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Coalition ministers abandon the sinking ship

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

With news of yet more ministers retiring at the forthcoming election, it’s beginning to look a lot like 2013.

In 2013, a number of senior Labor people, including ministers, announced that after many years of service, they would not be contesting the 2013 Election. It was obvious that the Liberal Opposition, under the leadership of Tony Abbott, was going to win government handsomely. So the Labor heavyweights lined up to jump ship. Six years in opposition was not an enticing prospect.  

Former PM Julia Gillard was the first to go. She rolled Rudd to become Labor Leader and Prime Minister on 24 June 2010. Gillard then led Labor in the election that year, when the ALP became a minority government. Rudd rolling her three years later, to save the furniture, saw her leave.

There were others who may have left because of the Party’s deathly dance of disunity. As well as Julia Gillard, in 2013 ministers or ex-ministers Craig Emerson, Peter Garrett, Joe Ludwig, Nicola RoxonSimon Crean, Martin Ferguson, Robert McClelland and Greg Combet all retired from politics.

There had been departures before then. After Rudd’s first unsuccessful attempt in February 2013 to return to the prime ministership, a number of his supporters and others left the Gillard Ministry, including Robert McClelland, Richard Marles, Chris Bowen, Kim Carr and Martin Ferguson.

Clearly, the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Government was unstable, at least in terms of their personnel at times of challenge and change. This is very much the case today with the Liberals.

The Party is racked by Internal divisions between a rabid right wing that many voters seem to despise (at least on economic and most social issues) and a dwindling band of social Liberals who kowtow to their more brutal brothers and sisters on most major issues.

This is a battle between the right and the extreme right rather than centrists, or "liberals" and conservatives. For almost six years of Coalition Government shows us the reality of these right/extreme right divisions. We have had three prime ministers since the 2013 Election. Let’s try to be objective. Some of them, such as Tony Abbott, are clearly not up to the job and even the Liberal Party politicians agree.

The Peter Dutton-led coup against Malcolm Turnbull in August last year showed the battle within the Liberal Party is ongoing. There are a few things to remember here. Dutton got a majority of the Party – 43 of the then 85 members – to demand a second leadership ballot. In the first round of that ballot, he won 38 votes, Scott Morrison 36 and Julie Bishop 11. In the prime ministerial runoff against Morrison, Dutton won 40 votes compared to Morrison’s 45.

Let's repeat that: 40 the 85 members of the Parliamentary Liberal Party voted to have the reactionary Dutton as prime minister. It tells you much about the makeup of the party and its divorce from reality, that 47% of the Liberal Party wanted Dutton to lead them and the country. Even the first-round vote of over 44% shows there is a sizeable group in the Party who wanted it to turn to open reaction.

A look at those leaving shows the reactionary current is likely to get stronger, at least in terms of its current numerical power. Those leaving before the likely 2019 Election disaster are, by and large, the social Liberals.

They include Ministers or ex-Ministers Kelly O’Dwyer, Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne. Another Liberal, and Turnbull supporter, Julia Banks, left the Party shortly after Turnbull was rolled. In the 2019 Election, she will run against one of the key architects of the Dutton rebellion, Greg HuntAnn Sudmalis, another backbencher who is leaving, was, by her own account, bullied out of Parliament.  

Steve Ciobo is also leaving, although he was a Dutton supporter. He was first elected in 2001 before the 2004 reforms to the Parliamentary superannuation scheme came into effect. Because he retires under the pre-2004 scheme, he will retire on a pension of around $210,000 a year for the rest of his life. Not bad for a 44-year-old. This is a much better result than 60% of a backbenchers’ $207,000 per annum if he stayed and retired in three years’ time.

But wait, there’s more! As a former trade minister, how many lucrative private enterprise jobs might be in the offing for Ciobo? Former Trade Minister Andrew Robb left Parliament in 2017 and walked straight into an $880,000 a year consultancy with multibillionaire Ye Chen of the Landbridge Group.

Current ministers, Michael Keenan and Nigel Scullion, are retiring too. Keenan was elected in 2004 so the new much less generous superannuation scheme that treats him the same (more or less) as you and me, applies. Scullion came into Parliament as a Senator for the Northern Territory in 2001, so the lure of great money in retirement may have been a factor. While Keenan was a supporter of Dutton, Scullion sat as a member of the National Party.

None of this rush for the door means that Morrison and Dutton have given up hope of winning the 2019 Election.

Morrison knows that he is losing the Liberal centre in previously safe seats like Wentworth over issues like climate change. So his strategy has been to rebrand essentially do-nothing policies as great achievements. This is as true for the latest round of climate change "reforms" as it is for health, education, transport, wages and whatever else is weighing on the minds of voters.

The other weapon in their armoury is fear. Dutton is the master of this. Oblivious to any facts, Dutton has been warning us that a few seriously sick refugees and asylum seekers – deliberately made sick by our Government holding them hostage on Nauru and Manus Island – will see Australians "kicked off hospital waiting lists". Morrison supports this untruth.

This latest lie seems to contradict the Government’s argument that the hospital on Christmas Island can cope with all the ill refugees and asylum seekers it will send there. Maybe they already know but will not publicly admit that Christmas Island cannot deal with anything other than minor ailments.

To put this in perspective, in 2015-16 there were 701 public hospitals in Australia. They had 61,000 hospital beds. There were also 630 private hospitals which had another 33,100 beds.

70 sick refugees are not a threat to our hospital system — nor are 700. The main threat to hospitals in Australia comes from government underfunding. Of course, if we stopped torturing refugees and asylum seekers and bought them here to live, the cause of their sickness would disappear.

If this is how low Morrison and Dutton will go before the election starts, imagine the sewer of scares they will try to unleash during the campaign. Lies and fear are all this Coalition "Government" has to offer.

You can follow Canberra correspondent John Passant on Twitter @JohnPassant. Signed copies of John's newly released second book of poetry, 'Whose Broken is this? and other poems', are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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