Labor could beat Morrison with a bit more mongrel

Some observers think that if the Morrison government were to fall apart over the next year, it would more likely be from bad luck, an own goal, or a resumption of internal Liberal bastardries than by a hostile act of the federal Labor Party.

This is a measure of their feeling that neither Labor nor its leader, Anthony Albanese have laid a glove on Morrison since the prime minister showed his cack hand with public empathy during the bushfires a year ago. Morrison took stock after these public relations disasters, absorbed some lessons and has not repeated his obvious mistakes. Moreover, his government responded quickly, and, by world comparisons, very effectively when the coronavirus began spreading. He and his Treasurer Josh Frydenberg junked years of Liberal ideology and dogma about government debt and deficits, borrowed close to a trillion dollars, and spent it fairly effectively in both assisting people displaced by the pandemic, and, later in providing unprecedented incentives to business to invest and employ workers once as the economy got going again. Who can argue against such success in Australia’s greatest social and economic crisis since World War II?

Many Labor folk wonder about the party’s leadership and its strategy in opposition, indeed whether it has a strategy at all. But the Morrison government has a majority in the House of Representatives of only two — and one of these two is a person absent from the house and given a pair by Labor for a reason that is no longer a good one. It seems unlikely that the absent minister, David Coleman, who was granted indefinite leave “for personal reasons” by parliament more than a year ago, will resume his duties. After so long away, it is time that he resigned or retired. It is certainly time Labor withdrew its pair. His marginal seat of Banks in south-west Sydney was traditionally Labor until, in 2013, Coleman won it from Daryl Melham. Morrison would find it a very difficult by-election to fight, not least because it contains unusual numbers of voters whose sense of economic security is not especially favoured by pandemic economic policies.

Labor is not, of course, in the bare minority, but the voting patterns of most independents now favour Labor, and Morrison has been reduced to his bare majority several times recently, in part because his style and arrogance, and unwillingness to respond to questions or criticism have thoroughly alienated them. And on some issues, there are a number of coalition supporters — for example members concerned with the starvation rates of unemployment benefits to which Morrison seems determined to return — who disagree with the PM’s approach, even if it seems doubtful that any would set out to bring the government down.

Yet, as one observer put it this week, both Morrison and many in the media act as though he had a substantial majority able to survive minor revolts. And they have misinterpreted Morrison’s “miracle” win against the odds, and against the predictions of many observers (including me) last year. The miracle was in just scraping home, contrary to expectations of a fairly comfortable Labor majority. That was a substantial achievement, unexpected by many of his colleagues, and one probably earning him the gratitude of folk expecting a period in opposition. But the majority is still very narrow, and the sense of gratitude to Morrison is muted, particularly given his character, personality and style. Morrison may fool some of the wider electorates with an aw-shucks daggy Dad marketing effort; that aura, if it is one, is rarely visible at close quarters.

With or without Albanese, the Labor vote indicated by polling (for what that is worth, still a matter in question) does not suggest any collapse in Labor support. Nor is there any evidence, as some coalition members seem to think, that most of the electorate, especially “outside the Canberra bubble” simply do not care about government integrity issues, consecutive administrative fiascos, including Robo-debt, actual action on climate change and a host of other issues other than the pandemic and the revival of the economy. State premiers rather than the prime minister received most of the political dividend for effective public health action against Covid. Morrison’s incapacity to direct, or even to lead them, emphasises that it will be by the economic response, and its success in reviving the economy by the time of an election, that the Morrison government would most be judged.

Here’s the Christmas break problem that Morrison must contemplate as he ponders ministerial changes, and shifts in political direction. He may well get — may well deserve — credit from the electorate for his overall management of the economy during an unprecedented crisis. Yet the further we move from the crisis, the more it becomes obvious that the responses were coloured by unnecessary but characteristic acts of spite and ideology, with very long lists of people who missed out for no good reason. It cannot be assumed, as some of the Liberal cultural warriors seem to think, that most of the losers were concentrated in inner-city seats, or that the logic of the government’s differential response was logical (or even explained to voters). Labor, under Albanese, is in with a lot more than a chance.

The economic measures were possible because of the government’s abandonment of classic conservative debt and deficit rhetoric, and massive public borrowing. It is argued, quite rightly, that one could not strain too much about a trillion in government debt, particularly because of the historically low price of money. The government judged, probably rightly, that it would have to give enormous incentives to business to encourage them to invest, to go into new forms of business and to employ labour. The handouts are enormous, much of it going to key donors and cronies of the Liberals. But the checks and balances, and public assurance about the probity, transparency and integrity with which that money will be spent are almost completely absent. That would be concerning even in normal circumstances.

But the circumstances were not normal even before the pandemic. This is a government with form over the abuse of public money for partisan purposes, for improper purposes and the transfer of public goods into private hands. The prime minister, in particular, and the Attorney-General who ought to stand for good process, good stewardship and accountability, seem to openly deride the concepts. They show no remorse or embarrassment.

Some opposition figures have been chipping away at such issues, without any great signs of an impact on public opinion, yet. But the chipping away is at reputation. At character. At integrity. About an impression not only of the complete corruption of approach to public money but of a government that doesn’t care about standards, about decency, even about consequences for getting caught out when the music stops. This is a long-term campaign with a lot of potential bites.

It is in this context that some of the running sores of bad government, many bearing the fingerprint of Morrison himself, will add to the weight dragging the government down. The Robo-debt fiasco has neither produced scalps nor even anything in the way of contrition. The idea that the essential scheme was cockeyed and probably illegal was there at the beginning. Contrary to the assertions of Stuart Roberts, the minister standing when the music stopped, the disaster was not a logical development from data matching schemes of previous governments going back to Bob Hawke. It was the extra leavening of bias, malice, inverted onus of proof, major jump of logic and administrative and bureaucratic arrogance that sheets the conception home to Morrison himself.

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

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