Liberal maverick Craig Kelly has defected to the crossbench, giving Prime Minister Scott Morrison no warning before his surprise announcement to Tuesday’s Coalition parties meeting.
Kelly, who strongly promotes alternative, unproven treatments for COVID said: “If I’m to speak out and to use my voice the best I can, this is the best decision for myself and for the people that I represent.”
Morrison recently dressed down Kelly in an attempt to stop him making comments that could harm the government’s campaign to get maximum take-up of the COVID vaccines.
His move takes away the Coalition working majority on the floor of the House of Representatives – it reduces the government to a one-seat majority, including the speaker’s casting vote. But Kelly said he would support the government on supply and confidence and indicated he did not see anything on its agenda that “I’m going to be objecting to strenuously”.
The member for the Sydney seat of Hughes since 2010, Kelly was considered almost certain to lose Liberal preselection, with a grassroots movement mobilising against him. He was saved from preselection challenges by interventions from Malcolm Turnbull before the 2016 election, and Morrison in the run up to the 2019 election.
Kelly told Sky: “I believe one of the greatest mistakes that’s been made in this country and also the world was prohibiting doctors from prescribing ivermectin and also hydroxychloroquine.
“I believe this was a terrible error.”
He denied he was an anti-vaxxer, which he said was just a “slanderous smear”.
“I support the vaccine program, but in concert, to use the words of our highest credential immunologist, these other treatments should be used in concert with the vaccine.”
He said he had an “obligation” to act on his conscience.
Morrison told a news conference he had learned of Kelly’s action “at the same time he announced it to the party room”.
“We had a discussion a couple of weeks ago.
“I set out some very clear standards and he made some commitments that I expected to be followed through on,” Morrison said.
“He no longer felt that he could meet those commitments and, as a result, he’s made his decision today.
“By his own explanation [in the party room], he has said that his actions were slowing the government down and he believed the best way for him to proceed was to remove himself from the party room and provide the otherwise support to the government so it could continue to function as it so successfully has, which he says is something he remains committed to. So I would expect him to conduct himself in that way.”
Asked at his news conference about one of Kelly’s staff, who is under police investigation for alleged inappropriate conduct towards a young woman in the workplace, Morrison said he had long held concerns about the staffer and Kelly had long known “what my expectations were about how he would deal with that matter.”
The staffer denies the accusations. Kelly has previously defended keeping the staffer on.
Later in parliament, when the opposition asked about Kelly’s staffer, Morrison accused it of “wilfully conflating two different matters”.
“There is the long-held concerns that I have had about the performance of a staff member in the member for Hughes’ office. That is based on the fact that my electorate adjoins that of the member for Hughes and they relate to performance measures that don’t relate to the more sensitive issues that have come up more recently.
“When it was drawn to my attention, I drew them to the attention of the member for Hughes when we met together several weeks ago. He undertook to take certain actions in relation to that staff member. That was not followed through on.”
With less than three weeks left until the March 13 Western Australian election, the latest Newspoll gives Labor a 68-32 lead, two-party-preferred. If replicated on election day, this would be a 12.5% swing to Labor from the 2017 election two party result.
Analyst Kevin Bonham describes the Newspoll result as “scarcely processable” and says it is the most lopsided result in Newspoll history for any state or federally.
Primary votes were 59% for Labor, up from 42.2% at the 2017 election, 23% for the Liberals (down from 31.2% in 2017), 2% National (5.4%), 8% Greens (8.9%) and 3% One Nation (4.9%). This poll was conducted February 12-18 from a sample of 1,034.
Premier Mark McGowan had an 88% satisfied rating with 10% dissatisfied (net +78), while Liberal opposition leader Zak Kirkup was at 29% satisfied, 41% dissatisfied (net -12). McGowan led Kirkup as “better premier” by a crushing 83 to 10.
A pandemic boost?
Other recent polls have been strong, albeit less spectacular for Labor. Bonham refers to a January 30 uComms poll that gave Labor a 61-39 lead, from primary votes of 46.8% Labor, 27.5% Liberal, 5.1% National, 8.3% Greens and 6.9% One Nation.
There is also a pattern here. Since the pandemic began, governments that have managed to keep COVID cases down have been rewarded. This includes Queensland and New Zealand Labo(u)r governments at their respective October elections last year.
McGowan’s imposition of a hard WA border to restrict COVID has boosted both his and Labor’s popularity. There have been relatively few WA COVID cases, and life has been comparably normal with the exception of a five-day lockdown in early February.
Upper house a different story
But it’s not all good news for McGowan. While Labor will easily win a majority in the lower house, it will be much harder for the ALP and the Greens to win an upper house majority. The upper house suffers from both a high degree of rural malapportionment (where there are relatively fewer voters per member) and group ticket voting.
Group ticket voting, in which parties direct the preferences of their voters, was abolished in the federal Senate before the 2016 election, but continues to blight elections in both Victoria and WA.
There are six WA upper house regions that each return six members, so a quota is one-seventh of the vote, or 14.3%. While Perth has 79% of the overall WA population, it receives just half of upper house seats.
There is also malapportionment in non-metropolian regions. According to the ABC’s election guide, the south west region has 14% of enrolled voters, the heavily anti-Labor agricultural region has just 6% of voters and the mining and pastoral region 4%. All regions return six members.
Despite the convincing lower house win in 2017, Labor and the Greens combined won 18 of the 36 upper house seats, one short of a majority. Bonham notes if the Newspoll swings were replicated uniformly in the upper house, Labor would win 19 of the 36 seats in its own right on filled quotas without needing preferences.
But group ticket voting and malapportionment could see Labor and the Greens fall short of an upper house majority again if Labor’s win is more like the uComms poll than Newspoll.
Federal Newspoll still tied at 50-50
This week’s federal Newspoll, conducted February 17-20 from a sample of 1,504, had the two party preferred tied at 50-50, the same as three weeks ago. Primary votes were 42% Coalition (steady), 37% Labor (up one), 10% Greens (steady) and 3% One Nation (steady).
Of those polled, 64% were satisfied with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s performance (up one), and 32% were dissatisfied (down one), for a net approval of +32. Labor leader Anthony Albanese dropped five points on net approval to -7. Morrison led Albanese by 61-26 as better prime minister (compared to 57-29 three weeks ago).
During the last week, there has been much media attention on the rape allegations made by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins against an unnamed colleague.
However, it appears the general electorate perceives this issue as being unimportant compared to the COVID crisis. Albanese’s ratings may have suffered owing to the perception that Labor has focussed too much and being too negative on an “unimportant” issue.
Despite Morrison’s continued strong approval ratings and the slump for Albanese, the most important measure — voting intentions — is tied. Since the start of the COVID crisis, there has been a continued discrepancy between voting intentions based off Morrison’s ratings and actual voting intentions.
Newspoll is not alone in showing a close race on voting intentions or strong ratings for Morrison. A Morgan poll, conducted in early to mid February, gave Labor a 50.5-49.5 lead. Last week’s Essential poll gave Morrison a 65-28 approval rating (net +37).
Labor bump in Craig Kelly’s seat
As reported in The Guardian, a uComms robopoll in controversial Liberal MP Craig Kelly’s seat of Hughes has Kelly leading by 55-45. This is about a 5% swing to Labor from the 2019 election result.
The poll was conducted February 18 from a sample of 683 for the community group Hughes Deserves Better.
While additional questions are often skewed in favour of the position of the group commissioning uComms polls, voting intention questions are always asked first. However, individual seat polls have been unreliable in Australia.
This is an edited extract of an essay in the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, The March of Autocracy, published today.
It is the year 2049. China is celebrating having reached its second centenary goal – to become a “prosperous, powerful, democratic, civilised and harmonious socialist modernised country” by the 100th anniversary of the people’s republic.
Its economy is three times the size of the United States’, as the International Monetary Fund predicted back in the 2010s. The US remains wealthy and powerful – it has functioning alliances in Europe – but its pacts with Asian allies have fallen into disrepair.
For decades, Hong Kong has been accepted as just another province of China. Few dare to criticise the ongoing human rights abuses there, or in Xinjiang and elsewhere, because of the extraterritorial application of China’s national security laws. Taiwan, if not annexed, is isolated, with no diplomatic partners.
The legacy of Xi Jinping, who led China for more than 30 years, monopolises ideological discourse in China. His successors rule under his shadow.
Outside China, many of the third-wave democracies that transitioned in the second half of the 20th century have become far less liberal. Elections are held, but increasingly authoritarian governments have adopted many of Beijing’s technological and legal tools to manage markets and control politics. The internet is heavily censored.
Mistrust permeates every aspect of China’s relations with the West. International co-operation on climate change and the strong carbon-reduction commitments of the early 2020s have long been abandoned. The focus is on individual adaptation.
Australia remains a liberal democracy and a staunch defender of free markets and human rights. But these are no longer the default standards of global governance – they are minority positions associated mostly with Western traditions. No longer a top-20 economic or military power, Australia’s opportunities to make its mark internationally are few and far between.
An unsettling but plausible vision
This vision of a fragmented and decidedly less liberal international order is highly speculative, but also dispiritingly plausible.
It is unsettling to an Australian reader, not just because Australian foreign policy has been centred on a global set of rules and institutions since 1945, but because Australian identity is so enmeshed with the values of liberal democracy.
The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper states that Canberra is “a determined advocate of liberal institutions, universal values and human rights”, in stark contrast to Beijing.
All nation states, especially rising powers, desire a favourable global environment in which they can acquire power, prosperity and prestige. The postwar system greatly aided China, and it would be incorrect to claim Beijing wants to dismantle it entirely.
Similarly, it would be disingenuous to overlook the many instances where the US and other liberal democracies have behaved inconsistently.
But the Chinese Communist Party, which leads an authoritarian state, sees the liberal values embedded in the present order as a threat to its rule. Unlike the US, which at times ignores or violates these principles, China needs many of them to be suppressed, even eliminated.
As China seeks to remake the international order, the challenge is to understand where and how Beijing’s efforts will undercut its liberal character, and to identify where it is possible to resist.
How China is changing the world
Rather than upend the existing international system, Beijing’s approach today is to co-opt, ignore and selectively exploit institutions.
Xi has said:
reforming and improving the current international system do not mean completely replacing it, but rather advancing it in a direction that is more just and reasonable.
In late 2019, for instance, the World Trade Organisation’s appellate body ceased to function after the US – complaining about the organisation’s soft stance on China – blocked the appointment of replacement judges.
In many ways, the WTO’s structure is the epitome of a liberal rules-based system: countries relinquish some sovereignty and are bound by judicial decisions in the interests of resolving trade disputes.
In response, China joined with the European Union, Australia and other governments to set up a parallel stop-gap legal mechanism.
This was a reflection of the CCP’s nuanced relationship with the liberal international order. China needs a stable trading system and will agree to binding rules to preserve it. The odd trade dispute does not substantially threaten China’s ideological security.
In the future, Beijing should be expected to exert its influence on the current order. The challenge for states such as Australia is to identify when Beijing’s behaviour exceeds influence and begins to erode the system’s liberal foundations.
China is already skilfully manoeuvring within international institutions to guide their operations, press for reforms and promote the China model.
China also elevates its government-organised NGOs, presenting an image of independence while drowning out the voices of independent civil society.
The China Society for Human Rights Studies, for example, has official consultative status at the United Nations as an NGO, but is co-located with Chinese government offices and staffed by Chinese government officials. It has vigorously prosecuted China’s human rights agenda.
The use of deft diplomacy and inducements to generate voting blocs is unsurprising. But China also seeks to change the system, diluting the liberal elements that threaten the China model and thus the CCP’s rule.
For instance, China has already succeeded in weakening the liberal character of international human rights. In 2017, it proposed its first-ever resolution to the UN Human Rights Council, headed: “The contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights”.
It prioritised economic development above civil and political rights, and put the primacy of the state above the rights of the individual. Despite objections and nay votes from Western members, the resolution passed. The subsequent report by the council’s advisory committee, a body of 18 experts supposed to maintain independence, referred mainly to Chinese party-state documents.
Chinese diplomats also block human rights resolutions at the UN Security Council, such as a February 2020 resolution on the plight of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya.
While the US has arguably been similarly obstructive on resolutions about Palestine, it is for the narrow purpose of protecting an ally, rather than the broader project of weakening the rights themselves.
China has even been able to marshal the international system to defend and commend its behaviour in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
In 2020, at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council, a joint statement signed by 27 countries, including Australia, expressed concern at arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance and restrictions in Xinjiang and the national security legislation in Hong Kong.
A competing statement supporting the Hong Kong legislation received support from 53 states, only three of which are considered “free” by the non-governmental organisation Freedom House.
By working within the system to rally a voting bloc, Beijing was able to compromise the world’s peak human rights body. Tactics that have been successful in watering down human rights are now being employed in areas where norms are still being established, such as internet governance.
Preparing for the new world disorder
The history of liberal internationalism is replete with contradictions. Some say that in recent decades it is Washington, not Beijing, that has damaged the order most.
So can China really do more damage to an order already on life support? Liberalism is not just facing an external challenge, but one from within.
The answer requires optimism about liberalism’s capacity to self-correct across the arc of history, and scepticism that illiberalism can do likewise. As much as Donald Trump belittled, criticised and attacked America’s institutions, he also created the conditions for a course correction – Joe Biden’s victory.
The CCP is a well-resourced and well-organised political force. It has the potential to be far more effective than any iconoclastic but capricious populist in permanently weakening the liberal foundations of the global order. Much of China’s influence abroad is unavoidable. A rising power with the economic and military strength that China wields is unlikely to be deterred.
On this logic, optimism has no place. But it would also be mistaken to adopt a fatalistic approach. Instead, Australia and its partners must focus their efforts on those elements of the liberal order most worth preserving and most under threat.
The centenary of the people’s republic is still 28 years away.
Craig Kelly’s jump to the crossbench leaves Scott Morrison’s government looking like the man who suddenly finds his jacket feels a little thin in the wind.
It still has a majority, but not a comfortable one.
The Coalition’s block of 76 in a House of Representatives of 151 members means it does not possess a working majority on the floor. A vote would be tied if Labor and all crossbenchers opposed it.
Its majority of one includes the Speaker, Tony Smith. He has a casting vote in the event of a tie – one that he would exercise in a procedurally conservative manner, to preserve the status quo.
The Coalition’s position is not like that of late 2018, when it fell into minority government as things unravelled after the overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull.
But losing a number makes descent into minority more of a possibility – if some unforeseen event took out another government MP. That would put it at greater risk of losing votes.
Kelly has said that, beyond supporting the government on confidence and supply, he will back it on the program it took to the election.
This gives him room to play up on a few measures, if he feels inclined, for example on any legislation relating to climate.
On the other hand, he would be unlikely to find parliamentary bedfellows on his pet issues.
Given the makeup of the crossbench, the government can be confident of its numbers, even if they’ve become a little more precarious.
Rebel Nationals would love to recruit Kelly to their party, to get an extra vote in the cause of removing Michael McCormack from the leadership. But Kelly sees himself as an “independent Liberal”; anyway, he’d have nothing to gain by joining the Nationals (which of course would restore the Coalition numbers).
The government is determined to portray Kelly’s departure in the most positive light it can find. “Good riddance”, is the official informal line.
With his passion for spruiking ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, unproven treatments for COVID, Kelly has been deeply irritating for Morrison. The Prime Minister recently called him into his office for a dressing down, after Kelly’s spectacular corridor clash with Tanya Plibersek.
He wanted Kelly to shut up. Instead Kelly, the zealot with the contrarian cause, is now more than ever on a mission to promote those controversial drugs.
This is the second defector to catch Morrison on the hop.
In 2018 word came of Julia Banks’ desertion when she was on her feet in the House of Representatives. Morrison was giving a news conference at the time.
Kelly on Tuesday only showed his hand in the party room. He said he wanted to tell his colleagues first. But perhaps there was a touch of tit for tat after that bawling out.
For Kelly’s part, he had the choice of an attention-grabbing exit from the Liberal party, or being dispatched from his seat by the preselectors, who would have ensured he’d not be the Liberal candidate at the election.
What harm can Kelly do the government do now?
He can cast an anti government vote now and then.
He can shout his views on COVID treatments and climate change. But he’s done that often enough. Arguably, at least in the mainstream outlets, when he is not talking as a rebel Liberal, what he says on COVID will get less attention. He’ll just be one crossbench voice.
He is signalling he is likely to run as an independent at the election. If he does, he wouldn’t poll well and it’s doubtful his presence would do much harm to the Liberals in his Sydney seat of Hughes.
In what’s a painful fortnight for the government, an element of the Kelly story fed into its problems with handling allegations of rape and sexual misconduct.
A staffer in Kelly’s office, Frank Zumbo, is being investigated over claims of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace (which he denies).
When this matter was raised with Morrison’s office last year by a local reporter via email, it did not answer her.
Morrison on Tuesday said he had spoken to Kelly about both this matter and the staffer’s performance. But Kelly has kept the man on.
The government had a significant win on Tuesday when Facebook agreed, in a deal involving the Coalition making some changes to its legislation, to lift its ban on republishing news on its Australian site.
Any other time, that would have made it a very good day.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, who has been under sustained pressure over her 2019 handling of the Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation, entered hospital in Canberra on Wednesday morning.
A statement from her office said she “will take a period of medical leave.
“This follows advice from her cardiologist relating to a pre-existing medical condition.” The statement said the hospitalisation was “a precautionary measure”.
Reynolds had been due to address the National Press Club on Wednesday, the same day Higgins is due to lodge her formal complaint with police against the alleged perpetrator of the assault against her, which she says took place in Reynolds’ office in March 2019.
Political parties in Australia collectively received $168 million in donations for the financial year 2019-20. Today, Australians finally get to see where some of the money came from with the release of data from the Australian Electoral Commission.
While the big donors will make the headlines, they are only the tip of the iceberg. More than half of the funding for political parties remains hidden from public view. And that is exactly how the major parties want it.
What does the data tell us?
The Coalition and Labor received more in donations than all other parties combined. The Coalition received 41% of all funds (or A$69 million), while Labor received 33% ($55 million). The Greens came a distant third at 11% ($19 million), bumping Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party out of the position it held during the 2019 election.
The largest 5% of donors accounted for half of declared donations. For the second year in a row, the largest individual declared donation was made by Palmer’s company Mineralogy, which gave $5.9 million to his own party.
Unsurprisingly, many of Labor’s largest donors are unions, led by the “Shoppies” union (the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association, or SDA), which donated almost $500,000. Labor also received large donations from fundraising vehicles associated with the party, including Labor Holdings Pty Ltd, which donated $910,000.
Other large donors are bipartisan givers. The Australian Hotels Association gave $154,000 to the Coalition and $271,000 to Labor. Woodside Energy gave $198,000 to the Coalition and $138,000 to Labor. The Macquarie Group (including Macquarie Telecom) gave $254,000 to the Coalition and $184,000 to Labor. ANZ continued its regular donations to both sides with $100,000 each.
Total donations were smaller than the previous year (an election year). But those who donate “off-cycle” can still have substantial influence, whether they are political devotees, or playing the “long game” of using donations to open doors and wield political influence.
But a lot of the money remains hidden from public view
Declared donations are only a fraction of the total money flowing to our political parties.
Out of $168 million in party funding, only $15 million of donations were declared (or just 9%). Another $59 million — around one-third — is public funding provided by electoral commissions.
The rest? A murky combination of undeclared donations and a messy bucket of funds called “other receipts”, which includes everything from investment income to money raised at political fundraising dinners. This chart shows the breakdown for the two major parties.
More than half of the Coalition’s private funding is undisclosed, and 40% of Labor’s funds. This rises to about 90% across both parties when other receipts are included.
The major parties want it this way
The Commonwealth donations disclosure regime is incredibly weak compared to almost all Australian states and most other advanced nations. Let’s be clear: this is a political choice backed in by the major parties.
In December, both major parties rejected a bill introduced by crossbench Senator Jacqui Lambie to improve transparency of political donations. It wasn’t revolutionary — the bill didn’t ban donors, or limit donations, or restrict what parties could do with donations. It simply proposed giving the public more and better information on the major donors, including:
requiring donations over $5,000 to be declared by the parties (the current threshold is $14,300)
stopping “donations splitting”, in which a major donor can hide by splitting a big donation into a series of small ones
making income from political fundraising events declarable
publishing data about donations within weeks (rather than the current eight to 19 months).
Yet, the bill was whitewashed. The committee rejected it on the basis that “there is already an effective regime in place”.
Our current system doesn’t have the balance right
The Commonwealth donations disclosure regime is supposed to provide transparency and to “inform the public about the financial dealings of political parties, candidates and others involved in the electoral process”. But it clearly does not deliver on this in its current form.
There is a balance to be drawn between the interests of donors in protecting their privacy and the interests of the public in knowing who funds and influences political parties.
But it is very hard to see how the current system – which keeps the majority of private money out of public view and unnecessarily delays the release of all donation data – has got the balance right.
A good disclosure system would close the loopholes that allow major donors to hide, while protecting the privacy of small donors.
Australians consistently say that they are suspicious that politicians are corrupt and that governments serve themselves and their mates rather than the public interest. Perhaps they’re right. Today’s donations release reminds us of the shortfalls of a system designed for donor and party interests over the public interest.
Just before the newly elected members of Myanmar’s parliament were due to be sworn in today, the military detained the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi; the president, Win Myint; and other key figures from the elected ruling party, the National League for Democracy.
The military later announced it had taken control of the country for 12 months and declared a state of emergency. This is a coup d’etat, whether the military calls it that or not.
Humiliated by the result, the USDP alleged the election was subject to widespread fraud. However, international observers, including the Carter Center, the Asian Network for Free Elections and the European Union’s Election Observation Mission, all declared the elections a success. The EU’s preliminary statement noted that 95% of observers had rated the process “good” or “very good”.
the results of the elections were credible and reflected the will of the majority voters.
Yet, taking a page out of former US President Donald Trump’s book, the USDP pressed its claims of fraud despite the absence of any substantial evidence — a move designed to undermine the legitimacy of the elections.
The military did not initially back the USDP’s claims, but it has gradually begun to provide the party with more support, with the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, refusing to rule out a coup last week.
The following day, the country’s election authorities broke weeks of silence and firmly rejected the USDP’s claims of widespread fraud — setting the stage for what Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U called
[Myanmar’s] most acute constitutional crisis since the abolition of the old junta in 2010.
The military had previously ruled Myanmar for half a century after General Ne Win launched a coup in 1962. A so-called internal “self-coup” in 1988 brought a new batch of military generals to power. That junta, led by Senior General Than Shwe, allowed elections in 1990 that were won in a landslide by Suu Kyi’s party. The military leaders, however, refused to acknowledge the results.
In 2008, a new constitution was drawn up by the junta which reserved 25% of the national parliament seats for the military and allowed it to appoint the ministers of defence, border affairs and home affairs, as well as a vice president. Elections in 2010 were boycotted by the NLD, but the party won a resounding victory in the next elections in 2015.
Since early 2016, Suu Kyi has been de facto leader of Myanmar, even though there is still no civilian oversight of the military. Until this past week, the relationship between civilian and military authorities was tense at times, but overall largely cordial. It was based on a mutual recognition of overlapping interests in key areas of national policy.
Indeed, this power-sharing arrangement has been extremely comfortable for the military, as it has had full autonomy over security matters and maintained lucrative economic interests.
The partnership allowed the military’s “clearance operations” in Rakhine State in 2017 that resulted in the exodus of 740,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh.
In the wake of that pogrom, Suu Kyi vigorously defended both the country and its military at the International Court of Justice. Myanmar’s global reputation — and Suu Kyi’s once-esteemed personal standing — suffered deeply and never recovered.
Nonetheless, there was one key point of contention between the NLD and military: the constitutional prohibitions that made it impossible for Suu Kyi to officially take the presidency. Some NLD figures have also voiced deep concerns about the permanent role claimed by the armed forces as an arbiter of all legal and constitutional matters in the country.
A backwards step for Myanmar
Regardless of how events unfold this week and beyond, Myanmar’s fragile democracy has been severely undermined by the military’s actions.
The NLD government has certainly had its shortcomings, but a military coup is a significant backwards step for Myanmar — and is bad news for democracy in the region.
It’s difficult to see this action as anything other than a way for General Min Aung Hlaing to retain his prominent position in national politics, given he is mandated to retire this year when he turns 65. With the poor electoral performance of the USDP, there are no other conceivable political routes to power, such as through the presidency.
A coup will be counterproductive for the military in many ways. Governments around the world will likely now apply or extend sanctions on members of the military. Indeed, the US has released a statement saying it would “take action” against those responsible. Foreign investment in the country — except perhaps from China — is also likely to plummet.
As Myanmar’s people have already enjoyed a decade of increased political freedoms, they are also likely to be uncooperative subjects as military rule is re-imposed.
The 2020 general election demonstrated, once again, the distaste in Myanmar for the political role of the armed forces and the enduring popularity of Suu Kyi. Her detention undermines the fragile coalition that was steering Myanmar through a perilous period, and could prove a messy end to the profitable détente between civilian and military forces.
The first Newspoll of 2021 has the major parties tied at 50-50 on two-party preferred, a one-point gain for Labor since the final 2020 Newspoll in late November. The poll was conducted January 27-30 from a sample of 1,512 people.
Primary votes were 42% Coalition (down one point), 36% Labor (steady), 10% Greens (down one) and 3% One Nation (up one).
63% were satisfied with PM Scott Morrison’s performance (down three) and 33% were dissatisfied (up three), for a net approval of +30 points. While this is still very high, analyst Kevin Bonham says it is Morrison’s lowest net approval since April.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese had a net approval of -2, down five points. Morrison led Albanese by 57-29 as better prime minister (60-28 in November).
While much commentary has written off Labor for the next election, a source of hope for the opposition is that while the Coalition has usually been ahead since the COVID crisis began, the two-party-preferred margin has been close.
Morrison’s great approval ratings have not translated into big leads for the Coalition. It is plausible that by the middle of this year COVID will not be a major threat owing to a global vaccination program.
A return to a focus on normal issues could assist Labor in undermining Morrison’s ratings and the Coalition’s slender lead on voting intentions.
Albanese has come under attack from the left owing to Thursday’s reshuffle in which Chris Bowen took the climate change portfolio from Mark Butler.
But the Greens lost a point in Newspoll rather than gaining. With the focus on COVID, climate change appears to have lost salience.
On Australia Day and climate change
In an Ipsos poll for Nine newspapers, taken before January 25 from a sample of 1,220 people, 48% disagreed with changing Australia Day from January 26, while 28% agreed.
But by 49-41 voters thought it likely Australia Day would be changed within the next ten years.
In a Morgan SMS poll, conducted January 25 from a sample of 1,236 people, 59% thought January 26 should be known as Australia Day, while 41% thought it should be known as Invasion Day.
In an Essential poll conducted in mid-January, 42% (down 20 since January 2020) thought Australia was not doing enough to address climate change, 35% (up 16) thought we were doing enough and 10% (up two) thought we were doing too much.
But there was a slight increase in those thinking climate change was caused by human activity (58%, up two since January 2020), while 32% (steady) thought we are just witnessing a normal fluctuation in the earth’s climate.
Trump set to be acquitted in impeachment trial
I related on January 20 that Donald Trump was impeached by the US House of Representatives over his role in inciting the January 6 riots with his baseless claims of election fraud.
The Senate is tied at 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris giving Democrats the majority with her casting vote. But it requires a two-thirds majority to convict a president, so 17 Republicans would need to join the Democrats for conviction.
On January 26, a vote was called on whether it was constitutional to try a former president. The Senate ruled it constitutional by 55-45, but just five Republicans joined all Democrats.
That is far short of the 17 required to convict, so Trump is set to be acquitted at the Senate trial that begins February 8.
Only ten of over 200 House Republicans supported impeachment. It is clear the vast majority of Congressional Republicans consider it more important to keep the Trump supporters happy than to hold Trump accountable for the rioters that attacked Congress.
In a late January Monmouth University poll, 56% approved of the House impeaching Trump while 42% disapproved. When asked whether the Senate should convict, support dropped to 52-44.
Right-wing Liberal backbencher Kevin Andrews – the father of the House of Representatives – has lost preselection to a barrister and former special forces veteran who served in Afghanistan.
Keith Wolahan, 43, defeated Andrews, 65, who held a number of portfolios in the Howard and Abbott governments, by 181 to 111 for the blue ribbon Victorian seat of Menzies, which Andrews has occupied since he won it at a byelection in 1991.
This was the first time in decades that a federal member has lost a preselection ballot in Victoria.
His defeat is a blow for the Liberal conservatives, who campaigned hard to shore him up, and will hearten the local Liberal critics of outspoken NSW right-winger Craig Kelly, who has been a thorn in the government’s side over COVID and a hardliner on climate issues.
Kelly confirmed to The Conversation on Sunday night that he was seeking another term and was “absolutely confident” he would have Scott Morrison’s support and that of “all my colleagues”.
Andrews has been a strongly conservative voice on issues ranging from euthanasia and abortion to climate change, and also a player in leadership battles. His last ministerial post was in the defence portfolio in the Abbott government, a job he lost when Malcolm Turnbull became leader.
In the Howard years Andrews introduced the private member’s bill that quashed the Northern Territory’s euthanasia law.
Andrews had endorsements from Morrison, John Howard and Tony Abbott, as well as from a raft of ministerial colleagues, including the deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg. In his letter of endorsement Morrison wrote that Andrews “provides wise counsel to ministers and colleagues, including myself”.
But the result shows that high profile endorsements don’t always impress locals – the Menzies preselectors responded to the call for renewal at the centre of Wolahan’s campaign. It is an embarrassment particularly for Assistant Treasurer and Victorian conservative faction leader Michael Sukkar.
Wolahan has a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Cambridge, as well as degrees from Monash and Melbourne universities. He was an army reserve commando – he did not serve in the regular army.
He said after the result: “Today was a vote by the members for the future”.
Frydenberg said: “Today the Liberal Party in the seat of Menzies has started a new chapter”.
Before the ballot Liberal sources had predicted a close result that could go either way – the size of the margin was a surprise.
Anthony Albanese’s sudden change of heart, swapping out Labor’s climate spokesman Mark Butler in favour of the more conservative Chris Bowen, can be read in two ways.
First, as a shrewd chess move: one that sharpens the economic arguments in favour of green jobs, boxes in Bowen’s Right faction behind existing climate ambition, and perhaps constrains Bowen as a potential leadership aspirant.
Alternatively, critics could view Albanese’s decision as more self-serving — the manoeuvring of an opposition leader desperate to shore up his defences.
The NSW Right’s outspoken convener Joel Fitzgibbon had made unusually public attacks on the Left-aligned Butler. Albanese will have a job of convincing people he has not blinked under pressure, throwing an ally under a bus.
That perception could, in turn, be dangerous. It may even trigger existential discussions on his leadership. Not merely because of the loyalty questions it invites, but because of the policy implications in an area of chronic political miscalculation.
Judging by his behaviour, Fitzgibbon surrendered his frontbench spot last year to free his arms for the move against Butler, and by proxy, the campaign against Albanese’s leadership.
The Hunter-based MP is trenchantly pro-coal and anti-progressive. He’s made no secret of his antipathy for green-tinged inner-city politics, which he believes has alienated the party’s industrial origins.
Fitzgibbon blames Labor’s obsession with climate change for everything from the 2019 election failure – where it pledged a 45% emissions cut by 2030 – to the party’s dwindling purchase in the outer suburbs and regions.
Albanese’s position, like all opposition leaders, relies on a mixture of support: in his case, a foundation of Left MPs and the crucial backing of key NSW and some Victorian Right figures. Unsurprisingly, these supporters were the main beneficiaries of the reshuffle.
Deputy leader Richard Marles gets a super-portfolio combining national reconstruction, employment, skills, small business and science. Another Victorian Right figure, Clare O’Neill, gets a frontbench promotion as spokeswoman for senior Australians and aged care services – assisting the relocated Butler in health and ageing.
And Ed Husic, also an influential player in the NSW Right, is elevated to shadow cabinet in industry and innovation.
Taken separately, these moves may be justified. Together, however, they might also hint at Albanese’s vulnerability, given his own Left faction’s minority position.
The bigger concern for progressives in the short-term will be what these personnel changes amount to in policy terms, if anything.
Does Albanese intend to scale back Labor’s climate ambitions? Fitzgibbon has explicitly called on his party to ditch interim targets entirely, and simply adopt the government’s goal of 26% emissions reduction by 2030.
During the 2019 election, then leader Bill Shorten struggled to quantify the negative impact on economic growth arising from Labor’s proposed 45% cut in emissions.
It was a strategic vulnerability on which Prime Minister Scott Morrison capitalised. He argued relentlessly that Labor’s formula would cost Australian jobs and send household and business electricity prices soaring.
Albanese’s decision to defer interim targets until closer to the next election had already invited doubts about whether Labor is truly committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Butler’s removal is likely to exacerbate those doubts.
The hold-fire approach leaves Labor’s left flank exposed to the Greens’ claims it is equivocating on climate action, just as the rest of the world finds new resolve.
As Albanese put the final touches on his reshuffle, the Climate Targets Panel of scientists and economists released a chastening report. It showed Australia would need to slash emissions by 50% by 2030, and achieve zero emissions by 2045 (rather than 2050) to be in line with the Paris commitment of keeping global warming inside 2℃.
Freshly installed US president Joe Biden has used a series of executive orders to accelerate US restructuring. He hopes to spur global momentum for climate action, calling on developed economies to rapidly increase their commitments.
Albanese, however, denies any diminution. He maintains that Bowen, a former treasurer, is better placed to reframe climate policy in more starkly economic terms, stressing the opportunities for new green jobs against the risks cited by the Coalition.
This may well be sound. Bowen’s established economic standing could allow a “green jobs of the future” rebranding of Labor’s emissions approach.
That would be a breakthrough, given the widening divide between Labor’s professional and blue-collar constituencies, and claims by Fitzgibbon and others on the party’s Right that it has abandoned regional workers through its green emphasis.
There’s little doubt that, as an experienced minister, Bowen has the skills and the policy depth for the job.
But there’s a judgement question. His role in the 2019 election loss – chief advocate of an unwieldy suite of adventurous tax proposals – was arguably more central to Labor’s shock defeat than any perceived overreach on climate.
Not finished yet, Fitzgibbon has described Butler’s removal as a good start but called for further policy change.
Fitzgibbon’s Right-aligned parliamentary colleagues seemed willing to accept his public undermining of Butler. It will be interesting to see whether they allow the same treatment of Bowen.
Anthony Albanese will attempt a political reset to shore up his leadership with a major frontbench reshuffle, shifting climate and energy spokesman Mark Butler and bringing shadow defence minister Richard Marles into a more frontline portfolio.
Butler’s job will go to Chris Bowen, from the right, currently health spokesman, as Albanese faces the challenge of forging a climate policy that straddles Labor’s dual suburban/ regional and progressive constituencies.
Until recently, sources close to Albanese have said the reshuffle would be minor. But Albanese starts 2021 facing widespread criticism from within the party as well as from commentators, and the imminent reshuffle has presented an opportunity to get more vigour into Labor’s performance.
He told the ABC on Wednesday the reshuffle “will achieve a stronger team going forward with the right people in the right jobs. And it will be, I think, a positive move”.
Butler, from the left and personally close to Albanese, held the climate portfolio under Bill Shorten and is strongly identified with the policy that Labor took to the election. He has resisted calls to water it down.
Faced with public urging from former frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon to move Butler, Albanese last year refused to do so.
Shifting Butler will facilitate reshaping the policy, which Albanese has started to do, and send a signal about a more pragmatic position. But it could also lead to a backlash from progressive supporters and give the Greens room to score points.
Butler will become spokesman for health and ageing. This will ensure he is to the fore in the next few months, with the release of the royal commission report that will be highly critical of the aged care system.
He is a former minister for ageing and has written a book on the area, titled Advanced Australia: the Politics of Ageing.
Butler said in a statement: “The job of every frontbencher is to serve in the portfolio allocated by their leader. That’s always been my position under the four leaders I’ve had the privilege of serving under”.
As expected, Ed Husic, who joined the frontbench as resources spokesman when Fitzgibbon moved to the backbench late last year, will go to another post.
There is speculation Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong might move from foreign affairs.