In his latest jeremiad on the state of the economy, Scott Morrison seemed torn between channelling Paul Keating or Joe Hockey.
There was an echo of Keating’s warning about the country turning into a banana republic, in the prospect of the national debt reaching a trillion dollars (that’s $1,000,000,000,000, a figure of sheer fantasy for ordinary voters) and a glance to Hockey’s need to end the age of entitlement and designate the populace as either lifters or leaners, rebranded by Morrison as the taxed and the taxed-not (by whom he means not the wealthy who employ armies of lawyers and accountants to avoid their obligations, but the indigent who collect more in entitlements than they contribute to his coffers – a soft target for the richly rewarded demagogues of the tabloid press).
So, which is it to be? A clarion call for an inclusive, if perhaps impossible, crusade to save the nation’s economy or a divisive dog-whistle to pursue savings from the most vulnerable? Well, neither, actually – or at least not yet.
Instead Morrison is satisfied with continuing to berate Bill Shorten to agree to his pre-election commitment of reductions of $6.5 billion (that’s $6,500,000,000), which sounds substantial but is derisory against the figure he himself has set.
Shorten demands, reasonably enough, that he wants to see the detailed legislation first, provoking the Finance Minister Matthias Cormann, who once called Shorten a girly man, to now compare him to a jelly: wibble wobble on a plate. Bang on, comments Morrison approvingly.
But that only confirms that he has not learned the old political message: Shorten and those who sit with him across the chamber may be the opposition, but the Treasurer’s real enemies are the ones behind him: they are the ones with their knives poised to plunge into his back at the slightest opportunity.
Morrison is still dickering about how – and perhaps if – there is a workable compromise to the superannuation changes he brought to the budget and confirmed during the election campaign. He has said that he cannot face his children if he buckles, but when it comes to the party room his children, like so much in the government’s agenda, may prove mere collateral damage.
Turnbull, incidentally, says he is concerned not only for his own children or their children, but everyone’s children. Perhaps it is time to turn their attention to the adults; but we digress.
For the conservatives, this is more than a matter of greed, or even of ideology; it is a test of strength. But it is even more so for Morrison himself. Obviously he can hardly insist that Shorten fulfil his election promises if he is prepared to break his own. Yet all the signs are that he will do so; at the very least he will make concessions which will make it clear that budget repair (and for that matter election promises) are less important than keeping the armed truce within the ranks from exploding into open war.
And this means, among other things, that any serious work on economic reform, is extremely unlikely. By definition it would have to include not only superannuation, but also some of the other perks held dear by the supporters of the party faithful. For this reason alone Morrison and Turnbull has flatly refused to countenance Shorten’s invitation to revisit negative gearing and capital gains tax.
These were part of Shorten’s holistic package which also included that $6.5 billion cuts that they are going on about, but they are on a quite different omnibus; they are allowed to cherry pick but Shorten is not. And to an extent that is fair enough: they may not have won the election by much, and they are yet to pass – or even draft – the legislation they intend to enact, but they are the government. They have the right to set their own agenda.
But this does not mean that a ruthlessly belligerent attack on Shorten and his opposition is smart politics. There will be times when they can cajole the needed nine crossbench senators to give them their majority; they may even persuade the Greens to do the job for them. But it would be simpler and infinitely more rewarding to deal with Labor.
Shorten is seriously cocky at present, but he has indicated that he is willing to talk. He will want something in return, but probably not very much; if Turnbull and Morrison can give him a few crumbs, Shorten can spin that as a triumph and they can get on with the important stuff.
It will take diplomacy, and even a modicum of humility, qualities that are normally foreign to the government’s autocrats, but it is likely to be the only way that anything worthwhile can be achieved. Without it, that trillion dollars of debt may not eventuate, but a shitload of it certainly will. If Morrison and Turnbull want to turn the Titanic around, it is time to stop heading single-mindedly to the iceberg.
But for all their bluff and bluster, they do not look like the men in control of the ship and unless and until they can subdue the mutineers in their own crew, they never will. The reality is that they are negotiating from a position of weakness, which is no doubt why they are reverting to the revamped slogans of the past. For all Turnbull’s talk about innovation and the exciting times ahead, he is already starting to look like yesterday’s prime minister.
And Morrison is certainly sounding like yesterday’s – or even the last decade’s – Treasurer. He desperately needs to find more than just repeating the same things. And if he insists on plagiarising his predecessors, it might be an idea to recall the consequences. After Keating gave his banana republic warning, he brought us the recession we had to have, causing enormous angst to the population and a blow to his own prestige from which he never really recovered. And when Hockey trumpeted the ending of the age of entitlement, he gave us the 2014 budget disaster, with ultimately knocked off himself and his prime minister.
Perhaps it might be wise for Scott Morrison to try something different – even something original. But above all, something more effective. Malcolm, ScoMo, think of the children.
Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery.