JACK WATERFORD.-Even a PM needs time to chill – and think

Dec 24, 2019

Time for detailing how conservative policies could improve the nation

Australians should all hope that Scott Morrison has a good holiday. First with his wife and children. Then some space, before the political season begins again in earnest, probably in February, for some serious thinking about where the government is going and what he hopes to do to secure re-election in  2022. Morrison badly needs a rest from more than two years of non-stop labour. More importantly, Australia needs him to have the time for some serious deliberation about what he is doing.

So strong is the current partisan spirit in Australia, as in Britain and the United States, that there are probably citizens here who would forfeit their own holiday entitlements if the consequence were to deny Morrison his. But even if  Morrison is not their preferred prime minister, Australia has an interest in good government, whichever party has been elected to power. His enemies should not want him, and the Australian national interest, to fail simply so as to allow the opposition to score some points.

Morrison is said to enjoy particular power and authority within the coalition because he snuck home at an election when most of his colleagues thought the coalition would fail. The bonus three years – perhaps more if Morrison gets up some momentum, or if the opposition does not recover from its stumbles – are rather more from him and his doggedness rather than from the assistance, or the cheering, of his colleagues.

He didn’t get much of a mandate, and he hasn’t seemed to have had much of a personal agenda since. His essential argument was that his economic strategy, and his and his government’s economic management skills, were better than those of the opposition. A (fairly narrow) majority of the electorate agreed, and licensed him to carry on, if only because of the skill with which Morrison exploited public doubts about the character of the then Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, and the legend of Labor profligacy in government.

Morrison has, in particular, stuck solidly to a goal of getting the budget back into surplus, even as many observers were arguing that the economy was fragile, and that ambitions for a surplus should be deferred in favour of some pump priming. Morrison also promised continuing infrastructure spending – and has more or less delivered. His July tax cuts do not seem to have delivered much in the way of a spur to the economy, particularly to retail demand or real wage increases.

He has pursued the undoing of some legislation, not least on Medevac. In  February, he plans to return his industrial legislation to the Senate, confident that this time about he has struck a deal with One Nation, whose veto last month seemed to be an unpleasant surprise. He has also made a number of public service changes, including a reduction in government departments, if not of ministers or cabinet ministers. He has weathered some storms on climate change and on energy policy, as well as problems from the non-performing energy minister, but has seemed largely unmoved by public unease or political criticism.

What he has not been showing is evidence of a grand design, a master strategy, or even a vague idea of the destination towards which he is headed. Assume the purity of his intentions about maintaining a surplus, and slowly, if more slowly than originally planned given the sluggishness of the economy, about paying off debt. But the salesman has had little explanation for why he is there, why he has continued to put such energy into marking time, or what it is that he is waiting for before he makes some sort of decisive political move. It is puzzling his own – even making some restive – just as it seems to unnerve, but also energise, the opposition.

It is not as if the silent Australians want a do-nothing government. They may want a lot less political noise and friction, but they also want reassurance, a sense of security (particularly of job security), and a sense that government is alive to and working purposefully on the major problems of the days. It does not want an impression that its representatives are just responding (inadequately )to events — to a drought, or bushfires or the pollution it causes.

The Liberal Party’s own review of its election strategy did not suggest that the magic blueprint for re-election had been found. Rather it showed that Morrison had sneaked through a window of opportunity that was unlikely to be repeated next time about – even assuming that there was a rival voters could not warm to, again.

A successful strategy needs more than a few public relations confections. It must sit within a story that the coalition wants to tell about itself – as the ideal party of enterprise and individualism, as well as, in these days of Trump, Johnson and other successful populists, of economic nationalism, and patriotism. And, given the size of forward commitments on defence capital and physical infrastructure, as well as its open intervention into agricultural and energy markets, it’s a government with only rhetorical commitments to smaller and less intrusive administration. All the more so given Morrison’s own moral conservativism, the predilection of some ministers for authoritarianism and surveillance, and the fondness for engaging in culture wars, simply so as to annoy the cultural left.

And, while Morrison is under no present threat from Peter Dutton, whose ambitions are on hold but not put away, he must be sure that any plan has impeccable conservative pedigree, rather than merely coming from a bottom drawer in the department of finance, some whiz kid of no deep political experience in a minister’s office, or from something abstracted from another political system, such as Trump’s US.

Here are a few possibilities that could feed to the idea that conservatives are supporters of tradition and of the institutions, strongly in favour of social stability and continuity. One can, of course, make out a case that it has been conservatives rather than party moderates, or Labor governments which have most trampled on the institutions in recent years, but, for the purpose of the exercise conservatives need only acknowledge that many of the traditional public and private institutions are in pretty battered shape, having lost moral authority and respect, and a good deal of their traditional force.

Morrison could dedicate himself to a four-apart plan:

  • to rebuild and reinforce public institutions, if without increasing the size of the public sector or its reach into community and family life;
  • to rebuild public infrastructure, including what some call social infrastructure, but also, in partnership with the states many of our physical public assets such as schools, hospitals, jails and so on;
  • to work in partnership with the professions to rebuild some of our most important private institutions, such as the law, medicine, banking and business, and civic institutions, including charities, community organisations and even the churches.
  • And finally, to develop new models of government service delivery, public consultation and involvement, based on ideals of promoting choice, self-reliance and the provision of services as locally as possible. While the achievement of the final aim would seek to incorporate the possibilities of modern communications technology and on-line systems, this would not be at the expense of reducing the interchange between the public administration and the public to interchange from call centres, or centralised agencies far from the citizen or “customer/;client”;.

The British think tank Demos has done some thoughtful work on ideas for improving trust in and respect for government. They are ones that a Conservative government could adopt with ease, especially as it looks for an agenda about a new post-EU Britain. Demos argues that there are really only about two issues that seriously divide Britons – Brexit and immigration (linked, of course). On many other issues, there is not an enormous gap between the major parties.

Demos noted an increasing level of toxicity in public debate, as well as “a new sense of recklessness about the relationship between political campaigns and the facts. …Three and a half years of political warfare over Brexit have created a nagging feeling that the hyperbole of election time might be more than skin deep: that our country is divided from top to bottom – divided and maybe even irreconcilably so … If we are to have any chance of restoring trust between citizens and the institutions which should serve them, and so renew our society’s defences against populism, we need new policies of consensus, not division”.

Demos research suggests that there are six areas of broad consensus on which politicians and the public more or less agree, and where they could work together more constructively. They would be pretty much the same here.

  • Decent jobs in every part of the country. The economy is still unbalanced, and there is broad agreement that  this requires public investment in skills, infrastructure, research and development and business support, weighted towards the areas that need it most; delegating powers to cities and regions, and creating effective partnerships with government and business at national and local level.
  • A healthier nation: We are now living longer lives, but too many of us are not living healthier lives. This means proper funding of hospitals and health care delivery, ensuring it has the staff it needs, strengthening mental health services, and addressing challenges such as obesity and air pollution.
  • Looking after old people and paying for the care they need: Old age too often means low quality care at an exorbitant cost. But old people are entitled to quality care. There is broad agreement that will require a new funding model.
  • Tackling climate change: The climate change emergency is not just a phase: prevent catastrophe is a vital national interest, and we must play our part in the global effort. There is broad agreement that this will require playing an active role in international negotiations, always pushing for the strongest possible measures and whenever possible using our leverage as a major economy and G-7 member. There is also agreement that this will require radically reducing carbon emission caused by our own consumption and production, both for its contribution to global total, and for the weight it will give to our contribution to international negotiations.
  • Improving education and training: The education system needs to revive stalling social mobility and to equip our children and younger people for the fourth industrial revolution now underway. There is agreement that this will require more funding for pupils in early years, childcare, schooling and further education, a greater variety of courses and qualifications, particularly in further and adult education, but throughout the educational system, and more in-work training.
  • Reducing crime: It is no secret that crime is on the rise, online and in the real world, and there is a general consensus that more needs to be done to keep people safe. There is broad agreement that this will require effective strategies for particular problems (such as knife crime, domestic abuse, online harms), more resources for policing, sentencing policy that balances its different objectives and prisons that lower re-offending rates.

Would that we could say that Australia enjoys the type of broad political consensus on the need for climate change action that Britain has. Here, however, the evidence suggests that it is politicians – particularly but not exclusively conservative ones – who are out of step with public opinion. Otherwise, however, I would think that most Australians would be in broad agreement about the general problem, and the sort of solution necessary, even if the extent of a new and bigger crime problem, is more a perception created by politicians and the law enforcement industry than a reality.

Demos points out that the increasing tribalisation of British politics means that party members are often more ideologically extreme than either elected members or the general public.

Relevant to my earlier points about rebuilding our institutions, Demos adds that Britain urgently needs a radical renewal of social infrastructure. “These institutions are vital for maintaining local social bonds – bonds which can help us overcome division. They allow us to mix, share ideas and be exposed to different opinions, cutting across various group divides.

“But successive years of cuts have degraded our parks, libraries and community centres: these must be restored to their former glory. We must go beyond restoration: we need a bold program of extensive new social infrastructure building … on a scale with the local government-led development of our cities in the later half of the nineteenth century, when unprecedented numbers of communal and public building were built.”

The rebuilding of our public bodies embraces more than that, however, just as it involves a good deal more than looking at public service reviews.

It embraces governance reforms focused on transparency and integrity, and the pulling of some institutions away from the rent-seeking interests they have come to serve back to serving the national interest. It involves new systems of public access to and involvement in decision-making. And it involves focused investment in developing professional staff for modern conditions, whether in health and aged care, education, police and emergency services, the armed forces and the public service itself.

Getting government involved in restoring trust and respect for private institutions is not a matter of infiltrating public servants, or placing them under government control. But most of the institutions, whether in the churches, the professions and business have enjoyed certain monopolies or privileges, supposedly in the public interest, and usually on the assumption of disinterested self-regulation. Churches get handsome tax breaks and public subsidies for many of their activities. It’s time to ask whether this carries the social dividend of old. After some of the spectacular scandals – in banking, in aged care, with child abuse and so on – it seems clear that many of the privileges have been abused, that self-regulation failed, and that some of the regulatory watchdogs failed to bark, whether because of limited resources, or because they were not adapted to the modern problems.

Beyond the traditional institutions are new problems caused by transnationals, whether in evading tax or in evading responsibility for their actions because of the way they have structured their local entities. It’s not only an Australian problem. But, as Morrison is finding out, a national government simply cannot wait until an international  consensus develops about accountability and responsibility. That Australia is itself an increasingly irresponsible international citizen – as witnessed by the recent behaviour of Morrison and Angus Taylor at conferences on climate change — only compounds the problem and reduces our moral credit in the bank.

Down the track, Morrison and the Liberals have as great an interest as ordinary Australians in seeing better public administration, trust and systems adapted to the age.  Increasingly government is not working. Old levers are failing. Old rules are being abused. Old common understandings are now forgotten.

The politician who moves to arrest the slide will not only be a statesman (or woman) but also an enduring success.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times


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