What Australians value and what they fear are not, apparently, clear to the latest Prime Minister. Scott Morrison’s election campaign, which began at the National Press Club on 11 February, failed to assure voters that his government understands either what they resent or what they want.Two days later, the Coalition lost a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. ‘Thisis historic’, Labor was quick to email its supporters. ‘No Federal Government has lost a vote since 1929. An election could be called any second. This is a Government in full free fall’.
The opinion polls have been negative for the Coalition for more than a year, so the first task for a new prime minister facing an election should be finding ways to turn them around. Instead, Morrison said nothing about things that deeply concern the electorate – the ABC, the NBN, climate policy, river management, and urgent reform of the financial sector, for example. He did not mention Medicare, which growing numbers cannot afford; hospitals which are underfunded, understaffed, and dangerously stressed; or the education system which, after the Coalition abandoned of the needs basis for funding recommended by David Gonski, extravagantly favours rich institutions and individuals from pre-school up to tertiary at the expense of the rest. He has a plan, he said, leaving us to guess what it is.
More puzzling still, Morrison who as treasurer had banged on about debt and deficit and Labor’s budget black hole, was profligate with his promises. He offered community groups $50 000 grants each to promote ‘Australian values’ and encourage racial and religious tolerance, after last year legislating to enforce freedom of religion. He came up with $78 million to combat domestic violence against women, including providing emergency accommodation and safety provisions, after many women’s refugees in NSW had been closed by Pru Goward. He promised to raise defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP, yet he intends to return the Australian budget to surplus. He was proud of having stripped 12 ‘foreign fighters’ of their citizenship, and of maintaining ministerial control over medical refugee transfers to Australia, while potential terrorists arrive by air under the nose of a distracted Border Force. Such are the offers Morrison dangles before to the electors this year.
The US does State of the Union addresses, and the UK does election manifestos, in which foreign and defence policy command attention. Australia doesn’t, and the reason was clear from Morrison’s speech without him having to explain it. Both major parties have for years had nothing of significance to differentiate their foreign and defence policies, and little that distinguishes them from those of the Anglo allies. So they fall back on the fiction of the American alliance as the guarantor of Australia’s security, and the Five Eyes arrangement as their intelligence source, and publicly question nothing. Not even when the President calls on allies to take responsibility for their own defence, and disparages the treaties the US has with them.
If ever Morrison had an opportunity to explain his plan, Monday’s speech was it. He could have ‘pumped’ his Australian audience, not just himself, if he had told them a new thing or two. How he will deal for example, with an American ally bent on confronting our biggest trading partner and even supporting Taiwan; what he will do to advise that ally against expecting Australian support if it attacks Iran; and when he will follow the US lead in taking conventional forces out of Syria and Afghanistan. He might even have explained when and if the Americans, to whom we are ‘joined at the hip’ told him they were going to do so. He could have said what he thinks about the US abandoning the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia, and explained why Australia has not signed the Treaty Against Nuclear Weapons or even congratulated its Australian progenitors. He could have explained how, if Australia is such a supporter of the ‘international rules-based order’, he and his predecessors have applied it so selectively, including in failing their international obligation to ensure the equal political rights of women. Even though he had little more to lose, Morrison missed his only opportunity on Monday and Tuesday. Instead, he invoked John Howard’s refusal to change anything in his perfect conservative plan.
By doing so he passed the tarnished baton to Bill Shorten. Labor could now promise voters they will bring Australians home from fruitless wars, and reclaim our long-lost reputation on refugees, foreign aid, nuclear weapons, and climate change. Shorten, having said violence against women was his ‘first priority’ in government more than a year ago, could now say how he will endorse the efforts of Australian women themselves, instead of treating them as helpless victims of the system. Australians would respond with enthusiasm if, instead of spending more trillions on weapons and illegal wars, Labor gave priority to first world transport infrastructure and building standards, and restored funding to the arts, public broadcasting, health and education. Shorten could explain that by not confronting our neighbours but dealing with them civilly, we can eliminate the need for aggression, just as New Zealand and the ASEAN countries have done. Instead of enforcing ‘Australian values ‘ by law, Labor could demonstrate them in action.
History was made in the House on Tuesday night. Is it too much to hope for historic change?
Dr Alison Broinowski AM was an Australian diplomat and is working with Be Sure On War, a campaign to change the war powers of the Australian government.