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To Howard with love

Oct 25, 2019 • 14m57s

Paul Bongiorno on how the Liberal Party celebrates and how the National Party brawls.

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To Howard with love

108 • Oct 25, 2019

To Howard with love

[Theme music starts]

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

ELIZABETH:

As the Liberal Party celebrates its 75th anniversary, the Nationals are brawling with each other about drought. At the same time, concern grows over press freedom. Paul Bongiorno on the party that we were never invited to.

ELIZABETH:

Paul, let's talk about this gala that happened this past week. Liberal MP were kicking up their heels.

PAUL:

Yes, they were celebrating the 75th anniversary of the party and 600 or so black tided and glammed up diners went to the Great Hall at Parliament House for fun. And when the Prime Minister addressed the crowd, he spelled out just how successful the party's been over that time.

ELIZABETH:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper.

PAUL:

Since World War II no party has been better at gaining and exercising power. The Prime Minister credited Sir Robert Menzies, the founder of the party, for leading it to a string of victories. He said in its first 25 years, the Liberals won nine out of 11 elections and according to one source, there was an appreciative titter throughout the crowd.

In the second 25 years, thanks to Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, the Liberals only won three out of 10 polls. But in the last 25 years, he said, the coalition had won seven out of nine. Morrison said Christopher Pyne would call them an election winning machine.

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

“Australia is now freer, more prosperous and secure because of what our party has brought to the table in our many years in government, over many generations now.”

PAUL:

We know what the prime minister told the diners at the gala dinner because his office released a text of his speech. And of course, he thought some of them were so good he repeated them later.

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

“...and it was John Howard as I said last night, who led the renaissance of our party, a renaissance that has left the legacy that we now seek to uphold to this day…”

PAUL:

And of this latest renaissance, as Morrison called it, he spoke of John Howard saying, and this is a pretty big claim, no leader of our party has done more for our party than John. So more even than Sir Robert Menzies.

ELIZABETH:

Sounds like a joyous affair.

PAUL:

Well, yes, if you're a Liberal groupie, a Liberal supporter, it certainly was. Although we don't know exactly how much fun was had. I've been able to speak to a couple of people who were there. The party closed the anniversary dinner to the media and in the minds of some, it only confirmed the accusations of its critics in the Fourth Estate and elsewhere, mainly in the Labor Party, that it's adverse to scrutiny and addicted to manipulation. But it was a decision that comes with a history of its own. In fact, it's a lesson the Liberals have learned from their Labor opponents back in 1993.

Archival tape — Unidentified male newsreader:

“Here is Paul Keating, here he is now.”

Archival tape — Crowd chanting:

“We love Paul, we love Paul, we love Paul…’

PAUL:

That year, Labor held their true believers dinner at the same venue to celebrate Paul Keating's similar miraculous victory. It was just as miraculous, although Keating never claimed divine intervention.

[Music starts]

PAUL:

Senior Labor figures let their hair down and party to late into the night in the full glare of the network's TV cameras.

We had images of then-Foreign Minister Gareth Evans merrily dancing, maybe to merrily dancing to Yothu Yindi playing their hit song “Treaty.”

Archival tape — Song playing:

[Treaty by Yothu Yindi]

PAUL:

These images later showed up in Liberal Party ads condemning Labor for being self-focused and oblivious to the electorate. And as an added precaution for the Liberals, this year, there was no band and definitely no dancing. You never know what dancing leads to.

ELIZABETH:

Dangerous stuff.

[Music starts]
Very dangerous stuff.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

John Howard was a guest of honour at last week’s function, do we know what he was saying?

[Music starts]
Yeah…(laughs)

Archival tape — Alan Jones, broadcaster:

‘Prime Minister, good morning.’

Archival tape — John Howard:

‘Good Morning Alan, nice to talk to you.’

PAUL:

We also got an insight into this thinking from a series of radio interviews to mark the occasion in which John Howard sounded more like a prophet of doom. He told 2GB that it's been a very successful political movement, the Liberal Party. But we should always remember that following success in politics is often a bit of doom and disaster around the corner.

Archival tape — John Howard:

‘You've always got to keep that in mind because you can suddenly career off the road and hit a big tree…’

PAUL:

He cautioned…’you've always got to keep that in mind because you can suddenly career off the road and hit a big tree.’

Archival tape — John Howard:

‘...that can happen to anybody.’

Archival tape — Alan Jones, broadcaster:

(laughs) ‘You are wonderful.’

PAUL:

Nick Greiner, the federal president of the party at the Federal Council. He warned against hubris and taking their election success for granted.

ELIZABETH:

So what did Greiner and Howard saying here?

PAUL:

Well, both Greiner and Howard seemed to be saying that while there have been recent successes, the party can't afford to forget that it may have been a surprise win. But it was not a convincing one. It was a sentiment that Morrison returned to during Tuesday's party room meeting in Canberra. He told the Liberal and National MPs gathered there that we've done a good job so far. But he also cautioned our opponents have a few problems, but that won't last.

The fact that the prime minister and other heavyweights in the Liberals are urging discipline like this is a reality check for anyone who thinks the one seat majority gives them the sort of insurance against setbacks that comes with a more resounding win. Not all of the party members have got their heads around that vulnerability, it’s clear, although one veteran Liberal told me,’some are behaving as if we have a 25 seat majority’.

ELIZABETH:

Paul, the other big story this week was the Right To Know campaign and the decision of major media outlets to black out their front pages. This obviously relates to recent raids on journalists and the general erosion of press freedoms.

PAUL:

Yes well, they're saying that this government’s treating voters with contempt by hiding from plain view what they're really up to most of the time. This goes back, of course, to Howard and his masterful exercise of power. Well key to the Howard playbook was his wedging Labor on national security. Howard introduced a raft of draconian laws that led to the erosion of civil liberties, privacy and accountability, a trend his successors have followed. But look, it has to be said that Labor was so spooked by the success of Howard and his successor's tactics in this area that in the past six years under Bill Shorten, particularly, its attempted to be in lock step on these issues to neutralise the political potency.

[Music starts]

We've got the situation we have today where Australia can credibly be called the world's most secretive democracy, where press freedoms are limited and much of the work of government can be done without us knowing what it's really up to, which is the point, of course, of the Right To Know campaign.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Paul, we're talking about the messaging around the Liberal Party's 75th anniversary celebration, which was tinged with a caution against excessive hubris. What are some of the immediate threats that Morrison is responding to there?

PAUL:

There's the Nationals, for one thing, the junior coalition partner. And without them, there wouldn't be a coalition government. Infighting within the party erupted during Monday's National Party room meeting. This is, of course, bad news for Morrison and quickly leaked to the ABC. And this is to get the maximum coverage in regional Australia.

Archival tape — Unidentified female newsreader:

‘...have deflected criticism of deputy leader Bridget McKenzie and rumblings of a potential leadership challenge comes after a heated party room meeting yesterday which was dominated with criticism of McKenzie’s leadership style which claims she was disorganised and difficult to get in touch with.’

PAUL:

One interstate National lamented to me that the Queenslanders were revolting. The particular object of their ire was the party's Victorian deputy leader, Senator Bridget McKenzie. Especially vocal on this point was Lew O’Brien from the Queensland seat of Wide Bay. He and others north of the New South Wales border believe Mackenzie is doing a dreadful job as agriculture minister, a job she took from Queenslander David Littleproud after the election.

It was reported that one MP claimed it was a waste of time contacting Senator McKenzie because she never gets back to you. Another told the ABC that she couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery.

ELIZABETH:

(laughs)

PAUL:

Mackenzie herself was busy with Senate estimates and in fact did not attend the meeting.

Archival tape — Bridget McKenzie:

‘Well I’m deputy leader of the party.’

Archival tape — Unidentified male politician:

‘For now.’

Archival tape — Bridget McKenzie:

‘At the pleasure of the party.

Archival tape — Unidentified male politician:

Have you heard what, seen what Liew O’Brien has said about you in the Courier Mail last half hour?

Archival tape — Bridget McKenzie:

‘No. I haven’t.’

Archival tape — Unidentified male politician:

‘You might want to have a read of that.’

PAUL:

McKenzie’s blamed for allowing Pauline Hanson to upstage the party by owning the Senate inquiry into milk pricing. They had all been demanding that, but McKenzie had been stalling them. Hanson won the support of Labor and the crossbench to sideline the government. O'Brien talked of moving a leadership spill motion, but he didn't get around to it.

ELIZABETH:

Paul, is McKenzie the only reason for unrest among the Nationals at the moment?

PAUL:

No, no feeding into their unrest is the fact that they believe that Scott Morrison is elbowing them out of being seen to be doing things for drought stricken farmers. For example, Morrison preempted an announcement to extend relief for hard hit farmers. They thought they were the ones to make that announcement. But Morrison did.

One of their other problems, you know, is that the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, they're blaming him, too, for the fact that he's being elbowed out by Morrison. The view is that the lackluster McCormick isn't assertive enough when it comes to dealing with the prime minister.

ELIZABETH:

And Paul, where with Labor this week? What was going on with the opposition?

Well, this week proved that Labor is yet to get back on an even keel with its new leader at the helm. The prime minister, who believes he has Anthony Albanese's measure, seized on a column in the Australian by Labor historian and former party staffer Troy Brampton. The prime minister mocked the opposition leader in light of that column in parliament. He raised the unnamed Labor frontbencher who told Brampton now that Albanese has the job, he doesn't know what to do with it. Bramsden reports disillusionment with the leader, especially from elements in the New South Wales right faction who followed their convener, Joel Fitzgibbon, in backing Albanese, who's from the left after the election.

ELIZABETH:

But there were some wins for Albanese this week, I mean, at very least, John Setka is no longer a member of the party.

PAUL:

This is this is a big win for Albanese on several fronts. His initiative to expel the controversial union boss John Setka from the Labor Party was finally achieved. Setka claim that he quit rather than fight to stay because he said under Albanese, Labor was selling out workers and the values that underpin the party and the union movement.

Archival tape — John Setka:

‘At this stage, uhhh I almost feel like walking around with a step ladder, the amount of times I’ve been asked to step down. Uhhh, but they’re not from my union, they’re not from my industry.’

ELIZABETH:

And how much do those concerns matter? I mean, is it all just too early to have any consequences for Albanese's chances as a potential prime minister?

[Music starts]

PAUL:

Yeah, well, it won't, I think that's right. But the fact is that such murmurings have emerged just five minutes after the election is an ominous sign for Albanese. For his part, Albanese wants to put the election review and this year behind him and Labor and begin showing the electorate what he has to offer the country in, next year, in 2020. There is a view both in Labor and in the government, that Morrison may be tempted to go to an election by the end of 2021. Not wait till 2022.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Paul, thank you for this week and every other week.

PAUL:

Thank you so much, Elizabeth. Bye.

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[Theme music begins]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has rejected a government bill that would establish a national facial recognition database. The Bill proposed to allow the Department of Home Affairs to create facilities for the sharing of facial images and other information between government agencies and some private entities. The committee has called for the proposed laws to be redrafted with additional safeguards included increased privacy protections.

And Darwin residents are highly concerned about their water security as underground aquifers are running critically low. After the driest wet season in decades, the director for water assessment has warned that record low groundwater levels have been reached and then surpassed, and that supplies are at risk of drying up completely if bore water users don’t cut back.

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

Erik Jensen is our editor.

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

[Theme music ends]

As the Liberal Party celebrates its 75th anniversary, the Nationals are brawling with each other about drought. At the same time, concern grows over press freedom. Paul Bongiorno on the party to which you were never invited.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Background reading:

The shadowy corridors of power 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, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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108: To Howard with love