Last week, on budget day, lobbyists, business people, party loyalists and donors flew to Canberra from around the nation for the first presentation without Covid-19 restrictions at Parliament House in three years.
Government supporters and branch members came for reassurance. This, after all, was the brought-forward prelude to the main event that would save the day. In ministers’ offices and at the post-speech dinner hosted by Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, there was plenty of positivity.
The consistent message was this: Don’t worry too much about the numbers in the newspapers; the prime minister was very comfortable with his position based on the party’s internal polling. According to the spiel, the Liberal Party was doing better in the seats they must hold and were targeting to take from Labor. One Melbourne financier says he was told “the polling is something very different from the published polls” and the election is far from over.
One embattled government MP was not impressed. “They would say that,” he says. “They need to keep people motivated and donors stumping up.”
The election campaign is off to an early and intense start. There was no need to wait for the governor-general to dissolve the house – Morrison stopped governing months ago and has been swamping the media with taxpayer-funded “government” ads that are blatantly about returning the Liberals to power.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg admitted as much at the weekend, saying on the ABC’s Insiders that he was flying to Perth “to campaign”. The difference is that before the election is called the taxpayer funds this partisan travel. Anthony Albanese gets a plane only after the starter’s gun is fired. All parties then have to dip into their own funds to continue campaigning.
If the batch of public opinion polls this week is any guide, the extra campaigning has been of no real benefit to the Morrison government. It continues to trail badly. The average Labor lead, two-party preferred, of all four published polls is 9.4 per cent, and that’s despite the government spending $70 billion since the previous budget with few if any offsets or savings. The budget confirmed there are record deficits as far as the eye can see, undermining claims on the Liberals’ own previous metrics to better money management. Instead of a bounce from its cash splashes, all it got was a deflated thud.
Labor is convinced it is because the punters “have seen through Morrison”. He’s all announcement and not much delivery. “They know he’s a bullshitter,” according to a campaign insider. All this self-boosterism has a “Comical Ali” feel about it. Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf was Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s information minister. His briefings to the world’s media denying the regime was imperilled as American tanks and troops rolled into Baghdad made him an international laughing stock.
The budget itself is an admission the government knows the enemy is storming the citadel. If it were confident of its management of the economy, the pandemic, the bushfires, the floods and women’s issues, why would it have to spend $8.6 billion on one-off vote-buying measures? Especially as it cites numbers showing the economy is powering along?
Through all this, the prime minister looks and sounds as if he is under the pump – and that’s because he is. The Sydney Morning Herald front page on Tuesday carried the headline “Labor hits the front”. Tellingly, Morrison has lost his lead over Albanese as preferred prime minister and continues deep in negative territory on approval of performance. He has been on a steep downward slope during the past year, compared with the opposition leader’s steady rise. This has been tracked in all the published polls.
One reality the government’s research certainly identified was the pain voters were feeling from cost-of-living pressures. There’s no surprise the relief offered won overwhelming public support, but its temporary nature clearly failed to change voters’ minds about the government. It is difficult to see how Morrison can leverage off this budget the same turnaround in his fortunes as occurred in 2019.
There are significant differences. The first is that this time Morrison has lost the trust and respect of a huge swath of the population and he is not facing a less popular opponent than himself. Albanese is not Bill Shorten and he hasn’t put on the agenda a series of tax rearrangements worth $350 billion over a decade that can be deceptively portrayed as a plan to “tax you to death”.
Labor is bracing for the kitchen sink to be thrown at it and already is seeing a compliant media amplifying government attacks. Albanese’s promise to end the crisis in aged care is a prime example. There were bold claims his plan had unravelled because frontbencher Mark Dreyfus dared to admit it may take a while longer to get 24/7 registered nurses into every nursing home. In addition to this trite criticism is the perpetual one: “Where’s the money coming from?”
Never mind that this government has given Australia the biggest debt burden in the history of federation and continues to add to that sea of red. It comes down to priorities. If we are going to continue in deficit, surely we should be directing the borrowing to worthwhile things?
And it is clear that for this government the cost of giving older Australians dignity and respect, as recommended by Morrison’s own royal commission, is no longer up there with vote-buying, pork-barrelling and rorting.
The other huge obstacle Morrison has to face in the next six weeks is the strident criticism coming from within his own party and own side of politics. It is unprecedented in my experience so close to an election. It raises the question, Why such a pile on? The answer can come down only to the prime minister’s divisive character and failure of political management.
In a rare interview with Leigh Sales on 7.30, Morrison himself belled the cat. He said he was “very determined”, and as prime minister you make decisions that cause others to “lash out”. Nothing could be truer.
The latest internal critic was New South Wales upper house Liberal MP Catherine Cusack. The trigger for her disgust was the prime minister’s overt politicisation of flood relief in her state’s Northern Rivers district. Although she is from the left of the state division, she was in furious agreement with Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells from the hard right of the party. Morrison is not “fit to be prime minister”, she repeated in a series of interviews. And she went further than Fierravanti-Wells, saying she couldn’t vote for the party while he leads it.
The spectacular Fierravanti-Wells diatribe against Morrison in the senate last week was without a doubt triggered by the brutal factional power struggle in NSW, exacerbated by the way Morrison’s ally, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, ran down the clock on preselections to save his own bacon and that of the other Morrison ally, Environment Minister Sussan Ley. Both faced formidable grassroots challenges from the Fierravanti-Wells faction.
Morrison incredibly denied he was a factional player. But he certainly played a game of dangerous brinkmanship to call all the shots. The state premier, Dominic Perrottet, says the eleventh-hour resolution was a “debacle”. This fiasco could have been avoided if Morrison read more astutely what politically executing Fierravanti-Wells would lead to. He has made his internal critics more determined to stop him remaking the Liberal Party in his own image – even if it means contributing to a federal election loss.
In stamping his authority on the bitterly split NSW division, Morrison has thumbed his nose at the party’s membership. He insisted he was “standing up for women” by achieving 50-50 male–female representation in the final 12 imposed preselections. It sounds as if he actually sees real merit in Labor’s quota rule, but any claimed conversion is undercut by a leadership failure to have his party adopt it.
Former Liberal MP Julia Banks is not persuaded. She quit the party after Morrison became PM, describing her experience of him as “the most gut-wrenching distressing period of my entire career”. She sarcastically dismisses his latter-day feminism, saying: “ ‘Stood up for women in his team’ … he could just step down.”
It is too late for that to solve the diabolical fix the government is in with a leader many of his own troops either disown or are desperate to distance themselves from. Bridget Archer, who holds the ultra-marginal Tasmanian seat of Bass, is the latest to join the chorus.
She says people in her electorate aren’t voting for Scott Morrison but rather for her. “We don’t have a presidential system,” she told ABC Radio. That’s true, but Morrison is prime minister because Liberals such as her win their seats and make their leader the prime minister – and we all know it. To make this strategic distancing meaningful, Archer would need to also state that she doesn’t want him to remain leader. In the meantime her message is just as damaging for the government as the ones sent out by Fierravanti-Wells, Cusack, Gladys Berejiklian, Barnaby Joyce, Malcolm Turnbull and Michael Towke.
Comical Ali might be impressed with claims Morrison is “comfortable with his position”. Few others could be.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "‘They know he’s a bullshitter’".
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