Morrison has failed in handling of Dutton controversy

The latest “madness” in the Coalition government lowered trust and belief in our politicians and political system even further than that achieved in the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd era. Voters have been treated with contempt and their expectations and aspirations ignored. A significant backlash is inevitable.

Rather than directly address the disloyalty and division that was fundamental to the madness, new Prime Minister Scott Morrison has chosen to attempt to paper over it, to push on with his new dawn, hoping that electoral memories will fade or can be distracted by statements, slogans and spin about his personal values, beliefs, and intentions.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Photo: AAP

However, the electorate has had enough. They can easily see though what he is doing. They simply want authenticity and outcomes.

They are influenced by Morrison’s claim to Christian values, but they want to see them enacted. They clearly wonder how, all of a sudden, Morrison can patch things up with Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton and the other insurgents, and just move on as if his ascension, actually by default, will heal all.

Morrison is off to a poor start by not being honest with the electorate as to just why Turnbull had to go and by defending the likes of Peter Dutton, whose actions in granting visas to two au pairs most see as indefensible. This is just compounding the contempt of the electorate.

I was surprised by the number of approaches I had from foreign media - from the United States, Europe and Asia - as the madness unfolded in Canberra. All began with the simple questions: “Actually, what did Malcolm do that was wrong?'' “Just why was he replaced?'' Morrison has decided to just leave such reasonable questions unanswered.

Morrison’s challenge is to attempt to reposition himself and his government to minimise the inevitable electoral fallout. But oddly, he has been acting as if he is the head of a newly elected government, not just another selected leader.

Peter Dutton in Question Time on Tuesday.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Moreover, he would have had much more credibility if he had clearly attempted to draw a line under the likes of Dutton, by ensuring a proper, independent, review of his performance as Immigration Minister and simply referring him to the High Court to settle his position in relation to section 44 of the constitution. Dutton’s eligibility should not be a political issue, but a constitutional issue. By resisting, Morrison is embracing Dutton’s weaknesses and issues as his own.

Letting Dutton run, allowing him to abuse parliamentary privilege with gutter level attacks on former Australian Border Force chief Roman Quaedvlieg, reflects directly on, and seriously undermines, Morrison’s projected “wholesomeness”.

Again, I have been struck by the intensity of many comments to me as to how Australia dodged a bullet – imagine how things would have unfolded if Dutton had won the leadership and was immediately consumed by all this? Cynically, is this what the likes of Abbott had hoped for, providing him with the platform to run again? How self-absorbed and selfish could they be, to the detriment of our national interest?

As to outcomes, voters are demanding deliverable solutions, not just slogans and vague promises. To be effective here, Morrison will need to start by being honest about the magnitude of the policy challenge in any area, clearly spelling out policy alternatives, admitting disadvantages as well as advantages, losers as well as winners, then setting out the detail of his preferred policy response. He needs to demonstrate a preparedness to fight for it, day in, day out.

Voters expected Malcolm Turnbull to solve problems. He didn't.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Voters want to see honesty and genuine attempts to solve problems, not just have them kicked down the road. This is what they expected of Malcolm Turnbull. This is the expectation that he created on assuming the leadership, promising a restoration of good, evidence-driven cabinet and government. His failure to deliver is a fundamental reason why his electoral standing was eroded.

But again, we are faced with the tyranny of the three-word slogan. Morrison has replaced Turnbull’s “Jobs and Growth”, with “Strong, Safe, Together”. Beyond this he has started to float a myriad policy possibilities – such as a royal commission into the energy companies, deregistration of the CFMEU, and many more – few of which he will actually pursue.

One of the major weaknesses of our politicians is the claim that they listen to their electorate, that they know their voters, when they clearly don’t. The overwhelming response to the same sex marriage postal survey and the intensity of the vote in many electorates caught many by surprise, especially those who thought such a survey would “kill” the issue.

Many polls and surveys show consistent and mounting support for decisive government action on climate change and a strong preference for renewables, yet Morrison is attempting to shift attention from emissions reductions under the facade of concern over electricity prices.

Climate is a genuine and significant electoral concern that has been kicked about by our politicians for nearly 30 years. It was an issue in recent byelections. It could be very significant in the coming Wentworth byelection.

I am quite frankly amazed, recognising just how tough it is to get majority support on virtually any issue, that our politicians don’t listen and respond when they have it, which they do on this issue. For Morrison to be seemingly attempting to appease a handful of insurgents in his government on this issue will cost him dearly at the next election.

In his “values” speech in Albury last week, an aspirational Morrison set out his wish-list, but the speech, devoid of any policy detail, left one dominant, and potentially defining question hanging in the air – how exactly does he plan to achieve any of it?

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

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