Politics

Underdog’s new tricks falling flat, but it’s not over yet for Morrison


Third, it was time for the leap. Morrison changed the subject. If he’s going to win the May election, he needs to be on his favoured territory of economic management and national security. Not in the ditch of vaccines, quarantine, rapid antigen tests, health care, aged care and deaths.

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So he promised $2 billion in new funding for research, and for commercialising research, in six priority areas. To “focus the commercialisation of the six national manufacturing priority areas – resources and critical minerals, food and beverage, medical products, recycling and clean energy, defence and space – bringing the country’s brightest business and academic minds together”. It would “help develop the next generation of great Aussie companies and products”. That was the economic manoeuvre.

The next morning Morrison visited the RAAF base at Richmond to Sydney’s northwest to add national security to the manoeuvre: “Just behind us here, this was one of the Hercs [Hercules transport planes] that went in, actually the first one that went into Kabul, when we completed the airlift of some 4100 people, brought to safety in one of the most dangerous environments you could possibly imagine.”

Did any of this have the least effect as a political reset? No. When the dog is in the ditch, when the government is behind in the polls and desperate to recover, everything it does is seen through that lens. Everything is discounted. Nothing is taken on face value. Everything is seen as a desperate ploy. As the Gillard government found in 2012-13. Nothing works.

Point by point, everything Morrison did this week failed to have the desired effect. First, the mea culpa ploy immediately fell flat. The first question to Morrison at the National Press Club was from the ABC’s Laura Tingle, who invited him to “actually say sorry for the mistakes you’ve made as Prime Minister”. He just couldn’t.

Second, the handouts to the 200,000 workers in aged care didn’t just fall flat. It actually drew attention to the shocking state of the sector and inflamed anger at the government. A provider body, Aged and Community Services Australia, criticised the payment as “grossly inadequate”. It would be ineffectual in holding staff who were “completely burnt out”, according to chief executive Paul Sadler. The union described it as “insulting” to the workers when the government refused to support the case before Fair Work Australia asking for a raise. Even the royal commission into aged care had recommended a pay rise.

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And Morrison had just opened the door to Labor leader Anthony Albanese: “If I was prime minister, we would make a submission to the Fair Work Commission supporting an increase in pay for aged care workers. Yes, we would.” Bill Shorten added: “You can earn more at Bunnings”.

Morrison’s gambit also drew attention to the acceleration of death rates. To the fact that some 80,000 people in aged care have not yet received a vaccine booster shot. To the fact that about 500 people have died with COVID in aged care homes in January, more than the total for all of last year. To the fact that the failed Minister for Aged Care, Richard Colbeck, is still the minister, still failing.

Colbeck this week denied there was a crisis in the sector. Colbeck last month refused to appear before a Senate committee looking into the sector because he was too busy. This week he defended his decision to go the cricket that day instead. It happened to be the day that the Omicron virus was beginning its deadly romp through the homes he’s supposed to be responsible for.

Albanese demanded Morrison sack Colbeck. He won’t. The residents and staff in aged care homes are paying the price for Morrison’s decision to not sack Colbeck when he should have – last year. Morrison is defending a one-seat majority and decided long ago not to risk alienating any of his ministers by sacking them. Regardless of the cost.

At the start of the week, Morrison had hoped to win the gratitude of the aged care sector. By the end of the week, the former royal commissioner into aged care, the respected former civil servant Lynelle Briggs, was ripping into the government. She publicly chastised it for failing to develop a plan to protect residents and workers from the virus even after two years of the pandemic. Politically, it was a flaming, screaming, unmitigated disaster for Morrison.

Third, his attempted leap went nowhere. The $2 billion for research is actually an important initiative in a vital national interest. For a century, Australia has had a first-rate research base but a third-rate record in commercialising its work.

Morrison’s decision won’t impress free-market conservatives – John Roskam of the Institute for Public Affairs complained it was a Laboresque lapse into “more planning and bigger government”. But events – China’s trade embargoes and the breakdown of global supply chains – have slapped the invisible hand of market forces. Morrison is intervening in a limited way to produce maximum benefit. But the announcement was treated in the same way as all announcements by desperate-looking governments.

The reporters’ questions to Morrison at the Press Club ranged from tough to hostile, and none was about the economy. Two hand grenades, in particular, blew up his show. One was Sky’s Andrew Clennell asking Morrison the old gotcha question – how much does a loaf of bread cost? He didn’t know.

The other was Channel Ten’s Peter van Onselen’s question. He read out what he said were text messages between Gladys Berejiklian and an unnamed federal cabinet minister insulting Morrison – “a horrible, horrible person” and a “psycho”. He asked Morrison to respond. The Prime Minister did his best to smother the incoming ordinances but both exploded loudly.

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The text exchange is damaging because it implies that someone in Morrison’s cabinet is leaking to harm him “maliciously and vengefully”, in Barnaby Joyce’s words. The dog remains in the ditch, taking a kicking. Even the NSW branch of the Liberal Party is defying his efforts to control the choice of candidates. There are key seats with no Liberals yet endorsed.

Morrison could still win. Australian federal elections are almost always very close contests, usually decided late as voters make up their minds in the final weeks. There’s a budget due next month. Labor will be tempted into hubris. Predictably, the unexpected will happen unpredictably. And the Liberals will crank up a mighty scare campaign. As the American writer Dave Pelzer says: “You kick a dog long enough, that dog is going to bite you or die.” It can still go either way.

But it just got harder for the Coalition. Labor counts 80 seats where it thinks it’s ahead at the moment. It only needs 76 to form majority government. Morrison lost a week and he’s about to lose a couple more. Parliament, a forum the government cannot control, is about to sit. Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins will appear at the National Press Club and the next Women’s March for Justice is set for February 27.

Morrison is today even more the underdog than he was a week ago.

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