Its special potency? The chaos seems to validate the electorate’s growing conviction that the Morrison government is simply incompetent. Australians are frustrated at its bushfire bungling, its delinquency in supplying vaccines, effective quarantine, and now rapid antigen tests. Giving Labor the material for its slogan: “He doesn’t hold a hose and he doesn’t give a RATs.”
There was good reason for this week’s mutiny, beyond the principles at stake. There’s a growing defeatism in the government’s ranks. Which means that an “everyone for themselves” mindset is taking hold. If the ship is sinking, MPs pump air into the life jackets of their individual electorates, even if it’s taking oxygen from the Prime Minister.
MPs in progressive electorates can’t be seen to endorse discrimination against trans people if they want to hold their seats, especially if the wider electoral tide is running against the government.
It would be even worse for Morrison if he were being stalked by a challenger for the leadership. Because it’s not just that the government appears to be in disarray. There is anger and bitterness within.
Many of its conservative faction are angry at the moderates who crossed the floor this week. The faction’s leader and Leader of the Government in the House, Peter Dutton, let some of it show on Friday. “There were undertakings that were given. The undertaking wasn’t honoured,” he told the ABC. The Prime Minister, he said, had been misled. “The government doesn’t go into a vote like that unless there’s been assurances given.”
Unimpressed, some of the party’s moderates countered privately that Dutton was just making excuses for himself. It’s the job of the Leader of the Government in the House, supported by the whips, to make sure that government bills pass.
But Dutton is the only potential challenger, and he’s not planning to challenge before the election. So Morrison can survive until election day. Which brings us back to the question – what does Scott Morrison stand for?
He will tell us that he stands for strong economic management. But he can’t claim to stand for the Liberal Party’s traditional values. He can’t claim to respect fiscal prudence – “living within our means” – for instance. Facing economic collapse with the onset of the pandemic, the Morrison government correctly opened the fiscal tap and spent up big.
But when to stop spending and start budget repair? Last year Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said it would be time when the unemployment rate fell into the 5 per cent range. But when it did, sooner than expected, Frydenberg was terrified. He immediately moved the goalposts. Actually, he said, the right time would be when the unemployment rate “had a 4 in front of it”. It now does and it’s heading for a 3, but there’s no sign of budget repair.
Shades of St Augustine, “make me chaste and continent, but not yet”.
The last person to balance the federal budget was Peter Costello, today the chair of the Future Fund and of Nine Entertainment, publisher of this masthead. A couple of weeks ago Costello said “we should be going into a tightening cycle in monetary policy and a tightening cycle in fiscal policy”. He’s right. The chronic national lockdowns are over and the economy is rebounding powerfully.
The Reserve Bank is responsible for monetary policy. It’s started to lay the groundwork for raising interest rates eventually, but not fast enough for Costello’s liking.
Fiscal policy, however, is Frydenberg’s responsibility and just now he’s not being responsible.
The government, like all failing governments, deludes itself that popular anger at its failures will dissolve in waves of gratitude under the influence of some crass political handouts.
Frydenberg doesn’t need more reports. He needs more determination.
Just promise them a tax cut, a car park and a rifle range and they’ll overlook all the government’s sins. When an electorate is calling for blood, it’s not distracted by pork. But you can’t tell this to a panicking politician.
So the government will go to the election deep in debt and deficit and with no credible way out of it.
As for economic reform to reinvigorate Australia’s sadly stagnant productivity growth, there is none. Frydenberg this week told us he’s asking the Productivity Commission to prepare a reform agenda for the next term. The truth is, he’s terrified of making real reform. It’s difficult and disruptive. So it’s just more procrastination. The Productivity Commission already wrote the agenda. Its Shifting the Dial report was published in 2017. Frydenberg doesn’t need more reports. He needs more determination.
Nor can Morrison claim to represent that other Liberal Party totem, the free market. Morrison is building a state-owned power plant and intervening all over the place, “picking winners” with billion-dollar manufacturing funds while rejecting market solutions for emissions trading.
This won’t deter the government from making the claim that it believes in fiscal prudence and free markets, just that it doesn’t have a lot of credibility. To the dismay of some of its own traditional supporters.
Morrison will say he stands for stopping the boats and strong border protection. And he did stop the boats. So successfully that none has arrived in years. So the salience of this as an electoral priority has faded. In this, he’s a victim of his own success.
But the threat of hostility from China is salient. So the government is already talking this up. And it’s true that Morrison has stood up to China’s political pressure and economic sanctions. And although Australia’s defence capability is woefully inadequate to any kinetic war against China, the government has turned its attention to the problem and started on the long process of correcting it.
In sum, the government has no claim to budget discipline, belief in the free market or economic reform. But Morrison can credibly claim to have a solid record on borders and defiance of China. Problem: Labor supports identical policies on borders and on China.
Morrison has two hopes here. One is traditional brand associations. That there is an echoic electoral memory that Liberals are good with money and defence, while Labor is weak on both. These brand associations are real and provide valuable capital in a campaign. The other is that the Coalition can portray Labor’s Anthony Albanese as a threat.
They’re going to work hard at that, and they’ll have to. Albanese is about as threatening as Dennis Denuto, the struggling suburban solicitor in The Castle.
This week we saw just how little the Liberals have to work with when the The Australian published a shocking revelation under the headline: “Anthony Albanese’s historic battle cry in war on family wealth”. Its opening line: “Anthony Albanese sharply criticised capitalism and family wealth as causes of social injustice while suggesting incomes above $100,000 a year were not entirely deserved.” He was supporting an inheritance tax.
This was the red-hot, smoking gun evidence that Albanese is a scheming, class-envy socialist. The story, tagged “exclusive”, was published on the paper’s front page. As the tell-tale word “historic” hinted, there was a minor catch with this expose. It was based on a speech Albanese gave in 1991. Three decades ago. Albanese was assistant general secretary of NSW Labor and the Soviet Union was still a thing. If that’s its best material, it’ll have to resort to liberal doses of invention to portray him as a threat.
Brand-based campaigning and scaremongering is the plan. Will that end up being what Scott Morrison stands for?
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Peter Hartcher is political editor.