The lead-up to the coming election has witnessed the most substantial pile-on against an incumbent prime minister in living memory. Sure, Labor’s Julia Gillard endured considerable criticism and some abuse when she was prime minister after Labor’s narrow victory in 2010. But it was Kevin Rudd, not Gillard, who led the Australian Labor Party to the 2013 election.
In the lead-up to this year’s election, Scott Morrison has experienced wide-scale public criticism with respect to his policies and character. In recent days this has extended from an age pensioner at a Newcastle hotel to a 14-year-old boy on a little known online news outlet in Melbourne.
Then there has been the bagging by disaffected Liberal MPs such as senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and NSW state MP Catherine Cusack. Much has been made of the attacks by Cusack, who identifies as a Liberal Party moderate. But little reference has been made to the fact Cusack publicly rowed with a fellow moderate, Gladys Berejiklian, when the latter was NSW premier.
It’s not unusual to learn of inter-party disputes. But it is rare for a senior party member to dump on a prime minister publicly, immediately before or during an election campaign.
There is an additional factor affecting Morrison. This is the overwhelming hostility to him by large sections of the media, in the Canberra press gallery and elsewhere. This is led by the ABC, Guardian Australia, The Saturday Paper, Crikey and The New Daily with support from sections of Nine newspapers (The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald). Then there is Network Ten’s The Project.
It is a matter of record that Laura Tingle, chief political correspondent for ABC television’s 7.30, has accused the Morrison government of “ideological bastardry”. On Tuesday 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales interviewed the Prime Minister. Her comments and questions were replete with contempt along with occasional hostility. One example illustrates the point. Sales accused Morrison of intervening in preselections in the NSW Liberal Party by dictating the process “with a small group of people rather than leave it to local branches to pick candidates”.
She continued in this vein that preselections were “for rank and file” to decide, and added in a mocking tone: “It’s (the Liberal Party is) a democratic party – supposedly.” Well, that’s a fair question – provided it’s balanced. But it wasn’t. Anthony Albanese appeared on 7.30 on March 31. Sales asked challenging questions on policy only – not on character. And she exhibited no contempt.
Moreover, Sales did not raise preselections with the Opposition Leader or accuse him of attempting to deprive the Labor rank-and-file of their democratic rights. It would seem Sales was unaware of the case of Diana Asmar v Anthony Albanese, which recently has proceeded though the Supreme Court of Victoria, the Victorian Court of Appeal and the High Court of Australia, resulting in a victory for the ALP leader.
Asmar, who held the hand of Labor senator Kimberley Kitching when the latter was dying last month from a suspected heart attack, is the secretary of the Health Workers Union. She took an action on behalf of herself along with other members of her right-wing faction and some trade unions to overturn the decision of the ALP national executive in May last year to take control over preselection for all federal seats in Victoria.
In other words, in Sales’s terminology, Albanese has behaved less democratically than Morrison. Albanese has taken control of all ALP preselections in Victoria whereas Morrison has done this with only a dozen or so in NSW. But it was a matter of don’t-talk-about-the-ALP-preselections when Sales interviewed Albanese.
Sales was not the only ABC star to put Labor in witness protection on this issue. On ABC TV Insiders last Sunday, presenter David Speers interrupted Josh Frydenberg when the Treasurer attempted to comment about Asmar v Albanese. He was prevented from returning to the topic.
On ABC TV News Breakfast on Tuesday, presenter Michael Rowland did a Speers. Rowland raised with Frydenberg the issue of the case of Camenzuli v Morrison, where the plaintiff challenged the NSW Liberal Party preselections. Morrison had a victory in the NSW Court of Appeal not long after the News Breakfast interview. This decision was upheld by the High Court on Friday.
Following Rowland’s comment, Frydenberg responded that “the Labor Party was in the High Court just over a week ago, having their own Labor takeover – ”.
Here Rowland interjected: “Treasurer, when Anthony Albanese was on we put these issues to him, which I have.”
I asked Rowland and the News Breakfast team when he (allegedly) asked the Labor leader about Asmar v Albanese. There was no reply.
There is a consistent pattern here. Sales asked Morrison about criticism of him by some current and former Liberal Party women who were named. But she did not query Albanese about the alleged bullying of Kitching by the Labor Senate leadership team (Penny Wong, Kristina Keneally, Katy Gallagher), whom Kitching depicted to her family and friends as the “mean girls”, following the 2004 movie of the same name.
Then on Thursday, the influential ABC radio AM program gave prominence to the exchange between a hostile Newcastle pensioner and the Prime Minister in which the former swore at the latter, who listened to his complaints with courtesy for some time.
However, the same program did not cover the exchange between a polite bystander in Perth, who attempted to ask the Labor leader a question. Albanese declined to respond to the comment beyond saying that the media conference was for journalists only.
Now, either both stories were newsworthy – illustrating, as they did, an encounter between a voter and a political leader – or neither was. But Sabra Lane and the AM team apparently believe that it is news when a bystander takes on the Prime Minister but not when one takes on the Opposition Leader.
Morrison has declared that he believes in miracles. He will certainly need one to prevail at the election next month in view of the massive pile-on against him with the taxpayer-funded ABC, Australia’s largest media organisation, in the frontline of the media attack.