MUNGO MACCALLUM: Mundine joins the Morrison Highway

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Warren Mundine's fickle party record might have given the PM reason for pause, but with Morrison, it's his way or the highway.

WARREN MUNDINE is a serious politician. For most of his life, he has been a player in the great game, either directly or, more often and perhaps more effectively, indirectly, through working in and around his community.

His campaigns have not always been successful, but he has a solid record of achievement in both advocacy and business. Under normal circumstances, he would be seen as a worthy and effective candidate for parliament.  

But these are not normal circumstances — and there is no guarantee that Mundine will win the ultra-marginal seat of Gilmore for the Liberals. Indeed, he may not be the best bet to do so. In the rush to install him from a leader desperate for purchase in a fraught election, Mundine carries a lot of baggage — perhaps too much for a provincial and parochial NSW South Coast electorate, which would generally prefer to look after its own affairs.

For starters, Mundine is a blow in. He can honestly claim that his forbears have lived for generations in the area, but he himself is a resident of Sydney’s wealthy North Shore — a long way from the workers of Shoalhaven. He plans to move in and start converting his neighbours, but he does not have much time to do so.

Then there is the fact that he is a party hopper. After a long career in the Labor Party, including a stint in the presidency of the Party but unable to gain pre-selection, he said he was leaving the ALP because it has changed — which it has, but then, presumably so has he and he can be expected to change again. He parked himself with the libertarians under Senator David Leyonhjelm for a while before being head-hunted by Scott Morrison for his captain’s pick.

He has not yet been branded a Labor rat, nor a Liberal Democrat one, but he is hardly a lifelong true believer. Mundine’s association with the sworn enemy was far deeper and longer than the flirtations of former PM Malcolm Turnbull — and we all know how unacceptable that turncoat was for the conservatives.

But the biggest problem remains the nature of the pre-selection. The Liberal branches in Gilmore believed they had already chosen their candidate — Grant Schultz, a local who had been active for many years.

True, he had been preparing to challenge the sitting member, Ann Sudmalis, before she jumped ship, but Scott Morrison’s accusation that he had bullied his way into the seat was both offensive and hysterical, and, if anything, has hardened the opposition to Mundine. Those with long memories will recall that Morrison’s own original preselection for his seat of Cook was hardly a smooth one, either. it is the nature that politics is competitive and not always played with Queensberry rules.

Schultz is entitled to be aggrieved and to manifest his grievances as an Independent against Mundine. This could be decisive — especially given Mundine’s long-standing support for nuclear energy. The idea of a nuclear reactor at Jervis Bay triggered a long and bitter campaign before it was shelved — a reprise would not be popular.

Morrison apparently believed that he had stage-managed a coup — a winning strategy. But quite apart from his chronic inability to think through the consequences of his impulsive actions, he has yet again been caught up in the battle over just who runs his party and how, especially when preselections are concerned.

The push by the Liberals in New South Wales for more democracy – fewer edicts from the top – has been endorsed by both former prime ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, and Morrison pays at least lip service to it — when it suits him. But if the popular will does not accord with his demands, all bets are off.

Thus we had Member for Hughes Craig Kelly given protection by Morrison, when his interests were threatened when it was abundantly clear he had lost the support of the local branches. Was he bullied? Rather the opposite, according to those in the electorate, one of whom described Kelly as 'a thug, a bully and a disgrace', which is presumably why they wanted to get rid of him.

In spite of all the protestations of chauvinists opposing female quotas, it is impossible to believe Kelly was chosen on merit — and he is hardly Robinson Crusoe. A cursory look at the House of Representatives – both sides of it – will reveal that when there is merit, it is more often through good luck than good management.

The majority owe their preferment to blind factional obedience and to calling in favours. And in the Senate – former PM Paul Keating’s "unrepresentative swill" – the mix is even worse. There are exceptions, of course: senators Mathias Cormann and Penny Wong would be formidable players in any parliament on Earth. But most are little more than party hacks, taking a victory lap or two after years of loyal service to their party bosses.

Mundine felt his own service to the Labor Party was insufficiently rewarded, so he sent elsewhere, twice in fact — his commitment must be considered at least dubious. Which is only one reason that it might have been smarter to pause, to consult the electors of Gilmore and indeed, the sum of the wiser heads in the Liberal Party’s "broad church" before anointing him the new messiah. But that is not Scott Morrison’s way — his way or the highway. And if it’s the highway, there are bound to be a few crashes along the road.

And in case Morrison’s sacred Australia Day was not already sufficiently tarnished, his euphoric homilies were interrupted when first Member for Stirling Michael Keenan and then Senator Nigel Scullion both announced they were pulling the pin. Along with Member for Chisholm Julia Banks, Member for Gilmore Ann Sudmalis, Member for Higgins Kelly O’Dwyer and Member for Mallee Andrew Broad (not to mention the unmentionable Malcolm Turnbull), they have decided that if, they must be rodents, they would rather identify as rats than lemmings.

So, more pre-selections for Morrison to ponder — and probably bugger up. He may want to speak to Mundine about whether he has any friends or relatives available to fill the gaps. Or with rumours of at least two more potential deserters, he may just send out an order for more parachutes and life rafts.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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