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Labor strategy and ‘the secret agenda’

Jul 26, 2019 • 15m12s

The Labor Party has come back to parliament with a plan to ignore Scott Morrison, making the most of an ill-disciplined backbench.

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Labor strategy and ‘the secret agenda’

44 • Jul 26, 2019

Labor strategy and ‘the secret agenda’

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

ELIZABETH:

The Labor Party has come back to parliament with a plan to ignore Scott Morrison. They are making the most of an ill-disciplined backbench revealing what they say are the government’s real intentions. Paul Bongiorno on how the prime minister responds when the focus is not on him.

[Theme ends]

[Phone rings]

PAUL:

All right. Can you hear me now, Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH:

I can Paul, how was your holiday?

PAUL:

Oh yeah, it was real good, it was interesting but, ummm, the locals up in Port Douglas complain about the cold snap; I think it did get to 25 one day. [laughs]

ELIZABETH:

It’s all relative.

PAUL:

It was 16 degrees warmer than what we have to put up with here in Canberra yeah.

Archival tape — Unidentified male politician 1:

“Thank you Mr Speaker, my question is addressed to the Minister for emission reduction…”

Archival tape — Unidentified male politician 2:

“Thank you Mr Speaker, my question again, is for the Minister for emission reduction…”

[Music starts]

Archival tape — Unidentified male politician 3:

“Thank you Mr Speaker, my question is to the minister for energy…”

Archival tape — Unidentified female politician 3:

“Thank you Mr Speaker, my question is for the minister for energy and emission reduction…”

ELIZABETH:

So Paul can we start this week with Question Time on Tuesday?

PAUL:

Yes well on Tuesday every Labor question went to the Minister for emissions reduction and energy, Angus Taylor.

ELIZABETH:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper.

PAUL:

Well when Labor's Justine Elliot asked the minister whether he ruled out a nuclear power plant being built in her seat which encompasses Tweed Heads in northern New South Wales or the neighbouring Gold Coast, Morrison the prime minister sitting at a despatch box appeared agitated he swivelled around in his chair and as Taylor approached to give the answer it could be seen Morrison mouthed ‘rule it out’ but it was going to be fascinating to see what sort of answer Taylor would give.

ELIZABETH:

So you’re telling me that a lip reading is sometimes useful in Press Gallery?

PAUL:

Well it is indeed, the government and the opposition are basically in a fishbowl and it's hard for them to hide. He did miss the cue that the Prime Minister gave him.

ELIZABETH:

So how did he answer that question.

PAUL:

Well he started off okay. He said the government's priority was keeping the lights on. Which you know while bringing energy prices down. But he then said we'll focus on outcomes not the fuel source. Amber light, amber light. [laughs] He said there were no plans to change the moratorium on nuclear power generation. Thumbs up.

Archival tape — Angus Taylor:

“...now we, ahhhh, always approach these things with an open mind but... [jeering]...but we do not…[jeering]...but we do not have…”

Archival tape — Parliamentary speaker:

“...members on the left!...”

Archival tape — Angus Taylor:

...but we do not have a plan to change the moratorium.”

PAUL:

Well the Labor benches couldn't believe their luck or their ears is one MP could be heard yelling across the chamber —‘Great work Angus, well done.’

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

The idea of nuclear is a scary and unpopular one. Is that the thinking?

PAUL:

Well interestingly enough during the election campaign Morrison gave an answer very similar in fact to Taylors junior election campaign that we're energy source neutral. But when Labor then jumped up and down and said, okay prime minister in the run up to the election, where are you going to put the nuclear power plants, you're going to come clean. You know, we've got to have a full discussion on it. Morrison backed off and it's clear that the current position of the government is that they don't want to scare the horses on this.

ELIZABETH:

What about Angus Taylor's personal dealings of course he's faced controversy over water buybacks and some family interests in agricultural land. How did Labor follow that line?

PAUL:

Labor did pick up on Taylor's apparent conflict of interest over the poisoning of about 30 hectares of protected grasses on a family owned property in the Monaro region of southern New South Wales.

Archival tape — Unidentified female politician:

“...can the minister confirm a company in which he has an interest, Jam Land proprietary limited, is now being investigated by his own department in relation to the alleged illegal land clearing of critically endangered grasslands?”

Archival tape — Unidentified male politician 1:

“...here, here…”

Archival tape — Unidentified male politician 2:

“The Minister has the call.”

PAUL:

Now that the company called Jam Land owns this property. It's run by Taylor's brother. Guardian Australia reported in June the minister himself holds an interest in the firm via his family investment company, after lobbying by Taylor in 2017, then environment minister Josh Frydenberg office canvassed whether protections for the grasslands could be weakened and if any change had to be published, which isn't a good look at.

Archival tape — Angus Taylor:

“Thank you Mr Speaker and thank you for the question. I have been very clear about this in public. I have no association and I have remained arm length at all time from the company Jam Land. In 2017…” [fade out]

PAUL:

Taylor said he'd always declared his interest in Jam land and he still denies that he lobbied for a change in compliance for the family company. So you might have to make your own judgments on all of that.

ELIZABETH:

Paul Labor are focused on Taylor of course this week. Were they not trying to tie all of this back to Scott Morrison. Where was he?

PAUL:

Well it was a change of tactics from Labor this week which Anthony Albanese flagged to his dispirited troops. So the morning's Labor caucus meeting on Tuesday, Albanese told his employees and senators that Morrison was quote “a negative nasty pollie all about tactics” and he said to counter him Labor needed to keep its questions “tight and targeted and rely on the element of surprise.” Government ministers particularly the more controversial or poorer performers need to be exposed, he said. And a key Labor strategist told me that they intend to ignore Morrison and treat Morrison just as another minister.

ELIZABETH:

And how is Morrison responding to this the fact that he's not the focal point of Labor's Question Time approach?

[Music starts]

PAUL:

Well he was well he was certainly miffed by being ignored; I mean, his grew pretty dark.

Archival tape — Unidentified politician 1:

“Thank you Mr. Speaker it being past ten past three, I ask that further questions be placed on the notice paper and I would invite the opposition to perhaps ask me a question tomorrow — didn't do it today.”

PAUL:

And of course as far as Labor was concerned they'd hit a bullseye.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Paul, Scott Morrison is finding himself irritated by this Labor strategy which essentially to ignore him in large part during Question Time, there would have been a Government party room meeting this week though. Do we know what the mood was like in there?

PAUL:

Yes, it's just the second Government party room meeting since the poll, and the prime minister read the riot act to his backbenchers for unhelpfully freelancing in the media now. Now normally you know who's so soon after an election win, especially a surprise election, when you would think that party discipline and unity would still be holding. But clearly Morrison who has a reputation for preferring to be a one man band isn't too happy that his backbenchers are out there you know raising a series of contentious issues setting the agenda ahead of him. What he told his backbenchers — government is not a blank check and they disrespect their colleagues by pursuing their own policy agendas. And obviously when he talks about disrespecting their colleagues he's really saying they're disrespecting him.

ELIZABETH:

And what's he referring to there, do you think?

PAUL:

Well Barnaby Joyce who's publicly contradicted the Government's position on raising Newstart. The warning didn't mean much to him. He went out and gave interviews within a couple of hours to Channel 10. He also bobbed up on Sky News and the ABC.

Archival tape — Unidentified female newsreader:

“...Will you now go into the Nationals party room and say we need to change our position on this and we need to get the Liberals on board?”

Archival tape — Barnaby Joyce:

“I'm talking on national television not because I'm hiding under a blanket, am I? I mean, people know where I'm coming from and I'm fighting for this and quite obviously if I'm fighting for it here I'm gonna be fighting for it in other places.”

PAUL:

And in fact there was a just a bombshell story, I would say, this week in the in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that revealed immediately before the election, and this is a clue to the sensitivity of Morrison about Newstart, the government ordered a bipartisan parliamentary committee to remove its call for an increase to the unemployment benefit from their report. Now the, uuuuuhhh, parliamentary inquiry was into the causes of long term welfare dependency then Social Services Minister Paul Fletcher ordered the committee chair Liberal Russell Broadbent to take out the specific Newstart recommendation. The committee reluctantly complied but it just does show that the findings of that committee were considered to be pretty damning and Newstart definitely needed to be looked at.

ELIZABETH:

So Fletcher says to Broadbent you've got to take this recommendation out of the report and the committee, they comply?

PAUL:

Yeah, reluctantly they did. We now know that, we didn't know it then yeah.

ELIZABETH:

And what about Morrison's character when this kind of things going on. Does he get angry? How does he respond?

PAUL:

Well he has a reputation, as I was saying, for being a lone ranger, something he pulled off successfully in the election campaign. But he also has a reputation for having a bit of a temper and lashing out at people who cross him. Now since he's become leader and indeed Prime Minister, he's held this pretty much in check. But party room sources tell me that on Tuesday his mood wasn't all that happy and he was letting the backbench know that he wanted them to fall more into line with his agenda. There is a problem though because the tradition or the culture and tradition of the Liberal Party, but also the National Party, is that backbenchers are much more free agents than, for example, in the Labor Party. We're seeing it this week that Labor is able to seize on all of these freelancing MPs running calls for on superannuation, running calls on nuclear power, running calls on Newstart to say: look! Look what the government’s doing! It's at sixes and sevens, it's in disarray and backbenchers are letting us know the secret agenda that Morrison and his Treasurer are up to. So that's why it's not helpful because it creates the perception of disunity.

ELIZABETH:

But it's not just current MPs that are causing problems, let’s go to Martin Parkinson’s report which was handed to Morrison this week.

PAUL:

Yes, two of his former and high profile colleagues Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop have taken jobs pretty soon after they left Parliament with firms or companies which had a direct involvement in their portfolios. Now the Prime Minister asked his secretary of his department Martin Parkinson to look into it. Parkinson came back with a report saying that there was no breach in the ministerial code which bans ministers from taking jobs for 18 months after leaving office. Well the Senate is far from convinced. And there was also there was also a flare up in the party room where one of the new Queensland Liberal senators got up in front of everybody and said, “Friends of Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne should tell them not to take any more jobs that we find it impossible to defend.” One source says that the look on Morrison's face was a WTF look.

ELIZABETH:

In other words, stop making our job so difficult to do.

PAUL:

Well yeah, I mean the government's out there trying to say ‘nothing to see here, all's above board’ and you've got in the party room which as we know leaks like a sieve you've got a Liberal senator getting up there and undermining the Government's defence of Pyne and Bishop.

ELIZABETH:

One more thought though about Parkinson's review you also found that there was nothing that could be done if there was in fact a breach of those ministerial standards.

PAUL:

Yes, he did. That was, in a sense the last sentence of the report reminded the Prime Minister all these people are no longer in Parliament there's nothing much you can do about it. There's an old saying that a lot of people go into politics to do good. Many go in to do well; thank you very much.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Alright Paul so at the end of the week at the end of the week, is Labor's strategy working? Has Morrison cut through or has Labor succeeded in undermining?

PAUL:

Well let's face it, the government holds all the cards. It's got the numbers in the in the House of Representatives and it's clear that Labor and the crossbench are unwilling to stare it down on issues of tax reform, on issues of national security, so it's had wins, good wins in the Parliament but there is no doubt that other events in the week are beginning to sort of knock some of the gloss off the newly re-elected government. Of course it's also said that a government never looked so good as the day in which it's sworn in. And it's all downhill from there.

ELIZABETH:

[Laughs] Thanks for joining us again this week.

PAUL:

Always a pleasure Elizabeth, bye.

[Music ends]

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[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Scott Morrison has appointed his former chief of staff, Philip Gaetjens, to replace Martin Parkinson as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Gaetjens has most recently been Treasury Secretary — a role that will now be filled by Steven Kennedy, a former advisor to Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

And it has been revealed that Victorian state Labor MP Will Fowles is the politician who kicked down a door in a Canberra hotel yesterday. Fowles apologised "unreservedly" for destroying the door. Labor leader Anthony Albanese said Fowles would be, quote, “held to account".

If you’ve got a second, please subscribe to the show through your favourite podcast app. Or leave us a review if you listen on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps others find us and it helps the show.

7am is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow with Michelle Macklem.

Erik Jensen is our editor.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This is 7am. I'm Elizabeth Kulas. See you next week.

[Theme music end]

The Labor Party has come back to parliament with a plan to ignore Scott Morrison. They are making the most of an ill-disciplined backbench revealing what they say are the government’s real intentions. Paul Bongiorno on how the prime minister responds when the focus is not on him.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Background reading:

Opposition ignore PM, focus on Taylor in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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44: Labor strategy and ‘the secret agenda’