“We took it very seriously, and I think constantly referring to it in that way dismisses the seriousness of the issue. It’s a very serious issue.”
Morrison’s indignation was at odds with what he said about the reports laid out in the ABC program – essentially, that the issues were historical and had been dealt with when his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull imposed a ban on ministers having sexual relationships with their staff. Nothing further to see here.
As a strong Christian and a family man, there is no doubt that the tone Morrison sets for his government is intolerant of the kind of licentious culture depicted in the program.
Morrison emphasised the tragic consequences for families of extramarital affairs, but said Australians generally understand “human frailty”, deftly turning the issue into one of morality and forgiveness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.
It was also an under-the-radar reminder that Labor is just as bad. Certainly, there was anxiety within Labor ranks that some of their own would also be named by Four Corners.
But really, the issue is not one of morality. It is one of responsibility.
Are women welcome?
Is the culture of Morrison’s government welcoming to female staff? Is Parliament House a place where women can reach the highest levels of power? Are they treated fairly behind closed doors? Do ministers take seriously their responsibilities for their portfolios, and their subordinates?
Morrison is touchy on the “woman” issue and turned his defence into an attack, because he knows the Liberal Party, and his government, is vulnerable on it.
The Coalition has 14 women in the lower house, out of 77 MPs. Based on current settings, the Liberals’ ostensible goal of 50/50 representation by 2025 will not be reached.
The upper leadership of the government is wall-to-wall blokes, despite the presence of talented women in cabinet.
Think about the federal pandemic response, or the recent budget, and ask yourself if you can remember any woman being anywhere near central to it.
But do voters care? Morrison has a genius for screening out the preoccupations of the media and the Twitterati to focus on the concerns of outer suburban and ordinary voters, those who don’t talk about politics a lot and who don’t follow the machinations of Parliament House with close interest.
Will they be bothered about reports two ministers, Alan Tudge and Christian Porter, had affairs or inappropriate relations with their staff (although Porter, the Attorney-General, has denied the construction of events depicted in Four Corners)?
It could hurt both men in their own electorates, and both of their careers will be set back. Porter was touted as a future Liberal leader, and those aspirations seem dashed, leading one parliamentary observer to quip that the happiest man in parliament this week was Porter’s peer and rival, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
Regardless of whether the reports hurt the government is another question. Voters may not absorb the detail but they will take away an impression of general sleaze, a sense that while their ministers should have been working for the taxpayer, they were distracted.
Morrison was helped, considerably, by the Labor opposition. On the same morning the government was scrambling to deal with the Four Corners fall-out, Labor was having an embarrassing tiff on climate policy.
Resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon, who was expected to stand aside from his portfolio at some point, announced his decision to “quit” the frontbench. The transition, down to a deal within the Right faction, was supposed to be smooth. It was anything but.
Fitzgibbon gave a press conference saying leader Anthony Albanese could win government if he “if he listens to Joel Fitzgibbon”.
Fitzgibbon says Labor will never win back heartland suburban and blue-collar voters unless it matches the government on climate policy, thereby neutering it as an electoral issue.
His grandstanding and scaremongering on the issue obscure the fact that Labor’s loss at the last election was because it had too many policies, was seen as attacking people’s wealth (through its franking credits and negative gearing policies) and had an unpopular leader.
Climate policy a positive
The post-election review of the loss conducted by Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill showed climate policy was the second most popular reason people voted Labor, and concluded it was a net positive for Labor.
Joe Biden’s presidential victory showed that a left-centrist party platform should and can include a credible emissions reduction target, in line with the Paris agreement.
Morrison can’t commit to any target publicly because of the feral coal-fancying rump within his own party, who hold minority views they falsely assert represent ordinary Australians.
Labor could turn this into an electoral embarrassment for Morrison, but not while it has Fitzgibbon lighting fires on the backbench.
There is anxiety within Labor about how to convince middle Australian voters that a credible emissions reduction policy can be achieved without hurting them.
It will take a leader skilled in communication to sell the message that good climate policy combined with technology investment equals hope and economic opportunity.
But even the most skilled political communicators cannot gain traction if they’re constantly being interrupted by their own colleagues.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards