Morrison Still Short on Leadership

We ended last week’s session of Federal Parliament with Morrison still in a precarious position and with another week in parliament to come. He has received some favourable publicity from his energetic en tour of some electorates and from his aggressive handling of parliament. However, his request for support from parliamentary colleagues on Thursday night by the raising of hands to a song left a good deal to be desired and he subsequently acknowledged that “the full lyrics … were just not OK” (see report published in today’s Sunday Fairfax and reproduced above in Morrison’s Performance in Parliament) . And the message he (and others) received from Turnbull  from New York , which suggested that Dutton’s position as an MP should be checked by the High Court, did not help, all the more so as reports also suggest Turnbull has been leaking about his (Morrison’s) behaviour.

However, such action by Turnbull  has revealed publicly that he was not really a supporter of the traditional Liberal party but of himself and that he aimed to destroy that kind of party. The publication in the Weekend Australian of letters criticising the behaviour of both Turnbull and Bishop (see Letters Recognise Turnbull/Bishop) illustrates this and should make it easier for Morrison to discard some of the Turnbull policies even though he was party to them.

But as political editor Shanahan points out in Weekend Australian, “the atmosphere within the Liberal Party is now toxic enough to reduce Scott Morrison’s chances of electoral victory from improbable to impossible, with personal vendettas, factional payback, paranoia and delusion taking hold of a sufficient number of Liberal members to destroy the Coalition government”.

Shanahan argues that Morrison has to “sell himself to the voting public, he has to unite the Liberal Party while not giving in totally to the demands of conservatives or moderates, he has to deal with damaging claims of bullying and gender imbalance within the parliamentary party, he has to try to silence Turnbull, he has to win the Wentworth by-election, he has to prevent a High Court referral for Dutton, mollify Tony Abbott and Joyce, stop any crossing of the floor, damage Bill Shorten, lift the Liberal Party out of its lowest, longest of primary vote slump in Newspoll history and turn around Coalition support from an equal record low to a winnable position in less time than it took John Howard in 2001”.

“On the policy side he has to make up for a neglect of farmers in drought, demonstrate he can get power prices down, continue to keep the economy growing, reassure the electorate on the immigration rate and embark on infrastructure projects such as dams, rail and power generation” (see Shanahan on Morrison).

But it is on policy that Morrison is behind the ball game. Some say that as a new leader he needs to be given more time. But he has had Cabinet experience since 2015, starting under Abbott, and is well aware of the key policy issues facing the Coalition. Yet he finds it difficult to lead the policy direction in which the new government should direct itself after Turnbull.  This raises concern as to how, given the several public praises he made of Turnbull,  different he really is.

It may be leading him down different tracks. One may be to indicate that inquiries will be established rather than new policies, such as his announcement today that there will be a Royal Commission on Aged Care but without giving any terms of reference and without regard to the many inquiries that have been held on age care (see Aged Care Royal Cn). Meantime policy remains extant. Another approach may be to simply say that there are problems with certain policies but without indicating what they are. One important area here is religion, for which he has indicated he will take personal responsibility. Given that he actively follows a religion (Pentecostalism) which is Christian but unusual, and has quite a large following in Australia (about 200,000), this opens the possibility that he will not be critical of other small (for the present) religions such as Islam (early in my Commentary series he sent me a reply implying acceptance without question of Islamism).

But the most important immediate problem with policy that he has spoken about is energy policy. My previous Commentary have already drawn attention to the apparent contradiction between his policy of, on the one hand, reducing electricity prices and, on the other hand, retaining the emissions reduction and renewable increases targets. Neither he nor his Minister of Energy (Taylor) have acknowledged any contradiction and seem to be indicating that there will be some form of price control that ensures prices will be reduced. But realistically this can only happen with government intervention and/or increased subsidies, as well as agreements with the states. Yet there is no need to adhere to the Paris agreement on emissions reductions: many other countries are either not required to do so or simply allow their emissions not to reduce their economic growth to any marked extent. The latter course is the one which Australia should adopt.

Note in this regard that Opposition leader Shorten has confirmed today that Labor is supporting some form of NEG as instigated by Turnbull and Frydenberg (see Shorten Supports NEG). If Morrison was to announce marked changes in the targets set by Turnbull that would provide an opportunity to sensibly differentiate Coalition policies on energy from Labor’s and, at the same time, achieve reductions in power prices without government subsidies that would be potential vote winners. It would also eliminate the potential challenge which would likely emerge from Dutton and other so-called conservatives both inside and outside Federal Parliament if he continues with his existing energy policy.

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