Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten both got stuck in the basement this week. (ABC News: Marco Catalano and Nick Haggarty)
The first week of federal election campaigns bears an uncanny resemblance to a scene in Rob Reiner’s cult film This is Spinal Tap where the (not very bright) members of the fictitious grungy rock band are filmed heading through the back corridors of a stadium in Cleveland to the stage where their rowdy fans await them.
“Rock and Roll!” the band members yell, geeing themselves up on the expectation that the next door will lead to the roar from the auditorium.
But it doesn’t. They are lost somewhere in the bowels of the building.
And thus the campaign. After all the waiting for it to begin, the politicians are out, journalists pack clothing for conditions from Darwin to Hobart and the show begins.
But what is it that is beginning? So often the first week feels like a stumble through the basement as the performers seek their preferred stage.
Cards already on the table
The main value in having journalists travelling with leaders is that it gives an opportunity to subject them to questions on a regular basis and, as a result, be more likely to be aware of the evasions, or policy details, than someone who has just been dropped into the task for the day.
The trick is to avoid getting tied up in the dynamics of the campaign rather than what else is going on.
Both sides of politics have gone into this campaign having already made their really big announcements (though something is always left up the sleeve for official campaign “launches” which actually take place very close to polling day).
So if you break down what our political leaders have been talking about, it has been dominated by the Coalition’s fairly unconvincing costings of Labor policies, in the absence of “official” and updated costings by the Parliamentary Budget Office, then Labor hitting back with claims the government was going to “cut” $40 billion a year from services.
Then there was the 24 hour flurry because Bill Shorten mangled a sentence about superannuation tax (overlooking tax announcements made a couple of years go) and then failing to give a coherent answer on climate change policy.
Asked about the Coalition’s own policy, the Prime Minister also struggled, since the whole area has now become splendidly opaque and driven by forecasts and assumptions and mechanisms which most people don’t understand anyway.
But let’s not be under any illusions here: the subject matter hardly matters in the modern campaign. The greater purpose is that it gives the Coalition as many opportunities as possible to use words like “sneaky” and “untrustworthy”, since this plays to what research from focus groups tells them about Bill Shorten’s weakness with voters.
And of course, there is the whole “Labor can’t be trusted with money” thing too.
The Opposition Leader then hits back, calling the Prime Minister a “coal wielding, climate change-denying cave-dweller” and throwing in that Scott Morrison is an ally of the “News Corp climate change deniers”.
So the campaign is really just about the leaders and their personal qualities.
‘Watergate’ resurfaces, Joyce and Taylor scrutinised
But the risk for both sides when you are not campaigning about anything new is that it creates plenty of opportunities for other issues to take over, and ones that do go back to the capability of our leaders to look after taxpayers and their money.
A story about water buybacks that has been floating around since 2017 in various forms threatens to do that to the Coalition after both the Guardian and The Project’s Hamish McDonald and business writer Michael West brought it to the mainstream media this week.
It centres on two water licences bought by the government for a total of $80 million in 2017 from a company once associated with Energy Minister Angus Taylor, Eastern Australia Agriculture, in a deal signed off by the then Water Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Mr Taylor has said in a statement that he “concluded all association with EAA and related companies prior to entering the Parliament”, that he had “no knowledge of the Federal Government’s water buyback from EAA until after it occurred”, and “received no benefit from this transaction”.
The deals were among a series of controversial ones amounting to $200 million all up, ironically at a time when Mr Joyce had declared there would be no more buybacks of water entitlements but then authorised several major “strategic purchases”.
Needless to say, water is a white hot topic in the bush.
Mr Taylor denied suggestions he benefitted from a government water buy-back. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)
Questions around Coalition MPs’ conduct dismissed by Morrison
It comes on top of other issues which go to propriety: Peter Dutton’s one-on-one lunch with a man lobbying for citizenship, a lunch arranged after payment of thousands of dollars to former Coalition minister and Dutton confidante Santo Santoro; and the circumstances surrounding the approval of a groundwater plan for the Adani mine by environment minister Melissa Price.
There is also the ongoing issue of MP George Christensen and his time spent in the Philippines on the taxpayer ticket instead of looking after his constituents’ interests, with further revelations this week that he took taxpayer funded flights to connect to his flights to the Philippines and also tweeted criticism of other MPs’ travel arrangements while he was there.
Mr Morrison’s approach to these issues tends to be to dismissive.
For example, asked about Mr Christensen’s claims for flights, he said: “It’ll be assessed and then I have no doubt George will abide by the ruling that is handed down”.
On Adani, the ABC reported this week that the approval was made despite Adani refusing to accept key scientific advice from the CSIRO and Geoscience Australia and the minister claiming the advice of those agencies was accepted in full. Adani says it never saw the full advice from the agencies.
When asked about the documents reporting Adani refused to accept the advice, Mr Morrison gave a long answer about the advice process, not about Adani.
On Mr Dutton’s meeting with Chinese Communist Party-aligned billionaire Huang Xiangmo, the Prime Minister was asked whether he had asked Mr Dutton about the meeting.
“Yes, I have and I am very satisfied. We have meetings with people all the time. The suggestion here is that something inappropriate was done. There is no basis for that whatsoever.”
Even in the wake of Christchurch, reports by the ABC’s Background Briefing that revealed secret plans for the alt-right to use Queensland Senator Fraser Anning to expand its agenda in the Australian Parliament, didn’t concern the Prime Minister. “They sound quite like conspiracy theories”, he told reporters in Tasmania.
The point here isn’t just whether Mr Morrison is satisfied that nothing awry has happened, but that he does not seem to feel a need to explain them, or at least look like he might take them seriously before dismissing them, to taxpayers.
Whatever else happens in election campaigns, leaders come under more scrutiny. If the government’s pitch to voters is, as it seems, “vote for us and get more of the same”, rather than something (scary) different under Labor, he is going to have to do better than that.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.
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