Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
At home with the Morrisons

The raucous, shambolic penultimate sitting of federal parliament this year is all the evidence you need to know Scott Morrison is running very scared.

Governments can find parliament a political killing field and never relish the scrutiny its opponents may apply. This aversion becomes all the more acute with the clock ticking down to a general election. It explains why the prime minister has organised such a thin sitting schedule. There are only two sitting days at the end of March before the place is shuttered completely before a likely May poll.

After this week, the Liberals and Nationals are limping home to their electorates with the pleadings of Morrison to unite or perish still ringing in their ears. His assurances to a despondent party room left many of his MPs and senators unconvinced and far from reassured he knew how to pull off another come-from-behind victory.

His anger over last week’s revolt on the floor of parliament was palpable, according to one of his members in the room. His admonition was blunt: “We have a job to do. I’m going to do mine; I need you to do yours.” Aware that the election can be won or lost in seat-by-seat battles that can defy the overall national swing, he said: “I need you to focus on your seats and what’s happening in your seats.” He urged “discipline and focus” and said they haven’t seen just how focused he can be.

Morrison’s bag of tricks contains not much that is innovative or surprising. He is not the first prime minister in trouble to enlist his wife to assist in a makeover of his image. It is a stark admission that he has a real problem with women and needs all the help he can get to address it. His negatives are well entrenched, from missteps and miscalculations made worse by, to quote Barnaby Joyce, “how he earnestly rearranges the truth to a lie”.

Unlike in the run-up to the 2019 election, Morrison is saddled with the perception he is an incompetent bully who has lost the confidence of some of his senior colleagues in cabinet and many of his MPs, who fear losing their seats. Damaging leaks from within the government are a symptom of terminal decline.

The government’s mood was certainly not helped by the latest Newspoll, released online at the same time as 60 Minutes was airing its “Meet the Morrisons” special – a soft focus interview with the loving couple and their two children. Polling analyst Kevin Bonham says the significance of the poll, with its 10-point lead to Labor two-party preferred, was that it confirmed the previous fortnight’s 12-point lead was not an outlier.

Bonham has tracked the survival of other governments that have gone on to win despite having two consecutive polls where the gap was this big or worse. The shortest route to recovery was John Howard in 2004. He was in the same predicament seven months out from the election. In 2019 Morrison was lagging this badly too, but it was eight months out from facing the people. This time, the prime minister has only three months to turn things around. He’s in a much weaker position.

All of this of course presumes Newspoll is accurately tracking what is happening in the electorate. One key Labor strategist tempers his optimism with the thought that maybe Jenny Morrison was right in the couple’s TV interview when she said she thought most Australians just quietly go about their business without taking much notice of what is going on in Canberra. The strategist’s caution is understandable, except Morrison himself clearly doesn’t think the opinion poll is that far off the mark. There are reports that the Liberals’ own research is as dire.

This goes a long way to explaining how shrill Morrison has become in attacking Anthony Albanese and Labor on the old conservative standbys of law and order and national security. On Radio 2SM he accused the Labor leader of being a weak appeaser of China and a protector of criminals who should be deported.

At this point, he and Defence Minister Peter Dutton are simply making it up with regards to China. Albanese has an identical policy, which he spelled out at the National Press Club last month. Not only is the charge a lie, the way Morrison is prosecuting it is also drawing an angry reaction from the Chinese–Australian community. This was nowhere clearer than in the Strathfield state byelection in Sydney last weekend. There, the parts of the electorate with a large Chinese community voted heavily against the Liberal candidate.

On the usually happier hunting ground of law and order the prime minister told his party room he would be setting up another test for Labor this week. Last week’s failed wedge on religious freedom apparently didn’t deter him. Morrison said he was hoping for a “sharp contrast” with Labor persisting to vote against a bill that would “close a loophole” allowing judges to prevent criminals being deported.

Morrison has played ham-fisted politics with this issue for two years. He pulled the rug on Immigration Minister Alex Hawke last year when he was entering negotiations with Labor’s Kristina Keneally. She says Morrison was “looking for a fight not a fix”.

Labor was concerned the bill as proposed would inflame relations with New Zealand, among other things. Keneally points to the minister already having almost unfettered power to deport people, as the Novak Djokovic saga demonstrated.

This was one haymaker from a punch-drunk prime minister that Labor found very easy to duck. Midweek it resolved to vote for the bill in the house. Both sides knew it was always a try-on because the senate has run out of time to deal with it before the election.

Morrison’s other attempt at a reset had mixed results at best. His office approached Channel Nine late last year to set up what it hoped would be a springboard to recovery. In the resulting package, reporter Karl Stefanovic obliged and called Mrs Morrison the PM’s “secret weapon”. Morrison certainly hopes so and told his party room that although his wife isn’t all that comfortable in the role, she will be campaigning with him in the weeks ahead.

It’s debatable if Morrison’s “lovely wife”, as veteran broadcaster John Laws calls her, can persuade the two-thirds of Australians who have lost confidence in the government to regain it. The Australian National University’s survey, released this week, found the lowest approval since the 2019-20 summer bushfire catastrophe.

Viewers were reminded of that disaster in the TV interview. And it only served to reinforce the prime minister’s negatives. There was something jarring in seeing Morrison, already under fire for always laying blame elsewhere, sit back and allow his wife to cop it. She said she thought the secret Hawaiian holiday during the bushfire crisis was her “making the right decision for my kids. I obviously was wrong.” But she can hardly be responsible for the prime minister’s office lying to the press gallery on the family’s whereabouts. Nor is she to blame for him forcing handshakes on angry fire victims in Cobargo or for shirking responsibility for his absence because “I don’t hold a hose, mate”.

One viewer was very happy with Jenny Morrison’s criticism of Grace Tame for the frosty reception she gave the prime minister at The Lodge last month. Barnaby Joyce said Jenny was saying what we cannot. It’s a pity he hasn’t more sympathy for the sexual abuse survivor who explained her reaction in terms of refusing to give “submissive smiles” to a leader she believes is failing to deliver on these issues.

In the end, the Morrisons didn’t prove to be the drawcard Channel Nine might have hoped. The audience was down 200,000 on the previous week’s program, featuring the Cleo Smith abduction story. Of the almost one million people who were watching Married At First Sight beforehand, 387,000 turned off when 60 Minutes started. The ABC won the time slot with the British crime series Vera.

The swings against the New South Wales Coalition government in the “super Saturday” of byelections last weekend suggest that, like Channel Nine’s viewers, voters are turning off incumbent Liberal governments.

Of particular concern would be the almost 20 per cent swing against the Liberals in former premier Gladys Berejiklian’s old seat of Willoughby, putting it in doubt pending outstanding postal votes.

State Treasurer Matt Kean says the result has “huge ramifications” for the Liberals at the federal level, particularly from independents running in blue-ribbon seats. Kean says these communities care about issues such as climate change, marriage equality and discrimination against children on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.

He also says voters care about management of the pandemic and how people are kept safe. Kean says the state government has 12 months to address these concerns. Scott Morrison does not have that luxury.

But Morrison assured Karl Stefanovic he had “worn out the carpet on the side of my bed … on my knees, praying and praying” for Australians during the pandemic.

No doubt he is also slipping in a few prayers for himself. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "At home with the Morrisons".

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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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