On water matters set to sink Morrison

scott morrison election 2019

It’s the end of the first week of the federal election campaign and, already, we have the mainstream media telling everyone within earshot that this is a ‘boring’ campaign, and the electorate is ‘disillusioned’ and ‘jaded’ with the two main political parties.

But what are they expecting? What amuses these seasoned journalists that have probably been around for far too long? Would they like to see candidates playing saxophones, just like Bill Clinton during the 1992 US presidential campaign? Live twerking, just like Clive Palmer demonstrated in 2013? Even when a grand scandal is brewing just under their noses, they refuse to take the bait, so we’re left wondering what does it take for journalists to hold a conservative government to account?

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton performs “Heartbreak Hotel” on the “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992.

This ‘the-election-is-boring’ mantra is a tactic to have voters switched off from the main issues and remain disillusioned with politics, in the hope that a conservative government remains in office. It’s a tactic used by Fox News in the US, but it’s a standard now used by the Australian conservative media.

Aside from the boredom factor, we’ve also been told the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is an excellent campaigner – after just one week – is more ‘wily’ than his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull; and Labor leader, Bill Shorten, now has ‘every reason to be nervous’ about his election prospects.

Others in the media are suggesting Labor’s attempts to win government have much greater obstacles in 2019, when compared to 2016. Some are reporting the pathway for the Liberal–National Party to return to government is becoming clearer, without outlining how the LNP is going to overturn almost three years of negative polling, change the perception they’re a divided political entity, or overcome the lack of real policy solutions for the future, especially on climate change.

We’ve also been told by The Guardian that Morrison is ‘master of the middle’, and is “closing in on Bill Shorten and unsettling the Labor leader”. As with most of these statements, no evidence is provided to support the claims, just aimless ramblings and endless unsubstantiated opinion, just like all of those inane and inaccurate opinions proffered during the 2016 election campaign.

And most in the mainstream media have commenced their interviews with Shorten by asking him about his low popularity, a question never asked of Morrison, even through his levels of unpopularity aren’t far behind. In the latest Newpoll survey, Shorten’s disapproval rating is 51 per cent, while Morrison’s is slightly lower at 45 per cent.

Shorten is unpopular, because the media wants him to be, and it’s a narrative they’ve been constantly feeding ever since he became Leader of the Opposition in 2013. Labor is ‘stumbling’, because there any many in the media who actually want Labor to stumble. In the 2016 election, the media constantly told us the amount of seats to be won by the Turnbull-led Liberal–National Party would have an ‘8’ or ‘9’ in front it, even though polls were consistently suggesting a much closer race, some polls even having Labor ahead with a slight lead.

In the last week of the 2016 campaign, Laura Tingle from the Australian Financial Review wrote that “the sense that Labor is a serious challenger has faded”; The Australian‘s Dennis Shanahan suggested “Malcolm Turnbull is coming home with the wind in his sails, Bill Shorten is running out of puff”; and the Daily Telegraph, claimed Malcolm Turnbull was on the “brink of victory”.

The LNP did win the 2016 federal election, but it won just 76 seats, a bare one-seat majority, not the expected landslide the media wanted.

Many in the mainstream media refused to read the writing on the wall then, and we’re seeing a repeat of this in 2019, even though we’re only at the end of the first week of the campaign.

Let’s compare the respective low points of the week for the LNP and for Labor.

Disability is an advantage

The Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, started the week with a terrible slur on his opponent in the seat of Dickson, Ali France, claiming she was using her disability as an excuse for not living within the boundaries of the seat. The day after, instead of apologising for this slur, he doubled down, claiming he was just “representing the views of his electorate”, before apologising for his comments, three days after he first made them.

Ali France, Labor’s candidate in the seat of Dickson.

As it turned out, this was spectacular own-goal for the Dutton campaign: France was able to outline her story of how she lost her leg – protecting her young child while a car reversed into her in a shopping centre car park – as well as outlining the difficult factors involved in finding suitable accommodation for people with disabilities. France lives at a location which is a seven-minute drive outside the seat of Dickson, compared with Dutton’s primary place of residence on the Gold Coast, almost 100 kilometres away. What is Dutton’s excuse for not living within the boundaries of his own seat?

Dutton holds the seat of Dickson by a margin of 1.60 per cent, and needs everything to go right over the next four weeks to hold. But in his attempts to score cheap political points, he has only offered a greater platform to his opponent, and is likely to lose the seat.

Love and the iPad in Manila

We also had revelations about the Liberal–National Party member for Dawson, George Christensen, that he’d spent at least 70 days in each of the past three years visiting his fiancé in the Philippines. Christensen spent 294 days between 2014–2018 travelling to Manila, the equivalent of nine weeks of paid holidays each and every year.

We haven’t heard from Christensen about this matter, but fellow LNP MP, David Littleproud, tried to downplay the episode by claiming “everyone is entitled to love”, and Christensen could easily carry out his parliamentary duties from the comfort of his iPad.

George Christensen in Parliament.

We can try to overlook all the security issues that would arise from an MP carrying out their electoral work from an iPad in one corner of a Manila district through an unsecured internet service provider, but to suggest parliamentary work can be performed primarily with a mobile phone and iPad in a foreign country is ludicrous.

Littleproud’s claim is also in contrast to reports of Christensen missing one-third of the important hearings of the Inquiry into the Development of Northern Australia, because he was in Manila, where he neither called in remotely during these times, or engaged with the inquiry.

Dawson is one of the poorest electorates in Australia, starved of economic and employment opportunities. For Christensen to miss one-third of a forum that is critical to the future prospects of the region, as well as engaging in a love-fest overseas junket for three years is certainly not going to impress the voters of Dawson.

On water matters

But the biggest news of the first week of the election campaign has been the revelations of the 2017 water buy-back from Eastern Australia Agriculture, for the sum of $79 million. There are many questions that need to be answered in this deal.

For a start, EAA sought a water buy-back twice during Labor’s time in government between 2007–2013, but was refused on both occasions; one of the establishing directors of EAA was Liberal MP Angus Taylor, who is now Minister for Energy and member for Hume; EAA is a company registered in the Cayman Islands, shrouded in a cloak of great secrecy; EAA made a profit of $52 million from this one transaction; and Barnaby Joyce was the Minister for Water at the time.

This is not a new story, but has been bubbling just under the surface for some time on Twitter through a story thread provided by @MsVeruca (since removed by Twitter, under malicious legal threats from Taylor’s lawyers, Mark O’Brien Legal). Despite the allegations of mismanagement and corruption, the mainstream media refused to become involved until Channel 10’s The Project presented a video story on 18 April.

Others in the mainstream media then started to ask questions of the Prime Minister on Easter Saturday about whether there was any impropriety in the EAA water buy-back. While the questioning of the Prime Minster was strong, the follow up was poor.

Morrison’s initial response was to say the buy-back was initiated by the Queensland Labor Government, and that the federal government has been very transparent. But a document released in 2017 proves the Queensland Government had nothing to do with the transaction, and documents released by the federal minister had 70 per cent of its content redacted. So much for transparency.

Perhaps journalists at Morrison’s media conference were flummoxed by his statement the Queensland Government was somehow involved with a federal government transaction, but no one had the wherewithal to ask for proof from the Prime Minister, or which Queensland Minister they could contact to verify his statement.

Or perhaps they were more worried their invitation to watch the second episode of Game Of Thrones in a cosy home theatre with the Prime Minister would be revoked if they asked questions deemed to be too difficult.

A horror week for the LNP but, somehow, Labor still loses

Despite all of this, the mainstream media decided the Liberal–National Party had won the first week of the campaign and, according to Channel Nine’s political correspondent, Chris Uhlmann, “Labor was seen to have a fairly bad first week”.

And how did journalists arrive at this conclusion of Labor having a ‘bad first week’?

Because Labor leader, Bill Shorten, was tripped up in a ‘gotcha’ moment when asked about his superannuation policy. The question, asked by Sky News reporter, James O’Doherty, had the hostility of an attack Rottweiler on steroids, and Shorten responded by saying Labor had no plans for new taxes on superannuation, even though he previously announced there would be superannuation reform if Labor was elected to government.

Did Shorten mishear, or did he not understand his own policy? It seemed more like a stitch-up by a Liberal Party operative than a serious political query. Labor released their superannuation plan to curb tax concessions on superannuation contributions from high income earners towards the end of 2016 – three years ago. Why would O’Doherty ask the question on a long-existing policy if he wasn’t planning to trip Shorten up?

The media had a field day when Bill Shorten was tripped up on a question about superannuation. But was it a set-up?

Needless to say, the mainstream media ran with this story for the rest of the week, promoting endless stories about Shorten not understanding his own policy work, that somehow this was the turning point of the election and would give ample opportunity for the LNP to surge ahead in the polls.

Intelligence is usually in short supply among the media throng during election time, and it seems it won’t be any different this time around. Journalists are ‘bored’, they report about how ‘jaded’ the electorate is, they question why Bill Shorten is ‘so unpopular’, and report with alacrity when Shorten misunderstands a question designed to fail him.

Some in the media are even suggesting that more pressure is being placed on Labor because they now have a suite of policies that can be scrutinised, while the LNP has none. For years, journalists have bemoaned the lack of policy from all sides of politics but when one side of politics releases a swathe of substantial material, it’s reported as a political disadvantage?

And, supposedly, as a result of this pressure and scrutiny on Labor policies, the electorate will return to the LNP, even though they have an absence of policies.

It’s this kind of logic that often makes me wonder how on earth journalists get their jobs in the first instance. They complain about elections being dull and boring because they’re cocooned from the results of whichever government if formed. But for working people, elections are important events and consequences from government decisions can be life changing. Elections do matter. It’s just a pity the media sees it all as an entertainment sideshow.

And the real winner was…

Whoever the winner was during week one of this campaign, it’s not really of great consequence. The mainstream media collectively agreed Malcolm Turnbull was the winner of week one of the 2016 election campaign, even though he ran one of the poorest campaigns since Billy McMahon in 1972, and ended up with a slim one-seat majority. Sure, he still won the election, but the tight result was against all media expectations, and caused Turnbull so many problems throughout the term, until he was finally ousted by his own party in August 2018.

Week one is when both campaign machines get their wheels in motion, clear their throats and start road testing their election scripts. Many people in the electorate aren’t even aware an election is being held on May 18: they’re still consumed with the long weekend, and worried about what to do with their kids during the school holidays. And the other big factor is, they may have already made up their minds about who’ll they’ll be voting for and the campaign will be immaterial to their selection on election day.

But whatever the case, week one was not even a nil-all draw: the main game hasn’t started yet. Let’s see what happens after Anzac Day to get a better perspective of how the campaign is being played out.

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About Eddy Jokovich 62 Articles
Eddy Jokovich is a journalist, publisher, author, political analyst, campaigner, war correspondent, and lecturer in media studies at the University of Technology, Sydney and the University of Sydney; has a wide range of experience working in editorial and media production work and is Director of ARMEDIA, a publishing and communications company specialising in public interest media.