Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
‘They are cacking themselves’

The equivalent of a political nuclear bomb hit South Australia last weekend and its shockwaves are reverberating through the nation. Blown to smithereens are the notions that the Covid-19 pandemic is a guarantee for the survival of incumbents or that opinion polls are not tracking the real mood of the nation.

All of this spells big trouble for Scott Morrison – and despite his dismissal of the SA election being fought principally on “state issues”, he knows that’s not completely true. One seasoned Liberal says, “Don’t you believe any of it; they are cacking themselves.”

The most obvious example is the health issue. It was dominant in the final weeks of the campaign and dovetails with what is playing out federally in the mishandling of the Omicron variant that destroyed the summer plans of millions of Australians. The surge in infections and deaths wiped out Premier Steven Marshall’s record of holding the virus at bay before rushing to reopen the border in November at Scott Morrison’s urging.

The premier was certainly a victim of his own misjudgement, if not wishful thinking. But Morrison’s failure at pandemic forward planning played a significant part. There was a reprehensible scarcity of rapid antigen tests and a curious lack of a strong national campaign urging Australians to get a vaccine booster shot.

The early reopening was a mistake Western Australia’s Mark McGowan did not make. Despite howls of protest in some quarters, McGowan bought time to better prepare his state for the outbreak of infections he knew would accompany the opening.

Labor research found voters in the southern state were tying the Marshall Liberal government to the prime minister’s, and were expressing their anger at the latter. Labor’s federal senate leader, Penny Wong, says she saw numbers that suggested one in two South Australians were less likely to vote for Marshall’s candidates once they were reminded they were of the same party as Morrison. Labor’s corflutes at the polling booths featured a picture of the premier with the prime minister, something they would not have done if they believed Morrison was a plus for the Liberals in the state.

Labor’s all-conquering leader, Peter Malinauskas, told RN Breakfast that while he personally hadn’t seen the analysis cited by Wong, he had no reason to discount it. He said, “Make no mistake, I don’t think Scott Morrison is popular in South Australia.” He spelled out why, claiming the prime minister “hasn’t delivered for the people of South Australia, plain and simple”. He cited Canberra taking away “our GST share”. He also said the state had “been dudded on the River Murray in respect of the water”. And he pressed the hot-button issue of employment, saying the state had been promised submarine jobs that were imminent but they are now subject to “an 18-month review without much certainty at all”.

That is a chilling analysis for a prime minister facing the federal election with a working majority of one. Morrison must hold every seat he has and then win some if he is to retain power. And thanks to an unkind redistribution in Victoria and Western Australia, he is notionally behind on two seats already.

Saturday’s results throw up real doubts about the federal Liberals being able to hold on to the perennially close seat of Boothby, with a margin just above 1 per cent, or even the seat of Sturt, with a margin just above 6 per cent. One South Australian political insider says the voters are waiting for Morrison “with a baseball bat”. This is the phrase then Queensland premier Wayne Goss used ahead of Paul Keating’s heavy loss to John Howard in 1996.

Morrison’s insensitivity to the situation in South Australia manifested itself in the last week of the campaign. Desperate to save four of his seats under real threat in Perth, he announced he would invest $4.3 billion to deliver Western Australia’s first large-vessel dry berth. He boasted it would create “a world-class precinct at the Henderson shipyard, supporting thousands of local jobs”. That went down like a lead balloon in the ship-building seats of Adelaide. The Labor campaign could hardly believe its ears, aware as it was of how the submarine project’s uncertainty was already playing.

There was no shock for the published opinion polls, either. Campbell White, the head of research at YouGov, which conducts Newspoll, proudly trumpeted its success in correctly picking the statewide swing. It was a trifecta of wins for the pollster after similar success in the Western Australian and Queensland elections. White is confident that his refreshed methodology, “based on science”, is telling people what is happening.

And that message is dire for the federal Coalition. A longitudinal study at the Australian National University has the government’s primary vote slumping to 32.2 per cent, almost three points lower than Newspoll’s seemingly baked-on 35 per cent. It is perilously close to the South Australian result.

The federal Labor campaign is certainly encouraged but a key strategist tells me that at this point it is not being taken as any guarantee of a win. He says Bill Shorten was similarly placed ahead before the last election. The caution is wise, but this time Scott Morrison knows his opportunity is much more limited – despite his bravado.

Morrison’s turn-off factor is not restricted to South Australia. Early in the week it was reported that New South Wales Liberals, particularly in the city seats under threat from teal independents, want him to stay away from their campaigns. The Daily Telegraph quoted some party members saying the PM “was toxic to the government’s chances”.

It goes a way towards explaining why he has seized on the untimely death of Labor senator Kimberley Kitching like a drowning man. His language is strident, his politics grubby. It boils down to him accusing Labor of being as bad as him and the Liberals on the treatment of women colleagues.

His calling for an inquiry from a “gutless” Anthony Albanese is as pathetic as it is transparently hypocritical. Far from disappearing, Albanese did 10 media interviews in the week after the senator’s sudden death. Well may we ask, whatever happened to Morrison’s promised inquiry into the allegations made by then Liberal MP Julia Banks and others who said they were bullied in the number-mustering of the 2018 leadership coup?

Or what about the inquiry led by his departmental head into which of his personal office staff knew what and when about Brittany Higgins’ allegation she was raped in a minister’s office a few metres from the PM’s own?

In calling for an investigation he is merely exposing his own stunt inquiries as the time-buying diversions that they were. Albanese will not have a bar of it. Nor should he. The grieving “family and friends” have not come up with any public evidence of “cruel bullying” and it emerged midweek that a document prepared by Kitching to make this claim was not presented to deputy Labor leader Richard Marles as reported.

It was released after her death in a factional play that ignored the fact that, on the day she died, Labor Right faction powerbroker Senator Don Farrell, a close friend, was due to assure the senator her preselection was not in doubt. It is obvious the purpose of the document was as a weapon to be wielded in the event of her losing. Kitching, as all attest, was a fierce factional fighter and had been for years.

In a moving eulogy at Kitching’s funeral on Monday, former leader Bill Shorten, whose own factional base is fracturing, made a plea for unity in the name of winning the election. He said his long-time friend would want the party “focused on the task ahead, which is to campaign together in unity for a change of government”.

Albanese, in a gesture to the grieving family and friends and in a bid to restore the unity Shorten said Kitching would want, announced a human rights award in her honour. No surprise that the Murdoch tabloids, which were given this “scoop”, derided it as an admission of guilt.

According to the parliamentary library there have been 253 newspaper stories mentioning the senator since her death. The Australian tops the score, with 38 articles; then The Daily Telegraph with 28; in third place, the Herald Sun with 22. Elsewhere it was lucky to get a mention on the letters page.

Morrison and his supporters in the media scoffed at Albanese, Penny Wong and other senior Labor people for not wanting to disrespect Kimberley Kitching’s memory in the shadow of her funeral. This gaucheness unmasks their agenda. They were inviting Wong and others to attack the senator as a way of defending themselves, though Kitching herself could no longer answer with her side of the story.

In a grilling from Nine’s Chris Uhlmann, Wong admitted to an insensitive remark directed at Kitching in a heated discussion but said she made a later apology.

In the end this is all about the less edifying entrails of internal party politics, indulged in by both sides, and irrelevant to the broader imperative of governments and those vying to govern. Certainly, it has nothing to do with Australia’s interests, national prosperity or security.

This is where credibility is crucial and it has been in short supply over the past three years, according to a Roy Morgan survey in The New Daily. Nevertheless, that poll found Labor’s Penny Wong to be the most trusted politician in Australia. Scott Morrison was the least trusted.

He’s not exactly in a strong position to launch an attack on his opponent’s senate leader, nor to convince voters in next week’s budget that they can put much faith in what is unveiled.

The chill southerly is certainly blowing. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "‘They are cacking themselves’".

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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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