Rocking, rolling, riding. Oops!


Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022

Political train wrecks come in many sizes. Some are insignificant, merely foot in mouth derailments or negligent slow collisions with the bumpers at the end of the line. Some are the full catastrophe, ripping up the rails and plunging off the trestle bridge into the ravine far below.

Scott Morrison’s prime ministerial address to the National Press Club in Canberra on Feb. 1 looked set to be a minor derailment, against the benchmark of the solid – even stolid – performance of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese at the NCP the previous week.

Morrison’s presentation, and his pitch, demonstrated how difficult it is for the leader of a party that’s been in power for eight years to come up with fresh ideas. An opposition leader, by contrast, has neither embarrassed the budget nor littered the trail with broken promises. The vision thing is therefore easier. Albanese, the week before, might not have been an inspiration, but he frightened no one’s horses except those in the coalition’s stables. 

The Prime Minister, characteristically, took the jut-jaw approach in his speech, again mistaking this for the sort of leadership Australians need or are looking for. He was looking for a reset and seeking to sideline damaging text messages, now public, that question his character. He re-announced a range of previously promised initiatives he earnestly hopes we’ve all forgotten he announced before.

His trademark melange of bombast and bulldust – that’s a compliment, by the way, because his daggy-dad banality makes him a very good borderline populist politician – was deployed to make a case for his return to office on a same-as-before basis. The subtext was that he should be voted back in because his was a government of excellence, fiscally and otherwise, because the pandemic was still a threat, floods of illegal immigrants were still trying to get in, and now the Chinese and the Russians were being beastly. 

It was a visionless political spin that sought to obscure significant failures, both legislative and procedural, including on the touchstone issue of women versus antediluvian men that he still doesn’t get. But it’s understandable from a prime minister who is inclined to authoritarianism and remains convinced he holds heaven’s command.

It was a speech that would have been marked down by the media and assorted other Canberra bubblers. But it would have been largely ignored by the electorate, which to the continued amazement of the chattering classes, doesn’t really care about endless politics or analysis overload.

Morrison would have walked away from the dais with at most a minor demerit to his account. Instead, he ran into the full catastrophe. He was disgracefully ambushed by former academic and current journalist Peter van Onselen of Network Ten who lobbed the now infamous anonymous texts at him via a question after his speech.

It’s tempting to place quotation marks around both academic and journalist in Van Onselen’s case, since he apparently misunderstands the importance of objective and ethical rigour in both of his disciplines. 

Morrison looked stunned, but he’s quick on his feet and he handled the question as well as anyone could have expected. He might still have got away with only minor scratches if it hadn’t been for Nationals’ leader Barnaby Joyce. In loyal deputy mode, Joyce made a song and dance about how the alleged Liberal ministerial author of infamous text messages to then NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian calling his leader a hypocrite, a liar and a psychopath should own up. 

It was just a little later that he was reminded by Brittany Higgins, to whom he’d sent text messages of his own of a remarkably similar vein, that he too was guilty. He’d sent them when he was temporarily on the backbench, sinbinned for his own insouciant stupidity. Not that that’s any excuse. Now he’s back as deputy prime minister, he and Scotty are chums again (we have the prime minister’s word on this). 

Joyce felt he had to apologise to the prime minister and offer to resign. The last thing Morrison needs heading into an imminent election is another prime example of the dysfunction that plagues his government. The resignation offer was not accepted. 

Spare us the rounds of applause. Politics is about Machiavellian intrigue, not manners, or for that matter, suitability. But if you ever find yourself in a paddock with Barnaby, you’d be well advised to stay well clear of the ant nest he’s bound to stumble into.

The point about all this is that in the lead-up to this year’s election the government will be distracted, potentially fatally, by the fact that more than one person – a single voice could be characterised as mad or inconsequential, and therefore be ignored – believes what has been alleged about the prime minister’s character. 

By contrast, the Labor opposition is not distracted, even by backflips of stunning proportions such as Hunter Valley coal and power stations. It looks unlikely to be derailed between here and election day.

Unless Morrison really intends to go for the nuclear option and have two elections – one for half the Senate in May and one for the House of Representatives on a date he considers best between now and September – the prime minister is now doubly in peril. The coalition trails the ALP in opinion polling. The government’s handling of the pandemic and the impact of its made-to-order shambles on aged care, vaccination, quarantine, and testing, all federal responsibilities, are deservedly in the spotlight. 

These things won’t be forgotten by the voters. As well, the budget is blown – it would have been whoever had been in power, but it was on Morrison’s watch – and will have to be painstakingly and probably painfully repaired. 

Despite politically convenient assertions from the government that this can be achieved without pain or recourse to radicalism, recovery is likely to be long, and in an economic environment in which inflation and interest rates will be rising. 

That’s not a good election platform. 

This commentary appears on the seniors’ website, where I contribute fortnightly thoughts on Australian politics and current affairs.

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