Forget the trench battles. There’s a war to be won

Scott Morrison has never been so vulnerable to fundamental attack. It is about time the Albanese army began seriously probe his defences.

There are some who would argue that Labor is compromised in its effort to sell a philosophy of government because Morrison and his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, have made a great lurch to the left — towards a “socialist”, certainly a Keynesian vision — in seeking to batten down the hatches. Does this pre-empt a genuine battle of ideas and ideals?

Certainly, if only because of the limitations that the Morrison government unnecessarily put on its abandonment of its debt and deficit dogma. For one thing, not much of the billions being spent so far is actually doing anything, or building or making anything. It is merely sustaining people who are not working, and businesses that are not making profits. There’s vague talk of infrastructure projects, and some encouragement to engage in house-building or renovations, but there has been no shift of resources, or capital, or human capital into projects that will create new public and private wealth for years to come. There is little the government has done yet that is capable of creating that business and consumer confidence that will see companies invest,  put on new employees, and develop that sense of security and belief in the future that individuals, families and communities will spend. Indeed, as I discussed last week, the government seems so afeared of doing (or paying for) too much that its very meanness of spirit is likely to make prudent workers concentrate on lowering their debt rather than buying more.

It is also clear that this government imagines that there will be some magic moment in the future — perhaps in two or three years — when it can be said that the recovery has occurred, that growth has resumed, and that there is no longer any occasion for government to be “propping up” the economy. At this point, government debt may well have reached the trillion mark. That debt may not be repaid in our lifetimes, but that will not trouble Morrison so much as the risk or the possibility that he cannot resume efforts to work towards an annual surplus again. His “Australian” way of solving the problems has worked hard to ensure that there has been no structural increase in the size of the public service, or in programs by which goods and services are supplied to citizens, directly or indirectly.  The Coronavirus measures stand separate from the ordinary budget and can be turned on or off at will. There is no plan to increase general spending in any area other than defence.

There is no vision of a better Australia, a healthier Australia, a more educated and inventive Australia, or better-connected Australia that Morrison or the government hopes will be a legacy of these times and of this unprecedented, but effectively one-off burst of public spending.

In the Depression-era, and when, in the Whitlam era, governments developed labour market programs to sop up the pools of unemployed, critics sometimes accused the government of getting people to paint rocks, or to dig holes and fill them in again. In some places, things like that happened. In other areas councils seized with a sense of social purpose used programs to improve local roads, to kerb and gutter, to put in sewers, improve power supplies and to refurbish public buildings, including schools, hospitals and aged care facilities. More than a million Australians are presently getting pandemic payments because of the hardship caused to them by the shutdown of the economy. But most — certainly right now — are doing the equivalent of painting rocks, if only because of a hope that, sooner or later, their old job will be back. The truth is that for more than half of them future employment will be with new employers, often in new industries. It would be better if they were being mobilised for that purpose now. It would be better that educational and vocational training services were being retooled right now for that purpose, rather than left to wither as a part of the coalition’s distaste for the academy, for culture, and for training provided through the community, rather than, badly, for profit.

There is no reason why Labor should feel constrained in attacking poor ministers or poor performance. But there are systemic weaknesses ripe for political exploitation. One is the way in which the crisis has made worse the reflex Morrison tendency to be less and less accountable, to be more and more secretive, to reward and operate through cronies, and to use dubious and illegal stratagems to avoid having to explain his activities. That, coupled with the government’s resistance to an integrity body with teeth, invites real questions about actual corruption, or a corruption of the idea of fair dinkum and transparent government in the public interest.

Labor does not need to adopt pie-in-the-sky projects, let alone ones of dubious economic, social and environmental value. Its first goal, as after World War II, is the establishment of full employment. Its second involves, or ought to involve, a better life for all, including for those who usually miss out, such as our indigenous population. It is to be hoped that this also embraces a sense of world citizenship, in which Australians help their neighbours and act as a force for peace and social justice in our region. In physical infrastructure, there is as much scope for employing Australians, all over the continent, in refurbishing and restoring what we have, as there is in extending it. In social infrastructure, with reinvestment in public housing, in schools adapted for the 21st century, in hospitals and community health care, and in public and private facilities helping aged and disabled people live in the community or in residential facilities, the open and avowed purpose should be to improve the quality of Australian lives. That need not necessarily involve a bigger bureaucracy, but it does involve abandoning the spirit of meanness, retrenchment and limited government that has become a banner for the other side of politics.

These are, or were, goals and ideals with which Anthony Albanese was once associated, when he was a standard bearer for his party’s left. He is, or was, adept and practised at articulating them. Right now he seems strategically and tactically uncertain about deploying the very gifts and charms which made him a party favourite, and the party leader. He was actually chosen for being what he is — or was — not because people thought he could walk backwards on a tightrope to the party’s — or the electorate’s centre.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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