect, we can end up shifting our allegiances to the other side. That’s what is happening right now.”

The latest Morgan poll gives dramatic support to this analysis, with Labor increasing its lead to 56-44. It leads the Coalition in all states except Queensland, but even in the Sunshine State there has been a swing of about 6 per cent to the opposition, enough to see it win three seats.

Key Labor people see “incompetence” as the Morrison government’s inescapable vulnerability this time. On Tuesday Albanese made clear he will not let this go. He said, “this government has failed repeatedly on testing, tracing, vaccination and quarantine” and, along with the failure to secure rapid antigen tests and guarantee free supply, it is “the grand slam of pandemic failure”.

Albanese nominated his most preferred ground to fight the election on as “protecting the health of Australians”. He also promised further announcements on strengthening Medicare.

The pandemic is certainly no joke. Even if Morrison’s mishandling of it may yet give his opponents plenty to smile about. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Send in the clowns".

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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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