Image: AAP/Steven Saphore
Barnaby Joyce’s leaked text calling Scott Morrison a hypocrite and a liar would be damaging in any circumstances, but it’s doubly so because it feeds into the already well-fertilised narrative about the prime minister’s character.
Emmanuel Macron, Gladys Berejiklian, Malcolm Turnbull – can they all be wrong about what sort of man Morrison is? Many voters will say no.
Labor’s election advertising campaign becomes easier by the day. For months, the opposition has regularly denounced Morrison as a liar, and here is his right hand man attesting to that assessment.
Morrison and Joyce are now joined in desperately trying to manage a shocking situation, each in his distinctive style.
Morrison on Friday night reacted with a homily. He and Joyce had never been close in the past, he said, but then Joyce became deputy prime minister and “we both positively surprised each other”. In these roles, “we have really found our rhythm,” Morrison declared.
The beat, of course, is from that old political tune “Necessity”.
Joyce acted true to form, prostrating himself in a massive mea culpa and apology, including his offer to resign.
His observation that Morrison’s refusal to send him on his way was “a statement of a person of greater character” would make the proverbial cat laugh.
Joyce would have known Morrison would never take up his offer. To do so would have just plunged the government deeper into crisis, and blown up the Nationals (again).
It may be true that Joyce’s feelings about Morrison aren’t as negative as when he fired off his text, in the context of the Brittany Higgins furore, in early 2021.
To use Morrison’s pop psychology analysis, Joyce, frustrated by not being leader, was in a “different headspace” in those days.
Also, as Joyce says, Morrison has honoured agreements between the pair.
The PM has been careful to accommodate Joyce since he became Nationals leader. This was notable in the negotiations for the government to adopt the target of net zero emissions by 2050, even if Joyce didn’t get all some Nationals wanted.
Whether Joyce’s fundamental assessment of the PM’s character has changed is another matter. Joyce’s press conference line that he’d formed his backbench views of Morrison based on “assumption and commentary” is disingenuous.
He said in his text his conclusion that Morrison was a hypocrite and a liar came “from my observations and that is over a long time”.
This episode reinforces the opinion of some Liberals that Joyce is a liability to the government – in this instance by providing fodder for the growing perception Morrison is a liability for the government.
Ministers are rallying with positive references for their wounded prime minister. Health Minister Greg Hunt declared him “one of the finest people I’ve ever had the opportunity to know”. Nationals deputy leader David Littleproud said he had shown “great dignity” in accepting Joyce’s apology and moving on.
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, having received the hospital pass to take Joyce’s place on the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday, is honing her lines.
The government collectively is bracing itself for a hellish parliamentary fortnight. Apart from the PM’s character, there will be attacks on its management of Omicron and aged care. And there’s a dispute within its own ranks over the religious discrimination legislation.
Among the numerous matters over which it is on the back foot is the future of Education Minister Alan Tudge, whose behaviour towards a former staffer and lover has been the subject of an inquiry. Tudge has stood aside from his ministerial duties.
Morrison said on Friday the Tudge situation would not be resolved by the time parliament resumes on Tuesday. Critics wondered if he was trying to push the matter beyond the Wednesday National Press Club appearance of Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame.
If Morrison had lost so much skin earlier in the electoral cycle, one might have expected his leadership to come under pressure, regardless of the arrangement he instigated to protect a prime minister from coups.
But it is too late, and anyway, Peter Dutton doesn’t have the numbers, Josh Frydenberg is loyal, and some Liberal backbenchers have not got past their faith, from 2019, that Morrison is the ultimate strong campaigner.
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Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.