Prime Minister Scott Morrison enjoys a cold beer with locals at Gannons Pub in Julia Creek. Picture: Nigel Hallett
Prime Minister Scott Morrison enjoys a cold beer with locals at Gannons Pub in Julia Creek. Picture: Nigel Hallett

How ScoMo blundered his way to victory

There is one simple thing that Scott Morrison could have done to avoid the excruciating embarrassment the government has suffered this week but he didn't do it.

Yet as a result of this failure he may have given himself his only possible chance of surviving as prime minister.

Meanwhile Bill Shorten's parlour tricks have snowballed into a game of Russian roulette.

Just as many Labor figures once marvelled that Bill Shorten appeared to have been kicked in the arse by a rainbow, the latest turn of events looks like Scott Morrison has slipped on a banana peel and landed in a cowpat of gold.

Shorten played a critical role in knifing two Labor prime ministers for reasons nobody can quite remember and turning what should have been a four-term government into a national joke.

Having seen all this, the Coalition had an opportunity to present itself as the bastion of sensible, stable government. Instead it said: "Hold my beer." The party room coups against Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull were thus even more exponentially embarrassing.

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Morrison was largely to blame for the first and hardly to blame for the second but when you end up as PM everything ends up your fault. The problem with holding a victory cup in one hand is that you have to hold a bucket of shit in the other.

This has always been so. The only difference is that the great political leaders of the past at least knew which one to drink from.

This brings us to the events of last week.

 

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and PM Scott Morrison face off in parliament this week. Picture: Kym Smith
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and PM Scott Morrison face off in parliament this week. Picture: Kym Smith

The government was clearly terrified of losing the medevac vote in the lower house, which convention suggests would have required the PM to call an election to get a mandate.

But if history has taught us anything about Australian politics it's that conventions aren't worth the paper they're not printed on. Indeed, it was once a convention that a prime minister who had just led their party to victory might at least serve their first term before being knifed by their colleagues.

For every single parliament of the past 12 years, this convention has been massacred by mindless panic and so when the Coalition faced a slight threat from the medevac bill it naturally mindlessly panicked.

The government pulled out a bizarre technical defence, claiming the legislation was invalid because it had originated in the Senate but the panel appointed to oversee medical assessments would have to be paid and the constitution decreed that the appropriation of funds from Treasury could only originate in the lower house. In short, it was likening a couple of doctor's bills to the Federal Budget.

Bizarrely, this made the Coalition's position even more precarious, because if the bill had then passed the government, by its own reasoning, would have lost control over money bills. You only have to ask Gough Whitlam how that turns out.

Fortunately for the government, its strategy was a swift and abject failure. Shorten quickly amended the bill to ensure the doctors would work for nothing - which was not dissimilar to his approach as a union leader - and Labor won a massive victory.

Or did it?

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s win of the floor of parliament may come back to haunt him. Picture: Kym Smith
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s win of the floor of parliament may come back to haunt him. Picture: Kym Smith

 

The real story is that both major parties are so punch drunk from a decade of mauling that they no longer even know when they are giving themselves an uppercut to the head.

And in this case Labor appears to have forgotten that its key strategy for the last six years has been to painstakingly neutralise border protection as an election issue. Not only is the party internally divided but it is an issue upon which it cannot win. If people want to keep boats out they will vote Coalition, if they want to let them in they will vote Green. Labor has its legs crossed in the middle.

Its approach, therefore, has been to declare that it is lock-step in line with the government and quickly try to change the subject. Now, tantalised by the prospect of a rare parliamentary win, it has established a clear split which the Coalition will cheerfully drive into a gaping chasm.

All it would take is the boats to start up again and the race would suddenly tighten. A boat actually arriving on Australian territory could turn the tide of the whole election.

Of course the medevac bill doesn't actually apply to any new boat arrivals but that's the funny thing about people smugglers - they're not really sticklers for policy detail. All they need is a message to sell and a willing audience to buy it. They're a bit like politicians that way.

Indeed, full credit to Scott Morrison for telling security agencies to repel boat arrivals - a more cynical politician would give the order to let them in. A Budget surplus won't be enough for the Coalition to beat Labor but a boat surplus just might be.

Australia’s refugee camp on the Pacific atoll of Nauru . Picture: Jason Oxenham/Pool Photo via AP.
Australia’s refugee camp on the Pacific atoll of Nauru . Picture: Jason Oxenham/Pool Photo via AP.

Let's go back to 2001. John Howard was on the ropes. He had just introduced a GST and got beaten in the popular vote at the 1998 election. He was being smashed in the polls and the mighty Daily Telegraph - Howard's favoured gauge for the national mood - had turned on him: "It's the Petrol Tax Stupid!" one front page blasted. Another warned that if interest rates rose again it would be the PM who would lose his house. Then along came the Tampa.

Were it not for that boat, Labor leader Kim Beazley might have been prime minister for a decade. Instead his arch nemesis became a byword for political strength and stability.

The politics of people smuggling have been the same ever since. Once Howard stopped the boats, our hearts softened and we elected Labor in a landslide. Then when they started back up we swung back and elected Tony Abbott. And now that they've stopped again we revert back to our better angels.

We are a generous but cynical people. We want to be kind but we don't want to be taken advantage of. We want to be compassionate but on our own terms. And if the boats start once more that compassion will be sorely tested.

And so the Coalition has been gifted a massive political weapon by an opposition too blinded by the treasure to see the dragon lurking beneath. More remarkably, the government has been so flailing it was batting away the very lifeline being thrown to it.

Nonetheless you can now see it dawning on the once lost souls. It's a bit like watching the catatonic mental patients come to life in Awakenings.

But the greatest irony of all - if indeed there is any irony left in a political landscape where irrational is the new normal - is that Scott Morrison could have avoided the whole thing.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison enjoys a beer with locals at Gannons Pub in flood-ravaged Julia Creek. Picture: Nigel Hallett
Prime Minister Scott Morrison enjoys a beer with locals at Gannons Pub in flood-ravaged Julia Creek. Picture: Nigel Hallett

 

All the PM had to do is put a crossbencher in the chair as Speaker of the House of Representatives instead of wasting one of his own precious votes on the floor.

Morrison refused to give himself this buffer after becoming prime minister, seemingly due to a sense of warrior pride and no doubt some fear of payback from the Peter Slipper experiment. Or maybe all the independents just said no to a $150,000 a year pay rise, which even for six months is a nice little mortgage buster.

On Tuesday this was a catastrophic error of judgment. On Thursday it became a stroke of genius. Personally, I wonder if anyone put that much thought into it at all.

And so by losing the Coalition may have won and by winning the ALP may have lost. And no matter which side wins the rest of us lose because politics today is a contest that hinges on which party has the most misfires while trying to shoot itself in the foot.

The great Graham Richardson once observed that the golden rule of politics was that you never reward failure. These days failure gets a gold medal.

- Joe Hildebrand co-hosts Studio 10, 8.30am weekdays, on Network Ten and is editor-at-large for news.com.au. Continue the conversation on Twitter @Joe_Hildebrand