Malcolm Turnbull’s one ticking bomb for Scott Morrison: religious freedom issue

Like all new prime ministers – and we are in a position in Australia to make lots of comparisons – Scott Morrison has been rifling about for some of those “cut through” phrases that will help both define him to voters and define the task the government faces to its members.

It’s a bit like the verbal equivalent of the Prime Minister’s move to give everybody a coat pin with the Australian flag on it. This went a bit south as a gesture this week when quite a lot of his ministers didn’t wear them, and when Morrison himself wore his pin upside down.

As experts on flags know, upside down flags are an international distress signal.

Columnists were running pin counts in question time.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's model boat, which says
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s model boat, which says “‘I Stopped These”.

Alex Ellinghausen

Look, yes this is all so trivial and distracting. And that’s exactly what the Prime Minister’s message to his troops was about during this first parliamentary fortnight.

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In pep talks to MPs, Scott Morrison asked them to consider, before they went out in public to air their views: “Does this make the boat go faster?”

That is, would their intervention be helpful? Would it help the government stabilise itself and eventually be re-elected? Or would it be damaging, and in a day-to-day sense, a distraction?

‘I thought we stopped the boats’

Of course, one wag up the back of the room yelled “I thought we stopped the boats”.

If you think about it, the big stories of this past week have been about machinations from outside the party room to make the boat go faster, or more correctly, slower.

This is a merciful change of pace in federal politics from an unrelenting diet of the biggest story always being about what is going on inside the party room.

Inside the party, or at least inside Parliament, there has been less paddling of individual canoes than we saw in the dying days of the Turnbull era.

Outside the party room, in the recently finished voyage of the Good Ship Turnbull, the aim seemed to be to sink it altogether, if Rupert Murdoch had his way.

But the story – reported first by Rear Window’s Joe Aston and the ABC’s Andrew Probyn – of Rupert Murdoch telling fellow media proprietor Kerry Stokes that “Malcolm has to go” certainly hasn’t been making the Morrison boat go any faster.

The Abbott barnacle

Another bit of drag from outside the party room – relating to the controversies surrounding Peter Dutton over both his eligibility to sit in Parliament and his interventions in visa cases involving au pairs – seemed to lessen by the end of the week.

The opposition parties and cross benches did their best to argue that Dutton had an eligibility problem and that he had, at the least, misled Parliament. But for now it looks like one of those episodes where there is just not quite enough momentum to bring down the politician involved, or keep up pressure on the government.

One of the most reliable sources of internal drag on the ship of state for the past three years, of course, has been Tony Abbott.

But he was facing his own distractions this week. The Liberal Party was forced to reveal that “only” 30 people in his local branch voted against his uncontested re-endorsement for his seat of Warringah, not the 38 that had been suggested earlier, while 68 had voted for him.

That is, only 30 per cent of his own party members voted for an empty chair, not the 50 per cent originally suggested.

What’s in a ‘base’?

The leadership crisis threw up lots of talk about the government’s political “base” – whether that was the “base” in the party, or the “base” in the electorate.

But just what that base looks like – and the rather more obvious point that the Coalition actually needs to win back the centre ground of politics – should be what is focusing the government’s mind just now.

The combination of the swing against Abbott in Warringah at the last election, and the protest vote within his own party last week over his re-endorsement, will mean his prospects at the next election will now be as an important a barometer of the changing mood of the electorate – and the Liberal Party base – as the byelection in Malcolm Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth on October 20.

If you regard the organisational wing of the Liberal Party as being “outside” the government, it – or its intersection with the parliamentary party – has also been the source of most of the distractions of the past fortnight. 

The original charges that some women – and male – MPs had been bullied by their colleagues seems to have morphed in the past fortnight into clearer complaints (even if names have not been named) that MPs and senators clearly had their pre-selections threatened in the days of the leadership coup. The offenders were either people in the party organisation, or people inside the parliamentary party who like to regard themselves as major payers in its organisational wing.

Getting ahead of the curve

From inside the government, the big stories have been about some mad paddling to get ahead of the curve on difficult issues.

If you think about all the “distractions” the Coalition government has inflicted on itself since 2013, the Abbott era was one of particular creativity: the debate about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act comes to mind, not to mention some of the 2014 budget’s spectacularly badly thought out policy measures.

Malcolm Turnbull spent much of his prime ministership cleaning up these distractions.

His gift to Scott Morrison has been the new prime minister does not come to the job having to deal with a big list of issues that are not only difficult, but divide the party room.

However, Turnbull has left one ticking bomb for Morrison.

The new prime minister’s apparent determination to manhandle the ticking parcel of the religious freedom issue seems a mystery, when he has spent so much of the past few weeks revealing his pragmatic side, dispensing with issues like aged care, the pension age, the drought and school funding.

A report commissioned by Turnbull as part of the horse trading over marriage equality has not been released.

All sides in the Coalition believe that opening this debate could blow up the party room. They see no good time – and certainly not before the Wentworth byelection – to unleash it.

The question for Morrison is whether he wants to risk being defined by that debate, or wants to concentrate on rowing a lot faster.

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