Its particular power? The chaos appears to validate the electorate’s growing belief that the Morrison government is simply incompetent. Australians are frustrated with its bushfire failures, delinquency in providing vaccines, effective quarantine and now rapid antigen testing. Giving Labor the material for its slogan: “He doesn’t hold a pipe and he doesn’t give a damn.
There was a good reason for this week’s mutiny, beyond the principles involved. There is growing defeatism in the ranks of government. Which means that an “every man for himself” state of mind is taking hold. If the ship sinks, MPs pump air into their individual constituents’ life jackets, even if it takes oxygen from the Prime Minister.
MPs from progressive constituencies cannot be seen as endorsing discrimination against trans people if they want to keep their seats, especially if the wider electoral wave is against the government.
It would be even worse for Morrison if he was hounded by a leadership challenger. Because it’s not just that the government seems to be in disarray. There is anger and bitterness inside.
Many of his conservative faction are angry with the moderates who crossed the floor this week. Faction leader and Government House Leader Peter Dutton released some of it on Friday. “There are commitments that have been made. The pledge was not honoured,” he told the ABC. The Prime Minister, he said, had been misled. “The government does not enter into a vote like this unless there have been assurances given.”
Unimpressed, some of the party’s moderates privately retorted that Dutton was just making excuses for himself. It is the job of the government House leader, supported by the whips, to ensure that government bills are passed.
But Dutton is the only potential challenger, and he doesn’t plan 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 is for strong economic management. But he cannot claim to defend the traditional values of the Liberal Party. It cannot claim to respect budgetary prudence – “living within our means” – for example. Faced with economic collapse with the onset of the pandemic, the Morrison government correctly turned on the fiscal tap and spent heavily.
But when to stop spending and start fixing your budget? Last year, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said it was time for the unemployment rate to fall into the 5% range. But when it happened, sooner than expected, Frydenberg was terrified. He immediately moved the goal posts. In fact, he said, the right time would be when the unemployment rate “has a 4 in front of it.” It is now and heading for a 3, but there is 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, now chairman of the Future Fund and Nine Entertainment, publisher of this title. A few weeks ago, Costello said “we should be entering a monetary policy tightening cycle and a fiscal policy tightening cycle.” He is right. Chronic national lockdowns are over and the economy is rebounding powerfully.
The Reserve Bank is responsible for monetary policy. That started to lay the groundwork for a possible interest rate hike, but not fast enough for Costello’s liking.
Fiscal policy, however, is Frydenberg’s responsibility and, for now, he is not responsible.
The government, like all failed governments, deludes itself that popular anger at its failures will dissolve into waves of gratitude under the influence of a few crude political handouts.
Frydenberg doesn’t need more reports. He needs more determination.
Just promise them a tax cut, a parking lot and a shooting range and they’ll forget all the sins of the government. When an electorate demands blood, they are not distracted by pork. But you can’t say that to a panicked politician.
The government will therefore go to the elections heavily indebted and in deficit and without any credible means of getting out of it.
As for economic reform to reinvigorate Australia’s woefully stagnant productivity growth, there is none. Frydenberg told us this week that he was asking the Productivity Commission to prepare a reform program for the next term. The truth is that he is terrified of real reform. It is difficult and disturbing. So it’s just more procrastination. The Productivity Commission has already drafted the agenda. His Move the dial report was published in 2017. Frydenberg does not need more reports. He needs more determination.
Nor can Morrison claim to represent that other Liberal Party totem, the free market. Morrison builds a state-owned power plant and steps in everywhere, “picking winners” with billion-dollar manufacturing funds while rejecting market solutions for emissions trading.
That won’t stop the government from claiming that it believes in fiscal prudence and free markets, just that it doesn’t have a lot of credibility. Much to the chagrin of some of its traditional supporters.
Morrison will say he advocates stopping boats and strong border protection. And he stopped the boats. So successful that none have happened in years. Thus, the importance of this as an electoral priority has faded. In this, he is a victim of his own success.
But the threat of hostility from China is salient. So the government is already talking about it. And it is true that Morrison resisted political pressure and economic sanctions from China. And although Australia’s defense capability is woefully inadequate for any Kinetic War against China, the government has turned its attention to the problem and has begun the long process of correcting it.
In short, the government has no pretensions to budgetary discipline, faith in the free market or economic reform. But Morrison can credibly claim to have a solid record when it comes to borders and challenging China. Problem: Labor supports identical policies on the borders and on China.
Morrison has two prospects here. One is traditional brand associations. That there is an echoing electoral memory that the Liberals are good with money and defence, while Labor is weak on both. These brand associations are real and bring valuable capital to a campaign. The other is that the Coalition can portray Labour’s Anthony Albanese as a threat.
They’re going to work hard for it, and they’re going to have to. Albanese is about as menacing as Dennis Denuto, the struggling suburban lawyer at The castle.
This week we have seen how little the Liberals have to do when the The Australian published a shocking revelation under the title: “Anthony Albanese’s historic battle cry at war against family wealth”. His opening line: “Anthony Albanese sharply criticized capitalism and family wealth as causes of social injustice while suggesting that incomes over $100,000 a year were not entirely deserved.” He paid inheritance tax.
It was irrefutable, irrefutable proof that Albanese is a scheming and class-envious socialist. The story, labeled “exclusive”, was published on the front page of the newspaper. As the telling word “historical” implied, there was a minor hiccup with this exposition. It was based on a speech given by Albanese in 1991. Three decades ago. Albanese was Deputy General Secretary of NSW Labor and the Soviet Union was still a thing. If it’s his best material, he’ll have to resort to generous doses of invention to present it as a threat.
The campaign based on branding and fearmongering is the plan. Will this end up being what Scott Morrison stands for?
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Peter Hartcher is a political editor.