Australian politics

The Coalition – excuses, excuses, excuses, anything but policy

In seeking an explanation for its election loss, the Coalition is looking everywhere except at its policies.

One of its explanations is the lack of women in the Coalition ranks. In the House of Representatives women hold only 11 of the Coalition’s 58 seats. The ABC’s Patricia Karvelas suggests we look at TV shots of Parliament, where we see a diverse group of Australians – much more diverse than in parliaments of previous years. The Coalition ranks, however, are dominated by men (without face masks) who look like a living relic of the 1960s.

As has been clear from opinion polls, women have been deserting the Coalition for many years. (Until around the turn of this century the female vote had favoured the Coalition.) Interviewed on ABC Breakfast, Nationals Leader David Littleproud talked about this loss of support: David Littleproud says women felt a “disconnect” to Coalition at election. Littleproud acknowledged that the Coalition may have been unattractive on “women’s issues” – child care, domestic violence, the toxic masculine culture of Parliament House – but he had trouble facing up to the fact that women were voting on far more than these issues, particularly climate change and administrative integrity.

Another convenient excuse is to blame it all on Scott Morrison. Revelations about his secret ministerial appointments, revealing his distrust of ministers and contempt for cabinet solidarity, give his former parliamentary colleagues plenty of reasons to want to see him banished to the political wilderness. In demanding that he resign from parliament Karen Andrews is probably speaking for many of her colleagues.

They cannot lay all the blame n Morrison, however. At least half of Morrison’s Liberal Party colleagues voted for him in the 2018 putsch. They would have to be hopelessly inept not to have recognized Morrison’s behaviour at that time. Writing in The GuardianThe secrecy factor is telling in Scott Morrison’s alleged ministerial portfolio grabs – Malcolm Farr speculates on the reasons Coalition members went along with Morrison at the time (political gutlessness), and guesses that Morrison took his legal advice from former attorney-general Christian Porter.

While the media enjoy exposing the worst aspects of Morrison’s political character and behaviour – always a juicy story – we should ask where they were in the runup to the 2019 election and in the election this year. Anyone who has followed Australian politics over the last few years, even with the spectator’s view “from the stands”, would have realized that Morrison was unfit for high office. Most political journalists, with their ringside seats, had a clearer view, but it’s only now, in hindsight, that they’re sharing their views. As David Hardaker writes in Crikey:

In truth, there has never been anything normal about Scott Morrison. The signs have been there all along, from well before he entered Parliament via the 2007 election. His trick has been to bury his weirdness beneath layers of marketing and obfuscation.

In his article – Morrison has been in our midst for 15 years – now we’re scrambling to know him – Hardaker suggests that many journalists, particularly those from News Corp, did see Morrison’s weaknesses, but acted as a Praetorian Guard to hide them from the public.

More basically, we should realize that Morrison can easily become the scapegoat for all the Coalition’s shortcomings. A scapegoat is a convenient means for a group to avoid dealing with its own shortcomings. It would be convenient for the Liberal Party, in the short term at least, if the public could be led to believe that all the party’s shortcomings are attributable to Morrison.

John Howard has stepped into the fray, suggesting on Sky Media, and repeated on the ABC’s 730, that the Liberal Party was badly hurt by its failure to outline its vision for the nation properly.

Not enough women candidates, Morrison’s treachery, poor messaging – any reason other than policy.

Perhaps Howard and others analysing the party’s defeat should contemplate the possibility that voters didunderstand the party’s vision for the nation, and didn’t like it. An Australia where the rewards go to speculators, rent seekers and “mates”, while those who contribute to the real economy are left behind, disrespected and underpaid. An Australia with an ossified economic structure, sidelined in global markets because of irresponsible climate policies. An Australia of ever-widening inequality in wealth and life chances, heading down the path Argentina took 100 years ago. An Australia where struggling young families are excluded from home ownership and are paying taxes to keep wealthy “self-funded” retirees in a tax-free life of luxury. An Australia with a small and corrupt government and enfeebled institutions of democracy. An Australia where education, the sciences, the arts, creativity and entrepreneurship are devalued and where the mediocre and banal are celebrated.

Chris Uhlman, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, believes that Dutton’s political strategy is to bide his time, waiting for the Albanese government to go the way of the Whitlam and Rudd governments. Uhlman points out that the situation this time is different, however. The uncomfortable reality is that the Coalition’s primary vote at this year’s election was only 36 percent, compared with 42 percent when Howard lost to Rudd. Also its performance over the last three years has dispelled in the public’s mind the idea that the Coalition is a better economic manager than Labor. Over many years the Coalition misleadingly defined economic management in terms of the fiscal balance and the Commonwealth debt, and now, with a “trillion dollar debt”, they are paying the price for that deception. He suggests it’s time for the Coalition to start thinking about the long term.

Martyn Goddard points out on his Policy Post, Australia has slowly transformed itself, but the Coalition hasn’t.

Dutton, and the values he represents, are sinking further into spluttering irrelevance. But not long ago, those conservative values – the doctrines of Howard, Abbott, Hanson and the Christian Right – appeared to capture the nation’s mood. Until they didn’t.

Scott Morrison couldn’t hold a hose but he could hold five or more portfolios

There is no shortage of publicity about the revelation that Scott Morrison was secretly sworn into several ministerial roles. Albanese’s rhetoric is about processes, but he seems to be having great difficulty in hiding his Schadenfreude. The issues go well beyond partisan politics however.

Malcolm Turnbull, on the ABC’s 730 Report, presents a scathing criticism of Morrison, describing his actions as “one of the most appalling things I have ever heard in our federal government”. He is astonished that cabinet, the public service, and the governor-general all went along with it. Citizens in a democracy are entitled to know who has responsibility for what. (The whole interview is 11 minutes, the first 8 minutes of which are about Turnbull’s support for an indigenous Voice to Parliament.)

On the ABC Drive program constitutional lawyer Kim Rubenstein explains how unprecedented Morrison’s behaviour has been, and how it does not align with “Westminster” traditions regarding clear lines of ministerial responsibility and accountability: Was Scott Morrison transparent about being sworn in to multiple portfolios?. (15 minutes)

Writing in The Conversation, Anne Twomey, another constitutional lawyer, explains the laws and conventions around ministerial responsibility, and how ministers are normally sworn in. She re-presents her points, for a broader audience, in an 11-minute session on ABC Breakfast.

Twomey makes two strong points, the first being about the nature of ministerial responsibility. By our conventions and by Section 64 of the Constitution ministers are assigned specific responsibilities: they are not delegations from the prime minister. The minister for health is responsible for quarantine, for example: that power does not lie with the prime minister. Of course cabinet comes to agreement on important policy decisions, and a minister who disregards the prime minister’s preferences has a short political life, but he or she still holds responsibility and accountability. Morrison either misunderstood the role of prime minister, or he sought to expand it to be more akin to the role of an elected dictator.

The other point is about secrecy. Appointment of ministers is normally an open process, usually involving a televised occasion at Government House when a whole new ministry is sworn in, and at least a press release or an entry in the Commonwealth Gazette, when, for example, a temporary absence has to be filled.

Neither Rubenstein nor Twomey, both constitutional experts, believes that there has been any breach of our Constitution, which has remarkably little to say about executive government. And there is nothing unprecedented about a prime minister himself or herself being sworn into multiple portfolios, the most notable example being the Whitlam-Barnard two-person ministry that governed for two weeks in December 1972. But both Rubenstein and Twomey are concerned about overlapping responsibilities and the secrecy around Morrison’s move. There is a significant difference between one minister having multiple responsibilities (Whitlam’s 1972 situation) and multiple ministers having the same responsibility (Morrison’s recent situation).  On ABC Breakfast Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil gives a clear explanation of the problems, including security risks, when two ministers have the same responsibilities. (8 minutes)

On the question of secretly appointing a minister to exercise statutory powers, Twomey writes that:

… such matters should be notified to parliament and formally published so members of the public can know who is entitled to exercise particular powers. …

It is inappropriate for such matters to be kept secret – especially if it is kept secret from the Cabinet and from the minister who was formally allocated responsibility for a portfolio by the governor-general.

Such a lack of transparency is indicative of a lack of respect for the institutions of government and for the general public who have a right to know how power is allocated.

Just as Clare O’Neil explained the serious administrative consequences of Morrison’s actions, on the same program the following day Nationals’ Senator Bridget McKenzie spoke about how Morrison’s actions had damaged the cabinet system of government. Patricia Karvelas failed to pick up the irony in McKenzie’s argument, which was about Morrison having breached the “Coalition agreement” – the secret agreement between the Liberal and National parties that allocated portfolios and established certain hard policy positions. We could imagine the squeals of protest if Labor and the Greens were in a governing coalition bound by a secret agreement. It’s a pity that our political journalists rarely stray from their scripted questions.

There is also the practical matter in Morrison’s self-appointed role as minister for energy and resources, in which role he knocked back a major gas project that the “real” minister (Keith Pitt) had intended to approve. As Sarah Martin explains, writing in The GuardianScott Morrison used self-appointed powers to override minister on unpopular Pep11 gas-drilling permit – the companies could have strong grounds for legal action on the basis that normal procedures were not followed.

The most worrying aspect of the whole incident is that the governor-general was brought into these arrangements, although it seems that he was unaware that they would be kept secret. If, as in 1975, the de-facto head of state is simply a rubber stamp accepting every questionable political manoeuvre by the prime minister, we have become in effect similar to the US, where there is no separate head of state who can check the powers of the head of government, and where the head of government slowly expands his or her powers: Trump in the US, Morrison in Australia.

This is yet another reason we need our own head of state, with clearly-defined powers. On Tuesday morning’s Breakfast program Patricia Karvelas’s first question to Albanese was not about Morrison, but about the governor-general: “Do you still have trust in the governor-general?”. Albanese ducked the question, but in doing so he confirmed the view that the governor-general has no individual authority, when he said “the governor general’s job is to take the advice of the government of the day”.

It is politically wise for Albanese to duck the question for now, but the question of constitutional reform cannot be kicked down the street forever.

More findings from May’s election

It’s accepted political wisdom that Greens preferences flow to Labor, while preferences from parties on the “right” flow to the Coalition.

That’s roughly correct, but it’s only a broad generalization. William Bowe on his Poll Bludger site looks at preference flows published by the AEC, and provides some comparisons between the 2019 and 2022 elections.

In fact almost all Greens preferences do eventually flow to Labor: 86 percent in 2022. But the Coalition was unable to count on such strong flows from parties on the right: 38 percent of UAP preferences, 36 percent of One Nation preferences, and 28 percent of Liberal Democrat preferences flowed to Labor.

Bowe also reveals that in the 2022 election, preferences from the Greens, and from parties on the right, flowed more strongly to Labor than in 2019, and collectively boosted Labor’s two-party preferred (TPP) outcome by almost 1.0 percent.

Preferential voting in Australia goes back to 1918, and for most of the twentieth century was seen to help the anti-Labor side of politics – first through Country Party preferences and later through Democratic Labor Party preferences. Bowe refrains from political speculation, but in the light of these findings on preference flows, and more importantly the rise in representation by independents, it is possible that the Coalition may be cooling in its support for preferential voting. They would probably be more comfortable in the bleak and polarized political landscape of the USA and the UK.