Prime Minister Scott Morrison begins the first week of the 46th parliament coming off a success at the G20 summit in Osaka, and with every prospect of getting his signature tax-cut package through the Senate this week. Yet this morning’s headlines are dominated by what he calls “ancient history” – how he took the job from former PM Malcolm Turnbull less than a year ago – courtesy of the revelations in Niki Savva’s new book, Plots and Prayers. Morrison prevailed in a relatively bloodless coup last August, and although he appears vindicated by May’s upset election result, he may never escape the manner of his rise to the prime ministership. Paul Keating never did, and Morrison vs Bill Shorten in 2019 feels increasingly like Keating vs Hewson in 1993.
After his remorseless challenge against Bob Hawke, Keating was never accepted as PM by a large chunk of Australian voters, even though he won an unwinnable election in 1993. Keating’s win came on the back of a cynical scare campaign against a GST – which as treasurer he’d supported, and which he promised Labor would waive through if defeated – proposed by unpopular Liberal leader John Hewson with his combative, big target “Fightback!” reform agenda. Very few seats changed hands in 1993, just like in 2019. There’s a difference between winning against the odds and winning a thumping mandate, however. Keating’s authority as prime minister, finally elected in his own right, faded surprisingly quickly when the passage of the 1993 budget was held up in the Senate by the WA Greens – a debacle that then Opposition leader John Howard felt was critical. By early 1995, with a shock defeat in the Canberra byelection, the Labor government was done for.
It is not that Savva’s revelations have done particular damage to Morrison personally. It was apparent from the numbers that a handful of Morrison lieutenants took advantage of Turnbull’s surprise spill of the leadership last August – backing Dutton over Turnbull, and then switching camps to vote for Morrison over Dutton – as was canvassed here within days of the coup.
It’s that Morrison’s whole government is lowered with each story: when former justice minister Michael Keenan describes Morrison as an “absolute arsehole”; when former foreign minister Julie Bishop calls now Senate leader and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann as “the ultimate seducer and betrayer”; and when it is reported that both former defence minister Christopher Pyne and current home affairs minister Peter Dutton “went nuts” over Turnbull’s plan to strike a bipartisan deal with Labor over the National Energy Guarantee, isolating the climate-change deniers inside the Coalition.
It is the cumulative impact of these revelations – with more to come from David Crowe, Turnbull himself, and others – that the current prime minister should be worried about, and there is nothing he can do to stop them. Liberal disunity may even resurface to drag him back down. As Katharine Murphy wrote in Guardian Australia on Saturday, Morrison does not have a magical ability to contain the corrosive ambitions of his Liberal colleagues.
What is sure to end the life of the Morrison government, unless it shows some hitherto-unseen spark of policy genius, are the economic jaws of death that are opening up: wages for hundreds of thousands of workers are dropping today, as a third tranche of penalty rate cuts come into effect even as the economy falters and the Reserve Bank calls for stimulus; on a similar note, Laura Tingle observed on Insiders that “finally” doing something about Newstart “might actually be a perfect way of providing some stimulus and actually getting people out of having to eat dog food”, following suggestions from Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe that the payment be raised; and the third stage of the government’s centrepiece tax-cuts package, assuming that it passes, will not come into effect this side of the next election, so it’s hard to see how they’ll pay much in the way of a political dividend. The prime minister might be burning for quiet Australians, but unless he actually does something concrete for them, he’ll just get burned.