Opinion

John Hewson
We are in the mud

Whether or not Scott Morrison can engineer the miracle of his second coming on May 21, he will leave significant negatives in terms of the Liberal Party and public policy in our country. The standard of political debate, and the respectability and responsibility of candidates, has nosedived to its murkiest levels. We are there – we are in the mud.

The Liberal Party will need to be re-created, in much the same scenario as Robert Menzies first created it – out of his dislike for, and disappointment in, the United Australia Party. Menzies had assumed leadership of the UAP after the death of Joe Lyons in April 1939 and had grown concerned about its focus on placating certain vested interests at the expense of the national interest and those of the average Australian.

Soon after his election victory in 2019, Morrison made a lot of holding a cabinet meeting in Albury, where he argued the Liberal Party was founded in 1944. No doubt he was hoping to pick up some of the Menzies spirit. He obviously hasn’t read or paid any attention to the key points Menzies made in subsequent reflections on his “agglomeration” of some 18 groups Australia-wide to form a single party as an alternative to Labor.

Menzies emphasised a foundation principle of the party: a commitment to “raise our own money so that nobody would be able to say that we were doing what some fellow wants us to do”. Another principle, as he told a Young Liberal meeting, was to be clear in their own beliefs, “to ensure that the business of politics is not just the acquisition and maintenance of power, but about the improvement of society”.

And in a 1965 speech recalling when he was approached to be leader of the opposition, Menzies said, “A party which is unwilling to lead is not worth leading. I mention this tonight because it is something that may perhaps in the future be thought of a little.”

Menzies clearly believed he had created a party with a “soul”, based on the ethos that only from “genuinely free, diligent and encouraged individuals can a really powerful nation be built”. It was significant that, early on, the party attracted what could be called “postwar idealists” driven by altruistic motives and a sincere desire to contribute a service to the community. Branch meetings were more like religious revival events than gatherings of old men discussing the issues of the day without much enthusiasm.

How sharp is the contrast between Menzies’ principles and aspirations for the party and where it has ended up under Morrison? While many of us have been making this point for some time, Fred Chaney, a previous deputy leader, has summarised the drift succinctly. He is concerned about the “lack of accountability” in the government, the “blatant pork-barrelling”, the pursuit of immediate political advantage rather than the long-term interests of the country. He has also decried the daily focus on politics rather than good government, and a reactive, rather than forward-looking, approach.

I was quite frankly appalled by the subsequent attack on Fred – along with Malcolm Turnbull and myself – by Murdoch employee and Morrison sycophant Gerard Henderson under the headline: “Former leaders line up to betray party that made them”. So ignorant. I was surprised to see Henderson write on something new, given his sole purpose seems to be attacking and undermining the ABC, to the pleasure of his masters.

Why shouldn’t former leaders reflect the feedback they have received from disenchanted traditional Liberal Party members – and there are many – and that of the broader communities in which they now work and live?

Morrison is widely seen to have failed to provide essential leadership in major natural disasters, including the Black Summer bushfires and the more recent floods. These events are not well served by a few brief photo opportunities – their tragedy and lived consequences are ongoing.

Likewise, the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines and rapid antigen tests was a disgrace, with Morrison governing not in the national interest but for mates and donors. This was not Menzies’ vision. Morrison has failed to meet his constitutional responsibilities in terms of providing adequate national quarantine facilities. He has consistently lied and exaggerated his claimed “achievements”, especially in terms of our economic performance since the onset of Covid 19. While he claims our recovery is “leading the world”, the OECD ranked our annual growth for the December quarter 2021 at 27th out of 38 members.

Morrison’s shortcomings have become a major election issue. He is seen as toxic by many of his colleagues, who do not want him to campaign for them. Morrison has become very sensitive to the growing support for independents in key seats that were assumed safe and were taken for granted. Yet he is easy pickings for the independents and Labor due to his failure to deliver a national integrity commission as promised before the last election and his denial of any corruption in his government. That conflicts with the colour-coded spending allocations according to key seats of concern and away from those clearly in need, and his dodgy land deals with supporters. These issues, along with his flat-earth attitude to the scale and urgency of the climate challenge, have inflicted irreparable damage on our nation’s longer-term interests.

The result is not only an increased possibility of a minority government or outright Labor victory, but a loss of unity within the Coalition and loss of policy credibility.

It is, indeed, irresponsible to just keep chanting “we have a plan” when the budget is certainly not a plan to create and sustain growth. There is no focus on national productivity essential to growth, jobs and real wage improvement. Our economic circumstances are very challenging, with the prospect of stagflation – slowing growth combined with accelerating inflation – and a massive task of budget repair.

Morrison’s strategy to try to create the impression that Anthony Albanese is not capable of being prime minister, lacking the relevant ministerial experience and blanking on jobs figures, hasn’t resonated as well as he had hoped. Most voters recognise that Morrison himself had limited relevant experience, having been a pedestrian minister for Social Services and treasurer. He was unable to provide the leadership required on so many fronts. Clearly the job requires a team, and Morrison has been reluctant to let his ministers be too active or high profile, prompting the charge from Albanese that they were in “witness protection”.

No doubt some ministers are very worried about retaining their jobs, most conspicuously Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who faces a strong challenger in Dr Monique Ryan. Frydenberg has been more concerned about the impact of losing his political career than about the key issues for the country, or for Kooyong. He is particularly exposed on climate, having been Energy minister and having failed to deliver a relevant policy response. Speculation is mounting that Frydenberg may have to settle for being leader of the opposition, either nationally or in Victoria.

Morrison’s damage to the party includes his attack on moderates. So much for John Howard’s concept of the party as a “broad church”. Ironically, Howard also attacked or failed to support notable moderates such as John Fahey, Bruce Baird, Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan, and showed a general tendency to govern only from the right side of the pulpit. Morrison is not campaigning for those moderates challenged by independents in Sydney and in Melbourne – though of course they may not want him to. His takeover of preselections in New South Wales also looks like an attack on the moderates, especially with the likes of Alex Hawke as his conduit.

It is very tongue in cheek for Morrison to keep warning of chaos if the independents are successful enough to hold the balance of power. How chaotic would that be, compared with dealings with his minority partners, the Nationals, since the 1940s? Or relative to the instability of both major parties with their internal leadership wrangles – which have gone so far on occasion as to remove a sitting prime minister.

The bottom line of Morrison’s poor leadership and meddling in party organisational matters is that he has destroyed the soul of the Liberal Party. So many traditional members feel disillusioned and disenfranchised, after selfless contributions over many years, from fundraising and preselections to running booths on polling day. This has been the glue that held the party together. Support for the independents comes from deeply disappointed traditional Liberals voting with their feet. The polls are starting to reflect the shambles that Morrison has created, with the party’s primary vote stuck around the mid-30s, while Labor gravitates to the high 30s. It is tough to imagine Morrison surviving this – miracles aside, of course.

The last week of the campaign will only get dirtier. Morrison is getting desperate and so too are some of his Sky News mates. Paul Murray, egged on by his acolytes Cory Bernardi and Michael Kroger, are hitting us with the same tired and mystifying “Left is evil” mantra. For context, Murray was one of the loudest apologists for former United States president Donald Trump and his conspiracy theories in Australia.

Finally to the debates, which have been neither edifying nor informative. What should have been an opportunity to learn more about both Morrison and Albanese, and to highlight their policy differences, was lost. These debates should always have been on our national broadcaster. Channel Nine’s recent effort was a class in bullying and banality – poorly moderated and badly executed.

We have officially reached the bottom of the barrel.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "We are in the mud".

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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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