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Morrison's first week looks just as bad as the week before

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Image courtesy @TwoEyeHead / Twitter

Our latest Prime Minister, Scott "ScoMo" Morrison, has survived his first ten days in office, but there’s a lot of duck-paddling below the deceptively smooth surface, writes political editor Dr Martin Hirst.

OUR NEW SUPER FRIENDLY, footy-loving, God-bothering Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has now had just over a week to get his well-shod feet under the desk where his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, had sat only a few short days earlier.

Is it too soon to assess the "new generation" leadership team that Morrison installed on the green leather front bench?

Well, it is often said that a week is a long time in politics and since Morrison’s premiership is likely to be measured in weeks rather than years, we might proffer that the first ten days of his Prime Ministership are equivalent to the usual "100 days" in more normal times.

“Insiders” are already telling the Murdoch media that it is “all but over” for the Morrison Government.

First of all, the line up in Morrison’s Ministry looks horribly familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention. To make matters worse, the Liberals' problem with women hasn’t gone away. Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is having a bet each way on staying or going; and Member for Chisholm Julia Banks is going too, citing misogyny and bullying as the last straw for her. Another factor could be that Chisholm, her seat in outer Melbourne, is one that Labor is likely to win back in the next election.

The Coalition spinners and the Press Gallery stenographers have been talking up the "new look" Morrison front bench, but there are so many familiar old and recycled faces in the Ministry and the Cabinet that it still looks like an FJ Holden with a badly-applied coat of candy apple red paint. It’s a jalopy and they’re trying to sell it to us as a hot rod.

Let’s start with the recycled tyres added to the outer ministry: Member for Fadden Stuart Robert and Member for Farrer Sussan Ley.

These two were sacked by Malcolm Turnbull for rorting their expenses. Ley was Turnbull’s Health Minister until she was forced out in January 2017. Ley, for claiming travel expenses for a trip from Canberra to the Gold Coast to attend an auction and buy an apartment owned by a significant Liberal National Party donor, Martin Corkery.

Ley got the apartment at a below-market-value price but claimed not to know who the vendor was. The whole deal was dodgy and the full story has not really surfaced because Ley refused to fully cooperate with an inquiry into her actions.

Nonetheless, Morrison has rewarded her with an assistant ministership. No doubt the extra income from this sinecure will help her buy her next investment property.

The sacking of Robert as Human Services Minister in January 2016 is even murkier. Robert travelled to China ostensibly on personal business, but then spent time on the junket promoting a business linked to his close friend and Liberal Party donor, Paul Marks. It was later revealed that the Robert family trust held shares in a company associated with Mr Marks. Oh and then there are the Rolex watches that were gifted to Robert, former PM Tony Abbott and former Liberal MP Ian Macfarlane by another Chinese business figure.

Well, you might argue, all that’s in the past and people deserve a second chance. So, let’s leave the past and let sleeping dogs Ley — for now. Mr Morrison has more current and pressing personnel problems to deal with.

The Ministry for Home Affairs (minus the Immigration portfolio) has been retained by coup leader and failed challenger, Peter Dutton. However, Dutton’s hold on the Cabinet-level position is looking rather tenuous. If Parliament had been sitting last week, it is likely that Dutton would be out of a portfolio already. He has been given two weeks grace, until Parliament (and Question Time) begin again on Monday, 10 September.

The cause of Dutton’s heartburn and sleepless nights is a series of decisions to grant a number of young female tourists visas to work as au pairs, against the advice of his department.

This is an issue that has been bubbling under the surface of political news for months and Twitter has been asking questions, along with some Press Gallery journalists. However, Dutton’s department has spent tens of thousands of dollars preventing any information about his decision-making in these cases from becoming public.

That dam burst late last week when documents were leaked that appeared to show that Dutton had acted on behalf of wealthy Liberal Party donors, in one case, and on behalf of an old mate from his Queensland copper days, in another.

Dutton showed his aggressive side – despite a week earlier claiming to be a big softie – and issued terse statements saying he had exercised his ministerial discretion and there was nothing untoward about his actions.

Oops, it appears, though, that he has more than likely misled the Parliament by giving an answer claiming not to have any connection with the employers of the au pairs in question. Except, he does.

Morrison has attempted to hose down the issue, as if it’s business as usual for his ministers, but Dutton is facing a Senate Committee Inquiry that is due to report by Tuesday next week (11 September).

Misleading Parliament is a serious offence, particularly for a minister. However, Dutton’s problems don’t end there. He is still under a Section 44 cloud because of his pecuniary interests in two Queensland childcare businesses, which received $5.6 million of Federal subsidies.

This is an alleged breach of Section 44(v) of the Australia Constitution Act, which prohibits serving politicians from simultaneously holding a position of profit under the Crown. As is usual in such cases, there are conflicting legal opinions doing the round. However, at best, there is some uncertainty around Dutton’s position, such that it should probably be referred to the High Court for resolution.

To date, Morrison has prevaricated on the issue of Dutton’s eligibility to sit in the House of Representatives. When he was directly asked about it by Channel Ten’s Hugh Riminton, the PM waffled that he was looking at the matter with Attorney-General Christian Porter and made a garbled statement to the effect that it would be dealt with internally.

The other current personnel time bomb is the perennial problem of what to do about Senator Michaelia Cash.

Cash has retained a Cabinet-level portfolio as Minister for Small and Family Business, Skills and Vocational Education. It’s a long title but holds little responsibility. Morrison has signalled that he wants Cash to spend a long time away from her office visiting small and medium enterprises up and down the country. No doubt this is to keep her out of harm’s way and to stop any embarrassing outbursts during Question Time.

Why would Morrison do this?

You may recall that someone on Cash’s ministerial staff tipped off the media about the raids and the Australian Federal Police have been investigating. You might also remember that Michaelia Cash has consistently refused to answer questions on the matter because of the ongoing AFP investigation — including whether or not she’d given a statement to the AFP.

So far she has also refused to honour a subpoena to give evidence in a Federal Court case brought by the AWU

Well, we now know that the AFP requested a full statement from Cash, but she has refused to give them one on the grounds that she’s already made a full statement to various Senate Committees which have questioned her. She hasn’t. The only statement Cash has made to the AFP is a rehash of the material already on the public record. 

It seems that despite desperately trying to give the appearance of being a united team, the recriminations and taste for revenge inside the Liberal Party room are seething under the surface.

Dutton has already come out and blamed both factional enemies inside the party and elements of the media for attempting to bring him down. And Phillip Coorey in the Australian Financial Review is reporting that Cash was the subject of damaging leaks last week in relation to her ongoing dramas.

Morrison’s vanquished predecessor is also a source of ongoing headaches for the new PM. Not only has Turnbull left Morrison the poison chalice of having to fight a by-election, family scion Alex Turnbull is openly calling for a vote for the ALP in the leafy harbourside seat of Wentworth. There’s even talk of the blue-ribbon Liberal seat being unsafe for the Coalition without the popular Turnbull brand fronting it.

All of this amounts to a pretty poor ten days for Scott Morrison. He has cobbled together a Ministry of retreads, old mates and seriously compromised wreckers, which, in the immortal words of Australia’s only competitive eating champion to make it into Parliament, George Christensen, looks like trying to "put a pig on a lipstick".

To top it off, Prime Minister Morrison is also facing his own battles. By weaponising his Christian faith – albeit of a rather cultish and arrogant sort – the PM has sparked a war of words about both the meaning of his Pentecostal wealth gospel doctrine and about how appropriate it is for the nation’s political leader to assume he speaks for every one of us when, clearly, he prefers speaking in tongues.

And let’s not even get into the hypocrisy of claiming to be a Christian while doing unspeakable things to refugees, people on welfare and migrants of non-Christian faith, as Morrison struggles to be relatable and likeable. 

Yesterday (2 September), Morrison arrived back in Australia after a 36-hour flying visit to Indonesia. It’s been reported he didn’t make a good impression on President Joko Widodo and that he returned with a single sheet of paper on which an alleged trade deal has been inked.

The problem is, like Morrison’s couple of weeks in office, the deal is not worth the paper it’s written on and won’t really take effect unless the details are worked out sometime in 2019 — well after the next election.

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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