Scott Morrison’s mastery of politics to policy
The PM navigated a tricky path to election victory. Now he must turn his attention to nailing his agenda.
BY ROSS FITZGERALD
Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians”, like Sir Robert Menzies’ “forgotten people” and John Howard’s “battlers”, were the key to the federal election win and are at the heart of the Liberals’ electoral success. These “quiet Australians” are the people who preferred a Liberal government that had rolled two elected PMs to a Labor Party that was promising to steal their savings, increase their rent, reduce the value of their house, put up their power prices, drive manufacturing industry offshore and pander to political correctness. Sure, it’s not just the noisy activists who want action on climate change, better schools and hospitals, and a fair go for those who are doing it tough. But the quiet Australians didn’t want it done at their expense, because they’re not exactly on easy street either.
Morrison understood what all successful Liberal leaders have sensed in the marrow of their bones: that the first rule of government is “do no harm”; that governments are expected to solve problems, not create them; and that governments have to respect the Australian public, not sneer at them. He was a total contrast to Malcolm Turnbull who basically agreed with Labor that climate change was the greatest challenge the country faces; that more government spending was the answer to nearly every problem; and that modern Australia, even with all its rules against discrimination, was still fundamentally unfair to minorities. That’s why Turnbull could never have won this election and why the Libs were right to roll him last year, despite the short-term political cost in wealthy inner city electorates like Wentworth and Warringah.
The consistent lesson from recent elections throughout the English-speaking world is that voters want governments that focus on practical everyday problems, not governments that prosecute global crusades in ways that might make ordinary voters’ lives worse. “Saving the planet” is all very well, but not at a high costs for millions of your own voters. The people that left-of-centre, would-be leaders, like Hillary Clinton call “deplorables” and like Bill Shorten call “knuckle-draggers” are traditional centre-left voters who now think that centre-right parties are better at representing working families.
If Morrison can avoid the hubris that so often afflicts leaders who’ve won unwinnable elections and if he can tackle the big issues that have largely been ignored over the last term of parliament, there is every chance that he can win another election too. And, in giving the Liberals a fourth term, he might become a Liberal leader to approach John Howard in historical stature. Much can go wrong, because Morrison’s majority is so small. But what’s become glaringly obvious is that the Liberals have no cultural divisions to match the gulf between the concerns of Labor’s outer-metropolitan working class seats and its green-left inner city ones. Both the Liberals’ conservative and progressive wings support lower taxes and smaller government; and while its progressives are more sympathetic to minority concerns, they’re hardly firebrands itching to overthrow the existing social and economic order.
The new opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, is a lifelong lion of the Labor left. He’s opposed the government’s border protection policy, has been lukewarm about the US alliance, and still won’t say whether he supports the Adani mine. And judging from his solidarity photos with the radical British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, he’s hardly a latter-day Bob Hawke!
Political necessity is the mother of invention so maybe Albanese can manage a conversion on the road to the Lodge. But if so, how does he retain the “authenticity” that is supposed to be his greatest strength?
The election result shows that, as a whole, Australians didn’t want a left-wing Labor government; they wanted a better Liberal one. This is what Morrison now has to deliver. Firstly, that means getting the promised tax cuts swiftly confirmed by a senate that’s still dominated by a populist crossbench. But it means going beyond the Liberals’ lower tax comfort zone to tackle some of the deeper issues that weren’t even raised in the election campaign.
The much-vaunted naval build up might be the biggest in our peacetime history, but it’s also the slowest, with the first of the new French-designed submarines not in service for at least 15 years. Meanwhile, the strategic situation is changing rapidly against us with China bullying its neighbours, the US threatening Iran, and our Pacific neighbours routinely teetering on the brink of chaos. Our power supply is a slow-motion trainwreck with an ageing and shrinking fleet of coal-fired power stations being replaced with unreliable wind and solar power and there’s no big new baseload power stations in prospect. Business and student immigration is still largely out-of-control because too many vested interests are profiting at the expense of the existing Australian population whose wages and access to housing are being squeezed. Then there’s the water issue: we can never become a food bowl to Asia without a more reliable water supply and that means more dams. And in so many policy areas, from exploiting our natural resources to expanding our agriculture, sensible wealth creation has to run the gauntlet of climate concerns, despite all the previous episodes of climate change having nothing to do with human-induced carbon dioxide emissions.
With Tony Abbott’s defeat, the Abbott-Turnbull feud is now in the past. There is now no one in the parliamentary Liberal Party of comparable stature to Morrison to limit his freedom of manoeuvre. In his ascent to the prime ministership and in winning against the odds, Morrison has shown a rare mastery of politics. Now, if he is to become a truly great PM, he will have to show a similar mastery of policy.
Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University and the author of 40 books.
The Australian online, Thursday May 30/ Friday May 31.