The Politics    Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Desperately seeking re-election

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

As the government’s desperation grows, its shamelessness escalates

There’s one word that has been on many people’s lips regarding the federal government’s recent conduct: desperate. What else could explain its shameless and often dangerous tactics on national security other than a deep fear that winning the election is by now almost beyond it? It’s not just Labor saying so, either. The AFR’s Phil Coorey told RN Breakfast that recent statements on national security by some government MPs were “fairly out there”, noting these were “desperate times”. Even The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly has today written that the prime minister’s partisan tactics on China “reveal a strand of desperation from the government”. (Er, someone tell that to the paper’s investigations editor, who last night decided to run a ridiculous “exclusive” based on a Global Times article about Labor.) In yesterday’s partyroom meeting, the PM basically admitted how desperate he was. Although he stopped short of using that word himself, his comments were nevertheless so direct that they surprised long-time political journo Katharine Murphy. Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but just how low is this government willing to go?

There’s no doubt that the government’s willingness to play games with national security – on both China and its “strengthening the character test” bill – is a sign of desperation ahead of the election. As deputy Labor leader Richard Marles said in an interview on RN Breakfast (in which he used the word “desperate” around 10 times in 10 minutes), the scare campaign about the ALP being China’s pick actually puts Australia’s security at risk – a sentiment backed up by the experts. “The attempt to politicise this is not only desperate, it’s not in the national interest,” Marles said, adding there has traditionally been strong bipartisanship in this area. It’s a similar point to that raised by Kelly, who argues that strong bipartisanship from Labor had been “pivotal” in pushing back against China. “This bipartisanship is a national asset,” Kelly wrote, noting that Morrison was intentionally antagonising China, further damaging the relationship, so that China would criticise him more, thus making him look “strong”. The PM, unsurprisingly, doubled down in Question Time, despite ASIO chief Mike Burgess more or less asking for it to stop in Senate estimates earlier this week. “I will never be their candidate,” Morrison said, in reference to the CCP. He was even forced to withdraw a comment labelling Marles a “Manchurian candidate”, as both sides sought to dig up everything the other had ever said about China or Russia.

(In Senate estimates, Labor’s Kristina Keneally and Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne had a more nuanced discussion on what was going on with China, as Guardian Australia reported, with Keneally going so far as to praise Payne for her “heartening” answers, which showed at least someone in the government retained “a commitment to bipartisanship on national security and foreign policy matters”.)

The Coalition’s attempt to force through its cruel character test legislation, meanwhile, has been lashed by the Human Rights Law Centre, with senior lawyer Scott Cosgriff labelling it a “desperate power grab in the dying days of this parliamentary term”. Everyone knows the bill is a bid to wedge Labor on community safety (though you would think the Coalition might’ve learned something from last week’s failed wedge), with the government refusing to negotiate in good faith, claiming that Labor’s reasonable suggestions mean that it wants to protect domestic violence perpetrators. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the quiet part loud today, telling reporters that the “character test” bill was actually a “test” for Labor, insisting the government would not amend it, but failing to provide any good reasons for the bill at all. Labor has again resolved not to block the bill in the House, gearing up for a fight in the Senate, but, again, it’s not clear what the party will do if it loses those amendments. Speaking on Sky News, shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally also used the word “desperate”. “Let’s call a spade a shovel,” she said. “This is a desperate government desperate to distract from its own incompetence.”

Almost everything the government is doing lately reeks of desperation. There’s little wonder it is going so hard after independent MP Zali Steggall over her hypocritical donation error, despite the fact the government is guilty of exactly the same tactics on a much larger scale. The Coalition appears to have a serious fight on its hands in its independent-challenged seats, with the outgoing NSW premier’s seat of Willoughby now looking like it may fall to the independent candidate on preferences. Its shameless attempt to insinuate that Labor is in favour of an inheritance tax, meanwhile, has undermined any change of a serious conversation around tax reform, something experts say is sorely needed. Labor, unfortunately, has been just as desperate to distance itself from the baseless claim, all but ensuring the very reasonable policy will never see the light of day.

It’s hard to say how much lower the government will be willing to stoop in its fight to cling on to power that it doesn’t even know what to do with. Things get rather terrifying when the Coalition gets desperate – there’s not much it won’t do when backed into a corner. China, as a DFAT official warned estimates today, is willing to “exploit social and other divisions in countries to pursue its interests – that’s very apparent”. But so too is Scott Morrison.













Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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