Opinion: Morrison govt's 'teal' scare campaign another hypocritical message

Photo by Tara Winstead via Pexels.
Saturday 14 May 2022

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

An international colleague asked me recently why we hold these high-octane election debates when Australians don't get to vote for the leaders directly anyway?

When you stop to think about it, the prime ministerial debate is like a presidential process grafted onto a Westminster parliamentary tradition.

It makes only partial sense and may come to make even less if this election marks the beginning of the end for the party cartels dominant since WWII.

It's not just high-calibre "teals" who could crack the duopoly, but other worthy independents and fringe parties who are now loitering with intent. Intent which may include the post-election recruitment of a few ready-made malcontents by the time the dust has settled. I'll return to that in a moment.

With the Liberal and Labor primary vote bases shrinking over time, one of them, and perhaps both, could be relegated to preference-distribution status in multiple seat counts.

How soon could this occur? It is already under way, so a better question is: how far will it spread?

In normally centre-right seats like Indi, Warringah and Mayo, Labor's candidates finish third on primary votes and its supporters' second preferences go on to lift the established independent above 50 per cent on two-party-preferred.

That may happen in Goldstein (Vic) next Saturday and potentially several other teal seat contests and if it does, the damage could be long-lasting.

Within one or two more election cycles, the Labor versus Coalition duopoly in a House of Representatives with only a small crossbench could become more of a multi-polar legislature made up of more independents and perhaps minor parties.

Minority governments would become the norm, just as they are abroad. New Zealand actually designed its electoral rules to make single-party majorities the exception rather than the rule.

In Australia, we are told the sky will fall in.

Yet strangely enough, the Chicken Little-in-chief, Scott Morrison, heads a minority government himself. His Liberal Party ceded senior cabinet posts to a separate party, the Nationals, to reach 76 seats.

It is only successful marketing that obscures this fact. How separate are they? When the Nats knifed Michael McCormack last year, Morrison had literally no notice, or say in the matter. One minute he had McCormack as his deputy PM. The next? Barnaby Joyce. Joyce immediately dumped a couple of Morrison's ministers and brought back his own supporters.

As the tail wagging the Liberal dog, the Nats' intransigence ensured studied inactivity on net-zero for years despite the clear wishes of a majority of voters. Look where that has led.

For some reason, this disorder did not qualify as "chaos" or even its milder cousin, "instability". Such epithets attach exclusively to independents, apparently.

Speaking of chaos, there's been plenty beyond Joyce's elastic journey to the wilderness and back, with all its attendant madness.

There was the wacky-right Liberal Craig Kelly - thrice saved from his own membership (by prime ministerial fiat) who finally quit the party to become parliamentary "leader" (cue laughter) of Clive Palmer's otherwise seatless party.

Or the "member for Manila", as he became known, George Christensen, who announced his retirement at this election. An extreme-right Queensland Nationals MP for Dawson, Christensen spectacularly reneged at the death knell, announcing his defection to Pauline Hanson's One Nation as a Senate candidate.

There was, of course, Christian Porter, whose retirement from cabinet and the seat of Pearce has Labor hopeful in Western Australia.

Plus other scandals, ministerial flame-outs, and subterfuges like the Claytons resignation of Alan Tudge, his exact status obscured in word clouds of prime ministerial doublespeak and deception.

Ditto his promotion of Katherine Deves and his renewed intent to advance the religious discrimination bill separately from considering the rights of LGBTQI.

This might be kryptonite in the party's inner-urban heartland, but is typical of an approach which favours the clever message over the substantive reform.

Indeed, the biggest policy fights have been symbolic and inconsequential, much like the government itself. Think climate, religious freedom, integrity, and sundry dog-whistles. Seriously, try naming one hard structural reform that has been achieved - or even floated.

Dejected and forlorn, the Morrison government is now fife with disaffection. Big-C conservatives are grumbling through their media conduits the Morrison government is dying on his knees.

This, dear reader, is the much-vaunted "order" the irresponsible constituents of Goldstein et al would endanger.

A fascinating hypothetical arises. What happens to the Liberal Party if it is swept from office a week from now, and that sweep takes out its best?

Sure, Josh Frydenberg is the heir apparent to Morrison's empty chair (outside of Queensland, anyway) but what if he's gone also. Does that mean Peter Dutton takes over? Lordy!

This astonishing and yet plausible prospect now has terrified Coalitionists arguing some pretty bizarre lines such as 'save the moderates (which we have always pilloried) because our party will lurch rightward without them'. Late in the game for such perspicacity, surely?

The whole reason the "teals" are a thing is because the Liberal Party vacated the centre to court the religious right, ignoring climate science, denying anti-corruption complaints and blocking reforms for women.

Yet a meaningful move back to the centre in opposition under, say, Josh Frydenberg, would carry grave risks for his leadership. A split could not be ruled out. Would Matt Canavan stick around? Known as a bomb-thrower, he quit cabinet in 2020 and told voters just days ago net-zero was "dead". Might he follow Big George's lead and bolster Hanson's menagerie armed with a fresh six-year sinecure?

And there are others in that hard-line group also, including Liberal senators like Gerard Rennick (Qld) and Alex Antic (SA) and the latter's lower house colleague Tony Pasin.

The poor old independents would be mere amateurs against such well-practised chaos.

Mark Kenny is a political analyst for The Canberra Times. He is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast. 

Updated:  16 May 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications