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  • Rikki Lambert

Morrison government's pie-faced week in Canberra

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

Not the Midas touch - everything the government touches in 2022 turns to custard, Rikki Lambert writes

It would be funny if it wasn't so serious.

Arguably 13 weeks out from a federal election, the Morrison-Joyce Liberal-National Coalition has pie on their faces - and a great deal of it is self-inflicted.

A Canberra sitting week the Coalition would have hoped at last delivered on the religious freedom reforms promised in 2019 turned into a pie-throwing contest that revived what this correspondent has previously referred to as the 'custard touch'.

In Greek legend, king Midas was cursed such that everything he touched turned to gold. You could call it an embarrassment of riches, or being a victim of his own success. In a sense, that is also true of the Coalition - but instead of gold, everything the Morrison government touches is turning to custard.

The lead-up to the sitting week was blotted by historical text messages leaked by someone with a score to settle on the Liberal-Nationals' own team.

The Canberra press gallery ignored the thousands of freedom protestors outside parliament house as Canadian trucker wannabes, because they had their own agenda to pursue inside the whitewashed walls.

Slowly the gallery chipped away at the coalition, and when a number of the Coalition's own MPs crossed the floor to vote - the most in over 37 years - then perennial prime ministerial aspirant Peter Dutton thought, bugger it, I'll pick up a mud pie and throw one of those.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton said in federal parliament on Thursday that there was "evidence" the Chinese Communist Government preferred a Labor victory.

He then doubled down on his comments, telling the ABC on Friday:

"There needs to be a greater awareness, frankly, particularly from the Labor Party about the engagement of people who don't have our national interest".

Labor leader Anthony Albanese hit back at claims, saying the head of Australia's counter-espionage and intelligence agency has never raised concerns with him and accused the government of being "desperate for distractions".

Remember how Donald Trump rode the same in-Sino-ation against the Biden campaign to an unexpected second term in office? No, me neither - wrong multiverse.

Frankly, in this scribe's opinion, Dutton's act was desperation laid bare - a man desperate to be leader of the country, or desperate to help his team pull another election 'miracle' out of the roiling custard that the Defence Minister, no less, would pull a mud missile out of his arsenal.

Added to that was the chump-fisted handling of the report on the treatment of female staffers in federal politics. The Press Gallery played its part to a tee, setting up 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame and prime accuser Brittany Higgins on the driving range at the National Press Club. Ms Tame needed no encouragement to lay into the Morrison government, dropping a custard bomb of her own that might leave an odour for some time until - if ever - it is resolved.

Ms Tame accused an agent of the government of calling her to discourage her from speaking in a way that might negatively impact the Prime Minister's electoral prospects. The PM announced an inquiry into the claims, but don't count on that rooster coming back to roost and crow before the election.

Labor, meanwhile, manages to keep its nose comparatively clean. This is what they do best, for the socialist side of politics, the collective comes before the individual. When elections are close to hand, dirty laundry and unsettled scores are stashed away for another day.

Labor may well deserve a pie or two themselves, but the Canberra press gallery seem disinterested at worst and ineffective at best in prosecuting that line of inquiry.

The Coalition will be hoping that the shelving of a religious freedom bill amended by some of their own, Labor and SA independent Rebekah Sharkie will play well for them going - again - to people of faith in the electorate saying, help us protect you. Thus Mr Albanese was out on Thursday with a release asserting that he was more earnest than Mr Morrison in his desire to protect people of faith from vilification. Those that believe this topic to be election-shaping in, say, western Sydney, over-egg the influence of the issue. Most Australians will be wondering why it is such a big deal, because they have not been walked through the examples of the problem the government is seeking to fix by their political leaders or the press gallery.

The election will be largely won in coastal Queensland, hence why Labor shadow ministers have spent so much time there over the Christmas-New Year break.

This brings us to, excuse the reference, the government's hail-mary play - the March federal budget. Someone better distract or watch Peter Costello, because it will be a fiscal conservative's nightmare. Former PM Howard will no doubt, when asked, nod sagely and accept these are different times to his own, and the budget will be what the nation needs right now. Prepare for a government trying to out-gun Labor on spending to rebuild the national economy (already faring better than most around the world) into a post-pandemic powerhouse.

More likely the newsmaker in the next month will not be strategic leaks about the billions of dollars to be spent in a federal budget, but leaks from leadership aspirants and aggrieved apparatchiks sensing inevitable defeat. Liberal leakers will doom the Coalition to an end to 10 years in government with more mudslinging and custard diving.

The PM has not yet officially fired the electoral starter pistol, and already the competitors are assailing each other - friend or foe - with mud at the starting blocks.

Voters lack the imagination to collectively punish those in the 'Canberra bubble' by voting for alternatives, so Labor looks likely to profit from the latest smear-fest.


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