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Former Liberal, independent member for Chisholm, Julia Banks (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Yesterday was to be Scott Morrison’s relaunch: he’d move on from the Victorian disaster, and another rotten Newspoll, by seizing the agenda: lay out the timetable for the 2019 budget and in effect fire the gun on an extended election campaign to culminate in mid-May. A return to surplus would provide the fuel for a Morrison surge to victory. There was even an hilarious story from the Liberals’ go-to News Corp hack, Simon Benson, in The Australian, about Morrison launching an “intimate war” against Shorten.

But the PM barely had time to slip into something more comfortable before the whole thing was blown up by Julia Banks, who savaged the “reactionary right wing” of her own party and “the level of regard and respect for women in politics” and left his party. Nothing could better illustrate how the deep-seated problems of this government can’t be papered over with a veneer of politics-as-usual from a Prime Minister hopelessly out of his depth.

Up until mid-year, the government, mainly thanks to Mathias Cormann’s discipline, managed to control spending — especially compared to the Abbott years. But the main reason for the return to surplus is the surge in revenue delivered by higher company profits, and in particular higher commodity prices. The iron ore price now looks to have peaked, but it has helped deliver billions in extra revenue. Rather than continue its fiscal restraint and bank all of that, giving Australia greater fiscal firepower to confront future external shocks, the government is now spending much of that extra revenue. 

But even assuming the return to surplus has been won through hard work, the assumption that a budget surplus is the basis for electoral victory is old thinking. A budget surplus doesn’t increase wages growth. In fact, Morrison when Treasurer claimed wages growth would return when companies started becoming more profitable. Now higher profits are fueling his election war chest, but wages growth remains non-existent. The budget forecasts WPI growth of 2.75% this year. Will MYEFO downgrade that yet again, as the government has had to do over the last five years? What about the 3.25% 2019-20 forecast? Will the April budget downgrade that, too? That’s the key number for ordinary Australians, not whether a temporary surge in revenue puts the budget into the black.

Banks’ departure also reflected structural problems within the Liberal Party. Its unwillingness to accept the need to actually do anything about the dearth of women in its ranks was a factor in Banks’ decision. As Peter van Onselen regularly points out, the Liberals have no problem with a quota-based representation of Nationals within the government, but baulk at quotas for women to contest winnable seats. Beyond this, there’s the persistent misogyny of a party in which sexist insults at a female Prime Minister were not merely tolerated but endorsed from the top.

As if on cue, in the hours after Banks’ speech, Queensland senator Barry O’Sullivan made a disgusting slight about Sarah Hanson-Young in that chamber, prompting her leader Richard Di Natale to do his block (Hanson-Young’s reply was also devastating). O’Sullivan is a National, and cooler heads from all sides convened overnight to change procedural rules to reduce the opportunity for the kind of garbage we’ve seen from right-wing senators. But that’s a distinction without a difference for a party with an obvious problem with women. Only structural change will address this, and some is underway: the NSW party elevated Hollie Hughes to top spot on the Coalition ticket on the weekend, ahead of standard-issue white males Andrew Bragg and Jim Molan. Hughes will be a far better senator than either.

The other structural problem, not unrelated, is more serious. There’s a far-right rump in the Australian polity. Part of it is inside the Liberal Party and LNP; part of it is in the News Corp-owned media and on 2GB. It is a cancer that is killing the party by making it ever less focused on issues of relevance to real people, and more focused on the obsessions of a minority of angry, wealthy old white men and religious obsessives. Banks knows that. Kelly O’Dwyer — whose preselection has been threatened by exactly those kind of people — knows that. Plenty of Victorian Liberals now know that. Holding press conferences about the sitting calendar isn’t going to hide that this deep-seated problem within the Liberals needs to be dealt with.

What should the Liberals do to deal with their structural problems? Write to [email protected] and let us know.

Peter Fray

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