The unwillingness of the Morrison government to see the 2019-20 bushfire disaster as some sort of turning point was deliberate. That refusal to provide any sort of lead, or leadership, or to show some imagination about a new economy, and a new society, was again evident during the Covid-19 crisis.
Once the pandemic struck, the Morrison government did show some imagination at first. It developed schemes to keep displaced workers in continuing economic relations with their employers. It also temporarily dropped the old pretence that anyone receiving welfare benefits from the government was a scrounger, liar and probably a cheat, to be given starvation benefits and subjected to all of the arbitrary coercion and deprivations that politicians and senior public servants could imagine.
The new displaced, after all, were “ordinary” citizens, whose unemployment could not be blamed on their fecklessness. The judgment of the amount of money they needed to survive was not only a calculation of potential future gratitude but an estimation of minimum amounts of liquidity required by the continuing economic machine, even in low gear. Even then ministers were ever anxious to return income support to starvation levels, lest they create disincentives, and were reluctant deferrers of deadlines to do so.
The government made it clear from the start that its initial actions were focused on helping people in crisis. Soon, however, it planned that the amazing sums of money it would release into the economy would be focused on creating jobs in the private sector. This money would be in subsidies, tax breaks and incentives for businesses to invest in new equipment, and in new jobs. It became clear that the government did not intend that this money, raised by virtually interest-free debt, would be meted out with great concern to avoid abuse. Business welfare is apparently different, even in spite of evidence that significant numbers of businessmen and women are predisposed to rort the system if they think they can get away with it.
There would be no Robo-debt fiscal and public relations fiascos associated with this spendathon. Prime ministers and ministers would exercise their discretion to hand out money to whatever mates, cronies, and party donors occurred to them. Open and transparent process might slow things down. Documentation, justification and explanation, and transparency would often be in arrears if they existed at all. Not that there was to be much chance of being found out, given plans for circumscribing the funding for the Auditor General, or other watchdogs likely to scream about partiality, fraud, or corruption.
It became clear too that any early sense of panic about maintaining liquidity had been reined in. First was the decision that job creation would be in the private sector, even though the public service was about a third of the whole economy and was responsible for critical functions (and, in the circumstances very relevant) of society, such as health care and education. This was in line with the fatuous idea that only the private sector creates “real” jobs, and that the size of the public sector, and the regulation it supervises, is a “drag” on the economy.
Indeed, the government relentlessly pursued job cuts in the public sector, job-destroying “efficiency” dividends, and reduced functions to contain and confine its size to pre-coronavirus levels. Its plan was to emerge from the recession with a government sector no bigger than it had entered it. That was a plan it was not going to compromise with big ideas about building a new economy for the 21st century.
Likewise, the government did not abandon its culture war, or its Trump-like hatred of science, universities and the arts. Although universities were particularly hard hit by the loss of income from foreign students, none of the sustaining money and none of the recovery money was to go to them. Likewise, arts and culture, mostly in the private sector, are almost as big in employment terms as the manufacturing industry but were largely denied assistance.
Nor would the government harness any of the new money into much-delayed real action on climate change. This was even in the face of a strong public consensus that much more had to be done, and with a far greater sense of urgency. Scott Morrison knows more than the world, or scientists or most Australians about what (little) has to be done. He’s good at pretending that pandering to advisers in the gas industry represents significant new policy. He pretends that targets will be met. He resists what he calls bullying from other nations (including, now, the US) about Australia doing more. He has reinforced Australia’s position as the most obdurate and backward industrialised nation — at marked variance with the scientific consensus, now being regularly chided by our friends (including all English-speaking nations, and Europe) and enemies, including China. It is a matter of national shame, but, seemingly of perverse pride to Morrison and ministers in the government, and the interests for which they speak.
Another opportunity completely squandered over the year involved efforts to reform government and to deal with corruption in politics and at systemic levels of the administration. The problem is not only with the uselessness of the token integrity commission on offer, efforts to disable the watchdogs or the lack of action in dealing with dishonest or incompetent ministers and senior public servants. The biggest problem was from the example from the top down, and the open contempt displayed by Morrison and ministers for basic ethical premises of good government and good stewardship of public money, for transparency, accountability and due process. The clearly unethical behaviour over sports rorts and the contempt for criticism displayed by ministers from the prime minister down is progressively acting as a cancer on good administration.
The disastrous year was rendered worse by a sharp deterioration in relations with China, almost all of which involved contrived and deliberate attempts to provoke it. If at first, it seemed to be anticipating a marked increase in American hostility to China, it became instead a new form of virtue signalling, mostly from folk who had never hitherto had any problem in dealing with ruthless tyrants or clear breaches of human rights. Australia was, apparently, signalling that it would not allow its privileged trading relationship to inhibit it from volunteering criticism of China’s totalitarian ways. In due course, this poking China’s leadership in the eye has provoked selective but widening trade sanctions from China, and increased hostility against Australia. This is likely to do further harm to a relationship worth about ten per cent of GDP — that is, damage greater than that caused by the Coronavirus.
Writing about this last week, I asked about Australia’s calculations. What advantage was hoped for from its wanting to be seen as “standing up for Australia’s interests’’ and refusing to appease China over its human rights record?
A senior and very experienced retired public servant suggested that there was no external aim in view. It was, he suggested, simply a manifestation of the fact that politicians, in talking foreign affairs, focused only on the Australia audience and not on the effect our talk, tough or otherwise, would have on those it criticised. We certainly have a long history of this. But it is not clear that Australians wanted to confront China or to change the relationship, least of all during an economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Nor is it obvious that Australia could benefit from an ideological, trade or a shooting war with China (with or without allies). Even the vested interests, some American-financed, intent on killing the economic relationship are probably outnumbered by the mining and agricultural interests keen on the old status quo. Of course, it’s one thing to suggest that Australia ought to diversify its markets and reduce its dependence on China — it is another to claim that it is in our interests to do so abruptly.
In almost every problem area, (and several others including human rights for refugees, and our surveillance state) the personality and mindset of the prime minister are closely involved, and his fingerprints are all over the policies. But if we have come to know him better from his actions, the moral and ethical vacuum in the middle –as well as the nagging question of what he is on about, and why — becomes more evident. It is said he is very public-relations focused. This is true in terms of his regular deployment of weasel words and spurious announcements. Yet he is deeply secretive by instinct, not given to public introspection or admission of fault, and deeply reluctant to describe any sort of grand plan or vision or to draw threads together. The public has some idea of his obsessions from his actions, but hardly any idea of his philosophy, or abiding set of ideas. Any questioning beyond his very banal platitudes induces a defensiveness about his religion and his right to privacy.
The public has no particular interest in his personal beliefs and morality. Except that is when it affects and guides his public political philosophy and approach to the duties and functions of government. The public might be thought to have an even greater legitimate interest given Morrison’s political and personal associations with broad fundamentalist and Pentecostal sects who have been closely involved in partisan politics in the US, not least for its influence over Trumpism and the notion that Trump had the special endorsement of God.
It would be nice to confine one’s interest to his secular ideas, but as long as he makes it impossible to disentangle them from his religious ones, he cannot complain about curiosity about who he really is. Without such curiosity, I am afraid, Australia is in for another year of busily going nowhere in particular.