It wasn’t just that Gillard had broken a promise, but that it involved a carbon price; a Tony Abbott shibboleth.
There were similar overtones this week when Labor, the Greens and six lower house crossbenchers combined to amend a government bill to facilitate the transfer to Australia of asylum seekers needing medical treatment.
In the first instance, it was a humiliating loss for Scott Morrison in that only twice in the last 90 years had a government lost a vote on legislation in the lower house. The previous two occasions – 1929 and 1941 – triggered elections.
The defeat confirmed the government had no goodwill from the crossbench, other than Bob Katter, had lost control of the Parliament and explained why the bare minimum of sitting weeks this year had been scheduled before the election in May. Not only did the government lose the vote on Tuesday, it spent the rest of the week hanging on by its fingernails.
On Thursday, it shelved a signature element of what’s left of its energy policy – the big stick legislation to forcibly divest badly behaving energy companies – because that, too, was going to be amended in the lower house, inflicting a second historic loss in a week.
In the same vein, Thursday ended with the longest Question Time since Federation. Morrison kept it going to avoid being beaten on a motion calling for a royal commission into the disabled. When Parliament resumes on Monday, the government will vote for the motion because it is non-binding. But it also faces being rolled on yet another piece of legislation.
One of its obscure Treasury bills which originated in the Senate was amended on Thursday night in the upper house to give small business and farmers more power against big business.
Under the changes, engineered by shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh, small businesses will be able to apply in court before launching major legal action to escape paying costs, even if they lose a competition law case against larger rivals. The Nationals are also on board.
When a Parliament is as chaotic as this, it always reflects badly on the government of the day, regardless of who is causing the chaos. This was why Abbott, in Opposition, disrupted or sabotaged the Parliament almost every single day of the Gillard government, at times rendering it unworkable.
Yet, against this backdrop, the Coalition, in net terms, ended the week feeling better about things. Just as Gillard threw Abbott a lifeline to mount a new carbon tax scare campaign, the Coalition, and a few in Labor, believe Bill Shorten has gifted Scott Morrison a new scare campaign on boats by diluting the powers of the Home Affairs Minister to veto all medical transfers.
As shadow immigration minister, Morrison persecuted the Gillard government over its loss of control of the borders. As immigration minister, he stopped the boats.
With an election due in months and still badly lagging in the polls, Morrison didn’t need to be asked twice. Everyone in his government feels they are on to a winner.
To borrow from This is Spinal Tap, the Prime Minister turned the volume up to 11, telegraphing as loud as he could that Australia’s borders had been weakened, boosting patrols and intelligence gathering, and reopening the mothballed Christmas Island detention centre.
Labor accused him of hysterical overreaction, even deliberately messaging to people smugglers that they should resume the trade. If a boat sets sail, as many in government hope, it will be, as Morrison said, “on Bill Shorten’s head”.
This view is dismissed as overly cynical by some but, as Labor’s Tony Burke pointed out this week, in Opposition Morrison and Abbott voted with the Greens to kill Labor’s plan to send new arrivals straight back to Malaysia. The Greens voted against it because they believed in open borders. Morrison and Abbott have long been accused by Labor of wanting the boats to continue because it suited them politically. As Burke pointed out this week, another 600 souls drowned after they blocked the Malaysia plan.
Internal polling shows that when the boats stop, as they did under John Howard, border protection declines as a priority issue among voters. At the same time, levels of compassion towards those stuck in limbo for years begin to rise.
When one such survey detected this in the months after Morrison stopped the boats, a Coalition source at the time said it would be a challenge to stir voters over the issue as memories faded.
That same person said this week that Labor had provided the perfect hook to do so.
Labor is banking on there having been a shift in sentiment over the past five years and a more mature view among the electorate since 2001 when Howard used the arrival of the MV Tampa to mount a fear campaign against asylum seekers and help skewer Labor’s electoral prospects.
“I think this country in 2019 is not the same nation as 2001,” Shorten said this week.
“I do not believe that Australians want a government which governs by slogans and fear,” Shorten said.
Labor is also banking on there being no new boats between now and the election. If there is a new arrival, it will blame Morrison for his messaging.
Risky policy decisions
The truth is no one is quite sure how this will pan out and the polls will be scrutinised heavily over coming weeks.
More broadly, the Liberals believe that if there is a tightening in their favour, it could rattle Labor, cause panic and ill-discipline, and lead to breakouts over other risky policy decisions such as the plan to end cash refunds for excess franking credits.
At a micro-level, the risk that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton will lose his marginal Queensland seat of Dixon has diminished as he gets out on the front foot over the issue. And it also helps the government, which is already doing a fairly good job under a conservative Morrison of reducing the attraction of One Nation, diminish it still further and win back the Coalition’s right-wing voters.
One seasoned political pollster said that beyond the issue of boats, by voting with the Greens and crossbenchers on the medical evacuation bill, Labor risked reinforcing negative perceptions of Shorten.
“It might be confirmation of the existing suspicion that he’s weak, a bit duplicitous, characterless,” he said.
It could even rekindle memories of how the Gillard minority government was forced into policy compromises by the crossbenchers and the Greens, with the carbon price being the most politically damaging example.
“It’s the tail wagging the dog, that’s what a future Labor government will be like, like with [Rob] Oakshott and [Tony] Windsor and the Greens with Gillard,” the pollster said.
If, on the the hand, the Coalition fails to get a lift out of the issue coming weeks, all could well be lost.