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Paul Bongiorno on why the Liberal MP abandoning Scott Morrison thinks Anthony Albanese might be a better Prime Minister for the country.

The Liberal MP abandoning Scott Morrison



The federal Coalition government holds office by the barest of margins - just one seat. 

That means at the next election, due in the first half of next year, it can’t afford to lose any seats without risking a hung parliament.

Now, a popular and high profile Liberal incumbent has announced he won’t be recontesting his electorate, throwing the party’s election preparations into jeopardy.

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno on why the Liberal MP abandoning Scott Morrison thinks Anthony Albanese might be a better Prime Minister for the country.

 

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper, Paul Bongiorno.

 

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

The federal Coalition government holds office by the barest of margins - just one seat. 

 

That means - at the next election, due in the first half of next year, it can’t afford to lose any seats without risking a hung parliament.

 

Now, a popular and high profile Liberal incumbent has announced he won’t be recontesting his electorate, throwing the party’s election preparations into jeopardy.

 

Today - columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno, on why the Liberal MP abandoning Scott Morrison thinks Anthony Albanese might be a better Prime Minister for the country.

 

It’s Friday, November 19.

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:

Paul, this week you wanted to talk about a federal Liberal MP called John Alexander. Why is that? 

 

PAUL:

Well Ruby, John Alexander famously won back the iconic seat of Bennelong for the Liberals, but now he’s fed up with being an ignored number, on the backbench.

 

RUBY:

Right, so who is he?

 

Archival tape - 1975 Tennis Commentator:

Eighty four players started in January. It's four months later and it's the final eight. 

 

PAUL:

Well before he became a politician John Alexander was a well known professional tennis player throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

 

Archival tape - 1975 Tennis Commentator:

Thursday, 23 year old John Alexander, who many think will be Australia's next superstar, is playing 23 year old Rostker Tanner.

 

PAUL:

He won a number of singles and doubles titles, reaching a peak rank of world number 8 in 1975. 

Archival tape - 1975 Tennis Commentator:

But tonight it was all John Alexander, the man who piled up 610 hagger points to lead the red group this year...

 

PAUL:

After he retired from playing tennis, he became a commentator and was regularly seen and heard on Channel 7.

 

And it was actually his role as the voice of summer tennis on Seven, that prompted former Prime Minister John Howard to identify him as the star candidate the Liberals needed to win back Howard’s old seat of  Bennelong, in northern Sydney.

 

RUBY:

So, John Howard was watching the tennis one summer...and he admired John Alexander’s sporting commentary so much that he decided to recruit him for his old seat? 

 

PAUL:

(chuckle) You could put it that way…

 

RUBY:

So, what happened next? 

 

PAUL:

Well back in 2007, John Howard lost not only the election to Labor’s Kevin Rudd, but his own seat - of Bennelong - to Maxine McKew, the former ABC journalist.

 

It was only the second time a sitting Prime Minister had lost their own seat in a general election. 

 

Archival tape - ABC journalist:

Of course John Howard was the sitting member here for 33 years until Maxine McKew came along. Well, now the former TV personality is up against a former tennis star… 

 

PAUL:

In 2010 Alexander won the seat back for the Liberal party, after receiving a swing of 4.5 percent.

 

Archival tape - Journalist: 

Well, we are joined this morning by one of Australia’s great tennis players, coaches, and now... member for Bennelong… John Alexander!

 

Archival tape - John Alexander:

I am very well Steve!

 

PAUL:

He had a political scare in 2017 though, as part of the dual citizenship crisis that gripped the Australian parliament. Alexander resigned after admitting he was likely to be a British citizen, meaning he was ineligible for parliament. But, he rescinded that citizenship and then contested the by-election caused by his own resignation.

 

Archival tape - Tv news presenter: 

Malcolm Turnbull's Christmas has come early, with Liberal MP John Alexander retaining his blue ribbon seat of Bennelong… 

 

PAUL:

But, now Ruby, he’s told the Prime Minister Scott Morrison that he’s retiring at the upcoming federal election. 

 

Archival tape - John Alexander:

It's important I inform you regarding my intentions. After much consideration, I have decided not to contest the next election. 

 

PAUL:

He’s had enough of partisan politics. He says winning is everything but good policy in the national interest, runs a poor last.

 

Archival tape - John Alexander:

As always, if there is anything I can do, then please don't hesitate to contact my office. Thank you.

 

RUBY:

Right, so can you tell me more Paul about why John Alexander is retiring - and what his departure will mean for the Coalition?

 

PAUL:

Well Ruby, Alexander’s colleagues aren’t surprised he’s leaving. They say he’s very frustrated. Privately, he is scathing of the leadership of the government of Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and Barnaby Joyce. He believes they put self-interest ahead of everything - that is, the Government’s self-interest.

 

As the chair of parliament’s standing committee for infrastructure, transport, and cities, he’d put a lot of effort into developing new planning and transport policies. But, it’s been largely ignored.

He’s been a supporter of faster rail and has identified a number of serious international partners that are keen to invest in the projects in Australia. And last December, he tabled his committee’s report into the funding of high-speed rail. 

 

That report spells out the huge advantages faster rail has for housing affordability, jobs, inter-city connectivity, emissions reduction, and a lot more.

 

Well it’s pretty clear - Morrison and Frydenberg...don’t want a bar of it.

 

So, at the age of 70 and after a decade in parliament, he told me that he was tired of the way the game of politics was being played. 

 

And most interestingly Ruby, and this really is quite extraordinary from a long-serving Liberal MP, he harbours the hope that if Anthony Albanese wins the election, policies that better serve the national interest, rather than narrow sectional interests, might be served.
 

RUBY:

We’ll be back after this. 

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RUBY:

Paul… I’m gonna bite, why does John Alexander think Anthony Albanese could be a better Prime Minister than the one from his own side?

 

PAUL:

Well for starters, they do have a friendly relationship, occasionally having a hit of tennis together. But it could be more because of Albanese’s support for high-speed rail. 

 

Archival tape - Anthony Albanese:

For many years now, it's been suggested that Australia should develop a high speed rail line linking Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra. That's why I commissioned a study in two parts....

 

PAUL:

The Opposition leader recently announced that if he wins government he would establish a high-speed rail authority to update the business case “for this nation building project.”

 

Archival tape - Anthony Albanese:

We have an opportunity and my vision is for an Australia that embraces the opportunity from moving to clean energy, lowering energy prices, lowering the cost of manufacturing here, building things here to create high value jobs...

 

PAUL:

And he spelled this out on Monday, talking of a “future made in Australia” with the promise of further investing in renewables, which will provide industry with cheap power to make things like trains from green steel and aluminum.

 

So, while Labor seems to be taking seriously the infrastructure of the future, the Coalition is focused on pork-barrelling their own electorates, which is another factor in Alexander's disgust at the current way politics is played.

 

RUBY:

Ok and so what has the reaction been from the Prime Minister, from Scott Morrison, to the news that John Alexander won’t be contesting the next election?

 

PAUL:

Ruby, Alexander told Scott Morrison of his decision before the PM jetted off to Europe for the G20 in Rome and COP26 in Glasgow.

 

Morrison thanked him for his 11 years of service but said he understood why Alexander would want to spend more time with his family.

 

But, after coming back from his politically disastrous overseas trip, it appears that Morrison had a rethink.

 

RUBY:

Ok, so what made him change his mind?

 

PAUL:

The simplest explanation is: the opinion polls. Morrison is second guessing the fact that he’s now lost Alexander’s pulling power in a seat the Liberals can’t afford to lose.

 

On the last seven News Polls, the government has trailed Labor by 6 to 8 per cent, the sort of margin that would replicate Kevin Rudd’s 2007 landslide. 

 

It’s also the margin that could tip Bennelong back into Labor hands. 

 

So the prime minister’s troubleshooter, special minister of state Ben Moreton, began calling Alexander.

 

Then, curiously, we had a sudden and inexplicable resignation of Tony Smith, the speaker of the house. And that was seen by some Liberals as part of a plan hatched to create a vacancy for a frontbencher to become Speaker, and John Alexander to be promoted. 

 

But Alexander says that’s just gossip, and he’s not going to change his mind anyway. 

 

RUBY:

Paul, it is unusual to see a politician break ranks in this way - and to talk about it in the way John Alexander’s has - publicly canvassing the benefits if the Opposition wins the election. So, what does his decision to leave tell us about Scott Morrison’s leadership right now, and his electoral prospects?

 

PAUL:

Well Ruby, right now Morrison’s electoral prospects are very grim. 

 

The News poll results and trends are all downwards, and the Prime Minister is finding it hard to paper over the cracks in his coalition government.

 

And I believe John Alexander’s decision is less about his personal life, and more about frustration that the government doesn’t have the foresight or capacity to make the kind of long-term policy decisions he believes are vital. The Morrison government’s self-interest, Ruby, is starting to eat it from the inside.

 

RUBY:

Paul, thank you so much for your time. 

 

PAUL:

Thank you Ruby. Bye. 

 

[Advertisement]

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today. 

 

Covid-19 restrictions in Victoria have largely eased, with density limits at hospitality venues and restrictions on home visits scrapped. Masks are no longer required in most settings.

 

Victoria is set to hit the 90 per cent double vaccination milestone for those aged 12 and up on the weekend. 

 

And police in NSW are continuing their renewed search for evidence linked to the disappearance of William Tyrell, who was three years old when he went missing seven years ago. 

 

Police are searching an area of bushland near the house he was last seen at, in Kendall on the NSW Mid North Coast. Earlier this week, they identified a person of interest in the investigation.

 

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Anu Hasbold and Alex Gow.

 

Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz, and our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

 

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. 

 

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. 

 

I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

[Theme Music Ends]

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am

Guest

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.