The Politics    Thursday, May 12, 2022

Buried treasurer

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg at a press conference in Melbourne last week. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg at a press conference in Melbourne last week. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

With Morrison having sold out his treasurer, will Frydenberg turn on the PM to save himself?

How would it feel being Josh Frydenberg, knowing your leader had sold you down the river for a couple of anti-trans votes? That’s at least according to Niki Savva, whose latest column describes what many of us have long suspected: Scott Morrison is “deliberately sacrificing moderates” to chase voters in the outer suburbs with his backing of Warringah candidate Katherine Deves, not to mention his recent resurrection of the religious discrimination bill. (Deves’s campaign is reportedly being run out of the PM’s office, with her recent Sky interview set up to resuscitate her anti-trans views; what a day for the PM to be out trumpeting mental health funding.) The revolting tactic seems unlikely to work, as the Coalition is now on track to lose too many seats – including Frydenberg’s – but it may still change the face of the party to more closely resemble Morrison’s ideologies. The moderates must be seething at how the PM’s toxic influence is hurting their campaigns. But Frydenberg – who at one point would have expected to become Opposition leader after an election loss, but who may now lose his own seat – must be truly enraged. Having been so keenly betrayed by his boss, what’s a treasurer and prime ministerial hopeful to do? Is there anything he can do at this point to save himself?

Speaking to RN Breakfast this morning, the treasurer tried to gently distance himself from Morrison – and the papers took note. “I would use different language to what the prime minister has used,” Frydenberg said, when asked about the transgender comments. (Ironically, that’s almost exactly what Morrison said of Deves, while standing by her on the substance of her remarks.) “I’ve been pretty outspoken and strong in my criticism of the way Katherine Deves has approached this,” Frydenberg added, while still trying to keep up the charade that “women’s sport” is under threat. Pushed by host Patricia Karvelas about Savva’s column, Frydenberg noted that Savva’s assertion had been “completely rejected by the PMO”, insisting that he wasn’t worried about the polls and was confident that Morrison’s “quiet Australians” were coming to save him (a point he repeated on Sky News). But as Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy notes, the demographic Morrison is speaking to this time around isn’t the so-called quiet Australians (few of whom are in Frydenberg’s electorate anyway) but the “anxious Australians”, who are worried about shifting social mores (even fewer of whom are to be found in Kooyong).

Frydenberg has had a more difficult line to walk than his fellow Liberal moderates this term. As deputy leader of the Liberal Party, he hasn’t been able to cross the floor to prove his moderate credentials on issues such as religious discrimination or an integrity commission (not that most of them did until the last minute anyway). While Morrison is notably absent from the “Keep Josh” advertising currently blanketing Kooyong, the treasurer still has to be seen alongside his deeply divisive leader throughout this election campaign, in a way that Dave Sharma and Katie Allen do not. There’s no doubt that Frydenberg is only going to continue to distance himself from Morrison in the final week of the campaign, but will it be enough? With victory looking more and more out of reach for the Coalition, surely holding onto his seat will at some stage become a higher priority than any sense of loyalty to a particular leader. As former Junkee managing editor Rob Stott joked, “the best thing Josh Frydenberg could do right now would be to call Scott Morrison an arsehole”.

Perhaps he shouldn’t go quite that far. But it seems likely that the best chance Frydenberg has of holding onto his seat – where he knows that many people want to give the Liberal Party a “kick” – would be to promptly call out the toxic leadership, and to take a proper stand against the prime minister’s revolting anti-trans tactics. These are tactics that one former MP told Savva amounted to “an act of treason” against sitting members. The moderates, after all, have been ceding ground to the right wing of the party for years, and the teal independents’ emergence is partly a result of their failure to stand up for their constituents’ values. Frydenberg is letting the party walk all over him (and trans people to boot), even as the PM shows open disregard for his electoral chances. The voters of Kooyong, Frydenberg suspects, want to give Morrison a kick. Perhaps Frydenberg could be the one to do it.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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