Opinion

John Hewson
Disunity is still death

The clear message of the 1990 election was that disunity is death in politics. Bob Hawke easily capitalised on this truism to win a fourth term in office. The Liberal Party, meanwhile, had been torn apart by the leadership contest between John Howard and Andrew Peacock and this rancour followed them all the way to their loss on polling day.

We arrive some 30 years later with no lessons learnt. The recent infighting over New South Wales preselections has been made more difficult by Scott Morrison’s manoeuvring for a federal takeover. This has been compounded by the recent accusations of his bullying and the mounting evidence of his ruthlessness in winning his original preselection for his seat of Cook, based on a racialised campaign against Michael Towke.

Morrison was shoehorned in as candidate for the seat, having lost the original preselection ballot to Towke, 82-8. Towke’s win was undermined by a dirt campaign, run largely through The Daily Telegraph, suggesting that the safe Liberal seat of Cook could not be represented by a Lebanese Muslim so soon after the Cronulla race riots.

It was generally understood in Liberal Party circles that Morrison had been involved in undermining Towke, who is a Christian anyway, but the publication in this newspaper of statutory declarations by people involved at the time has finally made this issue public. This has focused attention on the ruthlessness and bullying behaviour that has peppered Scott Morrison’s career.

Karen Middleton’s recent piece came on the heels of Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’s statements in the senate describing Morrison as an autocratic bully. It should not be overlooked just how difficult it would have been for Fierravanti-Wells to make this statement, knowing how the party would so disrespectfully dispense with and diminish it. Fierravanti-Wells’s remarks were quickly confirmed by other senators, with Jacqui Lambie and Pauline Hanson referring to their own personal experiences with Morrison.

The prime minister has been stung by these allegations of bullying and racism, the upset made obvious by John Howard entering the fray to defend Morrison and his offer to provide a stat dec of his own. In reality, though, the response only proves the Liberal Party of today has learnt nothing.

Morrison attempted to meddle in preselections before the last election, albeit unsuccessfully. For example, he had the preselections of sitting members confirmed, essentially to save Craig Kelly when the Hughes federal electorate conference wanted to dump him. Morrison used Kelly for a while as a climate denier, but their relationship soured as Kelly became increasingly infatuated with various conspiracy theories, and finally resigned from the party to become leader of Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party.

In the same election, Morrison burned Ann Sudmalis, the sitting member in Gilmore, who was most likely to retain her seat. He encouraged Warren Mundine, former national president of the Labor Party, to run instead. The result was that the Labor candidate prevailed, knocking over the Nationals’ Katrina Hodgkinson, who probably would have won had Morrison not split the vote.

Morrison’s arrogant approach to the Liberal Party and his willingness to ride roughshod over its constitutional processes show an alarming and total disregard for the rank-and-file members, especially in view of the efforts in recent years to ensure their involvement in preselections. For this to end up in our courts is concerning. It shows just how badly Morrison wants to be re-elected. He will say or do anything to win again.

Even more worrying, however, is his willingness to use the federal solicitor-general and his offices for advice on shifting the case to the High Court, yet another example of the government’s lack of integrity and willingness to squander public money in pursuit of political benefit.

The insult to those party members who have struggled and given their time in the interests of the party at various levels and at a multiplicity of events, and the long-term damage to the party, is not to be underestimated.

Indeed, this poses the question: Why would any self-respecting person choose to join the Liberal Party when they will have such little influence in either policy development or preselections? They are essentially being taken for granted, expected to help in fundraising and to attend events, maybe help with doorknocking and leaflet distribution, to man voting booths on polling day, but really to be no more than cannon fodder to further someone else’s career.

I fear the party is on the precipice of something truly ugly after these latest court challenges. Unfortunately, that’s the story that will be hidden by this federal election, which will now be used as a mechanism to sweep tensions under the carpet. Expect the ever compliant mainstream media to continue its whitewashing of these issues. The rank and file will be discouraged from rocking the boat, encouraged to stick with the team, with some sort of assurance that “we’ll fix it up next time”.

It should be clear that one of the main reasons for the attraction of community-based independents has been the loss of faith and belief in the two major parties, which are seen to have lost touch with their constituencies and those who they have been elected to represent. This shift to independents is most noticeable in some of the government’s traditionally “safe seats”. There are genuine contests under way in NSW seats such as North Sydney, Mackellar, Hume, Wentworth, even Bradfield, Cowper and Page. In Victoria, traditionally safe seats such as Kooyong, Goldstein, Nicholls and Higgins are at risk, the latter possibly to the Greens.

The government’s attempts to dismiss these independents as really another party, or by the colour of their corflute posters, misses the significance of their movement. Each candidate has been selected by some process run by their community, expecting more sympathetic reflections of their views on key issues. The fact that most of the independent candidates focus on issues such as integrity and accountability does not mean they are a party, rather that these issues are of widespread concern across the nation and are likely to dominate the campaign as an issue after cost of living.

It is important to recognise that the growing support for independents is from traditional Liberal–National voters who have lost faith in Morrison personally, and in his government. Much of the loss of confidence in Morrison is due to what appears to be an almost complete lack of integrity, in particular concerning allocation of public monies for his perceived political advantage. Most recently, NSW Liberal MP Catherine Cusack criticised the allocation of flood recovery money to National Party seats, such as Page, and not the nearby Labor seat of Richmond. Morrison said he’d allocated the money to areas that were “worst hit” … to the surprise of residents.

The government is basically trying to duck its responsibilities to constituents and its failure to have addressed the big issues including climate, aged care and Indigenous recognition. All three have been neglected over nearly a decade in government. The Australian public are not fools; they are simply gobsmacked by the enormous disparity in spending priorities.

While the importance of defence is understood, it is unfathomable to digest the almost rude idea that billions can be allocated there without a blink, while the need for fair and reasonable care for the aged is met with stuttering denials. This government’s budget is an attempt to deliver the largest pork barrel in our history. This won’t buy enough votes, though, as many start to understand the magnitude of the waste and the intergenerational theft under way by neglecting debt, climate and housing affordability, leaving these and other issues for our kids to solve.

The same-sex marriage vote revealed how the government has lost contact with its constituents, whose vote on the issue was taken for granted. For example, the Nationals were confident of a strong overall “No” vote, yet 15 of their 16 seats voted “Yes”, some quite strongly. One of the main reasons Tony Abbott lost Warringah, apart from inaction on climate change, was that his community voted strongly “Yes” and he failed to pass this vote on in the parliament.

Today it seems that those who seek to enter politics do so for career development and personal ends. This is in sharp contrast with the way it used to be, where people were idealistically motivated to make a contribution to the Australian community. This thrust to turn politics into a profession elevates loyalty to a faction over loyalty to the party as a whole and its members and constituents. The value of ideas, excellence and merit is all lost in this. The latest stories about Morrison’s ruthlessness only make it plain.

The electorate is questioning how and why a party could turn so violently on itself. The internal unrest, disappointments and almost total lack of faith in the rank and file for the leader is writ large. The electorate has woken up, and this election will show that Morrison’s “quiet Australians” are not stupid Australians.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Disunity is still death".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.

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