On Wednesday, ABC Radio National Breakfast presenter Fran Kelly spoke to opposition Treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers, followed by Josh Frydenberg, about the Australian economy during the current Covid-19 lockdown in NSW.
It came as no surprise that the former received a soft interview while the latter was consistently challenged and interrupted.
What was surprising turned on the fact that, when introducing the federal Treasurer, Kelly said Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews had said Scott Morrison was acting like “the premier for NSW”. Clearly she meant to say the prime minister for NSW.
But the interesting point is we don’t really know what Andrews said.
What we do know is, on Tuesday, someone who presented as a Victorian government spokesman declared “Victorians are rightly sick and tired of having to beg for every scrap of support from the federal government”.
The person in question went on to state that Morrison’s “job is not to be the prime minister for NSW”.
Now, Andrews dominates the government he leads in Victoria. So it only can be assumed that the spokesman bagging the Prime Minister was speaking with the approval of the Victorian Premier.
That evening, Frydenberg was interviewed by Laura Tingle on ABC television’s 7.30 program.
Tingle could almost have been acting as a spokeswoman for the Andrews government when she threw the following leading question to the Treasurer: “Premier Andrews has said tonight that your government’s refusal to provide more assistance to the state was a disgrace. Do the apparent double standards reflect the government’s concern that it may lose seats in NSW?”
Frydenberg, in what was a strong performance, responded: “Well, that’s a very cynical question.” He added that the Morrison government had “provided more support on a per capita basis to Victoria through JobKeeper than any other state”.
The Treasurer said payments to NSW in the first two weeks of its current lockdown were the same as those that applied during the same time frame with respect to Victoria in its recent lockdown.
As mentioned, on Wednesday Kelly ran much the same line as her ABC colleague the night before.
Meanwhile, on ABC TV News Breakfast, presenter Michael Rowland adopted the smirking expression he presents to some senior Coalition politicians. During one of many interruptions, Rowland suggested Victorians were “absolutely filthy” with the NSW Covid-19 support package announced last Tuesday.
Now, however much some journalists may disagree with the Coalition, the likes of Morrison and Frydenberg are not fools. They know that to remain in office the Coalition needs to retain, and preferably win, seats in all states.
That’s why if any other state goes into a lockdown similar to that which exists in NSW, then a Covid-19 Support Package will come into operation as now exists in NSW.
It’s possible that the reason Andrews threw the switch to spokesman mode involves Frydenberg. After all, the Treasurer is deputy leader of the Liberal Party and, as such, Victoria’s most senior Liberal.
It stands to reason that Frydenberg, as the member for Kooyong, the seat once held by the Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies, wants to do the best he can for Victoria. For starters, he’s Victorian born and bred. And, like all able politicians, he is ambitious.
Frydenberg is the 15th longest serving treasurer in Australia’s history and will overtake Morrison and Andrew Fisher by the end of the year. On the Liberal Party side of politics, he is behind Morrison, William McMahon, John Howard, Harold Holt and Australia’s longest serving treasurer, Peter Costello.
There are two Nationals (formerly the Country Party) in front of him – Earle Page and Arthur Fadden. Only Costello did not make it to prime minister, but he played a key role in the successful Howard government.
Of Australia’s long-term treasurers, there was leadership tension between Labor’s Paul Keating and prime minister Bob Hawke, as there was between Costello and Howard. However, this is not the case between Frydenberg and Morrison; their relationship, at this stage, resembles that between Holt in his days as treasurer and Menzies.
Like successful treasurers such as Howard, Keating and Costello, Frydenberg has wide interests beyond the economy. In the Treasurer’s case, they extend to foreign policy, sport and the arts.
It is a little known fact Frydenberg, in his role as Treasurer, was the driving force behind the Coalition’s recent decision to provide an extra $67.7m to the National Archives of Australia to preserve its endangered and irreplaceable historic collections. He met NAA officials before the decision and championed the NAA’s request through the expenditure review committee of cabinet.
As Joseph Lyons understood when treasurer and prime minister during the early years of the Depression, being treasurer is a tough job. All governments make errors. But, despite the critics on the left and right, Australia’s economic performance during the Covid-19 international economic downturn has been exceptional.
The various Covid-19 support packages have worked well in all states and territories. And especially in Andrews’ Victoria, which has been the main beneficiary of federal funds.
It would seem the key difference between the Covid-19 support packages with respect to Australia’s two most populous states has been the 50-50 cost sharing deal between the federal and NSW governments for a revamped small to big business support package.
This will be implemented and administered by NSW.
As Morrison told ABC Radio AM presenter Sabra Lane on Thursday, a similar 50-50 deal was offered to Victoria recently. It was initially rejected by the Andrews government.
Andrews doesn’t need an anonymous spokesman to put out a negative attack line on the Coalition government. He can leave that to ABC journalists and concentrate instead on working with Morrison and the Victorian Frydenberg – as Andrews did yesterday.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.