Prime Minister’s Holiday – And Honeymoon – Are Over
Prime Minister’s holiday — and honeymoon — are over
Prime ministerial holidays are often contentious: where they go, who they stay with, what they cost and, most importantly, what they’re not doing while they’re away. After media intrusion had made his traditional family holiday at Hawks Nest almost impossible, from 1997 on John Howard just went on light duties from Kirribilli House. Given that you could hardly beat the setting, Scott Morrison would be well advised to follow this precedent next time he needs a break. Back in 2001, the last time NSW faced a Christmas bushfire crisis, all Howard had to do to show he was on top of things was pick up the phone to Alan Jones and promise to fund more “Elvis” helicopter water bombers.
Still, notwithstanding all the silly season shenanigans, the Prime Minister should be well satisfied with his year. Twelve months ago, thanks to his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull’s dummy spit, the Coalition had lost one of its safest seats and there was hardly a pundit who wasn’t confident the Morrison government was doomed.
By avoiding the supposedly inevitable defeat, Morrison has won a place in the Liberal Party pantheon and demonstrated the one quality prized above all others in a democratic leader: the ability to win an election.
Morrison had three characteristics Turnbull lacked: he never stopped campaigning, he could speak succinctly when he wanted to, and he was a tribal Liberal. This gave him the energy, clarity and focus that leaders need to win, and made the 2019 election campaign a contest rather than the coronation Turnbull had sought in 2016 and, in the process, all but destroyed the government’s majority.
Morrison was also helped by an opposition that had failed to change its game plan in response to a new opponent. Hitting retirees’ franking credits and investment property owners’ negative gearing probably wouldn’t have mattered if Turnbull had still been PM; as the Liberals’ critique of these policies, if any, would have been lost in what Tony Abbott once called “merchant banker’s gobbledygook”. But helped by the irrepressible Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and the well-orchestrated public hearings of Tim Wilson’s backbench committee, Labor’s soak-the-middle-class policies became lethal targets. In many ways, the Libs didn’t win the election; Labor lost it. But it’s unlikely to make the same mistake next time, in 2022, and this is Morrison’s problem, even though he might seem almost unbeatable now.
The conventional wisdom is that Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is more likeable than Bill Shorten but even less electable because of his long history on the left. My tip is that Albanese will “de-fang” Labor’s policies in ways that don’t alienate his left-wing supporters but that don’t scare middle Australia either.
For instance, he’ll now allow franking credits – but only up to, say, $30,000 a year. He’ll still abolish negative gearing on investment housing – but only for the fourth and subsequent property. He’ll commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 but nothing beyond the government’s upper level targets for the next term of parliament.
It will be a lot harder for a Coalition government by then seeking a fourth term to rely on a scare campaign when the target is Labor’s published agenda rather than the radicalism that might be expected of the ALP in office.
What will be, by the time of the next election, a nine-year-old federal government can only hope to get re-elected on performance, not on demonising the other side. Apart from anything else, voters’ memories of why they dispatched Labor last time will inevitably have dimmed.
The Australian instinct to “give the other contender a go” will inevitably have started to kick in. Given the lead times on doing anything of substance, if Morrison wants to have much to his credit other than the government’s existing achievements in border protection, budget repair, national security, trade, and infrastructure, he really must get cracking from the very beginning of the new year.
There are pressing national challenges where the government must make demonstrable progress. Right now, the most obvious is water. Making it rain money is no substitute for the better water management that our farmers and agriculture-dependent communities need. Sure, it’s impossible to build dams without the co-operation of state governments but if the best the feds can do by the time of the next election is an only-just-commenced expansion of two dams in NSW, voters are unlikely to be impressed.
Then there’s power. Little further expansion of renewables is likely now the subsidies are starting to wind down. But even existing wind and solar (which is cheap when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining but needs back-up at other times) is destabilising the grid. Political risk means no private investor can be relied upon to supply new 24/7 baseload power but all the Morrison government is prepared to commit to, so far, is the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro scheme that’s only sustainable if power prices stay very high.
Then there are the new submarines that could easily become a $200bn white elephant, Collins Class-on-steroids, just when the need to pack a powerful counterpunch to any potential aggressor becomes more important than ever.
On this, as on so much else, most Coalition ministers seem incapable of anything other than putting forward the public service recommendation, which invariably is to stick next year to the policy they advised last year.
If we’re no further advanced on any of these key issues in the next 12 months, the federal government is destined for defeat. It won’t be enough to say that the opposition would make every problem worse because governments are expected to improve things, not play politics with them.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 41 books.
The Australian. December 23, 2019, p 10.
Scott Morrison has had 17 months at the prime minister’s helm and if hasn’t got the right crew, as Ross Fitzgerald is fair to suggest (“Prime Minister’s holiday — and honeymoon — are over”, 23/12), then he needs to change tack. Why isn’t the Defence Minister reviewing the government’s $50 billion-plus decision to redesign French nuclear submarines to run on diesel, the first of which won’t be delivered until 2035 at the earliest? Why isn’t the Environment Minister querying the government’s lack of credible evidence for backing the ratification of the Paris accord, without voter mandate? And can the Energy Minister explain how the government-backed $10.5bn-plus Snowy 2.0 project qualifies as nation building, yet the call for a government-backed HELE (High Efficiency Low Emission) coal plant does not?
Alternatively, is the real issue the calls the captain is making? And is the crew going-along-to-get-along?
Mandy Macmillan, Singleton, NSW
Letter to the editor, The Australian. December 24, 2019, p 11.