Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Scott no friends

Scott Morrison’s isolation this week with Covid-19 is a pertinent metaphor for the political malaise besetting him. Always a loner, he is again friendless. This is a severe impediment for any chance he has of saving his government. If the opinion polls are any guide, it is a task increasingly beyond reach.

A case in point is the catastrophic weather event that devastated huge areas of the Australian east coast in recent days. Morrison, having learnt from his “I don’t hold a hose” absence during the Black Summer bushfires, made sure he was in Brisbane as the disaster unfolded.

The Queensland government provided extensive briefings on the impact of the impossible-to-forecast “rain bomb” that dumped 80 per cent of Brisbane’s annual rainfall on the city in less than three days. But Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk ensured she was not a campaigning prop for Morrison – a man for whom she has little or no respect. After all, almost two years ago she accused him of trying to bully her over border restrictions in an abusive phone call. She told state parliament she would “not be bullied nor will I be intimidated by the prime minister of this country”. Her senior advisers are convinced the prime minister’s office is behind the local Murdoch-owned Courier-Mail’s latest attacks on her.

So on Monday morning Palaszczuk held an early news conference flanked by her police and emergency officials. She spelled out how the Bureau of Meteorology had had to revise three times on Sunday the severity of the weather event swamping the state. She also drew attention to the state government’s assistance payments.

Two hours later, Morrison held a news conference flanked only by the Liberal Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Adrian Schrinner. What he had to announce left the Queensland government underwhelmed. In sombre, almost contrite tones the prime minister reannounced the federal disaster relief measures that have been left unchanged since John Howard tweaked them in 2006 and which have been applied by every prime minister since.

As one key adviser put it: “Nothing special for Queensland, yet $70 million for lethal aid to Ukraine.” The scepticism on how effectively that aid can be delivered to the besieged Ukrainians only added to the anger. The bill to repair south-east Queensland’s flood damage will be in the billions, not to mention the ravaged towns and cities in New South Wales.

Morrison and his treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, have squirrelled away a record $16 billion for an avalanche of announcements in the run-up to the election. There is more than enough there to make a dent in the flood damages bill, but they didn’t offer it. Palaszczuk won’t be the only premier pointing out her citizens are also Morrison’s voters.

Giving the Queensland premier considerable leverage is the dramatic improvement of Labor’s federal support in her state, according to analysis of the published polls by analyst William Bowe. There is at this stage a massive 11.1 per cent swing to Labor, enough for it to win at least 10 seats. Even if this doesn’t hold until the May election, the evidence points to a strong anti-government mood. It’s not helped by Morrison being much more unpopular than Labor’s Anthony Albanese, according to a YouGov poll in the Murdoch Queensland papers.

Increasingly, it seems, no matter how much money is spent, it won’t buy the votes needed to preserve Morrison in power. The release of Newspoll on Monday was another shocker for the government. The latest average of all the polls, including Roy Morgan on Tuesday, has Labor’s two-party-preferred lead just under 10 per cent.

Polling analyst Kevin Bonham’s view last week has been reinforced with this week’s polling data. His analysis of the historical data has led him to conclude the Morrison government is now “outside the historic recovery window”.

In the past three Newspolls, Labor’s primary vote of 41 per cent is its highest primary vote since the Malcolm Turnbull dumping turmoil smashed the Liberals’ support in August 2018. Labor’s run of primary votes at this level matches Kevin Rudd’s performance when he was a popular prime minister in 2009.

But there is one number in the poll that has Albanese’s camp particularly excited. While Morrison is deep in negative approval territory for his performance, with 55 per cent dissatisfied and 43 per cent satisfied, only 2 per cent are uncommitted. This gives the embattled prime minister very little scope to lift his support. Voters have made up their minds. Albanese, on the other hand, has a 13 per cent uncommitted result and the trend is narrowing with more coming his way.

Pollster Gary Morgan thinks the deteriorating situation in Ukraine may swing voters back to the incumbent government and will check his theory with another survey next week. But it is not as if there has been no acute focus on national security over the past month. The Ukraine invasion was already under way in that period and Morrison has been talking of little else, linking it with China. He has been accusing Labor of weakness, historic incompetence and worse. None of it has impacted Labor’s lead.

Focus group research of swinging voters conducted last weekend by Labor in three Western Australian seats that it is targeting – Hasluck, Pearce and Swan – found almost universal condemnation of Morrison. They didn’t believe Albanese was weak on China. They accused Morrison of running a “desperate scare campaign”. One woman even likened the prime minister’s behaviour to “a toddler having a tantrum”.

Even if national security was playing more positively for Morrison, it is not setting the national agenda as he might hope. It is vying with the massive domestic story of another summer of extreme weather. In neither story is Morrison dominating the headlines, no doubt because in neither is his response attention-grabbing. He is sidelined by his ineffectualness. No troops to the Ukraine and nothing really meaningful on climate change.

Morrison’s horror summer, beginning with the Omicron wave that destroyed his sunny rhetoric, has worsened with unprecedented floods. Meteorologists are being forced to rethink describing these events as one in 100 years or one in 1000 years. They are now occurring too frequently for this mathematical probability metaphor to be meaningful.

This has led to a dramatic escalation of concerns over climate change. The release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report this week reinforced the link between these extreme weather events and global warming.

It is increasingly clear that Morrison’s adoption of net-zero emissions by 2050 fails to address the rapidly emerging crisis. In reluctantly agreeing to this goal, the Nationals still held him to Tony Abbott’s pathetically weak targets of 26-28 per cent reduction by 2030. The IPCC says there is still time to avoid the worst-case scenarios of Earth being on track for a temperature rise of 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, but only if Australia and the rest of the world gets more serious in cutting emissions now.

The contrast with John Howard’s political response in the run-up to the 2007 election is stark. Howard and his environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull, read the mood of the electorate and produced “a world-leading emissions reduction scheme”. Howard even boasted he was not waiting for the rest of the world. One Liberal points out the difference between the two men and their responses: “Morrison doesn’t have Howard’s authority over his government to do the same.”

Ample demonstration of this diminished authority is there in the resistance in his own NSW division of the Liberal Party, where a fight is on against his manipulation of preselection rules to save his most loyal lieutenant, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, from challenge. Morrison and Hawke’s ploy to derail plebiscites has caused white-hot anger in the party, with must-win or must-hold electorates left without endorsed candidates. Two weeks ago, according to reports, he bellowed he was “the prime minister” as he tried in vain to force his will on the state executive.

The protracted power struggle looks like coming to a head this weekend, but the damage to the party is already done. There are real fears the party will struggle to get enough booth workers on election day, having so alienated its grassroots members.

There will be an acid, real time test of how the Liberal brand is playing at the South Australian state election in a couple of weeks’ time. Something very strange is happening there. Morrison has inserted himself into the state poll with several visits. No one can work out why. The state division certainly doesn’t think the prime minister is a drawcard, according to a key player.

Television cameras caught Morrison rudely ignoring Premier Steven Marshall as they campaigned together. Ten’s The Project cut together a collage of images that state Labor gratefully uploaded onto social media. Newspoll is suggesting a landslide win for Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas. He is in a stronger position than Queensland’s Wayne Goss was ahead of ending 32 years of Coalition government in that state.

If Marshall does lose, as predicted, he’ll have a strong case to share the blame with the friendless Morrison.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "Scott no friends".

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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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