It took only a question about some fresh developments with the Sports Rorts affair for the prime minister to note, sourly, that it was back to politics as usual.
He was, of course, contrasting this with the semblance of national unity as he, and premiers and chief ministers, with the tacit support of opposition leaders, had maintained some sense of broad unity and national purpose about the Coronavirus pandemic over recent months.
But it was ever going to be thus, and this is a good, not a bad thing. Politicians who hold power are ever wont to wonder why the local version of her majesty’s loyal opposition must cavil and nit-pick about everything, turning everything into politics, just for the purpose of point-scoring or playing the man (or the woman). Isn’t government better when everyone is looking for points of agreement rather than points of disagreement and carping criticism?
It’s a feeling known to happen to prime ministers. As Paul Keating once noted, they get to the top of the greasy pole by leaking, disloyalty, and backstabbing, making all sorts of indecent or unworthy deals with allies as one organises the numbers for a political assassination. A very short time afterwards, the winner comes to think that he got there by merit and the acclamation of his colleagues, and wonders why new forces are gathering to leak, backstab, set snares and frustrate the capacity to get one’s way.
Not that Morrison had not been playing politics over recent months, even as he had to contemplate action that might hitherto have seemed very unlikely or embarrassing — sacrificing a promised federal budget surplus, going deeply into the black, significantly extending the welfare system either to keep people in a loose continuing working relationship with employers who could no longer afford them, or increasing unemployment payments and dropping, if only for a short period, the ideological pretence that anyone on welfare benefits is a scrounger and probable fraud, to be driven to the edge of suicide by the setting of pointless tasks, and arbitrary and unconscionable penalty games. Much of it was Keynesianism; some of it, by the lights of some of the coalition ideologues, was rank socialism.
No doubt the Morrison Cabinet, or the National Cabinet, were exercising the best judgment they could as they were making decisions about the distribution of borrowed resources. With matters such as school closures in the so-called National Cabinet, Morrison learnt fairly quickly that he could neither impose his will, nor a majority decision or some sort of doctrine of collective responsibility on premiers and chief ministers, each, for the purpose of the exercise, sovereigns in their own domain. He had, instead to make a virtue of seeking broad agreement on principles, but of leaving it to individual states and territories to determine how they would apply these principles to their circumstances. His enforced flexibility was not seen as a political defeat, but a matter of leadership. He was still not without resources in trying to ram his view of the best principles through the system.
In his own cabinet, he and the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg and other senior ministers were making choices, and political choices at that, all of the time. There was no rulebook which set the limits on the amount of debt the Commonwealth was prepared to entertain, but, from the moment they set it, the available resources had to be rationed. Inevitably this created constituencies of those whose circumstances had been treated sympathetically, and those, such as casuals and those in the arts, culture, and entertainment industries (other than media moguls) who were not. Even within the coalition, honest minds might differ about who was to be a winner or a loser, and many were subject to all sorts of lobbying and pressure. From the other side of the political divide were those who would have tackled the crisis in a fundamentally different way, with winners and losers selected by a wholly different method once the size of the bag of loot was settled. Labor and the union movement might have generally endorsed a mostly generous package, giving the coalition some praise for their consultation, even as they tried to remind a largely indifferent public that the coalition’s approach followed the pattern of Rudd government intervention during the global fiscal crisis of 2008 — an approach then and even recently attacked by coalition figures as the height of economic irresponsibility and poor fiscal management. (Does anyone share my view, incidentally, that Labor in government now would never have had the guts to blow the figures as thoroughly as did Morrison — if only because the coalition in opposition would have affected shock and horror on 2008 lines? It’s a bit like the argument that only Richard Nixon, a recognised conservative could have recognised China without its being a domestic political disaster for him.)
But there was plenty of other politics going on. We are, apparently, in undeclared war against China, in part because Its leader does not want to submit to an uninvited Scott Morrison royal commission into his leadership failures. There will be an inquiry, apparently, but it will be under the auspices of the World Health Organisation, and be focused at the science, not the politics. Any number of professional soolers have used the pandemic as yet another reason to attack China, and, perhaps as evidence of China’s malign influence and secret diabolical ambitions to conquer Australia, sooner rather than later.
Generally attitudes to China have not been a function of which party one supports. Sections of big business, particularly in mining, want to promote good business relations. Others fear a necessity to make a choice between China and the United States, believe China is seeking to expand its reach and influence beyond its borders, and deplore the Big Brother total surveillance state and the increasingly belligerent and cranky tones coming from it. Even if the government shares some of the unease, it is far from clear why it chose to play leader of the critics. It has hardly been in our national interest, unless we want to pick a real fight. And if we do, of course, it may be beyond the glib phrases of our ministers to dig ourselves out of the hole.
But the problem is not that anyone, from prime minister down, has a point of view. It is, rather that policy on matters such as this should be settled after debate — all-in debate, not pre-scripted or controlled by anyone. It’s a political matter. It affects Australia’s interests, and not only in relation to the sale of minerals and raw materials. The China relationship involves education, tourism, culture and cooperation in an array of international institutions. Policy is also always affected by China’s and our relationships with the US, including now when an unprincipled president is skirmishing with China for electoral purposes. One has to wonder if we are wittingly, or unwittingly, lending ourselves to that cause.
China and Australia may never agree on many things — though I sometimes think that there are Australians with as totalitarian an approach to dissent and mass surveillance — but we are not usually spoiling for a fight. Parliament is one — if only one — of the forums at which the debate must occur. The more the debate, and, probably, the louder and more raucous, the more likely it is that good policy will emerge.