In opposition, there are rich rewards for mounting an effective attack on the government. Facts are much less important than rhetoric. Pesky details can be batted away with a ruthless focus on what the government is doing wrong, and what you, the opposition, will do right.
In opposition, you’re not actually running the country. All those hours that government ministers spend reading ministerial briefs, running committees, supervising policy, making budgets and passing laws can be more productively used chasing publicity, organising stunts, and keeping the pressure up.
In opposition, accountability is low. If you say one thing this week and another thing next week, no-one really cares. The media is generally not particularly interested in oppositions, which is why they need to spend so much time thinking up ways to get noticed. In any case, you’re not actually running the country.
In government, all of this changes. Everything is more difficult.
In government, facts do matter. The media, and the general public, expect that their governments will get the basic facts right when it comes to an important policy question, let alone a pressing crisis.
In government, you’re running the country. The resources are greater, but so are the demands. There’s a lot less time to organise stunts and run an efficient media operation because you’re running committees, making budgets and passing laws.
In government, accountability is high. The buck stops with ministers, with cabinet, with the prime minister. When a crisis erupts, everyone will expect you to Do Something and the minister is the one ultimately responsible for mistakes.
The Coalition was one of the most successful oppositions in recent memory. Under Tony Abbott, it saw off the most popular prime minister in Australian history, went within a seat of unseating his successor, and finally grabbed office after leading the government of the day in opinion polls for almost four years.
Its tight discipline, superior organisation and clever use of simplistic media slogans allowed the Coalition to effortlessly frame the political discussion, to the point where Labor had implemented many of its policies even before the 2013 election.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has discovered the difference between opposition and government this week. He had previously blamed every crisis and disaster in a trouble-prone portfolio on Labor’s incompetence. Now he’s finding things a lot more difficult.
The Immigration Minister must supervise a vast bureaucracy with significant powers of detention and incarceration. With more than 10,000 staff and a budget of $2.4 billion, the department now sustains quasi-military operations stretching from Canberra all the way to Nauru, Christmas Island and Papua New Guinea.
As well as the nuts and bolts of visas and residency, the department oversees a regional gulag of detention centres, in which critical functions are outsourced to international corporations. Perhaps only the Department of Defence is bigger — and we know how many scandals Defence throws up.
Immigration is a graveyard of political careers. Labor had four Immigration ministers: Chris Evans, Chris Bowen, Brendan O’Connor and Tony Burke. They all experienced difficulties.
Evans came to the portfolio promising a kinder and gentler regime, only to have his tenure defined by the manufactured crisis of boat arrivals. Chris Bowen staked it all on a high-profile people swap deal with Malaysia, only to be humiliated by the High Court.
Brendan O’Connor and Tony Burke spent much of their time dealing with the daily crises the issue seems to spawn; it was Burke who brought back Manus Island as a policy solution during Kevin Rudd’s short-lived second prime ministership.
Scott Morrison is suffering a similar fate. A relatively young man, Morrison has only been in federal politics since 2007. Despite this, he is now running the most politically sensitive portfolio in the entire Abbott government. His inexperience shows.
The Immigration Minister has already had a tough few months dealing with the slew of tougher measures he’s implementing in the portfolio: boat tow-backs, Operation Sovereign Borders, a laughably secretive weekly media briefing, and so on.
But the violence on Manus Island – the Sunday riot and the Monday attack on the detention centre that left one man dead and 77 injured – was Morrison's first real test as a cabinet minister. He has failed it disastrously.
News of the riots trickled out quickly – after all, there was a disturbance on the night before the fatality. Morrison did not respond for some time, and when he did, he got his facts wrong. Initially, for instance, he claimed that the violence had happened outside the razor wire, after detainees broke out of jail.
Moreover, he blamed detainees for the violence, implying that they had put themselves at risk by breaking out of the compound. He also said that G4S staff were not involved.
Morrison’s 18 February transcript is very clear:
"I don't know if you've visited Manus Island or you've been to PNG, but we have built that complex in a way where people are most secure and most safe inside the centre, so if people chose to remove themselves from that centre then they are obviously putting themselves at a place of much greater risk and in an environment like that where there is violent behaviour on the part of those who are breaching the perimeter fence and going out of the centre then this is a disorderly environment in which there is always great risk."
As we now know, that’s not what happened. What happened is that Manus Island locals broke in on Monday, perhaps with the assistance of G4S staff, and that the death of Reza Barati appears to have occurred inside the detention centre. It may have been at the hands of a G4S guard, or it may have been as a result of an assault by a Manus Islander.
We also know that Morrison knew that his initial statement was wrong. He has admitted this yesterday in Parliament. And yet it took five days for Morrison to correct the record, when he was forced to do so by the inevitable leak of eyewitness accounts.
When asked on Sunday why it had taken so long, Morrison replied “well, I've given five press conferences on this topic”. It was a telling indictment of the chaos, not just on Manus Island, but inside his own office. Morrison has lost control of the crisis, and in his scramble to deal with the fall-out, has knowingly misled the Australian public. No wonder pressure for his resignation continues to mount.
Now that he is the Immigration Minister, Morrison is learning some home truths about running a big and complex government department. And he’s learning on the job, because this is Morrison’s first cabinet position.
So far, Tony Abbott is sticking by his favourite attack dog. But Abbott knows that Morrison is not just a useful political performer. He is also a potential future leader of the Liberal Party. That’s a fact that a street fighter like Abbott won’t forget. If the crises keep coming, and if Morrison keeps struggling, he may find his promising career snuffed out.
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