ScoMo’s growing panic after horror fortnight
AFTER a catastrophic few weeks, the government is in a kind of chaos that observers say they haven't seen before.
A series of policy missteps, controversies, a debacle in the Senate and a misreading of the electorate would have Prime Minister Scott Morrison panicked about the Coalition's standing, according to experts.
"It has been an absolute shambles," veteran journalist, political commentator and host of ABC's Insiders Barrie Cassidy told news.com.au.
With the critical by-election in Malcolm Turnbull's vacated seat of Wentworth tomorrow, the government is now teetering close to the brink of disaster, Mr Cassidy said.
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Leaked internal polling earlier this week showed the Liberals risk losing the normally safe seat to independent candidate Kerryn Phelps.
"I would think Phelps is marginally in front and on balance she could well win this. It's very, very tight, and that in itself is an indictment on the government's position. We're talking about a margin of more than 17 per cent," Mr Cassidy said.
Western Sydney University senior lecturer David Burchell said the government looks worried, evidenced by a series of policy decisions that appear to have been made on the run.
"The government is in turmoil and disarray - the events of the past fortnight have made that clear," Dr Burchell said.
Since Mr Morrison became PM, the Coalition has regained some ground on Labor in the two-party preferred stakes, and he comfortably remains preferred prime minister over Bill Shorten.
There have been some wins, from his swift response to the strawberry needle saga and the announced removal of GST on tampons.
In addition, Mr Cassidy said he had a style of communicating that could give the impression of being in control.
"What I admire about Scott Morrison is his enthusiasm and zest for the job. He's probably also as well-placed as anyone to deal with the divide between the moderate and conservatives," he said.
However, he has faced issue after issue in the past few weeks that may have inflicted damage.
'OK TO BE WHITE' DEBACLE
Every Coalition Senator voted in favour of a motion by One Nation's Pauline Hanson that it's "OK to be white", sparking controversy.
The slogan has been popularised in recent years by neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, and is seen as an offensive belittling of the issue of racism.
The next morning, Mr Morrison said it shouldn't have happened and Attorney-General Christian Porter blamed the debacle on staff members, saying the motion "slipped through the cracks" of oversight.
"Even if it was, it's a poor reflection on all of those politicians that they needed the guidance of a staff member in the Attorney-General's office to make up their mind on how to vote," Mr Cassidy said.
Given the government's majority of one, Dr Burchell said he expected to see a much higher degree of control and focus.
"I'm struggling to think of a time when anything sillier has happened. That is a sign of a party that's in a bit of a mess and lacking discipline," he said.
Whatever happened, The Australian columnist Chip Le Grand described it as a humiliation for the government that should never have happened.
For the large base of moderates in Wentworth, it was unlikely to have gone down well.
JERUSALEM EMBASSY IDEA
The announcement by the PM this week he was "open" to moving Australia's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem came a bit out of the blue.
La Trobe University adjunct professor Tony Walker described it as the kind of politicking that gives "transactional politicians like Morrison a bad name".
"I can think of no other example in Australian political history where a foreign policy issue with far-reaching implications for national security has been considered because of concerns about the loss of a single seat," Prof Walker wrote for The Conversation.
Angered by the news, Indonesia said it would reconsider its trade arrangements with Australia - a worrying response from one of the country's major economic partners.
Annual exports to Indonesia are worth about $7 billion, while imports are worth $4.2 billion.
But Matthew Busch, non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute, doesn't believe the threat is an overly serious one.
"Undoubtedly Indonesia's leaders would disagree with and be displeased with the Australian government's potential policy shift, but they also would not want to tear up or unduly burden a trade agreement that they too have invested in," Mr Busch said.
"But if the purpose of this announcement is just 'having a conversation', it could certainly have been handled in a more strategic fashion. We can only conclude the perceived political benefits of making this announcement this week might have proven too tempting to resist."
KIDS ON NAURU
Pressure is growing on Mr Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to find an urgent solution to the issue of refugee children in indefinite detention on Nauru.
Three Liberal backbenchers have urged the PM to immediately remove kids and their families, prioritising those in need of medical care, it emerged on Tuesday.
It follows increasing criticism from international humanitarian groups and the United Nations, as well as the news that Medicins Sans Frontieres had been kicked out of Nauru.
Mr Morrison gave a "glimmer of hope" that he will act on the issue of children in detention, political commentator and University of Canberra Fellow Michelle Grattan said.
"The positive note comes ahead of Saturday's Wentworth by-election, in which the situation of the refugees is one of the issues," Ms Grattan wrote for The Conversation.
THE BARNABY ISSUE
Speculation is growing that Mr Joyce is preparing to launch a challenge to current Nationals leader Michael McCormack.
The Sunday Telegraph reported none of the 22 party members could rule out the possibility of a spill, with the controversial former leader apparently enjoying strong support.
"Scott Morrison has been saying that with the Coalition, you know what you're getting," Mr Cassidy said.
"Well, what we've had this year is a new prime minister and a new deputy prime minister. If there's a third act in this play, I don't think it'll go down very well at all."
GAY SCHOOL KIDS
A report on protecting religious freedoms, commissioned by the Turnbull Government after the passage of same-sex marriage, has been sitting in a drawer in Canberra since May.
A section of it was leaked last week, recommending the power for religious schools to boot out gay students and teachers be enshrined in law.
Mr Morrison didn't say whether he thought it was acceptable, ignoring growing public anger at the idea while declining to release the full report.
But within days, he changed his position and promised to introduce legislation to prevent any student begin discriminated against because of their sexuality.
"Most people did not know that current laws allowed gay students to be discriminated against," political commentator and Radio National host Patricia Karvelas wrote on Twitter.
"The religious freedom review has now let the whole country know. That is why the process has been an own goal."
The backdown was also seen as a capitulation to voters in Wentworth, who overwhelmingly voted to support marriage equality last year. An opinion poll last week also showed more than 70 per cent of Australians opposed gay students being rejected by religious schools.
Mr Morrison, a devout Pentecostal Christian, also copped criticism from Theologians who said it was a cop-out for the PM to use the Bible as an excuse to ignore science.
University of Divinity senior lecturer Robyn Whitaker, who specialises in the New Testament, wrote in a piece for The Conversation that his interpretation was flawed.
"Morrison's conservatism about gender and sexuality implies a worldview shaped by a conservative approach to the Bible where 'biblical truth' is viewed as at odds with medical and scientific knowledge," Ms Whitaker said.
"The dichotomy does not need to be there. One can hold belief in biblical authority and give credence to scientific knowledge on matters of gender, sexuality, or even climate change if one understands what the Bible does and does not claim to do."
Mr Cassidy described that Mr Morrison's handling of the issue and the report was a "major backfire and a classic own goal".
THE TURNBULL BACKLASH
When his father was dumped, Alex Turnbull flagged his intention to finally share his views about the state of politics in Australia.
And the Singapore-based investment banker has had a lot to say.
He has urged locals not to vote for the Liberals, criticised the government's stance on climate change - another big issue in the by-election - and run commentary that has distracted from candidate Dave Sharma's pitch.
While the former PM has remained silent since leaving the Lodge, he could still inflict damage to the government on Saturday.
Mr Turnbull was a popular local member and increased his margin at the last election to 17 per cent.
OPERA HOUSE BRAWL
When Mr Morrison waded into the Sydney Opera House controversy, which saw a plan to project the barrier draw of the Everest horse raise onto the iconic sails, he seemed to have misjudged the mood of Sydney locals, Mr Cassidy said.
He sparked further controversy when he described the building as the "greatest billboard we have".
"He would've infuriated a lot of those constituents by dismissing their concerns about the Opera House as precious," Mr Cassidy said.
It was the new national day that wasn't - part of Mr Morrison's plan to defuse tension surround Australia Day.
A number of Aussies - some 49 per cent, according to an Australia Institute poll in January - support moving the official national day from January 26, which marks the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.
Mr Morrison late last month called for a day that recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, while saying "indulgent self-loathing does not make Australia stronger".
The proposition was presented in response to questions during morning television and radio interviews.
"We don't have to pull Australia Day down to actually recognise the achievements of indigenous Australians, the oldest living culture in the world," Mr Morrison told Channel 7's Sunrise. "The two can coexist."
Later, Mr Morrison confirmed any new day would not be a public holiday, sparking anger and the accusation that it was little more than a token gesture.
A MESSY TRANSITION
The way the Liberals handled the leadership chaos that led to Mr Turnbull being ousted caused damage in the electorate, Dr Burchell said.
"The government is struggling to communicate its agenda, which impacts the business of government," he said.
"Morrison is walking a tightrope between appeasing the conservatives in his party, who would've preferred Dutton, and public opinion, which we've seen a few times now is at odds with that."
Should the Liberal Party lose the Wentworth by-election, it will have potentially devastating consequences for Mr Morrison and the government.
"They should be panicking," Dr Burchell said.
"There is absolutely no way they should lose this by-election, but it looks like a possibility. What a ridiculous way to risk losing government."
Mr Cassidy said the loss would reflect in part on Mr Morrison.
"This is his first test - it's his first campaign as PM. If they lose, that's going to be in part a reflection on his management of the campaign in Wentworth."