ALLAN PATIENCE. Saving some of the Liberal furniture.

Dec 31, 2018

Time is running out for the Liberal Party and the Coalition as the 2019 federal election looms. The change of Prime Minister from Malcolm Turnbull to Scott Morrison was a classic example of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Opinion polls have consistently shown that the Coalition is running significantly behind Labor. Can anything be done to save at least some of the furniture? Not much. But some face-saving possibilities hover in the background.   

Scott Morrison must be a disappointment for those Liberal MPs who voted to oust Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister. They should have known that Morrison’s talents for the position are equivalent to Billy McMahon’s all those years ago. The only good to come from Turnbull’s unnecessary and obviously counterproductive removal was Peter Dutton being blocked from seizing the day. While Morrison was bound to be a dud PM, Dutton would have been catastrophic.

The Morrison government is arguably one of the most policy-constipated governments ever to darken the benches to the right of the Speaker in the House of Representatives. Its problem is a mixture of political incompetence, policy emptiness, ideological blindness, and factional warfare. It’s a mixture that will prove fatal at election time.

There are four immediate steps the Liberals will have to take if they want to present some sort of credible face to voters.

First, the Coalition arrangements need to be radically re-thought. The Nationals have become a hefty mill stone around the government’s neck, largely (but not only) because of Barnaby Joyce’s shenanigans that extend well beyond his marital hypocrisy. As Gabrielle Chan (P&I, 27 December 2018) noted recently, as Nationals leader Joyce managed to factionalise the party. His style was – and remains – more Joh Bjelke-Petersen than John McEwan. He used his leadership of the Nationals pugnaciously, mainly for his own nefarious purposes, rather than uniting the party and promoting the real interests of regional Australians, especially farmers.

Meanwhile Barnaby’s extra-marital affair has resurfaced in the public consciousness because of Andrew Broad’s recently-revealed risible indiscretions. What a pair of wallies!

By now it should be obvious, even to the most obtuse of Liberals, that the leader of the Nationals should no longer automatically be the Deputy-Prime Minister in a Coalition government. Moreover, Ministry portfolios should be designated by the Prime Minister on grounds of competence, not party membership. There are Nationals Ministers who disguise their incompetence behind a veil of truculence and bluster – especially Matt Canavan, Nigel Scullion, and Bridgett McKenzie. The only two Nationals currently worthy of a Ministry are Darren Chester and David Littleproud (although the latter is a member of the increasingly fractious Liberal-National Party in Queensland). The less said about poor old Michael McCormack the better.

It’s time for the Liberals to put the Nationals in their place.

Second, it’s also time for the polyps in the Liberal intestine to be cauterized before they become invasive cancers. These include Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews, Peter Dutton, Craig Kelly, Eric Abetz, and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. Their dis-endorsement would have a positive impact on the voting public. Their replacements must all be women from the moderate centre of the Party.

Third, major reforms are needed in the Liberal policy platform. These must include:

  • an acknowledgement that climate change (that is, global warming) is the consequence of human activity;
  • a strong commitment to nationally integrated alternative energy generation systems;
  • cancelling the Adani coal mine project immediately;
  • bringing all asylum seekers off Manus and Nauru at once (even if, in the short term, this means continuing the policy of returning the boats);
  • re-regulating the financial industries (especially the banks);
  • regulating the salary levels of CEOs and senior managers in the private sector;
  • developing a wages growth policy;
  • respecting the role of trade unions;
  • establishing a properly resourced federal ICAC with real teeth;
  • doubling the funding of the ABC and SBS;
  • moving Australian foreign policy on from its unambiguous (even craven) commitment to the ANZUS alliance towards an independent foreign policy focusing on Southeast Asia and the South Pacific;
  • developing a positive response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart;
  • establishing a federal constitutional reform commission.

Policy reforms like these should only be the beginning. By addressing these and related issues the Liberal Party would bring itself into the twenty-first century. By failing to address them it will consign itself to electoral oblivion – and probably to one almighty schism.

Fourth, like it or not, and terrifying as it may seem, the Liberals have no other choice than to revisit the leadership issue. Scott Morrison’s lack of leadership talent, authority and political charisma should have been obvious even to a drover’s dog long before the party room voted Malcolm Turnbull down, and before it contemplated the absurdity of Dutton as a leadership contender.

Since he assumed the leadership, Morrison has been reacting mindlessly to almost every policy challenge he glimpses from the corner of his eye, like a shying horse. Whatever role he played – passively or actively – in Turnbull’s over-throw needs to be carefully and fully scrutinised. There is a suggestion of rat cunning there that needs to be brought into the open. Remember the arm around Turnbull’s shoulder and the declaration of undying loyalty to “my leader.” Will that seemingly two-faced act come to be ranked with John Kerr’s concealment of Malcolm Fraser in a side room at Yarralumla when he ambushed Gough Whitlam?

Even if the motives directing Morrison’s role in the leadership coup are as white as the driven snow, the fact remains that he is a devastatingly hopeless Prime Minister. To save whatever will be left of the Liberal furniture after the next election means he has to go. The sooner the better. Time is not for wasting, not for dithering, not for hand wringing.

There is only one possible replacement who has the leadership potential to guarantee the Liberals a modicum of electoral attractiveness as the general election looms. That person is Julie Bishop. She alone has both the policy experience and electoral appeal to disincline at least some traditional Liberal voters from abandoning the Party altogether. It’s time for the few sensible Liberals left in the parliament to recognise that Julie Bishop is the only one who can come to the aid of the Party at this fraught time.

Allan Patience is a Melbourne academic.

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