Budget nights are usually carefully choreographed affairs. The regular speech, the pats on the back, the hustle and bustle of TV interviews, all capped off with handshakes and happy snaps at a party fundraiser.
However, Tuesday night’s routine included an unexpected cameo. Just an hour after Josh Frydenberg finished giving his House budget speech, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells stood in the Senate and launched a precision-guided missile at the Prime Minister. It was like Will Smith punched Chris Rock at the Oscars — not part of the plan.
The Liberal Senator, who failed to secure a winning spot on the NSW Liberal Senate ticket over the weekend, variously described the Prime Minister as “unfit for office”, an “autocrat” and a “bully” without a “moral compass”. She even suggested that Scott Morrison “used his so-called faith as a marketing advantage”.
Bullying claims cannot be brushed aside
At one time this could have been dismissed as a parting dummy of someone whose contempt for the Prime Minister is well known. Indeed, the disdain dates back 15 years to the messy pre-selection surrounding Morrison’s own entry into parliament.
But allegations of bullying are not so easily brushed aside these days. Just ask Anthony Albanian.
The Labor leader has been on the defensive in recent weeks over allegations that the late Senator Kimberley Kitching was being bullied. He declined to call an inquiry, noting that Kitching has not used the complaints procedure at her disposal. She played politically hard and “from time to time that can cause conflict”.
The prime minister took all this as proof that Albanians were “suffering”, “weak” and hypocritical. There was no subtlety in Morrison’s attack.
So how did the prime minister react when one of his own senators was directly accused of being a bully?
“I know Connie is disappointed,” he said, suggesting that a prime minister’s thermonuclear public character attack on budget night was a perfectly normal reaction to losing a pre-selection vote.
If the senator had “specific complaints” about bullying, she should discuss them with the party organization.
In other words, it is entirely up to the senator to go through the formal channels. No special investigation will be launched. It was very similar to Albanian’s reaction to Kitching.
In both cases, which some have suggested is bullying, others have dismissed it as the usual robust nature of internal party politics.
Unsurprisingly, Fierravanti-Wells told her supporters yesterday that she will not run in the election at all after missing out on the top seats in the Senate. But the bomb she dropped Tuesday night caused Morrison’s post-budget sales pitch to be clouded the next morning by renewed questions about his character.
Still, the Prime Minister and Treasurer were able to keep most of the attention on the budget stuff in any case. The cheaper fuel and money benefits that will flow in the weeks leading up to the election should provide the government with some political advantage. Whether it’s enough to maintain real momentum for the coalition once the campaign kicks off is less clear.
A big surprise buried in a press release
However, the budget is saving money for a number of further major announcements ahead of Election Day, particularly with regard to regional infrastructure.
And there is already speculation about one major project that would have significant strategic implications.
An additional $2 billion has been handed over to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility in the budget, although it has not spent its existing $5 billion allocation. The extra money is for “critical economic infrastructure projects”, according to the budget.
Buried in a separate press release from Infrastructure Minister Barnaby Joyce, talks of spending $1.5 billion on “new port infrastructure, such as a wharf, unloading facility and dredging the fairway” somewhere in the Northern Territory.
Obviously the big announcement in the campaign is a brand new Darwin gate.
The government will certainly not invest billions in upgrading the existing port as it is leased by a Chinese company. That 2015 lease infuriated the United States and has been a headache for the Australian government ever since.
A brand new port could upset the Chinese owners of the existing facility, but Morrison won’t be alarmed.
It is unclear whether the new port would be purely for industrial use. More likely is a facility that can accommodate visiting naval vessels from AUKUS partners, the United States and the United Kingdom.
A mid-campaign announcement of the new facility, now funded from the budget, will give the prime minister another chance to push through and push back his national security theme in Beijing, especially after China’s moves to increase military presence on the ground. to settle Solomon Islands.
David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs Sundays at 9:00 a.m. on ABC TV or on iview, and co-host of Q&A.