Scott Morrison is like one of those stealth planes that are purpose-built to avoid detection. But parliaments are heavy things. Institutions can weight prime ministers who like to float above the fray.
This week, Morrison encountered the gravitational pull of parliament in a couple of ways. The first was from colleagues, who used the first Coalition party room meeting since June to get various things off their chests. The second was from Labor on aged care, but let’s deal with the colleagues first.
Morrison has spent much of this year governing the country with the premiers and chief ministers. The leaders made that decision in March when they formed the national cabinet on the hop in a football stadium in Parramatta – an emergency national government of nine.
Because parliamentary sittings in Canberra have been either constrained, or absent, Morrison has presented largely as the prime minister of the premiers. The prime minister is not an idiot, he hasn’t forgotten he runs his own government, or that leadership (as John Howard was fond of putting it) is a “gift of the party room”. But he’s been able to exercise a lot of discretion in this emergency collaboration; the cabinet of leaders.
But this week, the colleagues reminded the prime minister who his tribe was, and it wasn’t the national cabinet peers he sees frequently in the secure communications room in the cabinet suite at Parliament House – it was the Liberal and National MPs and senators of the 46th parliament.
For a couple of hours on Tuesday morning, the prime minister heard rolling submissions on the problems associated with domestic and international border closures. Sitting beneath these complaints is a rising tide of frustration around the government. Government MPs think the premiers have closed the borders because they can, because Canberra is picking up the tab. If there are negative economic consequences, so what? The premiers aren’t the ones forking out the billions for jobkeeper and jobseeker – that’s the federal government. As one Liberal put it to me this week: “The states don’t wear the costs of their mistakes – we do.”
Morrison has been limbering up for weeks to have more of a go on the borders, because his own tribe aren’t the only people screaming – so is business. It would be silly to say Morrison upped the ante noticeably this week solely because the backbench gave him a shove. But the ambient temperature inside the government was obviously a factor in the return of “blue team” sharpness.
We’ve reached a point in the pandemic now where Morrison is caught in some interesting cross-currents. He needs to maintain a constructive dialogue with the premiers to manage the practicalities of the pandemic. But if his stance is too passive, or too clubbish, then the government tribe gets restive, either because they prefer the biff, because the biff is comforting and familiar, or because MPs are being deluged with genuine horror stories from their constituents – people who can’t cross borders, or can’t get their loved ones back from overseas – and they really need Morrison to either do something, or look like he is doing something.
So there’s that general complexity. Then there is Morrison’s fight with Daniel Andrews, which has been a slow-moving car crash for several weeks. Morrison and Andrews have the most interesting relationship within the federation, and these two leaders have been the lynchpin of Australia’s pandemic response. But Morrison is now peppering the Victorian premier with daily ordnance, making sure Andrews wears a sizeable chunk of the blame for the terrible outbreak in residential aged care in the state. Just your regular reminder: aged care is a commonwealth responsibility.
The aged care blame game was a prelude to the main dominance display of the parliamentary week, which was the foreign veto power.
Morrison signalled the government would pursue powers to overturn unwanted sub-national government agreements with overseas powers, like HINT HINT Victoria’s agreement with the Chinese government on the belt and road initiative. Officials then briefed that Andrews had failed to attend national security briefings that would have furnished a heads-up that the (necessary) commonwealth corrective was coming, the moral of the story being: bad Dan. Keeps bad company. Makes bad judgments. Also: bad diary secretary.
Just for the record, it is reasonable that the commonwealth, not the states, maintains carriage of foreign affairs. It’s what our system envisages and what most voters would expect. Although a couple of things are worth mentioning: the Liberal party was once the states rights party, but these days favours centralisation and heavy handed intervention. The push into cancelling university agreements also feels really discomfiting, debates about Chinese influence notwithstanding.
The veto foray could be bureaucratic housekeeping, but Morrison wanted to elevate the whole exercise to a parable about sovereignty. The prime minister cast himself as the defender of the nation: the leader to resolve the impasse over state borders, and the leader who would repel external threats. By Friday, Morrison declared that Australia in a crisis needed to be one nation, “indivisible” – which is funny when you think about it, because one of the points of revving up the stoush on borders and the foreign veto power was picking a public fight with the states. Irony has not been cancelled.
Let’s come now to aged care. Labor took the decision to focus on this issue exclusively – every question in every question time this week. Again, the weight of the parliament proved helpful in training the spotlight on an important issue where accountability is required.
I’ve had a couple of conversations this week with federal MPs on the frontline of the outbreak in residential aged care in Victoria, and the accounts would make anyone weep. Throughout the week, the deaths kept coming, every day – the heartbreak and anguish among the residents and their families is best not imagined.
Morrison has accepted some accountability for what’s happened, but he’s also kept Andrews squarely in the frame as I mentioned a moment ago. I’ve said before it is reasonable to point out that states have a role in managing outbreaks during the pandemic, and there are some overlapping responsibilities in aged care – but this offensive should also be called for what it is: a patent prime ministerial effort to sidestep blame.
The prime ministerial sidestep is obviously effective, though, if our Guardian Essential poll is a reliable guide. When asked in the latest survey to identify who was to blame for the outbreaks in aged care during the pandemic, slightly more respondents identified the state government (30%) than the federal government (28%) – but more people blamed the providers (42%).
With this in mind, it was interesting to watch the trajectory of the week. In the House of Representatives, most of Labor’s questions about the failings in Victoria went to Morrison. He took the questions for the first few days, but by Thursday, he was flicking the questions to the health minister, Greg Hunt, presumably so he didn’t feature in the nightly TV news packages referencing the day in parliament.
As well as the rolling accountability exercise in the parliament, interesting too was the role of the aged care royal commission, which is inserting itself into the debate on a regular basis, including twice this week, insisting that the government face its responsibilities.
I started this weekend by comparing Morrison to a stealth aircraft, purpose built to avoid detection. But Labor watched the Liberals during the global financial crisis turn problems with the pink batts scheme and the school hall rollouts from slow burn to political scandal. Sometimes, all it takes, is a bit of persistence.
Source: The Guardian