Liberal leadership: Is the damage reversible? | OPINION

SCRAPING BY: It's extremely unlikely that Scott Morrison can save the Liberal government. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen
SCRAPING BY: It's extremely unlikely that Scott Morrison can save the Liberal government. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

Most people who have spoken to me are totally bewildered by the events in our politics in the last couple of weeks.

There is no doubt that it has not only damaged the standing of key individuals, and the Liberal Party – probably irrevocably – but it has seriously compounded the electorate’s overwhelming loss of confidence, trust and faith in our politicians and our overall political process.

How is it, they ask, that the Liberal Party didn’t learn of the downside of Labor’s Rudd/Gillard/Rudd era? It was surely the major reason why they ultimately lost government to Abbott?

What was it, exactly, that Malcolm had done that was “so wrong”? Sure, he had clearly failed to live up to those probably excessive expectations about how he would govern, which he created when he seized the leadership from Abbott. 

But it didn’t seem to many that he had done much wrong, rather than that he had simply not done much.

Moreover, he had come back to be about line-ball in the last several Newspolls and had consistently maintained a significant lead over Shorten as preferred Prime Minister.

Indeed, at the time of the recent by-elections, rumours were rife that Shorten’s leadership may be challenged by Albanese – the latter had clearly been positioning himself for a possible challenge.

Sure, the LNP didn’t do as well as they had hoped in those by-elections, but a government hasn’t won a by-election in an opposition-held seat in almost 100 years.

It was more about Turnbull having made them a contest of leadership, and then experienced a collapse in the Liberal primary vote in the Longman by-election in Queensland, a state that could determine the outcome of the next federal election.

As usual, there were a number of reasons for that vote collapse – importantly, the candidate’s misrepresentation about his military medals – but it was an event that could be seized on, and easily exaggerated, by the insurgents.

As hard as it is for any rational/sane person to accept, the insurgency was purely and solely driven by ego and revenge.

Abbott had never accepted, and adjusted to his loss of the leadership to Turnbull.

Although he had promised not to undermine he did little else, taking every opportunity, especially in his regular appearances with some of his media mates, to score a point against Turnbull and his government.

Abbott duped poor, hapless Dutton into believing that he could lead the essential conservative revolution within the Liberal Party, that he could actually be PM.

Morrison has had to cobble together a ministry full of those who supported the insurgency. Sure, they swear loyalty, but we have seen what that is worth!

This conservative push was mostly a cover for Abbott’s ego and revenge.

It was also never really about policy. Although here they used the NEG and the broader energy policy as a platform, the insurgents never proposed an alternative.

As the insurgency gained momentum, the threat was “we won’t stop until you all come on board”.  The Longman by-election result was then easily used to say we need Dutton, who holds the neighbouring seat, if we are not to lose Queensland.

Again the reality is that, post redistribution, the government can’t afford to lose just one seat. It was certainly never clear that Dutton could deliver this, especially as he would probably be toxic in several seats in Sydney and Melbourne.

Can Morrison turn this mess around? Will the electorate ever really forgive and move on? You can’t say never in politics, but the probabilities are seriously against it. The damage has been done.

Morrison has had to cobble together a ministry full of those who supported the insurgency. Sure, they swear loyalty, but we have seen what that is worth!

It seems Morrison has obviously decided to try to scrape by on energy, separating the two portfolios of energy and the environment, and dropping them to the bottom of his ministerial list. He will no doubt talk a lot about the drought, and elements of the cost of living, introducing one or two initiatives of his own. His focus will mostly be on an election-winning mini-budget in December.

But don’t forget, Abbott’s end game is to be PM again. He may declare the “assassination era” as over, but he is still in Parliament.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.