Comment

Paul Bongiorno
The cabinet minister organising against Morrison

There is growing anxiety in the parliamentary Liberal Party. They are worried they are doomed to oblivion with Scott Morrison and are beginning to look for a way out.

A senior member of the government – a minister in Morrison’s cabinet – has begun contacting “like-minded” colleagues by email to arrange meetings where they can discuss the crisis. One recipient says, “The last time this happened, the leader was toppled.”

This makes the next time the party room gets together – at the end of the month for the budget – a potential killing field for the prime minister. “Anything could happen,” one MP said. “Stay tuned.”

Not even Morrison’s new rules requiring a two-thirds majority of the party room to dump a sitting prime minister would save him. “When you’re gone, you’re gone,” was the rejoinder. And that makes sense: if more than half of the party room has lost confidence in its leader, he is left without a shred of credible authority.

The anxiety is not only about the string of disastrous polls in recent months but the prime minister’s inability to get the clear air he needs to stage a political comeback. It is true that when things are running against a political leader, everything can be seen in a negative light. But Morrison is further hamstrung by the fact the dominant political narrative of the Coalition in government – namely, holding back action on climate change under the premise it would harm the economy – is now on the wrong side of the argument. Even when the prime minister tries to drag debate to his preferred turf of national security or the economy, inconvenient facts get in the way.

The Coalition started out nine years ago deriding the science as “crap”. The party brought down a leader in Malcolm Turnbull who took the challenge seriously, and it has continued to champion fossil fuels while at the same time pretending it is at last doing something meaningful.

These claims are undermined by the coal champions in the Nationals such as Matt Canavan or Resources Minister Keith Pitt – both calling for not only new coalmines but also more natural gas extraction. Their views give expression to an ingrained attitude many in the government harbour. One was quick to observe privately that “no one in Ukraine is worried about climate change at the moment”. That might be true, but the problem for Morrison is the millions of distressed, anxious and dislocated Australian voters who are deeply worried about it. They are also angry at the government’s failure to be more urgent about mitigation, rescue and relief planning.

The prime minister got some clarity on Monday morning. To kick off the week, the government was shopping around a story designed to generate national security headlines. There was the promise of a $10 billion east-coast nuclear submarine base some time in the next 20 years.

Appearing on Radio 2GB, Morrison would have expected to start off with questions about this important development. Instead, the interview was all about the event that really mattered to people: the unprecedented floods in eastern Australia. The first question was pointedly hostile, relating to the 14-metre flood that destroyed Lismore and devastated other northern New South Wales communities. “It’s 2022,” presenter Ben Fordham began. “We’re not a Third World country. How do we have communities cut off and stranded?” The interview quickly moved to the tardy deployment of the military to supplement an inadequate State Emergency Services response.

Zali Steggall, the independent who in 2019 dislodged the Coalition’s biggest climate vandal, Tony Abbott, told Radio National the disaster was not only unprecedented but the science has been warning that extreme weather events would become more frequent if billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases continue to be pumped into the atmosphere. Steggall said the reality of these dire warnings was being realised. She echoed the opinion of United Nations experts: we still have a chance to prevent it getting worse, but only if we act now rather than waiting until 2050.

Steggall’s argument will undoubtedly carry a lot of weight in the hitherto safe Liberal electorates where high-profile teal independents are running on the need for greater climate change action. Sydney’s record rainfall since January, of 820 millimetres, eclipses the previous yearly rainfall record of 782 millimetres set in 1956. It swamps any gainsaying from the sceptics and makes it harder for government MPs to defend its record.

Making it even harder is the government’s performance since the Black Summer bushfire catastrophe. In late 2019 it set up a $4 billion Emergency Response Fund with the promise to spend $200 million a year from the interest earned on mitigation and relief measures. Despite earning almost $1 billion in interest, nothing has been spent. Could it be, true to form, that the government, because it has never heeded the science, simply didn’t believe extreme events would recur so quickly?

Nor has it heeded the analysis of British economist Sir Nicholas Stern, who warned 16 years ago in his report to the government of Gordon Brown that the cost of inaction on emission abatement would be much greater than action. The billions of dollars in reconstruction after this summer’s climate change-enhanced havoc is brutal vindication of his conclusions.

At a business speech on Tuesday Morrison was defiant in seeking to paint Labor as high-taxing. He vowed he had “no interest in putting up the GST or putting on a carbon tax”. It’s a hollow promise. A disrespected Mother Nature has in a real sense imposed more than the cost of such a tax on the economy.

Economist Richard Denniss points out the absurdity of the government saying it needs to “save up” to fund emergency relief while it happily borrows millions for pork-barrelling and rorts in marginal electorates. Denniss says the need for this fund is “not based on any sound principle of economics, finance or even politics”, but Morrison’s requirement for “a regular flow of ‘announceables’ ”.

Unmasking the cynicism of this is the fact the fund was set up using borrowed money in the first place. Gross government debt hit $866 billion last week and has been building even before the pandemic struck.

There’s no doubt that had the $4 billion been deployed already, as Labor’s Murray Watt says, it might have made a huge difference not only to Lismore but also to other badly destroyed regions and cities. Midweek, Watt called on Morrison to declare a national emergency and with it to use the powers parliament gave him after the 2019-20 bushfires to expedite the recovery.

The prime minister finally rose to the challenge, announcing such an emergency on his first foray to Lismore after a week-long Covid-19 isolation. He was greeted by protesters carrying signs with the message: “The water is rising, no more compromising”. They chanted, “We need help, we need help.”

For the Liberals worried about their fate under Morrison, the performance of the ambitious Peter Dutton this week can’t have inspired confidence. His comeback to the anger of people in flood-ravaged NSW was every bit as tin-eared as his prime minister’s was to the earlier bushfire catastrophe. Dutton brushed aside people who felt completely abandoned by the government during the height of the inundation and as they began the job of cleaning up.

Like Morrison, Dutton was put on the defensive in media interviews over the late and inadequate mobilisation of the Australian Defence Force. David Koch, on Channel Seven’s high-rating Sunrise program, was blunt: “God help us. If we were going to war, we wouldn’t stand a chance if it took this long to get organised.”

Dutton said “we have to look at the positives”. He cited the 113 people who were rescued by the military. He said he “wasn’t going to cop criticism of the ADF”. The criticism, of course, was not of the soldiers but of him for failing to show executive initiative more quickly. There would have been a higher death toll had locals not ignored official advice and used their tinnies to save people stranded in their ceilings and on top of their roofs – something NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet ruefully concedes.

The government’s climate and flood response makes a mockery of Morrison’s claim at The Australian Financial Review business summit that in such an uncertain world his government is “best placed to navigate Australia’s way through these incredibly difficult and uncertain times”. He said, “It’s no place for amateurs.”

Anthony Albanese is far from cowed. He is convinced the government’s rhetoric also does not stand up to close scrutiny in its so-called comfort zones of the economy and national security.

At the same business summit he accused the Morrison government of disengagement from its responsibilities. It had given up on the never-ending race for improvement. “The team leader has left the track,” Albanese said. “He is over in the grandstand looking for photo opportunities.” Labor, on the other hand, sees an active role for government and is promising to work with business using the Hawke Labor government model.

A senior Liberal backbencher from Morrison’s home state says the prime minister’s attacks on Albanese, citing the Labor leader as a scary alternative, are not working. They see Dutton as a better option to lead the Coalition into the election: “Dutts would save the furniture.” Others, particularly from Victoria, disagree. They may face a Hobson’s choice in three weeks’ time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "The plot against Scott".

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