Morrison in clean-up mode, while Payne assumes an (even lower) profile

Scott Morrison’s campaign day was ostensibly about manufacturing, but was in fact devoted to trying to clean up two messes of his own creation — one minor, one major.

While talking to good friend Ray Hadley this morning, Morrison was dismissive of criticism of his statement to the mother of a disabled child during last night’s leaders’ debate, that he and his wife had been “blessed” with abled children. By lunchtime, doubtless after extensive discussions within the Coalition campaign HQ, Morrison was apologising and saying he had contacted disabled athlete Dylan Alcott, Australian of the Year, to speak to him about his remarks.

(As a mostly-able-bodied person, atheist and parent, I’m hardly in a position to speak on whether “blessed” was appropriate or not, but is anyone actually suggesting Morrison has some sort of issue with kids with disabilities, or their parents, or was somehow speaking negatively of disabled people? Still, the prime minister clearly felt it was better to apologise than to explain. And that’s campaigning — even the appearance of a slip can be enough to write off the day.)

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But there were and are bigger problems for Morrison. The debacle of the now-formalised agreement between China and the government of the Solomon Islands has forced Morrison onto the defensive on what was supposed by the press gallery ahead of the campaign to be a source of unique and irrepressible strength: his tough-guy act on China. Every day that passes seems to confirm that not only is it pretty much just an act, but it’s an act where the performers don’t know their lines.

That’s why Morrison has left the issue of whether the government knew ahead of the deal that it was coming (which, if it didn’t, is a staggering indictment of our alleged foreign intelligence service, ASIS) entirely unclear.

Junior minister Zed Seselja said yesterday the government found out at the same time as the rest of us, on March 24. But also yesterday, Morrison said the deal “is no surprise to us”. Today he was asked to reconcile those two statements, and notably changed his language. “We have known for some time the risk of a deal such as this coming about,” he claimed (emphasis added). He then vaguely alluded to “security matters” to explain why he wouldn’t say any more.

But between Seselja’s statement yesterday and Morrison’s parsing of words today, it’s clear the government had no idea.

Where is Foreign Minister Marise Payne in all this? Certainly not in Honiara making Australia’s case to the Solomons government. Nor, it seems, will she be darkening the door of the National Press Club. Payne has refused to debate her opposite number Penny Wong during the campaign, according to Laura Tingle — a surprise since the bold, eloquent and dominating Payne would surely have bested the reserved and reticent Wong in any one-on-one.

Also absent from election debates will be Richard Colbeck, walking national disgrace and purported aged care minister, whose hands, steeped in the blood of aged care residents, apparently can’t be prised off the doors of the corporate boxes at Bellerive Oval in order to debate Labor’s Clare O’Neil.

Also sharing Payne and Colbeck’s panic room in the Coalition fortress of solitude is Attorney-General Michaelia “Chuckles” Cash, whose unique and apparently involuntary laughter has sadly been absent from the campaign so far — despite Morrison promising to attempt a do-over with the industrial relations bill that Christian Porter failed (is that verb really necessary when describing Porter?) to get through Parliament in 2020. Cash will only be dialling in her rictus grin for setpiece speeches, folks, so perhaps try Elliot Goblet if you want some laughs at your campaign event.

And the latest in DevesWatch: the Liberal candidate for Warringah last year said that cross-dressing was linked to serial killing, and noted that Ted Bundy “pretended to be injured to gain sympathy”. Deves is still causing headaches for Morrison, who also had to clean up the mess left from one of his compulsive tics — leaking private text messages when it suits him. This time the victim was NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, who pointedly noted that he hadn’t leaked any messages to Morrison after stories appeared about the premier supporting Deves in texts to the PM.

Morrison had to explain that he didn’t leak the messages either — but he did tell “close colleagues” about them. At least the winner of today’s “Distinction Without A Difference” award is clear, if nothing else.

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Peter Fray

Peter Fray

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