Scott Morrison Coalition encryption
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

It’s fair to say the week did not pan out as well as the government might have hoped.

The reasons why will have some bearing on whether Liberal and media hopes of a Tampa-style recovery prove plausible. There is real concern within Labor that a Liberal scare campaign around boats will lead to victory an otherwise bitterly divided government. It may not be 2001, but Labor faces not merely News Corp in full pro-Liberal mode, but Fairfax outlets, now overseen by a former Joe Hockey staffer and controlled by a company chaired by a senior Liberal, while the ABC is hopelessly cowed and terrified of upsetting the government.

Rather than let the agenda be dominated by boats, a subject it would prefer not to be talking about even if it doesn’t end up shifting votes, Labor threw out a lot of chaff, including announcing Hayne royal commission legislation and talking about a floor price for milk — a half-arsed idea that it is an act of charity to call a “distraction”.

But it also had Helloworld ready to go, carefully dropped ahead of the relevant estimates hearings. Forget about Mathias Cormann’s embarrassment, that was nothing. If Cormann’s worst sin is that he arranges family holidays through his mate and didn’t realise he hadn’t been charged for airline tickets, so what (they flew economy, by the way).

Joe Hockey, though, is a different matter, and in retrospect Cormann’s embarrassment was only an entree for the main course that was delivered mid-week. Hockey has been an excellent ambassador at a difficult time for Australia-US relations (and, for that matter, reality-US relations) but quite what he was thinking in setting up a meeting for a company in which he was a notable shareholder to pitch for government business defies explanation.

Regardless of what declarations he might have made, and when, he should never have done it. As for “Hockey owes me” — the uttering of which is disputed — the point is less specific misconduct than a cosy world in which the roles of friends, political donors, party officials and tenderers for government business are hopelessly confused.

Bill Shorten’s line on Thursday about the Liberals being a “government of their donors, by the donors, for the donors” perfectly summed up the image of the party at both the macro-level — the party that ran a protection racket for the banks for years — and at the micro-level of government contracts.

You can tell from the government’s defensiveness, and Scott Morrison’s reluctance to even answer questions in parliament about it, that they knew what Hockey had done was a bad look. And it’s not over yet: at the end of last year, when the government put in place its 2019 sitting calendar that was noticeably light on parliamentary sittings before the election, Labor used the Senate to override the Coalition and make sure there would be at least two days of estimates hearings right after the budget — and maybe more if the election isn’t called straight away.

That means Labor will have an opportunity to pursue the issue further, and any other mini-scandals it can dig up — Paladin and Michaelia Cash v the AFP bubbled along during the week — right when the election is being called.

That didn’t prevent Labor from stumbling on asylum seekers, and particularly the government’s plan to send medical evacuees to Christmas Island. If the point is providing medical treatment that can’t be provided on Pacific islands, and that treatment can be provided on Christmas Island, the only possible objection is cost, no matter how malicious the government’s intentions are.

That was the position Labor arrived at, but only at the price of appearing confusing and contradictory. But both that and Helloworld would have been obscured by Julie Bishop’s departure, which will shine a light — yet again! — on the Liberal’s growing women problem. Losing two of your three most senior women — Kelly O’Dwyer delivered her valedictory speech this week — including the only Liberal MP widely recognised in the community, without any obvious replacements doesn’t do much for your gender credentials.

As if to round out a week that soured as it went along, coal fetishists within the Coalition like Matt Canavan were enraged when Glencore announced it was capping its coal production. Glencore, one of the world’s biggest minerals companies, a global-scale tax dodger and Australia’s biggest coal miner, announced “we must invest in assets that will be resilient to regulatory, physical and operational risks related to climate change.” 

Much of the Morrison government, of course, doesn’t even believe in climate change; imagine their shock and resentment that a company like Glencore has joined the ranks of the warmist conspiracy. A dispiriting end to a week that they hoped would have turned out very differently.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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