The man who faced the royal commission into unions was confident and articulate. Who was he and what had Labor done with Bill Shorten?
Prime Minister Tony Abbott may have bounded out of bed this morning with more than his usual vigour. For him, a former industrial relations minister in the Howard Government and now the self-appointed scourge of Labor PMs, the much-anticipated day had arrived when former union leader and now Labor leader Bill Shorten would face Abbott’s Royal Commission into union governance and corruption.
This would be the interrogation of a third Labor leader by an Abbott Government-commissioned Royal Commission, following on from Kevin Rudd’s attendance at the inquiry into the Home Insulation Schemeand Julia Gillard’s appearance before the same Royal Commission being faced by Shorten today.
In the cases of Rudd and Gillard, their scrutiny under the veil of a Royal Commission was an attempt by the Abbott Government to recast history and blacken the names of the two former Labor Prime Ministers: to depict Rudd’s determination to roll-out stimulus spending as irresponsible and fatal; and designate Gillard as a dodgy lawyer who had personally benefitted from doing special deals for unions before embarking on a political career.
It is too early to tell whether either attempt will have any permanent impact on the two former PMs’ historical reputations.
However Shorten’s appearance before the union Royal Commission, jauntily known as #TURC on social media, has another purpose altogether. This interrogation is not only meant to besmirch but to bring down the Labor leader, to cast enough doubt on him – even if only in the eyes of his own colleagues – to either precipitate another Labor leadership change before the upcoming federal election, or exacerbate existing voter concern about Shorten’s suitability for high office.
Royal Commission examinations are not for observers who like to cut to the chase. They do however make compelling watching for those of us with a penchant for the slow-burn lawyerly interrogation that’s become the staple of myriad popular crime shows.
In this respect, the Commission’s counsel (or prosecutor), Jeremy Stoljar, has not disappointed, systematically taking Shorten, the former state and national leader of the influential right-wing union the AWU, though a series of documented events to determine whether he personally benefited from arrangements made with his knowledge during that period.
Of the three Labor leaders who have endured these Coalition-inspired witch-hunts, Shorten appears the most relaxed. He’s been well-schooled by his lawyers to use concise language, and has felt confident enough to offer mini-dissertations to provide context. In response, Stoljar has sternly asked for shorter answers.
One of the main issues investigated today was whether the services of an employee of the labour hire firm Unibilt was in effect hired and then donated to be Shorten’s campaign manager when Shorten was a Labor candidate in 2007, and whether this donation had been declared to the Australian Electoral Commission.
The campaign manager’s wages were later paid by the AWU, although Unibilt continued to furnish the cash for that purpose. Reference was also made to another worker on the Shorten campaign whose wages were paid by the AWU.
It’s certainly not unusual for political operatives to move in and out of various roles, and the funding of those positions is not always straightforward. Staffers employed by party headquarters, for example, may work in politicians’ offices, or corporate lobbyists aligned with one party or another may take leave to work on election campaigns. Political staffers employed at the territory, state or federal level may take leave to work in election campaigns at other levels.
Some political staffers may even have their salaries topped-up by the party machines, to compensate for their low remuneration compared with equivalent roles in the corporate world.
So in itself, it’s not unusual or necessarily underhanded for an employee of another organisation to work on the campaign of a Labor candidate, or their office, or to be funded by someone else. And it’s not often that such a resource is declared as a donation (even though it should be).
It became clear during Shorten’s evidence that he had indeed declared the Unibilt employee as a donation – sometime in the past few days. Given that Shorten’s experience with “donated” staff is a common practice, we should expect to see a number of other updated candidate returns in coming days, from both sides of the political fence.
Then there was the question whether Shorten gained a personal advantage by getting the donated staffer from Unibilt at the same time the company was negotiating a wage agreement with the AWU. Shorten denied he was involved in the wage negotiations.
The more troubling element of the donated campaign manager was not so much that he was an undeclared donation but that he might not have known he was actually employed and paid by Unibilt.
This question of unknowing employees leads to the other, more politically dangerous, matter being examined today. This is whether Shorten knew of, or was involved in, wage agreements that required employers to pay union memberships for employees who were unaware they’d been signed up to the union.
The rationale for such a practice would be to boost the official membership numbers of the AWU and therefore the number of votes it was allocated within Labor Party decision-making processes.
Accounts differ as to whether the employees in question knew they were members – and had agreed to be, for compulsory unionism is illegal – but current AWU secretary Ben Davis told the Royal Commission he stopped this practice because it weakened the union’s bargaining power. Some of the relevant paperwork from that time has also become unavailable, apparently due to a computer upgrade.
We are yet to hear what Shorten knew about these deals, and whether they were sanctioned by him. The Commission has resumed this afternoon to further apply the screws to Shorten concerning these arrangements.
No doubt our erstwhile PM is hoping Shorten’s hand will be caught in the tea caddy, not only demonstrating to the Liberal base that Abbott is tough on unions, but that those dastardly unionists just can’t be trusted. This strengthens the campaign narrative that will be rolled out by the Coalition at the next election.
However, Shorten may not have to be caught red-handed to be damaged by this inquisition. If he loses his nerve, slips up on a key detail, or starts to obviously lie, his party will lose whatever faith they still have in him.
The new Greens leader has been in the job for months, and his stock is building. Is Richard Di Natale the Messiah?
News last week that a cross-party bill is being prepared to legalise gay marriage has unleashed the hounds of the conservative right. The baying beasts are doing their best to keep the Prime Minister in check, even going as far as to threaten his leadership, but what happens once Tony Abbott realises the hounds have no teeth?
It’s no secret Abbott owes his initial election as Liberal Leader to the hard right of the Liberal Party. Led by the godfather of the right, then Senator Nick Minchin, the arch conservatives backed Abbott in 2009 to bring down then Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull and prevent any moves to support Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme.
Yet the right have never really considered Abbott to be one of their own, partly because of his early days as a devotee of Bob Santamaria; then because of his proposed paid parental leave scheme; and later because of his refusal to go hard on IR reform, his backdown on reforming the Racial Discrimination Act and his continued support for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.
At times, the conservatives have gone as far as to warn the PM through the media to stay true to their Faustian pact. As News Corp journalist Dennis Shanahan wrote just last week:
Liberal pragmatists can remember it was a Liberal Party branch revolt over supporting Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme that brought down Malcolm Turnbull and ultimately put the Liberals back into government with an anti-carbon tax campaign.
Leaders need to know that you go home from the dance “with the one that brung you” no matter how nice you are to the others at the dance.
However, this time the right aren’t threatening to take the leadership from an uncompetitive opposition leader who is dangerously advocating progressive views. This time they are warning off an incumbent Prime Minister who still has a good chance of winning the next election to step away from another of the progressives’ totemic issues.
Until recently, the PM appeared relaxed about the prospect of a marriage equality bill successfully getting through the Parliament. He’d likely been comforted by the knowledge that Labor harboured its own objectors and that the numbers just weren’t there, even if Liberal MPs were granted a free vote on the matter.
And so Abbott had toyed with the expectations of moderate Liberals, reportedly agreeing with marriage equality supporter and Liberal MP Warren Entsch after the Irish referedum to “do something this year”. Abbott reportedly told Entsch to “talk to like-minded individuals, come back and have a yarn to me and we will say where we go with it”.
Meantime, the marriage equality lobby had gotten on with the job of persuading MPs to declare their hand – or even change their mind – and brought the numbers much closer to the line, thereby making the successful passage of legislation a real possibility.
It seems the Liberal right were initially as complacent as the PM, but once Abbott seemingly gave Entsch the nod to proceed and the numbers tightened, the conservatives became nervous about the PM’s perceived dalliance with the issue.
Columnist Miranda Divine wrote last month that the conservatives were “furious at what they see as an orchestrated campaign, with (Abbott’s) blessing, to sneak a change to the Marriage Act through parliament” and that they would withdraw their support from Abbott if he “doesn’t hold the line”.
Entsch nevertheless followed through with what he understood to be the PM’s imprimatur to obtain cross-party support for a new private member’s bill. This would fulfil Abbott’s declared requirement for any such legislation to be “owned by the Parliament” and not one party.
But once news of Entsch’s cross-party bill was leaked to the media, the PM took note of the warnings from the right and made it known that such private member’s bills rarely reach the voting stage in Parliament (remember Bill Shorten’s bill?) and so there was no need for a party room decision to allow a free vote.
Labor’s Penny Wong helpfully tweeted that six private member’s bills not only reached the voting stage but were also passed by the previous parliament. And that five were passed under John Howard’s government.
As the possibility of the proposed law being passed has moved from highly unlikely to not beyond the realms of possibility, the Liberal right have become increasingly shrill. So shrill in fact, that they’re beginning to rival the Great Unhinging of 2010. Since news of the Entsch bill has emerged, the lieutenants of the right have lined up to variously denounce gay marriage as the harbinger of bulk lot matrimony, our loss of face in Asia, a reason for ministers to walk the plank, an issue without momentum, and a distraction from the real issues of concern to everyday voters.
There is but one small problem with the arch conservatives’ determination to hold the PM’s hand to the fire on gay marriage – their capacity to punish him.
They could arrange for his removal, in the same way they dispatched Turnbull, but who would they replace him with? Some voters of the right have already made it known they’d rather lose the election with Abbott than win with Turnbull. Julie Bishop fancies herself a contender, but it’s hard to see the party described by Peta Credlin as having entrenched inequality in its ranks and processes putting a woman in the top job. The right also have their man Scott Morrison lurking in the wings, but he is not yet ready for the ultimate political promotion.
And even in the fog of their self-indulgence the right must also realise that, having been recently reminded of the Rudd-Gillard turmoil, the last thing voters want is another round of leadership musical chairs.
In short, there is very little the right can do to the PM, other than speak sternly to him. However, they can – and do – exert and maintain the very influence castigated by Credlin by pre-selecting candidates who toe the conservative line. This makes it risky for moderate MPs and potential candidates to speak out in support of marriage equality.
Liberal Teresa Gambaro is reportedly one such MP. According to Dennis Shanahan, she is “torn between appealing to a large part of her marginal electorate that supports same-sex marriage and an equally large Liberal stronghold that does not – and that includes the members of her federal electorate council”. Despite facing this risk, Gambaro is backing the Entsch cross-party bill.
This brings us to the voters, an overwhelming majority of whom support marriage equality. If there was to be an electoral backlash from the minority, which party would the Liberal supporters who oppose gay marriage vote for if Liberal MPs helped the law to be passed? The ALP, which has a policy supporting marriage equality? Or maybe the Greens, who also support gay marriage?
For all the talk (through the media) of the “absolute necessity” for Abbott to “be seen to be standing up for his conservative base” after “disappointing” them on free speech, there really is nowhere else for those voters to go. They’ll begrudgingly vote for candidates like Gambaro rather than give their vote to lefties like Labor and the Greens.
It’s time for the PM to recognise the hollowness of the Liberal right’s threats and to call their bluff on marriage equality.
The conservatives have no viable options to replace him, and their determination to pre-select candidates who reflect their own minority views could lose more votes than it wins. Conversely, the right should wake up to the fact that, at least until Morrison is ready to step up, the mostly-conservative Abbott is the best option they have to remain relevant and dominant in today’s Liberal Party.
The Political Weekly: There were few winners in politics this week, but the Treasurer was definitely one of them.
It went largely unreported, but on the weekend one of the Federal Government’s most prominent women challenged the Liberal Party to do something about its woman problem.
Apparently redefining what it means to keep a low profile, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Peta Credlin spoke from the audience of a Liberal Party forum on gender and politics, reportedly taking a shot at the gendered put-downs levelled at powerful women, and describing politics as “the toughest, most masculine, most exclusionary place”.
Credlin’s strongest criticism however was aimed at the Liberal Party itself, for entrenching inequality by neglecting to pre-select women candidates for safe seats. Echoing the PM’s justification for initially putting only one woman in cabinet, Credlin argued that without female MPs in safe seats, there is no “pipeline of women” gaining experience and credentials over time that would qualify them for cabinet:
Our women are not in the safe seats, so when we lose government, we lose our pipeline. So it was really hard to put a ministry together in 2010 when … we didn’t have a pipeline of women.
Of course, this argument doesn’t quite stack up when it comes to the well-credentialed Minister for Human Services, Marise Payne, who is a Liberal moderate and still not in cabinet despite having been in Parliament for 18 years.
Nevertheless, Credlin appears to be belatedly acknowledging that more women are needed in the Government’s top decision-making circles, and that more women are needed in the Liberal Party to make this happen. She reportedly told the forum:
Unless you have women in places where decisions are made, either on committees who are making pre-selection decisions, at state divisions as presidents and as leaders … you’re not going to get women (to) run for seats.
If you don’t get women (to) run for seats, you’re not going to get female ministers, and if you don’t get women ministers … you’re not designing popular policy for half the population. We would never get elected if we pissed off and marginalised half the electorate. We are half the electorate.
Credlin’s comments are not her first on the broader need to support Liberal women.
It’s nearly a year ago that news first began to emerge that Credlin was actively seeking ways to help women progress through the ranks of the Liberal Party.
A well-placed leak to the media in July 2014 reported that Credlin had told a private gathering of female Coalition staffers she was determined to make a difference for women in conservative politics while serving as chief of staff to the Prime Minister, and asked for their ideas about how to do so.
This came not long after Clive Palmer referred to Credlin as a “top dog” and erroneously suggested that the PM was only keeping his paid parental leave policy so that Peta Credlin could benefit from it.
After gathering feedback from that first discussion, Credlin went on to establish a formal network for female Coalition staffers, reportedly to provide support for each other and maximise their exposure to other women in leadership roles. However, Credlin also told a reporter that a motivation for creating the network was the silence from feminists following the attack on her by Palmer. According to Credlin, “This solidarity that women are supposed to have just wasn’t there.”
It could also be argued that Credlin has shown little inclination to be collegiate with the female staffers who have crossed swords with her, or even with the female MPs who have done the same.
Other than the Prime Minister who launched Credlin’s network in October last year, Credlin invited not one Coalition parliamentarian to that event; not even the sole woman in cabinet (at the time) Julie Bishop, or the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash. While this can’t be considered a direct snub to the Foreign Minister, enough information has emerged since then to suggest that when it comes to Bishop, Credlin is not exactly a team player.
So while the intervention from one of the Government’s most senior (but unelected) women is welcome, given the problem she’s identified is real and potentially a big risk for the Liberal Party, it’s important to understand that Credlin’s motives aren’t necessarily altruistic.
Credlin is on the record confirming she has no intention of moving into politics “at this time”. However, a senior Liberal in the state division that would hypothetically pre-select Credlin said she is too “toxic” and would not win pre-selection.
If Credlin is indeed interested in moving to politics eventually, she needs to rebuild bridges and establish networks before she has any hope of neutralising her perceived toxicity. And a network of up and coming female staffers, most of whom would also be Liberal Party members, would be the perfect way to start that reputation refurbishing exercise.
It’s reported Credlin concluded her contribution to the forum on the weekend with a rallying cry to a room full of past and present female Liberal politicians. Urging the women to be “fair dinkum” in bringing others with them as they climbed the ladder, Credlin also warned them not to be “one of those women who gets somewhere and pulls the ladder up behind you, because there are a lot of women who do that”.
This is undoubtedly true, and it’s hard not to wonder whether Credlin had a particular Cabinet minister in mind when she said it. More importantly, given Credlin’s take no prisoners management style, it’s advice she should also be taking.
The Political Weekly: Terror and lies lay at the heart of federal politics this week, as the Government pressed home its advantage on national security issues and Labor leader Bill Shorten made a surprising and potentially lethal admission.
There’s a lot that is depressing about Australian politics right now, what with the major parties trying to wedge each other on terrorism or pensionswhile neither seems perturbed by the latest allegations of sexual abuse in the offshore detention centres that remain open because of bipartisan support.
Political leadership has been reduced to either dog-whistling the worst prejudices of Australian voters, or policy timidity lest those very same prejudices come back to bite.
It’s bad enough that we have one political leader who can only communicate in jingoistic slogans like “Daesh is coming” and “anyone who raised a gun or a knife to Australians simply because of who we are … has forfeited his or her right to consider themselves one of us“; the other can barely utter a sentence without sounding like an amateur stand-up comedian waiting for the boom-tish. Both are so busy unleashing the hounds of prejudice against each other that they’ve lost sight of what is right for our society and the economy.
Without getting too nostalgic, it seems to be a while since we’ve had some “real” political leaders – people with the intelligence to know when it’s the right time to support or resist public opinion, the courage to do the right thing by the nation and not just key marginal seats, and the ability to convincingly explain why a decision was the right choice to make.
Granted, this combination of capabilities is a big ask and many politicians simply don’t make the cut, yet it is the responsibility of political parties to ensure potential leaders with these skills are recruited into the Parliament and promoted.
When the parties fall down on that responsibility, when they indulge in internecine warfare and factional trade-offs aimed at getting one of their own into the top spot instead of a capable leaders, then we end up with barely competent leaders like the two we’re currently saddled with.
The Prime Minister is a creation of the Liberal hard right, the conservative rump that would rather lose government with Tony Abbott than see a moderate like Malcolm Turnbull become party leader or PM. Some hardliners even claim Abbott’s leadership is on the line if he allows Liberals to have a free vote on gay marriage.
Yet if the conservative kingmakers were to dethrone Abbott, who would they install instead? The conservatives in the Liberal Party and some of the Nationals have made it clear Turnbull has little chance of uniting the Coalition, even more so since the Communications Minister resisted backbench enthusiasm for stripping citizenship from Australians involved in terrorist acts.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has wooed the hard right, and deftly stayed quiet on same-sex marriage, but was also in the Turnbull minority on the question of cancelling citizenship. Bishop also has the unfortunate disadvantage of being a woman, at a time when there’s no evidence that sexism in the Coalition, the media or the broader community has abated since the Gillard years.
Treasurer Joe Hockey’s leadership chances fizzed out like a wonky Catherine wheel when he mishandled the Liberal leadership contest back in 2009.
Scott Morrison’s image is benefiting from his time in the social services portfolio but he still lacks depth of experience, and when he attacks the Opposition he lapses into a level of nastiness that rapidly reminds voters of the extent to which he was prepared to go to “stop the boats”.
Other than the known “leadership aspirants” Turnbull and Bishop, there is not one other Liberal MP who could be considered competitive leadership material. Not Scott Morrison (yet) or Andrew Robb, who is a policy wonk and solid political strategist but lacks clarity in communication. Not Matthias Cormann, who knows the detail and his lines but can sound robotic (and is in the wrong chamber).
Looking to the other side, Labor’s stock of leadership talent isn’t that much more impressive. For a start, those involved in the Rudd-Gillard machinations might as well kiss any leadership aspirations goodbye after the recent screening of the Killing Season.
That includes two fairly talented but now tainted potential leaders-in-waiting: Tony Burke and Chris Bowen. Both men are articulate and smart, with Bowen doing a commendable job while holding down the leadership fort during the contest between Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten to decide the new Labor leader. As Manager of Opposition Business, Burke is proving to be an emerging force on the parliamentary floor.
This week may be the traditional “Killing Season” although there is arguably enough time left for a party committed to improving its electoral fortunes.
Yet if either man was to become Labor leader, voters will be reminded by the Coalition come election time, repeatedly and unmercifully, that Burke plotted (in code) with Gillard before the “surprise” knifing of Rudd, while Bowen was one of Rudd’s key lieutenants during the destabilisation of Gillard. They may eventually live down their parts in the Labor civil war, but not in time for the next election.
Of the cleanskins, both Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek and Labor leader in the Senate Penny Wong are ostensibly competitive leadership contenders. However both women have to contend with the small matter of their gender in a society that is in many ways still overtly chauvinistic if not sexist. Plibersek also has lost an edge by running hard on marriage equality, with some in the party now questioning the quality of her political judgement.
Wong like Cormann is in the wrong chamber to become leader, and while she is a formidable political talent (having overcome a tendency to drone when climate change minister), if the Australian community was uncomfortable with a woman in the top job it is regrettably not ready to put a gay Asian-Australian woman into the role.
That leaves three other shadow ministers. There’s the new ALP president, Mark Butler, who, according to another detailed account of Rudd’s campaign to bring down his successor, switched from the Gillard to Rudd camps but then contributed to the leadership speculation by refusing to confirm or deny it. Then there’s Mark Dreyfus, whose political judgement has been drawn into question over national security in recent days. And, somewhat counter-intuitively, there’s the Rudd loyalist Anthony Albanese, who seems to have emerged from the actual Rudd-Gillard wars as well as their retelling with his integrity and reputation intact. It was Albanese who warned that in moving to dethrone Rudd and install Gillard, Labor would essentially be killing two prime ministers.
This week marks five years since Albanese’s sage words were ignored, and two years since Rudd fulfilled his ultimate revenge fantasy.
Having thrown out Labor in 2013 for not being able to keep its house in order, voters are now faced with two reasonably tidy political houses led by deeply unpopular leaders.
This week may be the traditional “Killing Season” although there is arguably enough time left for a party committed to improving its electoral fortunes to make changes at the top.
For Labor, a leadership overhaul would involve the right accepting a leader from the left, and the parliamentary brawler Albanese finding his inner statesman.
A change for the better in the Liberal Party would require the traditionalists installing either a man they despise, a woman who they will inevitably think is considered not up to the task, or another man who is not yet ready to lead.
There is arguably enough time, but none of these changes are going to happen. The right installed Abbott and Shorten not only to retain factional dominance but because there was a dearth of viable options. It’s by default as much as connivance that Australian voters are currently saddled with two dud political leaders.
The Political Weekly: The Opposition has the week from Hell while the PM looks to turn back the Turnbulls.
Coalition MPs have woken this morning to an opinion poll that suggests voters are pretty unimpressed with the Government’s untidiness over the past week.
Today’s monthly Ipsos Poll is the first to be published since Treasurer Joe Hockey dug himself into a Sydney mortgage-sized hole over housing affordability, and the Prime Minister and his Immigration Minister couldn’t get their answers straight on whether people smugglers were paid hard cash by Australia to turn their boats back to Indonesia.
Iposos has recorded a 3 per cent drop in the Coalition’s primary vote (to 40 per cent) since last month, and an increase in Labor’s vote of 2 per cent (to 37 per cent), which after the allocation of preferences gives a two-party preferred result of 53:47 in Labor’s favour. Ipsos’s post-budget poll found the major parties to be at 50:50, and this latest poll brings it into line with the other published pollsters Roy Morgan(53:47), Newspoll (52:48), and Essential (52:48).
Whether or not these other polls will show a similar deterioration in the Government’s position when they are revealed in coming days, it’s fair to say voters don’t like it when ministers look incompetent. And while Treasurer Hockey might have kept it together for the initial salesmanship of this year’s budget, he’s been all over the place since then.
Even setting aside the mishandling of changes to paid parental leave by suggesting new mothers were rorters and frauds, Hockey has reverted to the Sloppy Joe of old, making up tax policy on the run, casting doubt on the PM’s iron-clad commitment not to tamper with superannuation, and opening up a debate on housing affordability that the Government really could have done without.
According to today’s Ipsos poll, 69 per cent of voters living in capital cities say homes in their area are unaffordable for first-time buyers. This amount increases to 80 per cent for Sydney-based respondents.
While the Treasurer hasn’t yet resorted to complaining about his lot, as he did last year when things got tough, his position is again being eyed by the more ambitious and impatient among his parliamentary colleagues.
Talk has already emerged about a possible ministerial reshuffle prior to next year’s federal election. However, just like the last time such talk surfaced in the media, this is more likely the work of ambitious MPs pressuring for change and jostling for positions than the PM flagging his intentions.
The fate of wholly-unimpressive Attorney-General, George Brandis, has been placed in the media’s sights by at least one anonymous backgrounder, while the extended absence of Government Senate Leader Eric Abetz to deal with a family matter has prompted others to suggest Finance Minister Mathias Cormann should be placed in the leadership role.
According to one commentator, “Abbott had always planned a big reshuffle in the second half of 2015, to take a fresh team into the 2016 election.” But that statement is more likely the wishful thinking of an over-looked backbencher than a reflection of Abbott’s current thinking, particularly considering the PM essentially brought forward the traditional pre-election ministry reshuffle to the end of last year.
Whatever the Prime Minister ultimately does about his ministry, the move will be inextricably linked with the state of his leadership within the Liberal Party. The hardliners within the party are reasserting their dominance, having seen off the leadership hopeful Malcolm Turnbull at the failed party room spill in February, and split the Turnbull-Bishop dream-team vote by cultivating the Foreign Minister’s own leadership aspirations.
Meantime, the hard-right’s heir apparent, Scott Morrison, has essentially swung in behind Abbott to bolster the PM’s position on two of the right’s emblematic issues: national security and same-sex marriage. The former Immigration Minister publicly backed the national security proposal, which divided Cabinet but has strong backbench and community support, to strip Australian citizenship from sole nationals who were found to be terrorists. As a possible alternative, Morrison also proposed suspending their residence rights rather than cancelling sole nationals’ citizenship altogether.
In doing so Morrison has clearly set himself apart from the Turnbull-Bishop “legal eagles” on the matter, and aligned himself with the majority of the backbench and the populace. He has also differentiated himself from Turnbull on gay marriage, an issue the hardliners are reportedly claiming could destroy Abbott’s leadership if he allows a free vote. Interestingly, Bishop has not yet declared her hand on the matter, although she has said in the past she’d consult her electorate if Liberal MPs were given a free vote on legislation to legalise gay marriage.
It’s hard to see how the pragmatists in the Liberal right would tear down a prime minister on an issue that has such strong support in the community, even if there are claims the Coalition could lose Senate seatsif it stops resisting the change.
Focus group research conducted last month showed that voters take a dim view of political instability. Given the choice between Turnbull, Bishop or Abbott, “Abbott is a long way last,” according to the market researcher who conducted the focus groups, Tony Mitchelmore. But if asked whether they wanted Turnbull, Bishop or stability, then “stability wins”.
This antipathy for government sloppiness and instability will be driven home as the televising of The Killing Season reminds voters that this was what they most despised about the Rudd-Gillard years.
Today’s opinion poll results are sure to cause anxiety in Government ranks, and throw fuel on the smouldering ambitions of ministerial and leadership aspirants.
But if there is anything to be learned from the poll dip, to the extent that there is one outside the margin of error, it is that voters want stable government. Any thought of throwing out an accident-prone Treasurer, who has privately threatened to cause havoc if demoted, must be carefully weighed against the public perceiving the Government as not being able to keep its house in order.