Paul Bongiorno
Scott Morrison faces the tumbrel

Make no mistake: the tumbrel is rolling for the Morrison government and the political guillotine is looming as its inescapable fate.

Responding to a devastating Newspoll at the beginning of the week, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg reminded us that “many political obituaries were written ahead of the 2019 election and many false prophecies were made by those in the media”. He also said Scott Morrison was the best person to lead the Coalition to the election.

Frydenberg’s assurances are part of a ritual embattled governments go through when they are in the kind of deep trouble Morrison is now facing. The words often hide subterranean shifts and internal pressures that eventually explode to the surface. This week, those fault lines began to unmistakably manifest.

One stark demonstration was the leaking of text messages between former New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian and “a current Liberal cabinet minister” to journalist Peter van Onselen. On 10 News First, van Onselen made it clear that the minister was in Morrison’s cabinet and not Dominic Perrottet’s, as federal ministers contacted for comment are suggesting. In several  interviews van Onselen spoke of the “destabilisation” of the prime minister and clarified that the cabinet minister himself was the source of the leak.

The leak was clearly timed to do maximum damage to Morrison, who is already reeling from his now admitted failures to plan for worst-case scenarios with the mutating Covid-19 virus. Morrison’s wishful thinking cruelled his government’s response from the early days of the pandemic and has now cemented a reputation for incompetence. He admits to mistakes but baulks at saying sorry for them.

To a stunned National Press Club, van Onselen read out one text where Berejiklian describes the prime minister as a “horrible, horrible person” whom she did not trust and whom she thought was “more concerned with politics than people”. The minister who received the message wholeheartedly agreed and described Morrison as “a fraud” and “a complete psycho”.

The full version of the text messages is even more shocking. Some were sent during the catastrophic 2019 bushfires. The premier is “so disappointed and gutted”. She tells the minister that “lives are at stake today and he is just obsessed with petty political point-scoring”.

Like many of his colleagues, the minister had found voters turning on Morrison. In one text, the federal minister says: “The mob have worked him out and think he’s a fraud.”

Morrison was terse in his reply at the Press Club, saying he obviously doesn’t agree with what was put to him or understand the basis of it “and I don’t think that’s my record”.

On Wednesday, he faced more questions as he embarked on a busy round of media interviews. He dismissed the scathing texts as “Canberra scuttlebutt” and believes they do not involve any of his colleagues. He said he hasn’t asked his staff to investigate the source.

For her part, Berejiklian has “no recollection” of sending the texts – hardly a denial, but she was happy to comply with a request to issue a statement of support for Morrison “as the best to lead our nation”.

One Labor insider says the comments about the prime minister in the exchange are what the party is hearing in its focus groups. Anthony Albanese believes the former NSW premier’s text at the time of the bushfires about Morrison being obsessed with “petty political point-scoring” is “devastating”. He thinks “that alone is enough to disqualify him from being someone who secures a second decade in office”.

Ominously for Scott Morrison, according to Liberal insiders in NSW, the leak is a damaging escalation of the bitter factional war tearing apart the state division. At the centre of the struggle over preselections is the prime minister’s factional consigliore, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke.

One Liberal told me the dominant moderate and conservative factions are prepared to see the Morrison government defeated rather than let Hawke engineer a takeover via federal intervention into their affairs. At stake are the democratic reforms that give grassroots members – and there are 800 of them – a direct say in who gets to run for the party in the house of representatives and the senate.

The long-running fracas has already cost the Liberals dearly in the recent local government elections. It is now threatening to smash any hopes Morrison has of holding on to all his marginal seats in the state – let alone of winning more to offset losses elsewhere.

Whatever the fate of the Morrison government there is no surprise that the NSW government would put its own interests ahead of those in Canberra. It was widely reported that Berejiklian clashed with Morrison in national cabinet over pandemic management. Now her successor, Dominic Perrottet, is facing a “Super Saturday” of four byelections next week and has decided it is more beneficial to not only distance himself from his federal colleagues but to publicly accuse them of “standing by” rather than “stepping up” to assist small businesses “smashed” by the Omicron Covid-19 variant.

Labor’s shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, couldn’t have put it better than Perrottet’s treasurer, Matt Kean. He says: “Ash Barty didn’t win the Australian Open saying, ‘I don’t need to try in the final because I had a good semi.’ You have to address each of the challenges that come along.” Kean says he is struggling to understand Morrison and Frydenberg’s refusal to share the cost of a small-business-support package.

Kean points out that the health of his state’s small enterprises has national economic implications and, while he doesn’t dismiss the billions spent earlier in the pandemic, “I don’t think now is the right time for austerity, now is the right time to make sure we protect the fabric of the economy”.

Morrison has decided his best path forward is as a parsimonious economic manager. Except there is no evidence of it. Even on Tuesday, when he announced a $2.2 billion splash to foster research and protect domestic supply chains, there was no talk of offsets or any attempt to show where the money is coming from. The same goes for the $1 billion for the Great Barrier Reef announced at the weekend. The Australian’s headline captured the hypocrisy: “PM to meet poll heat with cash”.

The added problem for Morrison is that his credibility is shredded and he has too little time to repair it. The evidence is in the astounding 51-point collapse in his approval rating in Newspoll over the past year, to land 19 points in negative territory. No longer the asset he once was, the prime minister is less popular than his party.

The poll’s major finding – of a 12-point lead to Labor two-party preferred, 56-44 – is certainly playing on the minds of the parliamentary party. It’s in line with the poll’s longer-term downward trend. No wonder Peter Dutton and Josh Frydenberg are quietly spruiking their wares to colleagues and selected journalists. Conservatives who believe Alex Hawke double-crossed them in the 2019 leadership spill now think Dutton would be the best bet to hold seats in Queensland and stem the bleeding to the fringe parties on the right.

But Morrison has ensured limited opportunity for any move against him. It is more likely the government will simply fall apart with Morrison still at the helm. That’s certainly a view on the backbench.

Morrison’s “reset” speech at the press club didn’t go to plan. It was reminiscent of the speeches given by other prime ministers on death row. Like Paul Keating in 1996 or John Howard in 2007, Morrison was verbosely defensive of his record and delusional in his assertion that Australians might say one thing to pollsters but will come to their senses when they actually cast their vote.

It wasn’t only here he was out of touch, either. He ducked any assurances on pausing petrol excise, as Howard did to relieve pain at the pump. He scoffed when he was asked, “Off the top of your head, can you tell me the price of a loaf of bread, a litre of petrol and a rapid antigen test?”

Morrison said he was “not going to pretend” he goes out each day and buys groceries. He said he did his job “every day to ensure that those things are as affordable as they possibly can be for Australians every single day”. Sure, the question was a hackneyed gotcha, but that’s all the more reason to come prepared for it.

Grahame Morris, a former chief of staff to John Howard, attempted to defend Morrison on Sky News, saying nobody expects prime ministers to do the shopping. But they do expect them to have more of a clue than this and his old boss knew it. Morris said it was routine procedure to brief the prime minister on a checklist of expenses such as this before major speeches.

Morrison says the election is not a referendum on his handling of the pandemic. Rather, it is a choice of who should lead the country – him or Anthony Albanese. Increasingly, the polls suggest which way that choice will go.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "Dead man talking".

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