If the PM loses, the big winner may be this guy

Two Melbourne attractions came to grief this week. One of them had structural flaws, never lived up to its potential and tried to survive by promising what could never be delivered. The other was the Melbourne Star observation wheel.

Michael O’Brien was unflappable and thoroughly decent for three years as leader of the Liberal Party, which in politics is disastrous and code for ineffectual. There was none of the essential ‘mongrel’.

Michael O’Brien last Tuesday after the leadership changed hands.Credit:Justin McManus

Tellingly in his exit speech, he declared that “The way I saw it… either give up your job, or you give up your integrity.” What was he being pushed to do that meant losing his integrity? Did new leader Matthew Guy promise to do what O’Brien refused to?

Guy’s return is as much an exercise in ‘save the furniture’ as a genuine pitch to form government in November 2022.

How much did Jeff Kennett meddle behind the scenes, more than 20 years after losing the unlosable 1999 state election? Did he suggest O’Brien and Guy ought to work together in transition – like the coaching changes he oversaw so clumsily as president at Hawthorn Football Club?

Freshly installed, Matthew Guy immediately beat a path to an empty radio studio. He must relish the ambience because Neil Mitchell, the 3AW host, was not there. He has been broadcasting from home during lockdown.

Guy could have spoken to the listeners from anywhere. A curious start, signifying that the dated ritual of tugging forelock to the Herald Sun and 3AW will continue despite their relentless boosting of the Liberals in the last election having zero effect on the outcome.

Victoria eyes the new Guy.Credit:Illustration: Mat Davidson

Meanwhile, Premier Andrews defiantly refused to commit to Parliament resuming, a dangerous and unedifying departure from the very standards of openness and accountability that he has championed.

It may be irritating amidst a pandemic, but Parliament is not an inconvenience. Governments are better for not just being accountable but being seen to be accountable. He must re-consider.

Matthew Guy might entertain a secret wish that Scott Morrison loses the next federal election. Although the PM will not be taking the Victorian Liberals wishes into account, the next federal election date has major ramifications for Matthew Guy. If – as looks likely – the Morrison government is tossed out, then that assists the state Liberals.

If Anthony Albanese wins, the new PM and his team recruit and cherry-pick the best staff from all the ALP states.

Andrews’ advisers, working for the pre-eminent ALP premier, will be much sought after, leaving him relying on a new team in a state election year. Meanwhile, Matthew Guy will have an abundance of battle-hardened Liberal evacuees from Canberra looking to ply their trade, which re-invigorates a tired state Liberal Party.

But the federal scene is not pretty for the Morrison [almost minority] government, and Victoria looks particularly ugly.

Of the 21 “marginal”, Liberal-held seats to defend, the biggest clump of seven are in Victoria, then four in NSW, four in Queensland, three in WA, two in Tasmania and only one in SA. That is why Dan Andrews will accuse Scott Morrison of being the PM for NSW whenever he can. Inexplicably the PM is giving Andrews ample opportunities.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

A closer look at the Liberals “at risk” Victorian seats is alarming. Gladys Liu in Chisholm, Greg Hunt in Flinders [unless he retires], Jason Wood in La Trobe, Michael Sukkar in Deakin, Katie Allan in Higgins and even Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong will wonder at the absurdity of depending on holding Victorian key marginals whilst being so hostile to those voters.

The retirement by the speaker Tony Smith means his seat of Casey is even harder to defend.

Morrison’s prospects in WA are just as grim and there are not enough winnable seats elsewhere to offset likely losses in just those two ALP states. Watch out to see if former attorney-general Christian Porter opts for a spot on the Federal Court on the cusp of the election, rather than face probable defeat in his outer-suburban Perth electorate.

Josh Frydenberg has other problems, trying to wriggle out of the mess he created on JobKeeper … or is it JoshKeeper?

He protests the Commonwealth has no legal authority to claw back billions in excess payments. That is because he designed the scheme that way. If the mistake was a consequence of haste in assembly, explain why was it not adjusted later, at the earliest opportunity?

There is another way of dealing with those companies which cannot quite understand the fury and scandal. Government is one of the biggest customers in Australia. The Treasurer could right now announce that companies that rorted JobKeeper and refuse to repay will have that taken into account when government procurement contracts are awarded – refund the excess or go to the back of the queue.

The government did just that this week in telling the Jehovah’s Witnesses and others they would lose charity status unless they signed up to the national redress scheme for sex abuse survivors.

Like an observation wheel, these things have a way of coming around.

Jon Faine is a regular columnist. He has worked on contract for the state government.

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