There was a certain pre-election nervous frisson abroad in Canberra ahead of the last sitting week before the Parliament rises for the winter break.
Labor has launched into a couple of scare campaigns — mostly on social media — about both Medicare and the prospect of pensioners across the board being put on cashless welfare cards.
Liberals in small L seats, like Higgins’ Katie Allen, have suddenly found a voice on issues like the Marugappan family from Biloela. And the Liberal Party secretariat has started sending out letters begging for donations.
Everyone seems to be getting into “clear the decks mode”: a time when you don’t want distractions and divisions in the way.
Which makes the Prime Minister’s ongoing problems with accountability a bit of a mystery, in terms of political self-interest, if nothing else.
PM’s friend in the spotlight
Monday night’s Four Corners program reported on the PM’s relationship with Tim Stewart, a prominent Australian advocate of a conspiratorial ideology, QAnon, that the FBI has identified as a driver of domestic terrorism in the United States.
The program reported on a series of text messages which raise the possibility that Stewart was able to get the Prime Minister to include a hidden message to the cult’s supporters in his apology to victims of sexual abuse in 2018.
It also reported on social media posts in which Stewart boasted that he had been “housesitting” at Kirribilli House, the official residence used by the PM.
Ahead of the story, the Prime Minister said it was “deeply offensive” to suggest he would have any involvement with “such a dangerous organisation”.
As troubling as the whole program was, it has been the Prime Minister’s refusal, over years, to give a clear account of his use of language that day, what influence Mr Stewart may have had, or indeed of his relationship with Stewart, which is even more troubling.
While there are background briefings downplaying the relationship and the significance of his remarks, the Prime Minister — as is so often the case – has failed to just deal with the issue upfront and get it out of the way, as he has previously done with issues ranging from his holiday in Hawaii to dealing with shocking allegations involving Brittany Higgins and Christian Porter.
McCormack stumbles in the big chair
Next week, Morrison will be a virtual presence in the Parliament as he goes through quarantine at the Lodge in Canberra.
This week, we had the Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack running things in his absence.
This was not a good thing. McCormack’s parliamentary performances are held in derision by his fellow MPs, on both sides. This week, he referred almost all questions to his fellow ministers and stumbled over his lines.
And this only highlighted a serious weakness for the government and Scott Morrison: the Nats.
As one long time Coalition source put it this week: the most useful Nationals Leader for any Liberal prime minister is one that you can roll over but who also controls his party room.
With McCormack, it seems, Scott Morrison has the first but not the second.
There is something afoot in the Nats — and McCormack’s woeful performance as acting prime minister has not helped.
The junior Coalition party has been long riven into three factions which keep McCormack in his job by default: defined, rather unkindly, as those who support the leader because it gets them a job, those who back Barnaby Joyce, and a third who just look on in horror and aren’t sure what to do about it. This third group is probably also vaguely hoping that David Littleproud will one day emerge as a leader.
Nats go rogue, again
There seemed to be a lot of Nats out strutting their wares this week. None so much as Resources Minister Keith Pitt who, on Thursday morning, told Fran Kelly on ABC’s Radio National that “we have not committed to net zero by 2050”.
“That would require the agreement of the Nationals and that agreement has not been reached or sought.”
Now, the Nationals have long been talking about coal love and rejecting any form of action which might involve net zero emissions. They want any eventual emissions deal to carve out agriculture.
But this was a cabinet minister who presumably was in the room when the government decided to adopt the formulation earlier in the year that the Prime Minister has regularly repeated since: net zero preferably by 2050.
According to Pitt though, an agreement “has not been reached or sought”.
Pitt’s statement is effectively a declaration of war on the PM’s carefully chosen rubbery words about emissions reductions that are supposed to bridge the need to pay some lip service to emissions reduction — even if via technologies that don’t actually exist — without actually doing so.
Pitt, ostensibly a McCormack and therefore Morrison supporter, dumped his leaders right in it.
When Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese asked McCormack on Thursday whether Pitt had been correct in his comments, he responded with something about how “as Nationals, as Liberals, we will do it with technology, not taxes”, until he was interrupted, then said that he had concluded his answer.
If Joel Fitzgibbon is right and Labor can’t give one message to the cities and another one to the country on emissions reduction, neither can the government. And the Nats now seem to be locking the government in.
If Pitt was telling the truth, it would seem extraordinarily bad management on the PM’s part to have not actually gotten agreement from the Nationals about the shift in rhetoric — and even advocated on the world stage. It would otherwise seem a spectacular breach of cabinet solidarity.
I put a series of questions to the PM’s office, the deputy PM’s office and Minister Pitt’s office on Friday about the government’s policy position: whether the PM had consulted with the Nationals about it or whether Pitt had breached cabinet solidarity.
The Prime Minister’s office will not say that it hasn’t made a commitment to reach net zero by 2050, and government sources say the PM regularly engages with ministers through the cabinet process, including on these issues.
But the bottom line of the response from the PMO on Friday was: “Our goal is to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, preferably by 2050. This remains the Government’s position.”
Keith Pitt’s spokesman said the minister had nothing to add to his comments.
There are clearly divisions within the Coalition on its climate policy, most conspicuously around the issue of net zero by 2050.
Tail wagging the dog
This brings us to Queensland.
The divisions within the Coalition suit the Nationals — and the LNP in Queensland — because, as discussed in last week’s column, so much of the next election campaign will be fought in the Queensland coal seats.
The Coalition had a strong primary vote at the last federal election in Queensland but also benefited from a shift in One Nation’s how to vote card to exclusively preference the Coalition.
One Nation’s vote appears to have fallen significantly since 2019, based on both recent polling and on the results of the Queensland election.
With the government relying on maintaining its strong primary vote on Queensland, and either winning back the big One Nation primary vote or holding its preferences, the Nationals tail seems well and truly certain to wag the Morrison government dog between now and polling day.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.