Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Emperor Morrison has no clothes

Uncertain times are usually thought to favour incumbent governments, but that presumes these governments have retained more than a modicum of confidence among a majority of voters. Evidence is mounting that the Morrison–Joyce Coalition has failed to deliver enough to merit its survival.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory and, closer to home, the collapse in relations with China have thrown the spotlight on the breathtaking incompetence in defence preparedness and management. The scale and cost of the failures have been masked to a great extent by the pandemic. Billions of dollars have been wasted on bungled procurement. At stake in this shambles is the very national security reputation our almost decade-old Coalition government trumpets as its default strength.

South Australian independent Senator Rex Patrick – a former submariner – is scornful of what he says is the $170 billion nuclear subs program announced at the same time as the AUKUS arrangement with Washington and London. He says, “If we are not going to get the submarines before 2040, we need them to come equipped with a time machine.”

Patrick says last weekend’s government-inspired headlines catastrophising an alleged Chinese warship laser attack on a RAAF surveillance plane demonstrated how vulnerable our poor defence planning has left us. The Chinese are projecting into our waters and we don’t have the missiles, the fighter jets or warships to defend ourselves.

At senate estimates last Friday, officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the situation between China and Taiwan was “very serious”. Deputy secretary Justin Hayhurst said the public positioning of the Chinese government is “hardening” and in ways “that suggest that dialogue has limited prospects for success”.

Senator Patrick says this leaves him very concerned about the cancelling of the MRH-90 helicopters program and the cancelling of the French Attack-class submarines – at an undisclosed cost. The newly revealed problems with the future frigates plan are also a grave concern. He says it is “all on this government’s watch” and leaves our servicemen and women “without the right tools” should they be sent into harm’s way.

Labor’s shadow Defence minister Brendan O’Connor is just as scathing. He says the yawning gap between the extreme rhetoric of the Morrison government and its ability to deliver defence assets is frightening. Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton counter that, unlike Labor, who cut Defence spending to pre-World War II levels, they have increased the military budget to 2 per cent of gross domestic product.

Anthony Albanese is committed to matching this commitment and increasing it if necessary, but O’Connor makes a perfectly reasonable point about the government’s spending when he asks: “How can we take this government seriously when it has wasted literally billions of dollars on failed or terminated Defence contracts?”

Morrison spent most of the past two sitting weeks of the parliament throwing hand grenades at Labor for being “weak” on China and proclaiming he is no “appeaser” of the Asian giant that also happens to be central to our economic prosperity. Treasurers in successive governments, going all the way back to Peter Costello two decades ago, have recognised this and welcomed the Sino-propelled mining boom.

This continuing economic enmeshment with China is reason enough to expect more from our government than belligerent language and fist-waving in confronting the new reality of a more assertive Beijing. Labor’s Penny Wong says that rather than “talking up the drums of war, the adult and responsible thing to do” would be to make more of a diplomatic effort in seeking a peaceful resolution across the Taiwan Strait.

The latest Guardian Essential poll suggests Australians are not as gullible as the prime minister clearly thinks they are. Labor has a nine-point lead over the Liberals as the party better placed to build a relationship with China in Australia’s interests. Morrison’s attempts to replicate the come-from-behind victory of John Howard’s successful “khaki” election in 2001 is failing miserably. It is as if he has pulled the pin on the hand grenade and forgotten to throw it.

Essential’s pollster, Peter Lewis, says his survey found a majority of voters see China as “a complex issue to be managed rather than a threat to be confronted”.

Morrison’s language midweek condemning Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime  for being “thugs and bullies” was in the context of his vow to stand up to all autocratic governments that threaten democracies. He wisely did not mention China by name. He didn’t have to. That could well change, of course, if China follows Putin’s example and invades Taiwan. In the meantime, as Lewis observes, “the clear majority of Australians support a position which is the polar opposite to the government’s current tub-thumping”.

Three new opinion polls published this week suggest the government is in a downward spiral. The average of the latest published polls has the gap between Labor and the Coalition at nine points. At the same time in 2019 the gap was half that, on four points. The situation recalls Peter Costello’s observation after the Howard government’s loss in 2007. He said no matter what Howard and the government announced or threw at Labor, it just didn’t work.

Whatever else might be said about scare campaigns, the politicians running them need some credibility to cut through. On the personal front, Morrison is in freefall in the Essential and Resolve surveys. Lewis says the figures are of a leader who “has burnt most – if not all – of his political capital, who the public sees as untrustworthy, out of touch and lacking vision”.

Unlike during the 2019 campaign, Morrison is far from disciplined or focused as he throws bombs at Labor willy-nilly in the desperate hope some of them hit their target.

One might well but the advice Labor is getting from its own pollster is to dismiss Morrison’s overblown attacks as another desperate distraction from his own failings. Penny Wong did just that in her RN Breakfast interview. Within Labor, though, there is discussion about whether to ignore them completely rather than to give them oxygen. Brendan O’Connor wisely entered the Defence debate with plenty of evidence to show emperor Morrison had no clothes.

On the prime minister’s own backbench there is a view that Morrison knows his days are numbered. All eyes will be glued to Monday’s Newspoll. It is the one survey of which Liberals and Nationals take most notice. But even if it is as dire as the previous two, it is far from certain the will or the numbers are there to replace him.

And on who would do better Essential is no help. It found Morrison was still the preferred Liberal leader to either Josh Frydenberg or Dutton. This result was at odds with the Roy Morgan poll last week, which put the treasurer’s name up in lights.

Resolve pollster Jim Reed told The Sydney Morning Herald the Coalition is bouncing along at its base level of support. He said “in 2019 the Coalition plotted out a successful pathway to victory, a strategic opportunity they likened to a goat track. That track is equally narrow this time but it’s longer and more precarious.”

Adding to the degree of difficulty is real doubt that Clive Palmer will be as helpful to the Liberals as he was last time. A survey of his United Australia Party candidates in The New Daily shows a heavy reliance on anti-vaxxer activists. Many participated in the march on Canberra that disrupted the first sitting week of parliament. Their principal target was Scott Morrison. After all, it was Morrison’s government that kicked their poster boy, Novak Djokovic, out of the country.

The unvaccinated Palmer cancelled a scheduled National Press Club address midweek. He says this was on doctor’s orders because he had “Covid-like symptoms”. Palmer was hospitalised on Thursday for tests. The mining magnate certainly avoided some tough questioning on the vexed issue of where his preferences will go. There is a distinct possibility he would face a revolt if he again favoured Morrison.

The prime minister is as wedged on vaccine mandates as Bill Shorten was on climate action in 2019. Like Shorten, he has different messages for different audiences. To curry favour with the anti-vaxxers he falsely claimed it was the states and not him who imposed the mandates.

In the end, Palmer may decide not to direct preferences or not to have his paid booth workers hand out how-to-vote cards. This would certainly make the goat track a dead end for Morrison and add another layer of meaning to uncertain times.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "Emperor Morrison has no clothes".

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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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