What is the Point of Morrison & Co?
In ten years’ time, what will people say about the Morrison government? The Coalition’s deepest problem is not that the National Party has become a circus; it’s that the government itself has no major mission to carry it through the inevitable storms of parliamentary politics.
The Morrison government’s basic problem is actually the same one that characterised the Rudd-Gillard government. Apart from “more action” on climate change – which Kevin Rudd eventually squibbed and Julia Gillard turned into the electorally disastrous carbon tax – what was the point of that government; other, perhaps, than to promise surpluses but never deliver them? It’s the same problem that even the mighty Howard government eventually succumbed to: tax reform, workplace relations reform, and budget repair had all been delivered, so what was left in 2007 other than to re-elect John Howard in order for him to be replaced by Peter Costello as PM.
So, what is the point of the Morrison government?
Last year, it was to prevent the election of a left-wing Labor government that was going to impose massive new taxes on the most productive people in our country. That was indeed a mission of historic proportion and produced a “miracle” election win. But under the circumstances, it wasn’t so much the government that won but the opposition that lost; and, with Anthony Albanese as federal ALP leader, it’s all-but-certain that Labor will hasten much more slowly to soak the rich and to save the planet. In any event, incumbent governments rarely get more than one chance to win on the back of arguing that the other side would be worse.
Perhaps, the Morrison government’s mission is finally to deliver the budget surplus that Labor would squander; yet even that no longer seems as important as spending whatever it takes to expedite recovery from natural disasters. Possibly it’s to preserve the border security that Labor would put at risk; but Labor will be at pains to stress, however implausibly, that it too is totally committed to turning boats around. Perhaps the mission is to deliver “carbon neutrality” in less economically destructive ways than Labor; yet why would you re-elect the government for a fourth term to be a pale reflection of the alternative?
For a centre-right government in this country, the only mission worth having is to make a serious difference to the problems facing ordinary Australians: in other words, to make it easier for people to pay their bills, gain a job, increase their wage, buy a house, and get to all the places they need to go. The obvious ways to help here would be to improve our power and water security and to remove the factors putting downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on housing prices. Yet building dams and baseload power stations – quite apart from the difficulty of dealing with the green-left states – seems too internally divisive inside a Liberal Party that has at least partially surrendered to what some of the general public regard as the climate cult. And the Morrison government’s reluctance to take on the vested interests of Big Business and Big Education behind the explosion in net overseas migration will be exacerbated by the short-term economic impact of the corona virus.
In the main, centre-right governments only succeed by politically colonising people who would normally vote for the other side: by mobilising the “Howard battlers”, the “blue-collar Tories”, and the “Reagan Democrats”. That’s the primary task facing Scott Morrison: to keep finding ways to galvanise working people into voting Liberal, as was the case with the Adani mine at last year’s election. But at the moment, the government seems just as concerned about upsetting rich climate-worriers in inner city seats as about locking in the aspirational voters of the regions and outer-suburbs. This will be a very hard circle to square.
Then there are the political risks inherent in any move to scale back immigration, which could easily be seen as “anti-immigrant” rather than giving all Australians a fairer go at an affordable home and a decent wage. And in arguing for stronger controls on immigration, Prime Minister Morrison wouldn’t have Boris Johnson’s advantage of a remarkably ethnically diverse front bench.
In the UK, Brexit had polarised the electorate. After years of highly public procrastination, in Johnson a leader emerged who was prepared to turn the Conservatives into a whole-hearted Brexit party and to purge dissidents in the process. In Australia, the only comparable issue might be climate change; but, on the evidence so far, Morrison’s tendency will be to argue that it’s possible to have more jobs and greater prosperity, plus faster emissions reduction too, rather than to create an electoral contest based on a stark choice.
In the US, the Trump phenomenon was only possible because two decades of stagnant wages had squeezed Middle America out of its traditional alternation between middle-of-the-road candidates from moderate parties. In Australia we haven’t had stagnant wages for nearly as long. As well, our government couldn’t plausibly appeal to working voters by playing hard-ball on trade, because we don’t have America’s economic muscle to get away with it.
The Morrison government seems to lack the inner conviction needed for politically difficult decisions. This is the real reason, not the states or the Senate, why it seems to be in office rather than in power.
Replacing Michael McCormack as party leader, and making Barnaby Joyce minister for veterans’ affairs or small business, might settle things down inside the National Party but it certainly won’t give the current government the sense of purpose that it really needs.
Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald AM is the author of 41 books, most recently the co-authored political/sexual satire THE DIZZYING HEIGHTS, published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
QUADRANT ONLINE, 19 February, 2020.