Scandals may be turning point for Morrison government

This was the week the sex scandals enveloping the Morrison government reached boiling point.

On that everyone in Canberra agrees.

The question is: will it also be a political turning point? On that there is no consensus.

What changed was the realisation across the political spectrum the government might not survive this.

Three months ago that seemed impossible. The question most commentators were asking back then was would Scott Morrison call an election this year?

That began to change in mid-February when News Corp broke the story of Brittany Higgins' alleged rape inside Parliament House in 2019.

It seems bizarre now but the view of pollsters in the two weeks after the Higgins allegations was while the scandal was occupying media time and had the attention of affluent, tuned-in voters in capital cities, in the outer suburban and regional electorates - where elections are won and lost - voters were paying little attention.

"It's just Canberra - they don't really think it's got much to do with them," one pollster said.

That view was reflected at the time in conversations across the government.

 

Even more bizarrely, the sense of complacency continued even after Attorney-General Christian Porter outed himself as the cabinet minister accused of raping a 16-year-girl in 1988 when he was 17.

While it was acknowledged the government would take a hit over the allegations, even as rallies were being organised around the nation, the view inside remained that Porter's situation was unique, personal, and not really to do with the government itself.

In the two weeks after the Porter story broke, the view of another pollster conducting focus groups across suburban Australia was ordinary people were starting to tune in.

And that the anger was building.

"It's coming up unprompted now," he said.

At times last week the government seemed shell-shocked at what was unfolding.

No one could say government staffers sharing footage of themselves "going solo" in Parliament House - in one case on the desk of a female minister - was not really about the government.

One MP described the atmosphere in the building in the wake of the story as "just horrendous".

Morrison described the revelations as "sickening and disgusting" at a press conference during which he made a plea to the women of Australia.

But as a government MP said, even though the revelations were "clearly" far less serious than the Porter and Higgins allegations, they were potentially more damaging to the government.

"No one thinks (the Porter and Higgins allegations) are isolated to Parliament House or there aren't any other workplaces where there are these issues," the MP said.

But "gay orgies at work? People just can't relate to it."

The MP said it looked like Australians were paying for staffers who were "happily taking the piss at work".

 

A sense of complacency continued even after Attorney-General Christian Porter outed himself as accused of a rape in 1988. Picture: Gary Ramage
A sense of complacency continued even after Attorney-General Christian Porter outed himself as accused of a rape in 1988. Picture: Gary Ramage

 

The problem, the MP said, was it fed into an existing narrative.

"That's why there might be cut through - no one likes politicians. No one likes Canberra."

Several MPs who spoke to the Saturday Herald Sun raised the Major government in Britain which imploded in the early 1990s after a series of money and sex scandals shorthandedhanded as "sleaze". Just as in 2019 in Australia, that government had been returned to office unexpectedly, without much legislative agenda, and had been forced to focus on a series of external events.

But as one MP said, what really finished Major was the fact British Labour "finally got its shit together".

The question, he pondered, was whether the ALP could do the same.

It's a question also being asked inside Labor.

"We're just sitting back and hoping they implode and that's a very dangerous place for Labor to be," said one veteran right-wing Labor MP in a form of words almost identical to a veteran Victorian Left figure who added he assumed in the weeks to come Scott Morrison would find a way to fix the crisis, starting with jettisoning Porter.

"They'll bring in quotas, they'll widen the debate to workplaces everywhere; it will change the subject," the MP said.

The easiest and quickest way for Morrison to change the face the government presents to the world would be to promote more women to the frontbench in the reshuffle that now looks like being next week.

At present only six of Morrison's 22 cabinet ministers are female.

There are also two women in the eight-person outer ministry.

Under them are three of the 12 assistant ministers, as parliamentary secretaries are known these days.

 

In mid-February News Corp broke the story of Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape inside Parliament House in 2019.
In mid-February News Corp broke the story of Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape inside Parliament House in 2019.

 

The difficulty in increasing these numbers is the size of the overall ministry is fixed by legislation.

So while Morrison can elevate outer ministers into cabinet he cannot increase the overall size of the frontbench.

If Porter were to move to the backbench until his defamation action was resolved one way or the other it would create an opportunity to increase female ministerial representation.

The only other way would be to dump another man from the frontbench.

Government insiders, both elected and unelected, have mixed views about Porter's situation.

On the one hand there is a widely held view - along with a great deal of sympathy - that he is in a position from which it will be difficult to defend himself.

"Everyone knows how bad a precedent this sets because it is just an allegation," one MP said.

But there is also a view that as long as he remains on the frontbench the government will be unable to move on.

At present all the signs suggest the prime ministerial thinking is while Porter must be moved from the Attorney-General's portfolio, he will not go to the backbench.

Whether stripping him of the Attorney-Generalship is enough to lance that boil, remains to be seen.

Most of his colleagues would breathe sighs of relief if Porter himself were to volunteer for the backbench until his defamation case is over.

 

OFF-BALANCE, LIBS CLING TO HOPE

They're shell-shocked at the abrupt reversal in the Morrison government's fortunes and wondering where the next blow will come from.

But despite five weeks of appalling headlines that have shattered morale and caused some to question the political judgment of Scott Morrison, Liberals still think the government can turn things around.

"If someone tries to spin it isn't bad for the government, that's not credible. But if people start saying it's the end of the government then that's very premature," a senior party figure told the Saturday Herald Sun.

A minister agreed while "the optics have been terrible" and "the government had been knocked off its message" there was still a lot of public goodwill towards the government.

The problem, the minister said, was the narrative would not change until the government made clear what concrete action it would take.

"We've been in abeyance because there has been a lack of concrete measures - but that takes time," the minister said. "Until there are concrete measures that won't change."

A number of government and other Liberal figures say Mr Morrison's performance in the past month has revealed a need to broaden the circle of people around him.

"If you look at the people around him, they're all pretty conservative," a veteran Liberal consultant said.

"Not all religiously conservative but conservative in their world views … there's not a lot of diversity of opinion."

According to one MP, Liberal women were outraged at the ham-fisted response to a crisis they thought should be beyond party politics.

 

There is a question mark over whether Anthony Albanese is the best leader to exploit the situation. Picture: Gary Ramage
There is a question mark over whether Anthony Albanese is the best leader to exploit the situation. Picture: Gary Ramage

 

 

LABOR DILEMMAS IN SCOMO'S WOES

Three months ago some Labor MPs feared Anthony Albanese was going to lead them to a catastrophic defeat.

After the horror five weeks the Morrison government has just endured, a different fear has gripped his internal enemies: that he might actually lead them to victory.

The Saturday Herald Sun spoke to a range of Labor MPs about what the current crisis in Canberra means for the ALP's election prospects.

It found a caucus divided between those who think Scott Morrison will be able to fix his "women problem" and those who think too much damage has been done and the coalition is heading for defeat.

One thing all agreed is that Morrison's lack of empathy has made his situation worse.

"They've treated this as a political problem when it's so much bigger than that," one MP said.

"It's been surprising how long it took them to see that."

Although some MPs think Albanese has performed well, there is a question mark over whether he is the best leader to exploit the situation.

As one MP put it this week, sometimes the leader gets removed even when the polls are going well.

"It's the 'drover's dog' argument," said the veteran MP referencing former Labor leader Bill Hayden's quip that "a drover's dog could lead the Labor Party to victory" in the wake of his replacement by Bob Hawke when the polls had shown Labor was heading to victory in the 1983 election.

The MP, a Tanya Plibersek supporter, thinks a female Labor leader would play to one of Morrison's weaknesses - his aggression.

Another MP said the past month had shown Labor could win, it was just a question of how to maximise its chances.

But other MPs who in the past expressed views that Labor was heading for defeat under Albanese fear the reversal in Morrison's fortunes will make it harder for Labor to make any change.

Others are pessimistic.

One senior MP said that while Scott Morrison was "not invincible" there was "always a danger you develop a false sense of hope because of their hopelessness".

Another MP feared Morrison would "regroup and change his narrative" which would "eventually bite us on the backside".

"Among people who have been around a while, there's a high level of despondency."

james.campbell@news.com.au

Originally published as Scandals may be turning point for Morrison government



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