It’s time for Morrison to put in place his big guns
Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce and, yes, Julie Bishop are among the most talented, experienced and energetic Coalition MPs. Yet, for different reasons, they are seen by some as among the most divisive. Nonetheless, if Scott Morrison is to have any chance of winning next year’s federal election, he should bring them into his cabinet; or, if not, offer them each an influential position outside of federal parliament.
The political reality for the Prime Minister is that they should be in or out.
In relation to Abbott, Joyce and Bishop, Morrison — who obviously needs a circuit-breaker — no longer can be seen to be shillyshallying and ambiguous.
Yes, the polls are bad, and Andrew Broad’s “sugar daddy” scandal remains a distraction, but John Howard faced disastrous polls in every term, not just the one that turned out to be his last.
And in Britain the Conservatives’ David Cameron was behind in the polls, often by more than 10 points, throughout the 2010-15 term of parliament before giving his minority government a majority in its own right.
Despite continuing negative polling, the view in Liberal circles is that Morrison is performing relatively well.
The Prime Minister has scrapped his predecessor’s Labor-lite energy policy; he has put cutting power prices ahead of reducing emissions; he has scaled back immigration modestly; he has arrived at a diplomatic fudge over moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem; and he neatly has headed off Labor’s push for a federal anti-corruption body.
Together with his almost manic work rate, these initiatives show that he’s a shrewd political operator — but not that he’s a leader with strong convictions.
We know what Morrison is against — he’s against ceding government to what may be the most left-wing Labor Party in our history — but it’s much harder to know what he is for.
Then there’s the issue of “disunity in the government”, which supposedly is highlighted every time Morrison’s predecessor speaks. But Malcolm Turnbull’s obvious bitterness has united the government and all but the most militantly progressive small-L Liberals behind the incumbent.
Apart from not yet resolving what to do with Abbott, Joyce and Bishop, Morrison has yet to demonstrate that he can unite the Coalition behind a stronger policy agenda rather than merely being “better than Labor”.
The question is how effectively a scare campaign can be mounted against a 45 per cent (rather than a 26 per cent) emissions reduction target; a 50 per cent (rather than a 30 per cent) renewable energy target; and a bigger (rather than smaller) Gonski spendathon on education.
The Coalition will claim that Labor will drive power prices through the roof and immediately threaten the long-awaited return to surplus but, in my judgment, the policy differences won’t be stark enough to make this credible. Where the government is likelier to secure traction is with border protection and union power.
Then there’s Labor’s promise to scrap the franking credits rebate, which will leave a million retirees substantially worse off.
As long as people are still listening to the government — come the election campaign, they will start listening more intently, as well as applying more scrutiny to the opposition — a fear campaign against Labor may work.
For the best part of five years, Bill Shorten has been at pains to say that nothing separates the government and the opposition on border protection policy. This is despite about 50 Labor MPs and candidates at the last federal election saying the government’s border policies were illegal or immoral. In a remarkable sign of confidence (or cockiness that the election is in the bag), the Opposition Leader now favours mandatory medical evacuations from offshore processing.
Perhaps he has judged that the public mood has changed from anger at people-smugglers to compassion for their customers. Perhaps he has decided that this is a necessary bone to feed the green-Left inside his own party to maintain unity.
Either way, Shorten finally has given the government some strong grounds for saying that Labor will put the people-smugglers back in business.
As Abbott recently put it, instead of Howard’s celebrated mantra about the government deciding who comes to this country, Shorten’s is that “doctors will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come”.
Instead of Shorten fighting for the middle ground against the extremists in his own party, Labor’s recent national conference in Adelaide was meant to be a display of Labor unity against the extremists supposedly running the Morrison government.
But the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption raid on Labor’s Sydney headquarters in Sussex Street last week dramatically overshadowed the national conference, which in part involved pandering to the sexual identity politics that fixates the Left.
The conference also included savage denunciations of Australia’s supposedly anti-worker industrial laws, even though (with the exception of the Australian Building and Construction Commission) it’s the law that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard put in place.
Despite the revolving-door prime ministership, the Coalition government has some formidable achievements to its credit.
Stopping the boats was a feat that completely has eluded Europe. Returning to surplus despite Labor’s economic sabotage is a tribute to consistently frugal and competent administration. The massive infrastructure build under way in Sydney and Melbourne would not have happened without Joe Hockey’s asset recycling program.
But given the expectations of a Labor win that have built up, the Morrison government will have to fight every inch of the way to achieve much-needed public recognition, let alone widespread approval.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Australian, 26 December, 2018, p 10.