The long election campaign

Who’s holding out against a federal ICAC?

On one side of the federal parliament are the Labor Party, the Greens, Liberal MP Bridget Archer, Helen Haines and other independents, all calling for a strong and independent federal anti-corruption commission. On the other side are Scott Morrison and members of the Liberal and National parties, who see public funds as a means to dispense privileges to mates, who are terrified by the prospect of their own corruption being exposed, or who are too timid to stand up against the Liberal and National party powerbrokers.

As Serena Lillywhite of Transparency International says in the Press Club forum The case for a federal ICAC, for any politician seeking election the case for a federal ICAC is a no-brainer. 

At the forum Serena Lillywhite establishes the general case for a strong federal anti-corruption commission, drawing attention to the ongoing decline in public trust in the federal government and specifically Australia’s falling ranking on Transparency International’s perception of corruption index over the last ten years.

She is followed by Geoffrey Watson, who draws on his legal experience to describe the design details of a properly-constituted ICAC – why it needs independence and a full suite of powers, and why there must be a stop to “the predatory misuse of ministerial discretion in allocating public money”. He reminds us of nine specific cases of funding allocated without adequate process to protect the public interest which have disproportionately favoured the Coalition during its present term in office. It comes across as a chronicle of corruption in a banana republic on its way to becoming a failed state.

The third speaker is Pauline Wright of the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties.  She systematically exposes the weaknesses and inadequacies of the pathetic proposal the Commonwealth has put on the table, drawn up by former Attorney-General Christian Porter. She dispels the notion that public hearings, an essential aspect of any ICAC, violate people’s rights, with specific reference to the way Morrison accuses the New South Wales ICAC of behaving as a kangaroo court prying into Gladys Berejiklian’s private life. 

Morrison and Berejiklian

Putting differences about vaccination behind them, Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian are now the best of mates, and Morrison was able to think of no one he would rather have in the federal parliament. Here was an opportunity for Morrison: to discredit the New South Wales ICAC (thereby normalising corruption), to bring another woman into government, and to knock off a pesky independent, Zali Steggall, who won Warringah from incumbent Tony Abbott in 2019.

It all seemed to make political sense, but did it really?

If Morrison could think in terms of pursuing a traditional centre-right agenda, he would surely not waste resources on Warringah. Steggall is no left-wing radical.  She is the elected representative of an established wealthy region of Sydney, encompassing Mosman, Neutral Bay, Manly  and parts of French’s Forest – some of the world’s most sought-after real estate.  This is a seat in which Labor won only 6.6 percent of the vote in 2019, and 14.8 percent in 2016.  It’s bound to elect to parliament someone supporting a traditional Liberal Party philosophy.

Morrison does not hold to any traditional Liberal Party policy agenda, however: his concern is to see himself and his cronies stay in control.

A centre-right politician, such as a European Christian Democrat, who sees the contest in terms of ideologies and principles, rather than a rugby league match, would weigh the situation differently. If Berejiklian is popular and is an electoral asset, she would be of most use to the party in a marginal New South Wales seat, not one in which the last candidate for the Liberal Party won only 35.9 percent of the vote, and the independent won 43.5 percent (57.2 percent after preferences).  But Morrison has bound himself to the “Westminster” winner-take-all political model, a model borrowed from another era and another country with different political traditions.

In any event, would Berejiklian be an electoral asset for the federal Liberal Party and do people feel that she is victim of an ICAC witch hunt? She has been a popular premier, but as shown in Essential polling, her resignation has resulted in voters becoming even more supportive of a federal anti-corruption body. Any reasonable person would feel sympathy for her, but affection and sympathy do not necessarily translate into electoral support. Voters are wary of people who they fear may be prone to make unwise errors of judgement.

Morrison battered, but does it matter?

Late last week, in a wrap-up of the parliamentary year, the ABC ran two programs.  Jane Norman, Andrew Probyn and Brett Worthington summarised the government’s performance over the last few weeks, during and since the Glasgow Conference: The Brief Scott Morrison dubbed a liar as politics gets personal. (15 minutes)

Federal politics of late has been dominated by issues Morrison doesn’t want on the agenda – climate change, demands for a national integrity commission, abusive behaviour by parliamentarians, and above all his own credibility. Then there is vaccination: conscious of falling personal support and bad poll results for the Coalition he has tried to keep on side hard-right and other protesters opposed to vaccination mandates and lockdowns, while trying to take credit for the nation’s progress in vaccination.  And that was before the Nationals seem to have gotten themselves into a fist fight at Canberra’s Kingston Hotel. (15 minutes)

On the Sunday Extra Roundtable Anne Tiernan, Laura Tingle and Nikki Savva engage in a similar review, but with more emphasis on integrity, social cohesion, respect for institutions, accountability and the culture of Coalition politics. The political year and the election to come.

The mood in the Coalition party room is glum, but most parliamentarians hope for a shift in support as Morrison gets on the campaign trail.  As Savva points out, Morrison is bad at being prime minister, but he is still good at campaigning.

Commenting on Morrison’s political style, both Savva and Tiernan note that he really has no agenda, and no purpose. All that counts for him is winning the election.

(The Harvard psychologist David McClelland studied the motivation of those seeking high office, particularly political office. Most are motivated by a need to achieve something – to implement a reform agenda, to restore order after a period of bad government, for example. But some just want to achieve the position as an end in itself.)

In discussing the fortunes of independents, Tingle notes that most of the independents associated with the Voices movement (Voices for Indi etc) are women. In a time when gender has been so prominent this will surely have some influence.

At the conclusion Julian Morrow puts to Tiernan the question “Where is Australian democracy at?”  Her reply, lightly edited:  

The view that our institutions are degraded is widely shared, particularly outside of government: people are very concerned about that. The focus on integrity and accountability, and demand for a federal ICAC I don’t think are going to go away, but I think the tribalism of our politics is really damaging.

Our governance in the federal parliament is not commensurate to what is going on in every other sector of the economy, and I think the risk of lost opportunities and lost prosperity is existential. We actually need to be thinking about this as citizens in the lead up to the election because I think the triumph of the permanent campaign is really bad for Australian democracy. If that’s the campaign that’s going to happen citizens should really think about where they’re going to place their vote – with people who aren’t going to do that. I think the 2019 election left searing memories with Labor but there does need to be a vision for the country and there does need to be a way of working towards that.

How Morrison made housing affordable for first home buyers

Morrison has been on the hustings in the Corangamite electorate, southwest of Melbourne, where he claimed that his government’s policies have made it easier for young Australians to buy homes.  Recorded excerpts of his claims, and a reaction from economist Simon Küstenmacher, astonished that Morrison could be so brazen to make such a claim, are on a short (4 minute) segment on the ABC’s PM.

The idea that the Coalition has helped young Australians get into home ownership seems to be so absurd that it should be an item on The Betoota Advocate rather than the ABC. But to satirise such a claim would treat it with too much respect, because in a moral wasteland where there is no such thing as the truth, satire has no punch. Like Trump, Morrison’s message seems to be “trust me, because I can be relied upon to navigate that wasteland, unlike all those losers shackled by woke ideas such as logic, objectivity and evidence”.