Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Stewing in their own juices

During Josh Frydenberg’s budget speech, something happened that caught the eye of the government benches. For a few of them it summed up the dire predicament the Coalition is in just days from an election being called.

As the treasurer taunted Labor for opposing the end of economy-wide emergency support and accused them of not knowing how to stop spending once they started, he drew heckles and guffaws. Tony Burke, the manager of opposition business, immediately signalled for his members to desist. They got the message and endured the rest of the speech like good boys and girls. The observation from one of the government members: “They want us to stew in our own juice.”

Anthony Albanese wants to keep the focus on the Coalition and not fall into the trap of his predecessor Bill Shorten. It has to be said that so far and so close to the election he has been succeeding. In fact, the Coalition is in such a spiral of self-destruction that earlier this year Labor pulled back on its social media spend. The explanation was simple: “The government is doing all the work for us.”

Helping Labor MPs this week was the dawning realisation that Frydenberg was not producing the “gee-whiz” budget that would knock the socks off the electorate with its boldness and vision for the future. “This won’t win the election for them,” was a widely shared assessment.

The temporary relief for cost-of-living pressures looked and smelled like a vote-buying bribe. Anthony Albanese told Studio 10 that the one-off payments, the ending of the low- and middle-income tax offset after a one-off boost in July, and the six-month petrol tax cuts, had “all the sincerity of a fake tan” and would last just as long. In a line he used in his avalanche of post-budget interviews, he said the Liberals “may as well be handing out cash stapled on how-to-vote cards”.

The prime minister’s own troops give him and the treasurer full marks for what they concede was their last best shot. At least it gives them all something positive to talk about. More problematic is whether it can generate the momentum they so desperately need.

Until the untimely death of Victorian Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, Labor had enjoyed unfettered momentum this year. Pushing a sub-factional power struggle agenda over preselections, her “family and friends” began feeding stories on bullying to the Murdoch papers. The Australian was happy to oblige, running at last count 59 stories in the 20 days since the senator’s death.

But it wasn’t long before the prime minister’s attempt to weaponise Labor’s internal ructions blew up in his face. Ironically, the Kitching condolences in the senate lit the fuse.

Long-time New South Wales right factional warrior Concetta Fierravanti-Wells pointed the finger at her own party. At the weekend, she was dropped to an unwinnable position on the senate ticket and she immediately announced she was retiring from parliament.

With Kitching’s husband, Andrew Landeryou, watching from the public gallery, she said that “mean girls” – the label Kitching was reported to have given to Labor’s senate leadership – are not confined to the Labor Party. The background to her remark can be found in an extensive email she wrote to hundreds of Liberal Party members, alleging gross manipulation of the preselection process that denied votes to many of her supporters and waived the rules to see Senator Jim Molan, who has been battling cancer, narrowly defeat her.

Looking towards Landeryou, Fierravanti-Wells said she knew how hard it had been for her own husband John, who has stood by her through “the slings and arrows of internecine factional and intrafactional skulduggery”. She said while she can walk away together with John, “you will be left to walk alone”.

However, Fierravanti-Wells, a minister in the Turnbull government, was not prepared to leave it there. In the case of her own party, she said, the “mean girls” were rather “ruthless boys” who included Morrison and his ally Alex Hawke. She told the senate “there is a very appropriate saying here: the fish stinks from the head”.

The attack came two hours after Josh Frydenberg unveiled the government’s do-or-die budget. Furious Liberals saw it as a premeditated act of sabotage because, although the Murdoch papers didn’t give the extraordinary speech the prominence they gave the Kitching story, next morning it was widely reported in radio and TV news bulletins. In a number of interviews, the prime minister and the treasurer had their budget sales pitch muddied with questions about it.

Hardly surprising. It was stunning that a prominent Liberal conservative, under the protection of parliamentary privilege, would document a series of events she said unmasked the prime minister as “an autocrat, a bully who has no moral conscience”. He was, she said, “a hypocrite” who uses “his so-called faith as a marketing advantage”.

She accused Hawke, Morrison’s factional consigliere and Immigration minister, of winding down the clock on preselections to deny grassroots party members their hard-won democratic rights.

The veteran Liberal senator said she had received “hundreds if not thousands of emails” from party members saying they have lost faith in the party. “They don’t like Morrison and they don’t trust him.”

Fierravanti-Wells saved her most damning comments until last, though, saying that in her public life she had met ruthless people but “Morrison tops the list. Followed closely by Hawke.” Her conclusion was that he is “not fit to be prime minister and Hawke certainly is not fit to be a minister”.

The attack revived memories of other criticisms of Morrison’s character from within the Coalition. They all got a run midweek: a “horrible” and untrustworthy person, a “fraud” and “complete psycho”, a “hypocrite and liar”. The prime minister’s response was either to doubt the accuracy of the reports or put them down to people who didn’t agree with him or were disappointed they lost out, like Fierravanti-Wells. He brushed it all aside because, he says, the Australian people know “I will always stand up for them”.

But that is precisely what is at issue. Morrison can no longer take it for granted that voters perceive he will always stand up for them and not just on the cusp of an election where he is behind by a country mile. That is the force of Albanese’s taunts about the transparent opportunism of one-off relief timed to coincide with the election campaign.

The Fierravanti-Wells diatribe feeds directly into charges Labor has been making of Morrison. All summed up in the phrase “Scotty from marketing” – all spin and no substance. The public polling suggests voters are forming a very negative view of him.

There were reports out of Sydney again this week that Liberals under pressure in their electorates don’t want the prime minister campaigning for them. That is a huge debasement of the prime minister’s currency as a miracle-working campaigner after the 2019 victory.

Labor certainly didn’t oppose the package of relief measures. They flew through the house on Wednesday, to be passed in an extended sitting of the senate. While early polling suggests overwhelming public support for the relief, according to Compass Polling, the overall reaction to the budget was “neutral”. This suggests it may not be the vote changer the government is banking on.

Morrison has reportedly told colleagues he would like to follow John Howard’s tactic against Mark Latham in 2014, with a six-week campaign “to wear Albanese down”. But Albanese is no Mark Latham; he is a wily and seasoned campaigner. Morrison’s remarks were dismissed by one senior Labor insider as similar to a punch-drunk fighter who is always a better performer out of the ring than in it: “He’s shitting himself.” A senior player did, however, caution that Labor knows “it’s not over yet”.

As far as Labor is concerned the campaign proper started with Albanese’s reply to the budget on Thursday night. He made the centrepiece a promise “to fix the crisis in aged care”. Essentially he is filling in the yawning gaps left by the government, despite the huge outlays it has put on the table. Labor’s five key points take up the main recommendations of the royal commission: Full-time registered nurses in every aged-care home, more carers, pay rises for workers, better and more nutritious food, and greater powers for scrutiny.

There was no dollar figure mentioned but, like every one of the government’s programs, the money is borrowed. Albanese didn’t rise to Morrison’s bait to spell out a detailed alternative budget. That’s what governments do after elections and should Labor win, that’s what will happen later in the year.

Even then, shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers is promising “renewal, not revolution”. There will be a rearrangement of priorities, but will borrow at least as much as the government. Indeed, there are hints Labor may end up with a bigger deficit with the claim it will better promote growth and fairness. How well it goes pursuing that argument will be decided by the people.

But there is no big target which allowed Morrison to run an effective – if deceptive – scare campaign last time.

This time the heat is under the government’s stew instead. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "Stewing in their own juices".

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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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