Australian politics

More on Morrison’s magic ministries

Anyone inclined to read 26 pages of legal opinion can download the solicitor general’s opinion on Morrison’s multiple and secret ministries. Michelle Grattan has done us the service of summarizing it: Morrison’s multiple ministries legal but flouted principle of “responsible government” in The Conversation.

Notably, but unsurprisingly, the solicitor-general found that “The Governor-General has no discretion to refuse to accept the Prime Minister’s advice in relation to such an appointment”. The report does not really address the question whether the governor-general should have publicized the appointment, because the solicitor-general was asked to report specifically on the validity of one representative appointment, although the report recommends options for ensuring that secret appointments cannot be made again. A long footnote, #13, deals with the question of the governor-general’s responsibility for publicizing such decisions, but it is inconclusive.

Malcolm Turnbull, appearing on the ABC’s 730 program, says that “something has gone seriously wrong at Government House”. He reminds us that many people in the senior ranks of the public service, and in the governor-general’s office, knew what was going on. “They knew that this was wrong, this was bad. What did they do to push back?” Turnbull is shocked that so many people who should be defending our constitution and democratic conventions quietly went along with this behaviour: “There is a problem in officials and public servants not defending their responsibilities and the Constitution in the federal context in the face of bullying politicians”. This passive compliance with politicians’ power grabs “is how tyranny gets under way”. (11 minutes)

Anyone who has observed the politicization of the public service over the last 25 years would surely agree with Turnbull. It’s not just ministerial bullying: many senior public servants exhibit an obsequious desire to please the minister, often to the extent of protecting the minister from learning that the government’s pet programs may be failing.

The Australian Republican Movement has issued a press release, drawing on the solicitor-general’s report as an argument for an Australian head of state. Paul Bongiorno, writing in The New Daily, puts the case less delicately: The office of Governor-General is broken and needs replacing.

Passing a law to stop secret appointments will be easy. The hard task that the government should address is in de-politicizing the public service, ensuring that the public service it has its own standing. A starting point may be to re-visit the Public Service Act, which in 1999 the Howard government amended to require the public service to be “responsive” to the government, while downplaying any idea of responsibility. Any reform should also specify an obligation on public servants to notify their minister, formally, when they believe laws or conventions of good government are being broken. (This will be particularly relevant in the “Robodebt” commission.)

Public opinion – the government is still riding high

Essential report – perhaps the electorate is to the “left” of the government

The latest fortnightly Essential Report has a number of questions about possible and actual public policies.

We’re certainly no free marketeers: 80 percent of Australians believe that “governments should have an active role in shaping the economy”. There is some predictable partisan difference, and notably older people are more in favour of government action to shape the economy than younger people are. A smaller majority (58 percent) believe that “Australia’s economic system is broken and the government needs to make fundamental changes to sort it out”.

We are strongly in favour of “price caps on essential services like energy”, “taxes on companies that make additional profits due to rising inflation”, and “setting pay and conditions across industries rather than individual workplaces”. There is only a small amount of partisan difference on these issues.

On our ratings of six political leaders Albanese comes out on top, Pauline Hanson in last place, with entirely predictable partisan differences. There is no difference between men’s and women’s rating for Albanese, but Dutton, Hanson and Littleproud enjoy more support among men than among women.

There is a question “To what extent do you agree or disagree that the following groups' views of the Australian economy align with your best interests?”. We are not passionately for or against any of the four groups mentioned – small business (57 percent positive), community organizations (51 percent), unions (36 percent) and big business (29 percent). Most responses are neutral. What stands out, however, is that Coalition supporters seem to have a particular dislike of unions.

Party polling – we’re all in love with Albo

Resolve Strategic has a poll showing extraordinary support for the government and for the prime minister. Primary support for Labor is 42 percent, up from 33 percent at the election, while primary support for the Coalition has slipped from 36 percent to 28 percent. Support for others seems to be steady, except for United Australia, which seems to be fading from the landscape.

The poll also shows Albanese has a massive lead over Dutton as preferred prime minister: 55 percent to 17 percent. On economic management, where the Coalition usually has a lead, Labor now has a substantial lead.

William Bowe compares the Resolve Strategic poll with Morgan and Newspoll, which show more modest leads for Labor than the Resolve poll. Also, polls that show two-party preference, do not reveal a thumping lead for Labor, but in view of the changing composition of our political contests, does the TPP measure have the meaning it once had?

Notably the Resolve Strategic poll is the most recent poll. People were being surveyed as Morrison’s multiple and secret portfolios were being exposed. That may help explain why it is highly favourable to Labor.

Before Labor slaughters the fatted calf and knocks off the Grange Hermitage, it should recall that Rudd enjoyed similarly strong poll results when he was elected in 2007. The ABC’s Karen Tong, quoting extensively from the ANU’s Ian McAllister, notes that prime ministers’ popularity starts to wane after three months. McAllister points out that prime ministers can sustain their support if they maintain trust with voters and are seen to be decisive. Other qualities, such as compassion, are appreciated but they do not shift votes: With Anthony Albanese's popularity apparently soaring, have we reached peak Albo?

Labor can take some comfort in knowing that while people are still distressed about the cost of living, there is no evidence that this distress is costing it support. And while Labor can largely rely on Green preferences, the Coalition has no such reliable source of preferences. The political landscape for the Coalition is bleak, but unfortunately not bleak enough for them to go through a fundamental reform, or to dissolve and reconstitute themselves as the conservative parties did in 1944.