Morrison and co: just where to from here?

PRESSURE: Since taking over from Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison has left himself open to attacks. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen
PRESSURE: Since taking over from Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison has left himself open to attacks. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

The recent madness in the LNP – both disunity and disloyalty – resulted in the recent, devastating Newspoll. You could reasonably have expected new PM Morrison to have moved quickly and decisively to begin to define himself, and a strategy.

Yet he has missed the opportunity. Indeed, rather than a substantive response, he has chosen to attempt to smooth things over, with a pretense of new found loyalty among his “new generation of ministers”, and by seeking to spin his way out of difficult issues such as Dutton’s abuse of power as Immigration Minister, the link between the drought and climate, his commitment to emissions reduction and so on.

The average voter has every reason to doubt the loyalty of Morrison’s team.

After all, most swore renewed loyalty to Turnbull post-spill, only to vote against him a few days later.

While Morrison makes the point that the Immigration Minister does have such discretionary powers, this does not distract from the issue of how these powers were used, especially when used to the benefit of Dutton’s mates. It also begs the question of what else Dutton got up to.

While some, but only a few, can accept the logic of giving Tony Abbott a job in the hope that he may become a team player, others feel Morrison should have moved to get him to exit Parliament – or at least to have him expelled from the Liberal Party for the damage he has done.

Clearly, if Morrison had taken a hard line on Abbott and asked Dutton to stand aside while there was an independent review of his performance, he would have done much more to define himself and the standards of his government.

Failing to have acted along such lines easily confirms Morrison’s reputation as wishy-washy, with a preference for spin, slogans and stunts rather than leadership and substance.

You can reasonably expect the Shorten Opposition to run hard to exploit these issues when Parliament resumes. Obfuscation seems to be the strategy on climate and emissions reductions. Morrison sought to avoid any discussion of climate on his recent inspection of the impact of the drought.

Then the new Energy Minister Angus Taylor ducked media questions after his first speech, attempting to focus on his commitment to lower electricity prices.

Then the new Trade Minister Simon Birmingham was trotted out to make vaguely supportive noises about the new government’s commitment to the Paris targets. Yet there are no specifics, beyond an obvious attempt to hope to skate by on the climate issue.

Again, Morrison has left himself and his government exposed to a concerted Opposition attack, having basically left the climate/renewables field wide open for them when all recent polls emphasise growing voter support for decisive government action on climate and for the further development of renewables.

Again, Morrison has left himself and his government exposed to a concerted Opposition attack.

I notice in his early colour interviews, Morrison has selected sympathetic interviewers in Alan Jones and A Current Affair, taking the opportunity to target a message to particular constituencies – raising the possibility of deregistering the CFMEU as raw meat to his party constituency; a generally populist possibility of a Royal Commission into the power companies, claiming them as bad as the banks; a possible mini-budget in December in the hope of buying the next election; the hint of a willingness to build a new coal-fired power plant; freezing the pension age, even knowing pension costs are getting out of control, and so on.

However, while the likes of Jones and Ray Hadley are being respectfully supportive, it is “for now”. They are already signaling that they will monitor Morrison’s performance very closely.

Don’t be surprised if at even a minor hiccup in Morrison’s performance they move back to fulsome support for their Abbott – it has become an obsession with them.

In an interview the other evening, Morrison made the comment that “we have a country to run”. Yes, he certainly does, after a couple of decades of poor government.

His focus should be to provide genuine and sustainable solutions to all the key elements of the cost of living – housing affordability, power, education and health, child and aged care, at least. Actions and outcomes, not words, will be definitive.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.