COVID-19 provides Scott Morrison with a clean slate and an opportunity to reboot Australia

It has been said many times in recent weeks that things won’t be the same when we get to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s probably right. What hasn’t been said is that the eventual defeat of COVID-19 will present Australia, and the world, with a clean slate, which is infinitely more exciting.

The society we live in today is not the result of a master plan, nor the fruits of a grand vision or epic struggle. It is a haphazard melange of outcomes good and bad.

A clean slate presents a rare opportunity to start over: an opportunity to right past wrongs, to repair the unintended consequences of globalisation, to create a fairer and kinder society.

Simply shrugging that things are going to change, more as a function of dumb circumstance than deliberate agency, is the kind of apathy that gave us the bloated, selfish and unsustainable way of life that has brought our planet to the brink.

Beginning with the corrosive Howard government Australia has continued its lurch to the right. Paul Keating, sensing defeat in the 1996 federal election, was on the money when he warned: “When the government changes, the country changes.”

The Howard years changed Australia into a country that was less tolerant and more self-centred, a country whose overt racism was reawakened and given license by a government that knew no shame – Tampa, Children overboard, “We will decide who comes to this country…” – a country whose people still parroted jingoistic ideals of the fair go and mateship but who had become self-absorbed and heartless, a country whose economy had, like the US, baked in a permanent and growing underclass that was vilified for bludging off the rest of the nation. Howard embraced a scorched-earth brand of globalisation in which the drive for “global competitiveness” and a quasi-religious faith in “the market” would supposedly ensure the commonweal. What poverty could not be alleviated by globalisation was deemed the fault off the poor. Howard super-charged traditional Liberal antipathies by demonising the unemployed and trade unions.

After 11 years voters grew weary of the “mean and tricky” Howard government and in 2007 booted the government from office and Howard from parliament. But while voters were attracted to the optimism and vibrancy of Kevin Rudd’s Labor, we remained Howard’s Australia.

Voters went off Howard – the cranky old coot in the tracksuit – but they weren’t prepared to hand in their white picket fences. Howard orthodoxies still coursed through the electorate and continue to do so. Labor’s dilemma became how to be progressive without alienating Howard’s conservative battlers.

John Howard hasn’t quite left the building

In the post-Howard years poverty and homelessness became more entrenched, the unemployed and disadvantaged remained marginalised, the mantra that “work is the best welfare” continued to inform government policy, the harsh treatment of asylum seekers continued and – Rudd’s historic Sorry notwithstanding – the grievances of indigenous Australians went unanswered. It says everything about Australia’s political climate that in the 2019 federal election Labor could not bring itself to promise an increase to the Newstart allowance, committing itself only to a review.

The Liberal party has remained Howard’s Liberal party, and then some. The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments venerated Howard and practised his hard-C brand of conservatism – even if Malcolm Turnbull was an unwilling acolyte.

The returned Morrison government, full of Pentecostal vigour and conviction, was intent not only on preserving white-picket fences in the suburbs, it was going to build a white-picket fence around Australia.

Morrison shared Howard’s conservatism but, unlike Howard, he was inarticulate and tin-eared, was a weak policy thinker, tended to shoot from the hip, was almost comically sensitive to criticism and enquiry, and, to put it bluntly, often seemed out of his depth. Morrison surrounded himself with ministers who shared similar attributes and he frequently overlooked and defended blatant ministerial incompetence and malfeasance. The national bushfire emergency marked the beginning of 2020 and never had an Australian prime minister been found so wanting in a moment of crisis.

We can only speculate on the course and fortunes of the frazzled Morrison government had the coronavirus not intervened. For a time, as the global health emergency unfolded, it seemed that Morrison was again out of his depth, proudly declaring that he was off to the footy even as he foreshadowed a ban on large gatherings. His early public statements on the virus were rushed and confused and verged on incoherent.

And then something changed, not least the prime minister himself. He overcame his distaste for Rudd-style economic stimulus, casting aside firmly held ideological verities about big government. What changed? Morrison was not known for changing his mind or accepting unpalatable advice. We can only assume that once he accepted the enormity of the threat posed by the pandemic the policy options recommended themselves. Morrison is not known for nuanced policy formulation, so again we must assume that this time he followed advice from inside and outside government.

An opportunity to reimagine Australia

Unlike the Rudd government’s response to the GFC the Morrison government’s response to COVID-19 is not designed to stave off recession. That there will be a recession is a given. But at least the blow to Australia, both economic and social, will be cushioned. The government’s $320 billion (16.4% of GDP) in economic support for the Australian financial system, businesses, households and individuals affected by the coronavirus will ensure that come the other side of the pandemic Australia will not have been reduced to rubble.

Morrison’s thinking is very likely that once the coronavirus is defeated Australia (that is, the Coalition government) will resume “responsible” economic policy.

But the “defeat” of the coronavirus is unlikely to be total and in any case it’s unrealistic to assume that Australia can bounce back as if 2020 was a self-contained event. The economic impact of COVID-19 is likely to linger for years, which will necessitate extraordinary policy settings and “new normals”.

In many respects, the Morrison government has let the big-government genie out of the bottle; it’s going to take some doing to get that genie back in there. (Scott Morrison will become the new Major Anthony Nelson.)

So why not use COVID-19 as an opportunity to reimagine Australian society?

The Liberal ideal of small government is just that, an ideal, an ideal wrapped in mythology. Australia has never had small government. Small government ended with colonisation. Since 1788, government has loomed large in the lives of Australians, and especially in the lives of the original inhabitants.

Instead of an unattainable – and ultimately dishonest – quest for small government, Australians should be clamouring for better government. Australians already want that; they have simply stopped believing that it is possible. This may be our chance.

We have the opportunity to reset Australia, to be true to the values we claim to hold dear, to strive for a fairer society rather than accept that progress cannot co-exist with equity. As Barack Obama recently observed, the pandemic has underlined the importance of government and, more to the point, the importance of good government.

Hopefully the coronavirus emergency will make people more vocal in insisting on honest and accountable government in future. Australians might realise that their tacit acceptance of mediocrity in government has been at their expense.

The Morrison government has an opportunity to anticipate the demand for better, more enlightened and more relevant government by making some fundamental changes.

It should use its clean slate to reconsider its ambivalence to climate change; it can overcome its ideological myopia to consider whether some of its “wartime” measures should become permanent features, free childcare being a case in point.

It can reconsider its kneejerk opposition to wage rises for our lowest paid and give meaning to its rhetoric about the importance of shelf-stackers, service workers and the many and varied invisible workers that make society tick, particularly casual workers. (State governments can put taxpayers’ money where their mouths are and properly reward healthcare workers, teachers and first responders.)

It can use some of the empathy gained during the pandemic to devise an asylum seeker policy that restores human dignity to the world’s most vulnerable people and it can get serious about making a meaningful peace with our own most vulnerable, Australia’s dispossessed First Peoples. It can also call off its ideological vendetta against Australians on welfare.

The Morrison government has a once-in-a-century window to reset Australia, to banish the corrosive ideologies that have been permitted to fuse themselves into Australian society, to channel New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and place kindness at the centre of its deliberations, to act with its new-found compassion in the interests of all Australians. And it can use the reset to clean up its own back yard.

If Scott Morrison thinks his job is to restore Australia to business as usual post-coronavirus then he hasn’t learned a thing.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

 

Bob Gottliebsen is right: Scott Morrison is out of his depth as PM

Bob Gottliebsen made an especially interesting comment in his column for The Australian today. Commenting on the Morrison government’s first coronavirus rescue package, which was generally felt to have missed its mark, Bob slipped in an observation that might easily have gone through to the ‘keeper.

Bob wrote: “The world saw our first ‘rescue attempt’, where [the government] thought we could overcome the problem with higher depreciation allowances and giving more money to the elderly and welfare recipients, as not only crazy but as confirmation we had a government which was out of its depth.”

One reason it may not have raised an eyebrow is that the observation that Morrison is incompetent is made often enough on social media.

But it’s something else again when Australia’s most respected business columnist matter-of-factly dismisses a government – and by logical extension the head of that government – as not just misguided or mistaken but “out of its depth”.

Love or hate our prime ministers, agree or disagree with them, there is generally an assumption in the electorate that anyone who makes it to the top must be competent, able and smart.

The last time Australians thought otherwise was the prime-ministership of William McMahon (1971-2). McMahon served as a minister in the Menzies, Holt and Gorton governments, occasionally with distinction, and was external (foreign) affairs minister when he deposed John Gorton to become PM. But the position of prime minister was a step too far for the ambitious and scheming McMahon: he seemed overwhelmed by the job, an anachronism in the new decade and had become the plaything of the magisterial Gough Whitlam who swept to power in 1972. McMahon was conspicuously out of his depth.

What about Tony Abbott you ask? It’s true, he had no business being prime minister. But Abbott was an aberration, a terrible mistake, which the electorate understood the moment he was sworn in. When he was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, the nation breathed a sigh of relief and it was understood that this was something never to be spoken of again.

As for Turnbull, he looked and sounded the part and was obviously bright, but the nation was deprived of the “best Malcolm” when he retired “angry Malcolm”. Bob Hawke gave up the grog when he became PM, but he was still Hawkie. Turnbull without the fire in the belly became strangely one-dimensional. There was no Keating electricity and spontaneity, none of Whitlam’s crash-through-or-crash, no hint of Fraser’s authority.

That peculiar brand of Christian mongrel

Australians knew Turnbull was stymied by his party’s right, but for this he received neither sympathy nor allowance. People expected him to stiffen his spine and take on the recalcitrants, to put principle before internal politics, to fight for what he believed in. Turnbull called it pragmatism, the electorate saw it as appeasement. There was no dancing in the street when Turnbull was toppled; nobody wanted him to go that way. But was he missed? People were missing Turnbull even when he was PM.

And so to Scott Morrison. A man of some attainment before entering parliament, in a LinkedIn kind of way. Lots of fancy job titles, but always a nagging suspicion that something was not quite right.

As Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and later Minister for Social Services Morrison got to demonstrate that peculiar brand of Christian mongrel that presents itself as tough love. As the nation’s underwhelming Treasurer Morrison gave the distinct impression that all in all he’d rather be in Philadelphia. Whatever a BSc in economic geography is, neither it nor his experience as a senior minister prepared him for the Treasurer’s job, so better to chuck that in and go for the boss’s job (once again setting off that LinkedIn vibe).

When he became PM in 2018 he mysteriously took on the cringeworthy persona of the daggy-dad prime minister, complete with baseball cap, goofy smile and backyard-barbecue bonhomie. Once elected PM in his own right the character disappeared.

Scotty from Marketing had simply created a temporary brand in the lead up to the 2019 federal election: the dufus-daryl persona was meant to assure the electorate that he was not a back-room assassin of prime ministers and to lull Labor into a false sense of security.

Morrison is not very bright. But he is wily, or as an outback philosopher might prefer, “cunning as a shithouse rat”.

Once he was unexpectedly returned to office – Morrison proving a better campaigner than Bill Shorten – the Gomer Pyle persona disappeared. In its place the electorate was treated to more of that bitter, hard-faced preacher that preceded the man in the baseball cap. The goofy smile became a thin-lipped scowl and the happy eyes became lifeless lumps of coal. When Morrison forgets himself he takes on the look that will be familiar to anyone who has been to a Catholic school: the half-crazed, half-nutter priest, volatile and totally unpredictable. (Imagine Morrison in a cassock and amaze yourself at how easily the image comes to mind.)

Deny, dissemble and divert

Of course, looks are neither here nor there when competence is what most voters look for in their leaders. Malcolm Fraser as prime minister was no cuddle-bunny but that didn’t stop him from winning three successive elections.

But Morrison? He has no redeeming features as prime minister. None.

His first response to criticism or ministerial scandal is to deny, dissemble and divert, even when he does not know the facts, and worse, when he does. Once it is clear that he has denied the undeniable he will maintain his position to the death. He resents being questioned by journalists or by the opposition in Question Time and will point blank refuse to answer a question not to his liking. When he does deign to “answer” a question he treats his interlocutor to a steaming torrent of word vomit.

Under Morrison, Question Time is a bigger joke than usual, ministerial standards and ministerial responsibility have been essentially jettisoned, the public service has been compromised and to quote policy wonk Kevin Rudd, Morrison is “showing himself to be an abject failure in the engine room of public policy”.

Delays in the formulation of policy in response to fast-moving events are explained away as methodical and considered deliberation. The responses to the national bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic were nothing of the kind. They were slow, misdirected and inadequate.

Even before these events, the Australian economy was showing signs of distress. Despite blather about an “economic plan”, the government was armed with nothing more than its delusional budget surplus.

Morrison is super-sensitive to criticism. Rather than being seen to submit to the opposition’s charges of a flailing economy the government stubbornly maintained that everything was going to plan. When the pandemic struck, Morrison and his successor as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg insisted that the promised surplus was inviolate. A position only reluctantly dropped.

Morrison’s biggest concern was that his stimulus measures were not compared with the Rudd government’s stimulus package following the GFC. Morrison harbours a visceral loathing of Rudd and his former Treasurer Wayne Swan, which extends to their stimulus package. The objectives of Morrison’s response to the coronavirus was to deliver a stimulus package that was seen as the antithesis of the Rudd-Swan program: methodical, considered and proportionate.

Scott Morrison is petty-minded, petulant and peevish. Australians have seen this time and time again. One has only to think of the scandals engulfing Angus Taylor and Bridget McKenzie and Morrison’s unblinking defence of the indefensible.

These are not attributes that ensure a level-headed and intelligent response to policy challenges and national emergencies.

For anyone who retained any doubt about Morrison’s competence, his handling of the coronavirus emergency should remove any such doubt. Bob is right. Morrison is out of his depth.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is just as unforgiving on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

 

Scott Morrison finally utters the c-words, but will he really act on climate change?

The national bushfire emergency has broken hearts, destroyed homes and livelihoods and taken lives; it has made heroes of otherwise modest men and women and it has sent spirits soaring as neighbours, strangers and communities come together as one in their determination to overcome.

The catastrophic fires – an enduring name for which has yet to be coined – have also achieved what years of scientific warnings and activist protests have failed to do: they have forced Prime Minister Scott Morrison to acknowledge the fact of climate change.

That said, acknowledgement should not be confused with a change in policy or the prospect of informed action, and certainly there is no admission of having brought Australia into international disrepute as a climate-change recalcitrant.

But Morrison is for now professing himself, and his government, to be fully mindful of the impact of climate change. More than that, he even claims that he has been a champion of climate-change action. Which of course is arrant humbug, not to say bullshit. Until Morrison’s hand was forced he could not even bring himself to utter the c-words.

Morrison is first and foremost a marketing man who believes catchy slogans can solve anything. Thus he has been profuse in his references to climate change. Unfortunately, Morrison was never a particularly good marketing man so it is not surprising that his slogans are falling on disbelieving ears.

Voters who have not been asleep since the last election know that the prime minister, delivered unto them by divine miracle, has the tendency to say one thing while meaning something completely different.

More weasel-speak from the PM

Accordingly, Morrison has introduced some new jargon to divert attention from the policy imperatives posed by the bushfires and his own avowal, albeit through gritted teeth, of climate change. His posturing suggests action, but amounts to inaction.

“I have set out what I think we need to do in terms of the future and…I think, more significantly [than emission reduction targets], that resilience and adaptation need an even greater focus,” Morrison says.

“We must build our resilience for the future and that must be done on the science and the practical realities of the things we can do right here to make a difference.”

If Morrison believes that “resilience and adaptation” is the catchphrase that will galvanise the nation,  we are some way to understanding why marketing was not for him.

As for the reference to “practical realities”, that is the key to what we might expect of the Morrison government on mitigating the effects of climate change: nothing. Observing “practical realities” is weasel-speak for not disturbing the status quo, it is a dishonest caveat that precludes any action that would purportedly affect jobs, regional prosperity and wider economic well-being.

The cost of weaning the Australian economy off coal exports or setting higher renewable-energy targets is too great, the Morrison government argues, blind to the evidence that not acting will come at an even greater cost.

If the current national bushfire emergency does not make that point to the Morrison government, then what will?

Morrison’s bumbling response to the bushfires – starting with the infamous Hawaii holiday – has been so damaging that even he recognises that he can no longer pretend that climate change is a conspiracy theory.

The grudging concession by the prime minister that climate change is real is not without significance. It starts the new year with a shift in the political narrative with both government and opposition agreeing on the existence of climate change.

But that might be the extent of Morrison’s epiphany. He might say “climate change” a lot but “practical realities” will continue to determine policy settings. Morrison all but winks conspiratorially whenever he utters the words “climate change”.

Enter the bubble-headed booby

The prime minister has not discarded his lump of coal; he just knows it’s prudent, for the time being at least, to keep it in his top drawer out of harm’s way.

When the bubble-headed booby – to quote Dr Zachary Smith – Craig Kelly appeared on British television to dismiss the impact of climate change on Australia’s bushfires emergency, the purpose of the exercise was clear. Permitting the Liberal backbencher and outspoken climate-change denialist to voice his nonsense was a clear message to Liberal MPs that whatever Morrison was obliged to say in public about climate change, denialists in the party room would not be silenced.

It’s going to take some doing for Morrison and his government to maintain this posture.

The bushfires and their unprecedented severity should spell the end of the spurious argument that Australia’s globally insignificant carbon emissions entitles Australia to make a proportionate response to climate change.

But the bushfire emergency, which has destroyed unprecedented swathes of countryside, coming off the back of record droughts, shows that climate change does not observe the proprieties of proportionate responses.

The world has watched aghast as Australia burns, presenting an overwhelming climate-change reality that is here and now, as well as being a harbinger of much worse to come. At the same time, Scott Morrison has become a global pariah for his climate-change inaction; no Australian prime minister has ever attracted international scorn and condemnation on such a scale.

Morrison has taken a potentially significant step in recognising the science of climate change, but now it remains to be seen whether he has the commitment and resolve to stand up to the climate-change recalcitrants in his party room. He knows better than most the political cost of taking a principled stand on climate change.

Morrison has declared what his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull was in effect gagged from saying: that climate change is real. So what is he going to do about it? Every indication so far is that Morrison intends to rely on the bogus mantra of “meeting and beating” emission reduction targets, while yielding to political self-interest by taking a “practical” approach to climate policy.

For Morrison, conceding that climate change is real was just a necessary political manoeuvre. Like his idol Donald Trump, Morrison believes in saying whatever it takes to get him out of a tricky situation. Morrison, like Trump, treats words as ephemeral and disposable.

Now that Morrison has dared to utter the c-words it may fall to people-power to maintain the pressure and convince Liberal and National party MPs that Australia’s negligence on climate change can no longer be justified or tolerated.

If there are any Liberal MPs left with a spine this is their time to insist that the prime minister must act on climate change. It may get ugly in the party room, but it will be nothing compared to what shattered communities around Australia have endured.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

 

It’s time for Anthony Albanese to toughen up and take the fight to Scott Morrison

Oppositions have a critical role in the Westminster system of government. It appears to be a role that Labor leader Anthony Albanese is struggling with.

At their most effective, oppositions, and especially opposition leaders, hold governments to account, present an alternative vision for the nation, and give voice to those sections of the community that are overlooked or disadvantaged by the government of the day.

Opposition leaders who simply see their role as patiently waiting for governments to lose office not only misunderstand their office but are doing the electorate a gross disservice.

Australia has a manifestly bad government: erratic, feckless, incoherent, disingenuous, mendacious and delusional. It is a government that is the personification of the man who leads it, Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

It is a government almost daily compromised by ill-disciplined, gaffe-prone, seat-of-the-pants ministers who are never held to account by a PM who is prepared to defend the indefensible, or simply look the other way until the caravan has moved on.

Living memory can produce no equal when it comes to a PM who treats the electorate with greater disrespect than Scott Morrison. Not surprisingly, his nitwit ministers, who collectively comprise the shallowest federal ministry on record, follow suit.

Two words should spell easy pickings for the opposition leader: Scott Morrison:

  • Scott Morrison, even as Australia burns – although it was he who was supposed to burn for Australia – refuses to acknowledge climate change and would rather chew glass than utter the ‘CC’ words.
  • Scott Morrison, whose advice to fire fighters and fire victims is to tune in to the cricket.
  • Scott Morrison, who seeks to make political capital out of those who dare to be unemployed, refusing widespread calls to increase the Newstart allowance as a matter of ideological principle.
  • Scott Morrison, who at the last election assured Australians that the economy was in robust health, making much of a meaningless budget surplus, is now struggling to craft a response to Australia’s economic malaise amid global economic uncertainty, conditions that were apparent even as he boasted of his government’s economic credentials.
  • Scott Morrison, who with trademark chutzpah claims credit for the banking royal commission, is now struggling with what to do with the Big 4’s banking oligopoly, a cartel that is simply too powerful and set in its ways for meaningful change to occur.
  • Scott Morrison, who perennially claims to have a plan but presides over policy wastelands when it comes to foreign policy (and in particular China), Indigenous affairs (especially on the matter of constitutional recognition), drought mitigation, water and the economy.
  • Scott Morrison, an avowed lover of coal and hater of “greens”, has flagged an overhaul of environmental approval processes that are ostensibly a disincentive for investment in major projects (read coal mines), even as the world’s fragile environment calls for tougher not weaker regulation.
  • Scott Morrison has also flagged a review of industrial relations with a view to reducing the “administrative clutter associated with the compliance regime”, even as the high incidence of wages theft reveals a systemic lack of regulation and/or enforcement.

Challenging neither the government nor the electorate

The Morrison government was re-elected just six months ago and yet it presents as a tired, tattered, tottering government. But in an almost schizophrenic duality, it is also an implacably ideological government, confident and bellicose in its determination to take Australia to the most conservative ends of the political spectrum.

Is this a conservatism that was knowingly endorsed at the last election, marking an abrupt shift to the right by the electorate? Or is the electorate, having voted to secure their hip pocket, being taken where it did not intend to go?

We don’t really know because Anthony Albanese is not putting these questions to the test. He is challenging neither the government nor the electorate.

Albanese is not so much absent from the political fray as hiding in plain sight.

Losing the unlosable 2019 election – on top of losing the unlosable 2016 election – has cruelled Labor’s political nerve.

There is some merit in the opposition tactic of leaving government to its own devices in the immediate aftermath of an election. Nobody’s going to be listening and the voters, having made their decision, are entitled to have that decision honoured with respectful silence.

But the election was six months ago and it’s time to wake up the electorate, not to mention Albanese.

Albanese’s role is more than taking the government to task. At stake is much, much more. What would Australia under Anthony Albanese look like? So far, we don’t know.

The Labor leader has gone out of his way to be conciliatory and even-handed with the Morrison government. The intent is clear enough. Apart from reflecting Albanese’s gentlemanly disposition – London to a brick Morrison will, at an opportune time, raise doubts about his opponent’s ticker – there is no doubt a desire to clean up Australian politics and the standard of public discourse.

It’s a worthy goal, but on this occasion misplaced. Morrison does not deserve Albanese’s bonhomie and exaggerated non-partisanship. Morrison treats his opponent with barely disguised disdain. The olive branch has been declined. Or more accurately, it has been seized by Morrison and repurposed as a stick to be thrown into the distance, accompanied by the command of “Fetch!”.

Albanese needs to step up. Australia cannot be allowed to lurch to the extreme right by default.

Labor lost the confidence of the electorate

Labor has concluded that it had too many policies at the last election. The charge should be that Labor did not adequately defend and explain those policies; did not present them as part of a cohesive vision for Australia. Labor’s loss in 2019 was a function of poor leadership and poor campaigning. The electorate was ultimately sold a pup, but only because Labor was found wanting on the hustings.

Labor was right when it went into the election expecting to win – in part precisely because of its extensive manifesto – but it was in the course of the election campaign  that Labor lost the confidence of the electorate.

Australia sorely needs a vision as opposed to the Morrison government’s piecemeal offering of policy on the run.

Albanese has much to address.

Maybe the post-election analysis was correct when it concluded that Labor’s criticism of the “big end of town” was off-key, but we need to hear more from Labor about our most disadvantaged, ostracised by the Morrison government, being welcomed back into the broader Australian community.

He must prosecute the imperative for climate change action and Labor must stop shilly-shallying – as it did in the last election – and set forth an unambiguous plan for Australia to cut emissions, secure energy supply, phase out coal mining (and compensate and/or retrain its workers) and prepare the nation for a future in which renewable sources will supply our energy needs.

Albanese must also deal with the China question in a way that Morrison has not, which also means some hard-headed decisions about the future of Australia’s relationship with the United States. The longer Australia considers the US alliance an untouchable taboo, the harder it will be for Australia to assert a foreign policy that is in the national interest.

Under the Morrison government, Australia has become an international outcast. On climate change, asylum seekers, press freedom, overbearing national security laws, the growing gap between rich and poor and Indigenous affairs Australia has been found sorely wanting.

Where is Labor’s voice on these issues? And on those issues which Labor feels bipartisanship is a convention to be honoured, at what point does bipartisanship become culpability?

The Morrison government has been so extreme in its conservative agenda that Albanese needs to reframe both the “national conversation” and his approach as opposition leader.

The Westminster system of government provides a platform for dissent and holding to account. And this government warrants plenty of both. It’s time that we heard loud and clear from Albanese that ‘this is not the Australia we want’ for this or future generations.

By all accounts Albanese is a good, decent and principled man. He needs to add “fighter” to his resume.

It’s time for Anthony Albanese to step up and get serious as Labor leader and as leader of the opposition. And he can start by getting into his big-boy pants and stop calling himself Albo.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Scott Morrison, the flim-flam man who rode the Peter Principle all the way to the Lodge

There is no surprise that Prime Minister Scott Morrison should be Donald Trump’s new bestie. Both are flim-flam men who will say whatever it takes to divert, obfuscate and deceive. Both are embodiments of the Peter Principle, obtaining high office way above their competency. And both are seemingly oblivious to the chaos, embarrassment and bewilderment that occasions their every decision and pronouncement.

Morrison will be familiar to anyone working in a large corporation. He is the bumbling middle manager, bereft of any obvious skills, who somehow keeps getting promoted.

His one notable skill, an entirely self-serving skill, is that he knows how to game the system.

Sometimes it’s the happy facility to be the last man standing – the Steven Bradbury Effect – although it’s not always clear if this is by design or circumstance. One might argue that either is not without a measure of wile.

At other times there is clear agency.

 For some beneficiaries of the Peter Principle it’s a one off, a career highlight on an otherwise desultory CV. But others, like Morrison, can make a handsome career of it.

One reason the Peter Principle can be the inadequacy that keeps on giving is that not everyone is aware at the same time that the bumbling fool in their midst is not who his CV says he is.

Beneficiaries of the principle are either smart enough to move on before their incompetence is discovered, or they are quietly moved on by a board too embarrassed to ever reveal that they were taken in by a flim-flam man. And so it is that a fool can flit from one high station to another with impunity, one step ahead of the mayhem left in his wake.

Scott Morrison made a reasonable career for himself as a tourism industry executive: Deputy CEO of the Australian Tourism Task Force (1995-96), General Manager of the Tourism Council (1996-98), Director of the NZ Office of Tourism and Sport (1998-2000) and Managing Director of Tourism Australia (2004-06), before taking a well-earned break as a self-employed consultant and then into federal Parliament in 2007.

If there were any achievements in the advancement of tourism, or even as an administrator, they must pass unremarked as the tourism industry has been struck dumb on the subject.

Morrison’s most obvious achievement as a tourism industry executive was his CV.

From 2007, when he became the member for the NSW seat of Cook, Morrison has shown his adeptness for constructing a formidable CV while snaking his way to the highest political office in the land.

A panoply of shadow ministries (2008-13) – housing and development, immigration and citizenship, productivity and population, but notably not tourism – suggests a parliamentary party that did not quite have a handle on Morrison.

Enter Morrison the “compassionate conservative”

Once in government there was a recognition of Morrison’s “compassionate conservatism”, first in his appointment as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection (2013-14) and then as Minister for Social Services (2014-15). While Morrison was philosophically and/or temperamentally equal to the requirements of these portfolios, there was nothing to suggest that here was a future prime minister, despite his totally unmerited appointment as Treasurer in 2015 (an appointment Malcolm Turnbull has no doubt reflected upon).

Here was the Peter Principle at work once again. Morrison distinguished himself as the most illequipped and underwhelming Treasurer since…well, since his predecessor Joe Hockey. (The Peter Principle has scored a hat-trick with Josh Frydenberg as Treasurer.)

Although the Treasurer’s job is normally the office held by putative prime ministers Morrison’s tenure as Treasurer should have made clear that this was not a man of substance or even parliamentary verve. When he spoke at the despatch box he did not electrify the backbench in the way that Paul Keating or Peter Costello did. Shouty, incoherent, excitable, wayward diction, rapid-fire delivery and confounding non sequiturs: that was Morrison on a good day. His budgets had even less to recommend them.

When he became Prime Minister at the expense of Malcolm Turnbull – the man he was ostensibly ambitious for – in 2018 Morrison was dubbed the accidental prime minister. His goofy, dufus-dad persona was both cringeworthy and disarming. After all, Labor was going to romp it home at the next election. Morrison was surely destined to be a political footnote.

The 2019 election changed everything. Morrison proved to be an able campaigner. After all, if he was nothing else, he was a salesman. (Just like Trump.) Morrison convinced the electorate that his government was an able economic manager (false), that under the Coalition government the economy was strong and destined for even greater times (false), that the government had a plan (false), that pensioners were on Labor’s hit list (false), that the alternative to Morrison as PM was Bill Shorten (devastatingly true).

Graduates of the Peter Principle Academy are without peer when it comes to applying for jobs. Actual performance in those jobs is something else again.

As an elected Prime Minister, Morrison is no less avuncular when it suits him, but the mark of the man is now on full display: incompetent, erratic, disingenuous, wily, unprincipled, tin-eared and a mean streak a mile long.

Treating voters like mugs

His defence of the indefensible, whether it’s to defend suspect Ministers (Angus Taylor) and MPs (Gladys Liu), ideologically driven policies (climate-change inaction) and blatant double standards (the treatment accorded au pairs versus asylum-seeker families), comes naturally. It is based on a simple modus operandi: tough it out on the working assumption that Australians are mugs with short attention spans.

Morrison’s recalcitrance on climate change has made Australia an international pariah. His address before the United Nations in which he chided nations for not recognising Australia’s record as an environmental champion was a high point in chutzpah and one of the most excruciating and humiliating performances on the world stage by an Australian prime minister.

His fawning adoration of Donald Trump is even more deflating. His UN speech on climate change, along with his dismissal of Greta Thunberg, is at least in part intended to impress Trump. His ham-fisted, tactless and unsophisticated approach to the US-China trade war seems to be based on the binary US Good/China Bad, placing Australian relations with China at a 50-year low. Australia’s obeisance to the US on Iran, irrespective of assurances that Australia will not be drawn into a military conflict in Iran, is unlikely to end well. As for Australia’s preparedness to assist the Trump administration in its underhand campaign to discredit the Mueller inquiry goes well beyond the bounds of being a dependable ally. Morrison’s concurrence was at best naïve and at worst a blatant complicity with the tawdry politics of Trump’s bid for re-election.

Morrison’s failure as a regional leader, meanwhile, is another low point in Australian diplomacy. The contempt Morrison has displayed for Pacific nations on the question of climate change is nothing short of a disgrace and should mortify every Australian.

And yet, despite this being a manifestly appalling government and its head a bumbling, incompetent and disingenuous ideologue, the only response from the wider electorate is an unedifying imitation of crickets.

As to how this can be: either the electorate is not engaging, has taken a dramatic turn to the right, or is quietly biding its time until the next election in the guilty knowledge that they handed the keys to The Lodge to a flim-flam man.

Time will tell.

 Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Bill Shorten believes he was robbed of the prime ministership and that should make Anthony Albanese very nervous

Bill Shorten is a political animal. Unelectable, but a political animal nonetheless. And while he may lack appeal, he does not lack wile.

He better than most understands the importance of optics in politics, and that is said despite his predilection for jogging for the cameras.

Instead of retiring to the backbench following his second successive election loss he very forcefully let it be known that he wanted to be a member of Anthony Albanese’s frontbench – despite having reportedly backed and campaigned for his deputy Tanya Plibersek to succeed him as Labor leader.

Albanese obliged his former boss by appointing him shadow minister for the NDIS and government services. “I thank Albo for giving me these responsibilities,” said Shorten, his chummy informality very possibly masking a range of truths, not the least being that he too struggles with the pronunciation of Albanese.

As for Plibersek, she had publicly declined the leadership, declaring that “now is not my time”.

“At this point, I cannot reconcile the important responsibilities I have to my family with the additional responsibilities of the Labor leadership,” she explained.

Plibersek has consistently taken this position over several years, placing family before political destiny. But while Plibersek can be taken at her word on matters of family, and likewise on her assessment that time is on her side, it is still telling to note what she has turned her back on.

Having lost two unlosable elections on the trot Labor will be understandably gun-shy about entering the 2022 election as favourites…but it will be, particularly if the Morrison government continues on its shambolic way.

There is every chance, given the “Rudd rule” which is designed to protect incumbents from challengers, that whoever is leader of federal Labor today will be prime minister in three years.

But do you get the feeling that nobody in the Labor caucus believes that?

Plibersek has plainly taken the view that accepting the leadership presented to her on a silver platter might not be the gift that it appears to be. Faction hostilities, after a hiatus of six years, show every sign of reigniting.

Shorten’s decision to remain on the frontbench is replete with portent. Albanese must know that but there is little he can do about it.

Albanese has decided to accommodate Shorten’s request, which is a little like “deciding” to say “yes” (on anything) to an 800Ilb gorilla. There is no way that Shorten’s Right faction would have permitted the Left’s Albanese to consign Shorten to the backbench against his will.

Although the NDIS is a matter close to Shorten’s heart, Albanese, in choosing it and the strictly junior portfolio of government services, will be hoping that Shorten’s narrow frontbench responsibilities will limit the subjects on which Shorten can speak publicly.

It will be interesting – and revealing – to see whether at some point Shorten claims the right, as a former Labor leader, to speak on any subject of his choosing.

Long-time leadership rivals

Shorten and Albanese are long-time leadership rivals. After the defeat of the second Rudd government in 2013 Shorten and Albanese became the first to contest the leadership under the Rudd Rule. The rank and file membership backed “Albo” but the caucus backed Shorten and triumphed.

It is almost certain that if not for the Rudd Rule Albanese would have challenged Shorten at some point in the latter’s leadership of Labor in opposition. Former leader of the House Christopher Pyne was not just creating mischief in Parliament when he repeatedly referred to Albanese’s leadership ambitions, much to his Labor mate’s discomfort.

One critical factor that protected Shorten’s leadership against anyone who would dare unleash the cumbersome and divisive process of launching a challenge under the new rules was the importance placed on a united Labor party.

Shorten, who played a key role in destabilising the prime ministerships of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, benefited from the self-evident – if self-interested – assertion that Australian voters would only trust a united Labor with government.

Except that they didn’t. Having lost the second successive unlosable election Labor’s factions immediately cast aside all semblance of unity and amity. Television footage of the first post-election Labor caucus meeting rendered palpable the unease and discord behind the wooden smiles.

Albanese becomes federal Labor’s twenty-first leader – elected unopposed; Richard Marles (shadow minister for defence) is his deputy. The redoubtable Penny Wong remains Labor leader in the Senate (and shadow foreign affairs minister), and former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally (shadow home affairs minister) – a loved or loathed figure in the Labor caucus – is her deputy. (Time will tell which senator will be the first to switch to the lower house.)

Keneally’s leadership berth comes at Albanese’s insistence. To make it happen, Labor’s byzantine factions, perhaps for one last time, chose to accommodate the new leader’s impertinence. In the name of gender equality the very talented Ed Husic stepped aside from the frontbench to create a spot for Keneally.

Albanese was quick to claim credit: “I’m making it very clear as leader of the Labor party [that] I want the best team, and the best team includes Kristina Keneally.”

Sacrifices made and not made

One might reasonably pose the question: if Albanese’s role is to come up with the strongest possible frontbench surely places could be found for both Husic and Keneally? That should be but isn’t Albanese’s role; his role is to balance the competing demands of the reawakened factions. Keneally is on the frontbench thanks to Husic’s sacrifice and she is deputy senate leader thanks to Right powerbroker Don ‘Who?’ Farrell giving up his claim on the deputy’s role.

Farrell, a key player in the defenestration of Rudd as prime minister, will no doubt keep a keen eye on the favour balance sheet, particularly as a boastful Albanese felt it prudent to claim credit for Farrell’s sacrifice.

“Even though he had the substantial support of caucus colleagues, [Farrell] was prepared to step aside as Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate on the basis that he understood that I had made it clear that my view was there needed to be gender balance in Labor’s leadership team,” Albanese said with firmness, if not elegance.

Farrell will be able to reflect on his sacrifice at his leisure: he has been appointed shadow minister for sport and tourism.

Shorten, however, did not feel the need to take a hit for the team. He would have known that his continued presence on the frontbench would spark speculation about his remaining leadership aspirations, as indeed it has. But his words have spoken far louder than his actions.

At the abovementioned Labor caucus meeting Shorten, while pledging his love for the Labor party and loyalty to Albanese – “I am ready to help you with uniting our party and carrying the case for Labor values” – made a point of blaming everyone but himself for the shock loss.

“[O]bviously we were up against corporate leviathans, a financial behemoth, spending an unprecedented hundreds of millions of dollars advertising, telling lies, spreading fear,” he said.

“Powerful vested interests campaigned against us, through sections of the media itself, and they got what they wanted.”

These words are telling and should make Albanese very nervous. In blaming dark forces in corporate Australia and the media (read Murdoch) Shorten is saying that voters were denied the opportunity to consider Labor under Shorten as ready for government. From this can be extrapolated the corollary: given clear air, given another chance, Shorten would be much more attractive to Australian voters as the alternative prime minister.

Bill Shorten believes he was robbed of the prime ministership and that spells danger for Anthony Albanese. Meanwhile, Peter Dutton still harbours leadership ambitions and will be watching Scott Morrison like a hawk. RIP the Canberra bubble? Don’t count on it.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

We need to talk about Bill: Shorten’s unpopularity could still lose Labor the unlosable election

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg opened the federal election campaign proudly spruiking Frydenberg’s “back in the black” Budget. It was a disingenuous start to the campaign.

There is nothing in the black about Frydenberg’s first and very possibly last budget. More murky grey. The much vaunted surplus – intended to reinforce the mythology of the Liberals’ superiority over Labor as economic managers – is in fact a predicted surplus of $7 billion in 2019-20, which means it is not a fact at all.

The intention of the Government’s sophistry is to ensure that the binary of Liberal/surplus dominates the campaign.

The bogus nature of the Coalition’s budget was implicitly understood by the electorate. One powerful reason for this – something either not understood or simply ignored by the Government – is that despite giddy claims of a strong economy most Australians feel as if they are in the middle of a recession.

Negligible wages growth, job insecurity, underemployment, the rising cost of living at odds with official inflation data, crippling household debt, looming mortgage shock, a discernible gap between the richest and poorest and lacklustre consumer confidence combine to create a bleak reality far removed from the Government’s upbeat “back in the black” mantra.

In his Budget reply, Opposition leader Bill Shorten, delivering one of his best parliamentary performances, forcefully challenged the Government’s rosy view of the economy. He questioned the Budget’s optimistic assumptions, he identified some of Frydenberg’s conjuring tricks (most notably the sleight of hand involved in using the $3.4 billion underspend in the National Disability Insurance Scheme in the current financial year and a $3 billion reduction in NDIS spending for 2019-20 to pump up the projected surplus. This despite the fact that there is broad stakeholder agreement that the NDIS is dangerously underfunded.

Shorten was also effective in making his case that the Government’s regime of tax-cuts was in the face of a worsening global economic outlook.

“This isn’t a tax plan, it’s a ticking debt bomb,” Shorten said in one of his most devastating pronouncements. Another was: “What we need is a fighting fund for the country, a strong surplus to protect us from international shocks.”

The Budget was designed to put a spring in the Government’s step as it entered the election campaign. Instead, the Budget revealed its feet of clay. No wonder Morrison put off announcing the election for as long as possible.

Labor returns to its roots

Labor entered the campaign not only buoyed by the Budget’s manifest inadequacies but also Shorten’s Budget reply, which delivered an election manifesto unequalled since the Hawke-Keating years.

While the Liberal party can’t get past the nonsense of “if you have a go, you get a go”, Labor returned to its roots in setting out a vision for Australia that struck a chord with Australians no longer content with having their destinies decided by market.

The Liberal party promise of small government is ideological deadwood.

Australia has never had small government, nor has there ever been a genuine clamour for it. But it has been a clarion call that has historically served the Liberals well. Whatever “small government” has meant to Australians, it seems to have pressed the right buttons.

Labor goes into the election not with the promise of big government – no one would dare – but with a commitment to a big agenda: the revitalisation of TAFE, vocational education and training and apprenticeships; a voice for Indigenous Australians in policy-making (including the promise that the “Father of Reconciliation”, Senator Pat Dodson, will be Minister for Indigenous Affairs in a Shorten government); the ceasing of hostilities between Canberra and the ABC, including a commitment to boost regional broadcasting; and funding boosts for the NDIS, health (including the $2.3 billion expansion of bulk billing and the “biggest cancer-care package in Australian history”), education (including pre-school education) and infrastructure; and renewed commitments to addressing climate change, the introduction of a “living wage” and restoration of penalty rates.

Labor’s agenda is not just about economic management, but about values and a vision for Australia, long missing in Australian public discourse.

After six years of a Coalition government that has never been comfortable with the mantle of government (despite its belief that it is the natural party of government), which has found itself hostage to ideological warfare between the moderate and conservative wings of the party (resulting in three prime ministers in six years), and which has given every appearance – exhausted, frayed and erratic – of a government that has been in power not six years but 16. Add to that one of the weakest ministries since Federation, and a coalition partner comprising an assortment of village idiots, and the Morrison government’s “pro” column is looking pretty depleted.

Not surprisingly, the opinion polls could hardly spell better news for Labor and one does not have to be a one-eyed leftie to judge Scott Morrison a bumbling, inept and shallow prime minister of caricature proportions.

Voters wary of the Bill factor

And yet, with the election in full swing, there is noticeably little appetite for declaring Labor the sure winner. The reason for that reticence can be summed up in two words: Bill Shorten.

The same opinion polls that have consistently put Labor ahead of the Coalition also highlight Shorten’s unpopularity with voters. It’s true that disliking a leader generally does not dissuade Australians from voting for the leader’s party. And yet, Bill Shorten seems to be in a league of his own when it comes to unpopularity. One does not need the pollster’s statistics to know that most Australians have a visceral dislike of Shorten.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why that is, mainly because there are so many possibilities. Bill Shorten is the Charlie Brown of Australian politics: wishy-washy, indecisive, bland, with a penchant for saying the wrong thing. Yet most of us love Charlie Brown – as long as he doesn’t ask us to vote for him – so what is it over and above Shorten’s wishy-washiness that repels voters?

Most Australians cannot move beyond Shorten’s role in the unseating of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard as prime minister. Shorten has made some capital from the inability of Scott Morrison to explain why Malcolm Turnbull is no longer prime minister. Yet Shorten has never explained why he was moved to orchestrate the demise of Rudd and Gillard, let alone why, having deemed Rudd unelectable and/or unworthy of high office mid-way through his first term as prime minister, engineered his triumphant return.

Not to be unkind, but there is a lot more to dislike about Shorten.

His ambivalence on contentious policy issues (Adani, asylum seekers, taxation, Christmas Island) is grating, particularly when taken against his commendable readiness to release contentious policies such as the abolition of negative gearing and franking credits.

His wooden unease in public despite a lifetime in the public eye (“What’s your favourite type of lettuce?”), his inability to think quickly on his feet (from “I don’t know what PM Julia Gillard said, but I agree with her” to this week’s yes/no gaffe on superannuation taxation), his peculiar speechcraft (in which he experiments with various speaking techniques and intonations in a single speech), his tendency to speak to the media in over-rehearsed soundbites (and stumbling when speaking off the cuff) and his ill-advised jogging in the (presumably pre-arranged) media glare, complete with goofy grin, arms in the air triumphantly on crossing the non-existent finish line, and his bouncy exuberance.

Who is Bill Shorten?

Not unreasonably, voters like to think they have a handle on their political leaders when it comes to voting time. After six years as Opposition leader voters think they have at least a partial fix on Shorten: untrustworthy, inauthentic, evasive, awkward and perhaps a little strange. More frustrating, one suspects, is the feeling that if there is more to Shorten it’s many layers below the surface.

After his impressive Budget-reply speech Shorten seems to have reverted to his unpopular self.

Defenders of Bill Shorten point out that Shorten came within one seat of winning government. Others, including this writer, would argue that the 2016 election was Labor’s to win.

Australia cannot afford the return of the Morrison government. It is tired, incompetent and spent, has no long-term vision for Australia, nor a short-term understanding of the economic and social changes facing Australia. It’s also very likely that Morrison will find his leadership challenged, despite claims that the Liberal party has introduced a system to ensure it is more difficult to unseat a prime minister.

But Labor should be under no false illusions; a disaffected electorate will return the Coalition – very possibly as a minority government – if “the Shorten factor” proves too big an obstacle to overcome.

Labor has the agenda and a powerful line-up of shadow ministers to implement it. Australians need to hear more about the former and see more of the latter. As for Bill Shorten: just settle down. This is your race to win. Or lose.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Christopher Pyne has announced his retirement from Parliament. Has ‘the fixer’ washed his hands of the broken Liberal party?

In a vapid parliament of mediocre cut-out MPs, Christopher Pyne is one of the few genuine characters in Australian politics. He is not to everyone’s taste. Pyne is “very Adelaide”, in the mould of fellow Liberal Alexander Downer, and is a polarising figure with it: people either love him or loathe him. Julia Gillard famously denounced him as a mincing poodle.

Canberra observer and columnist with The Age and Sydney Morning Herald Tony Wright is already feeling nostalgic: “It is all but impossible to imagine Australia’s Parliament without a Christopher Pyne: if he didn’t exist, you’d have to invent him, but you’d need an uncommon imagination.”

It has been observed that the departing Defence Minister and Leader of the House is sparkling good company, a bon vivant and raconteur par excellence.

And yet, apart from enlivening Canberra and Adelaide dinner parties, and despite having one of the most prominent profiles in Australian politics, Pyne doesn’t have much to show for his 26 years in federal parliament.

His retirement from parliament – which he entered in 1993 as the member for Sturt as a 25-year-old – is significant not because it brings a glittering career to a close, but because it signals the crushing rout that awaits the shambolic Morrison government, very possibly the worst government in modern Australian politics.

Pyne and Defence Industries Minister Steve Ciobo add to the tally of ministers that won’t be contesting the next election, including Minister for Women, Jobs and Industrial Relations Kelly O’Dwyer, Human Services Minister Michael Keenan, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Foreign Minister Marise Payne and former small business minister Craig Laundy are also tipped to quit parliament.

Liberal leadership? No thanks

Whatever the reasons given by the ministers for their imminent retirement from parliament – and despite their loyal if meaningless assurances that the Morrison government will win the next election – each departing minister will have concluded that the prospect of at least six years in opposition was too much to stomach. Not even the prospect of leading what’s left of the parliamentary Liberal party after the next election was enough to stem the flow of departures.

Whoever takes on the Liberal leadership in the first instance will have the important job of steadying and rebuilding what is likely to be a shattered rump. Peter Costello, the loyal deputy leader bitter at being denied the prime ministership by the faltering John Howard, opted not to take on that healing role after the 2007 Ruddslide, instead choosing to quit parliament. The spluttering cascade of leaders began with the hapless Brendan Nelson.

Twelve years later, Julie Bishop has been cast in the Peter Costello role. The time will come when Bishop, the ever-loyal deputy whose one shot at the Lodge was stymied to make way for the bumbling Scott Morrison, will be decried by some, as Costello was, for putting her own disappointment before the wellbeing of the Liberal party. Costello left a leadership vacuum in his wake, as will Bishop.

Christopher Pyne could have filled that vacuum but plainly he has no leadership ambitions. (He ran for the deputy leadership in 2007 in a ballot easily won by Julie Bishop.) But his decision to leave parliament at a time when the Liberal party is facing an existential crisis could deprive him of his most substantial contribution to his party. How the “broad church” responds to the challenge of opposition, particularly in that crucial first term, could well decide the future of the Liberal party.

Return to the centre

The party’s shift to the right has been disastrous. It resulted in six lost years of unstable, indecisive, incoherent and barren government.

Whoever leads the parliamentary Liberal party after May cannot do so on the basis of business-as-usual. He or she has to start the process of reinvigorating the Liberal party, bringing it back to the centre ground and preparing it for government.

The indefatigable Pyne would have been ideal for such a role. As opposition leader he would be relentless – more terrier than poodle – doggedly nipping at the heels of Prime Minister Bill Shorten (get used to it). No one in the Coalition thinks faster on their feet, no one speaks with greater confidence. If Pyne was born to fill one role in federal politics, surely it would be that of an opposition leader nursing a shattered party back to health and holding a government with a thumping majority to account.

Pyne considers himself a leading moderate in the Liberal party but as a self-described “fixer” and an acknowledged tactician of considerable acumen, he has spent the past six years enabling a government beholden to the party’s right wing.

In the course of a 26-year career Pyne meandered his way through a succession of shadow portfolios, parliamentary secretary roles, a stint as Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing in the dying days of the Howard government, and several ministerial portfolios including Minister for Ageing, Minister for Education and Training, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Minister for Defence Industry and his current portfolio Minister for Defence.

For an MP who has so little to show for his 26 years in Parliament saving his beloved Liberal party – “I believe in the party and always will” – might have been the challenge of a lifetime.

In choosing to retire Pyne has deliberately absented himself from the question of who will lead the party after May. (For the record, Pyne has stated that he believes the Morrison government will be returned.) His departure, he says, marks a “time to renew” for the Liberal party. It says “not my problem” even more stridently.

The Liberals can look forward to six more years of leadership instability after the May election.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Scott Morrison’s Jerusalem fiasco lays bare the incompetence of our accidental PM

Scott Morrison may well go down in history as the accidental prime minister but extending the theme to characterise him as accident-prone lets him off the hook far too easily. The biggest revelation of the dysfunctional Morrison government is just how out of his depth its namesake is.

Although one is spoiled for choice when it comes to collating instances of the L-plate PM’s missteps we need look no further than the political and diplomatic mire he has created over the mooted relocation of Australia’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

An issue that began as a spectacularly ill-judged and ham-fisted political gambit during the Wentworth by-election – so transparently replete with ulterior motive as to invite guffaws were the matter not so serious – should have been allowed to recede into the mist of the 24-hour news cycle.

Instead, Morrison, more at ease playing daggy dad or unctuous uncle, decided to flick the switch to sombre statesman and make the location of Australia’s Israeli embassy his diplomatic line in the sand.

A more contentious foreign policy stance is hard to imagine. Nor, for Australia, a more irrelevant and unnecessary position.

And yet, suddenly, implausibly, the location of Australia’s Israeli embassy has become a matter of national interest from which the government will not resile.

Australia’s flirtation with a Jerusalem embassy was problematic enough when it was just a specious thought-bubble; now it has taken on the gravitas of a defining foreign policy milestone.

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has raised the stakes considerably – and gratuitously – with an extraordinary attack on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whom he accused of being anti-Semitic. The prompt for the unseemly onslaught followed an approach by Mahathir to Scott Morrison during the ASEAN Summit in Singapore in which he expressed misgivings about Australia’s consideration of a Jerusalem embassy. (Mahathir’s concern was that such a move would heighten terrorist activity in the region.)

Frydenberg’s discourse seemed more like school-yard barbs than the considered reflections of a senior government minister.

“Dr Mahathir does have form, as you know, he’s made a number of derogatory comments in the past about Jews being hook-nosed, he has questioned the number of people that have been killed in the Holocaust and he also saw the banning of Schindler’s List, the movie about the saviour of millions of people by righteous gentiles through that horrible period in world history,” Frydenberg told the ABC.

Frydenberg weighs in with his size-12s

Further wedging the government into an unwinnable corner of its own making, Frydenberg thundered with patriotic indignation: “Australia will make its own decisions based on its national interest.”

As Treasurer Frydenberg would not normally aver on matters of high foreign policy, but as a prominent Jewish MP he clearly felt entitled to brandish his size-12s in such sensitive terrain. Rather than caution his senior minister for his potentially damaging lack of diplomatic finesse, Morrison explained that Frydenberg was simply “filling in the history of [Mahathir’s] record on various issues over time”.

Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr was closer to the mark in his assessment of Frydenberg’s dummy-spit when he tweeted: “I can’t believe Josh Frydenberg has taken it on himself to attack [the] Malaysian PM. Federal Treasurers don’t assail leaders of friendly countries. What got into him?”

Frydenberg petulantly responded to Carr’s criticism by posing what he no doubt thought a clever line of attack: “Does he [Carr] agree with Dr Mahathir that less than six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust? Does he agree with Dr Mahathir that Jews are hook-nosed people? Does he agree with Dr Mahathir that Schindler’s List shouldn’t have been shown in ­Malaysia?”

This is what stands for public discourse in the dying days of the Morrison government.

Former Prime Minister John Howard, who favours the Jerusalem move, has hardly added to the substance of the “debate”.

“I can’t accept that Australian foreign policy, particularly on something as basic as where we put an embassy, should be determined by other countries,” Howard told The Weekend ­Australian.

As if the decision is simply one of choosing a better neighbourhood.

The typically reckless decision by the Trump administration to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem – thus recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – was never going to attract Australia’s reproach, deserved though it would have been. On matters concerning Israel Australian foreign policy has always erred on the side of indulgence.

Australia’s idea of principle when it comes to Israel bears an uncanny resemblance to cowardice in the form of abstentions in key United Nations votes. In December last year Australia abstained from a UN vote condemning the US embassy move to Jerusalem (overwhelmingly carried) as it did in 2012 when the UN voted, again overwhelmingly, to grant the Palestinian Authority status as a non-member state.

Not surprisingly, nobody – neither the US or Israel, nor whatever might qualify as the Jewish lobby in Australia – expected, much less sought, Canberra to weigh in on the deeply contentious embassy issue.

Incompetent foreign policy neophyte

The US decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem – announced in December 2017 and implemented in May – is a major set-back to the already slim prospect of a two-state solution. Palestine considers East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. For Trump to describe the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as “a long overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement” is bone-headed sophistry.

Enter newly minted Prime Minister Scott Morrison, facing defeat in the blue-ribbon seat of Wentworth, who places the location of Australia’s Israeli embassy firmly on the political agenda, where it stubbornly remains thanks to a prime minister who seems incapable of killing off the issue.

To argue that the embassy issue is one of national interest is so comprehensively bogus that Australians are entitled to conclude that their prime minister is either an incompetent foreign policy neophyte or just another disingenuous politician. It’s both: too green to discern the dangers of his Jerusalem thought-bubble, too arrogant and politically vulnerable to admit a mistake.

Morrison demonstrated what national interest really looks like when within a week of becoming prime minister he made a point of visiting Indonesia to meet with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. High on his mind was the much anticipated $16 billion free-trade deal with Indonesia.

Not so high was Morrison’s plan to relocate Australia’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, because there was no such plan. That was in August. Fast-forward to October and Indonesia, Australia’s closest neighbour with the world’s largest Muslim population is aghast to learn, pretty well at the same time as Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne, defence and security chiefs and senior diplomats that Australia is considering following the Trump line on Jerusalem.

At first blush, the Government is right to assert that Australian foreign policy is for Australia to decide. Except that this is not and never was a serious – let alone credible  – foreign policy position.

The failed gambit was an insult to Jewish voters in Wentworth, who rejected it for the cynical sop that it was; it’s an insult to the people of Australia who have yet to be presented with a coherent reason for such a momentous shift in foreign policy; and it’s an insult to our Muslim-majority neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia rightly aggrieved at Australia’s insensitivity and amateurish diplomacy. It’s no wonder that Australia’s pretensions of being a bona fide member of the Asian community are scoffed at, not least by Malaysia’s Mahathir.

Scott Morrison insists that a decision on Jerusalem will not be made until Christmas. He should give himself an early Christmas present and bring this sorry saga to a close now.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Scott Morrison may be a dud PM but the job has done wonders for his CV

If Scott Morrison is the best the Liberal party can offer the people of Australia perhaps it has simply lost interest and run out of puff as it awaits its looming spell on the opposition benches. More bored church than broad church.

Morrison’s accidental prime-ministership is not entirely without merit. Among the positives for which he deserves kudos: he is no longer Treasurer, he doesn’t wear Speedos to work and, with abundant Christian charity, he brought his predecessor’s death by a thousand cuts to an early close.

While it is true that these highlights have been obscured by the daily spectacle of exploding thought bubbles it is important to see the nascent Morrison government in its proper context: if you think things are bad now…well, they are.

Morrison has approached his prime-ministership with missionary zeal, and history tells us that never ends well.

Still, there is something about Morrison’s unfailingly happy disposition that inspires us all to seek the spirit. Grappa, for example.

Morrison’s career before he entered parliament was not exactly top-shelf – an executive role with the Property Council and various executive positions in tourism-industry bodies culminating in the managing director’s role at Tourism Australia for a couple of years. And yet, here he is, Prime Minister of Australia.

Morrison is Old Testament to the lofty ideal that anyone can aspire to the nation’s leadership.

But did he aspire to the very top job? There have been no playground recollections of Morrison vowing to his schoolmates that one day he would be PM. More is the pity as that may explain why he is so clearly unprepared for the job now that he has it. Never has a new prime minister hit the ground with such a splatt. Even Tony Abbott, demonstrably a woeful prime minister, had things he wanted to do once he got the top job. Mainly breaking promises, but at least he had an agenda.

It’s very possible that Morrison’s first prayer on becoming prime minister was something along the lines of, “Jesus! Now what?”

While policy on the run may complement Morrison’s sporting mien it does not instil confidence in the policy directions being set for the country. There are many examples of Morrison government intemperance: from the half-baked decision to appoint Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott as special envoys (for drought and indigenous affairs respectively) to flagging the relocation of Australia’s Tel Aviv embassy to Jerusalem.

‘Bible bashers make the best bastards’

When Morrison decided to enter politics he no doubt did so with ambition to achieve high office…perhaps just not that high. One suspects that being Sports Minister would have been a more than adequate attainment for the Sharks super-fan. It certainly would have been more closely aligned with Morrison’s ministerial and intellectual comfort zones.

His stints as Immigration and Border Protection Minister and Social Services Minister gave rise to speculation that Morrison was a future leader. And so he was, but that doesn’t make the speculation well informed. When all is said and done these ministerial roles basically confirmed two well tested verities: that bible bashers make the best bastards, and that bastards make the best conservative leaders – at least in the eyes of fellow conservatives.

But Morrison is not proving a leader at all. His game plan, such as it is, offers no vision for Australia, nor does his lacklustre ministry (in which Turnbull plotters were, if not rewarded, left unpunished) evoke confidence in its ability to organise a chook raffle much less a vision were one to exist. Instead, his focus has been on perfecting his persona, and even then he can’t decide if he wants to be the nation’s daggy dad or avuncular everyman. More thought has gone into his headwear – baseball cap in, Akubra out – than what’s going on beneath it.

Not since Jim Hacker has someone become prime minister with so little idea of what comes next.

Australians have a right to expect that with high office comes high principle and high aspiration for the greater good. Instead, Australian governance has been reduced to high farce.

The coup against Malcolm Turnbull and the installation of Morrison as his successor has been about power: the exercise of naked power by vengeful forces within the Liberal party to topple a sitting leader with little regard for consequences let alone care for who might assume the mantle of the vanquished. If the best interests of Australia figured at all in these machinations they remain closely guarded.

Scott Morrison is unable to articulate why Turnbull was deposed as prime minister so perhaps it stands to reason that neither is he able to explain why he is prime minister, or even what we can expect from his government now that he is.

Perhaps the joke is on us. It is London to a brick that the Coalition is headed for certain defeat at next year’s federal election – Turnbull was at least a chance – and it may well be that Morrison considers it a sufficient achievement to top his CV with the office of prime minister.

Much more impressive than Managing Director of Tourism Australia.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Twitter @DAngeloFisher