Hiding Labor’s conference
That the Turnbull government thought it was a good idea to hide this spectacle from public view with its decision on Super Saturday spoke volumes about its political nous.
“It was just completely mad. It took us five minutes to make a decision [to postpone the conference],” said one senior Labor figure.
Not only did Labor giggle with delight, but the nine-week Super Saturday campaign also enabled the ALP, according to its pollsters, to come from behind in Longman and Braddon and turn what would have been a disastrous defeat for Shorten and his leadership into a crisis for the government which precipitated the Turnbull ouster.
It seems the new regime hasn’t learnt much either.
The national conference was rescheduled for the three days from December 16, which is Sunday week. It will largely be a coronation for Shorten with no one really seriously intending to inflict a humiliating policy defeat on the leader so close to an election.
But there are still likely to be spirited debates on issues such as asylum seekers and free trade, which always gift the Coalition with election ammunition.
One would have thought that a government struggling as badly as this would try to ensure there was at least a modicum of focus on the conference and Shorten doing deals with unions, even if the punters have largely switched off and will be more focused on the cricket and Christmas.
MYEFO a distraction
But nay. The government has decided to release the mid-year budget update, the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, on Monday, December 17, smack bang in the middle of the national conference.
It will be an important document for the government’s re-election prospects, showing the strong recovery in the budget that will give us a hint as to the size and timing of the surplus Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will unveil on April 2 before calling the election.
So positive could MYEFO be that the Turnbull government was contemplating bringing it forward a week so the good news would not be buried by Christmas.
It would provide Turnbull’s government with a much-needed fillip going into the Christmas break, more so given he was planning to call an election at the end of January for March 2.
The Morrison government could have delivered MYEFO later next week or waited until after the national conference, as was the intention just a fortnight ago, to get double bang for its buck.
Now, on the Monday of the conference, Shorten may as well walk around the Adelaide Convention Centre in a CFMEU T-shirt with his underpants on his head because the focus will be elsewhere.
It is these type of decisions that makes one wonder whether the government has the wherewithal to engineer the recovery needed to win the next election.
Morrison left the G20 in Argentina last week claiming his government was not as divided as commonly perceived. Most of the noise was coming from Turnbull, no longer in the government, while the others who were agitating such as Julie Bishop and Tony Abbott were on the outer.
As one senior figure put it, “a couple of people on the fringes from the past generation of fights”.
Maybe so, but as Turnbull’s ouster showed, a handful of malcontents with no regard for the majority view, torpedoed the government and its energy policy and reduced it to its current state.
Shorten isn’t Beazley
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann offered hope last weekend by reminding colleagues of John Howard’s come-from-behind miracle in 2001.
He said then-Labor leader Kim Beazley was “way more electable” in 2001 than Shorten but Beazley still ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Cormann overlooked several factors. Beazley was likeable but lazy. Apart from his impenetrable noodle-nation education policy, Labor was infamously preparing to surf to victory on the back of discontent over the GST.
Shorten has a much more advanced policy agenda and a more coherent narrative then Beazley ever had.
The Howard government was on its knees at the start of 2001. Crushing losses in the Queensland and WA state elections and the Ryan byelection, the leaking of the “mean and tricky” Shane Stone memo and anger over the GST fuelled the crisis.
But Howard had guile, time, money – and events in his favour.
He backflipped on petrol excise, used the shameless 2001 golden oldies budget to buy back angry seniors, and fought like blazes with a party united behind him, even if Peter Costello was as angry as all get out for being blamed in the Stone memo as the cause of the government’s problems.
Howard was a more experienced and cunning politician than Morrison, who styles himself on Howard. Howard was legitimately elected and had no former leader hanging around causing chaos.
Even so, it took six months – the Aston byelection victory in July – to get back in the game and then came the Tampa crisis and the September 11 attacks to put the result beyond doubt come the election in November.
Moreover, Howard knew how to exploit a Labor conference to weaken his rival, not obscure it to protect him.
At the 2000 conference, Beazley and the ALP were having a reasonably successful event in Hobart. So Howard, in response to a court ruling, lobbed a holy hand grenade by saying he would allow the states to outlaw the use of in vitro fertilisation for single women and lesbian couples.
The factions took the bait, the Right went especially nuts, Beazley couldn’t keep a lid on things, and the conference fell apart amid backbiting and cussing.
That’s how you do it.
Phillip Coorey is The Australian Financial Review’s political editor.