Prime Minister Scott Morrison all over the shop in Wentworth

STAGGERING: Scott Morrison’s strategy since becoming PM has exposed his ignorance of electoral realities. Picture: AAP
STAGGERING: Scott Morrison’s strategy since becoming PM has exposed his ignorance of electoral realities. Picture: AAP

I had thought the political demise of maverick Nick Xenophon sent a clear message that, in the end, stunts and sound bites don’t work – especially if it looks like you might actually win government. This is exactly what happened to Xenophon in the recent South Australian election – his electoral support evaporated once it was realised that he might win.

He was OK as a mechanism to register a protest vote against one of the major parties, but not to form government.

More broadly, populism fails in the long run. It is possible to win electoral support from some groups in the short-term, on some issues. But it is very difficult to sustain that support when you fail to deliver the expected outcomes or, broadly, are seen to have failed to govern.

The staggering thing about Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s strategy since assuming the leadership is his ignorance of such electoral realities.

Morrison’s modus operandi has always been to attempt to spin the answer, rather than deal with the substance of the question. He happily bounces from one issue to the next, from one day to the next, and is inclined to shoot from the hip on many policy issues.

In the last week or so – out of fear of losing the Wentworth byelection necessitated by the sudden exit of Turnbull – Morrison has been all over the shop attempting to consolidate populist sentiment among various constituent groups in Wentworth.

For example, on whether religious schools should be able to discriminate against gay and lesbian students or teachers, he has held positions ranging from it’s OK because they already have that power, to yes we will legislate against such a power at least as far as students are concerned. Whatever answer was required in the circumstances of the day. But certainly, not unrelated to the fact that Wentworth has the largest LGBTQI community of any electorate.

Similarly, on the motion moved by Pauline Hanson that “It’s OK to be white” – universally seen as almost a white supremacist, neo-Nazi emblem – LNP senators initially supported the motion, and then reversed their vote, citing an administrative error – a sequence of events Morrison described as “regrettable”. What, that they “got revealed”? Again, was this merely a crude attempt to play the race card in the context of Wentworth?

Morrison has been all over the shop attempting to consolidate populist sentiment among various constituent groups.

Next, and perhaps the most opportunistic of all, was Morrison’s statement that he is open to the idea of moving our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a proposal he described as “sensible” – even though it jettisons a long-standing, bipartisan, major element of our national policy position on the Middle East, has offended Muslims and particularly Palestinians, and puts our trade deal with Indonesia at risk.

All this to hopefully swing the electorally significant Jewish vote in Wentworth? But does he really believe he can treat the Jewish community as mugs?

Finally, and again “all of a sudden”, given the emerging significance of the refugee issue in Wentworth, Morrison is inclined to dust off the possibility of the previously rejected proposal that some of those refugees stuck on Nauru, especially those with children, may be resettled in New Zealand.

This has been one of the worst and most disturbing periods of policy on the run, while simultaneously ducking the most significant public policy challenge, namely having an energy policy, and a climate change action plan.

Morrison’s response has been to dismiss the most recent, alarming IPCC report that deals with the risks and consequences of varying degrees of global warming as simply a global document, of no direct relevance to us, coupled with an assertion that we are “on track” to achieve our Paris emissions commitments.

Perhaps the dominant policy issue in the Wentworth byelection, apart from the removal of Turnbull, is the climate challenge. I have been arguing that this byelection should effectively be a referendum on climate policy, and suggesting a government that has no effective climate action plan forfeits its right to govern.

If there is an effective protest vote in Wentworth this Saturday, whereby the Liberal candidate is defeated, I sincerely hope Morrison admits the futility of populist policies and strategies. But I suspect he wouldn’t. He’d be full of other excuses. 

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