Morrison fiddles while Australia burns

Nov 25, 2019

I had the privilege of serving closely all of the Prime Ministers from Whitlam to Howard. Each of them sought this office because they wanted to pursue a policy agenda they thought would make Australia better. However, the evidence suggests that Scott Morrison is different – his objective is seemingly limited to being there.

According to our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, it is politically incorrect to want to discuss climate change while people are still fighting bush fires and grieving over their losses.

But when will be a good time to discuss climate change and how it is threatening our economy, our habitats, and even life itself? After all, if a bridge carrying a trainload of passengers collapsed, no government would have the temerity to declare that now is not the time to discuss what went wrong. For example, that is why the reasons and the consequences for future policy were immediately open for discussion after the terrible Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Going on his past record, however, the truth is that Morrison never wants to discuss climate change, nor indeed any other issue which might split the Coalition parties.

The net result is that we have a government which is bereft of policies, as was demonstrated when it went to the last election with only two policies: a tax cut and to return the Budget to surplus. In fairness, the tax cut has been delivered, and it will not be for want of trying on the Government’s part, if a sustainable budget surplus proves to be impossible – as I believe to be likely.

Morrison’s answer to any policy question is invariably to turn the conversation to what is wrong with Labor. While, his extraordinarily limited policy agenda for the current Parliament seems to be dominated by issues that are of little concern to most people, such as religious freedom – where there is no problem – the behaviour of an allegedly rogue union in the construction industry, and stopping people from lobbying against more investment in coal when most investors can think of sound commercial reasons for limiting this investment in future.

All the evidence, however, suggests that Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians” want more from their government than ever. While on the other hand, the seeming incapacity of government to deliver the desired outcomes has led to a loss of trust which is undermining our democracy.

Even when Morrison’s Government is forced to respond to a problem, and I mean forced, that response typically represents a reaction to the symptoms of the problem and ignores the causes. For example, he is photographed endlessly with the victims of bush fires and drought handing out cash, but there is no planning for new policies to better prevent and resist droughts and bushfires.

And this resort to cash handouts from a man who never ceases to denigrate what he describes as “Labor’s cash splash” at the time of the Global Financial Crisis. In fact, the GFC really was a potential crisis impacting spending, and quite correctly the Treasury advice was to “go hard, go early and go households”.

On the rare occasions that the Morrison Government is finally forced to recognise a problem its typical response is to reluctantly set up a Royal Commission. So in the last year or so we have had Royal Commissions into the Finance Industry, Aged Care and Disability Services.

In my experience, however, Royal Commissions are usually not what is needed if you want to deal with the causes of a policy problem. Royal Commissions are run by lawyers, who usually have none or only limited knowledge of the policy area. These lawyers can do a very good job exposing bad conduct, and consequently their recommendations typically call for tighter regulation and/or enforcement of regulations.

But the recommendations from a Royal Commission often have little to offer in terms of system design which might improve program effectiveness and equity. This failure to deal with the causes and recommend changes in system design may be why little positive change is achieved after some Royal Commissions, such as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Furthermore, it might be asked whether we really need an expensive and long Royal Commission to expose areas of regulatory failure. It should have been obvious without the Royal Commission that the “light regulatory touch” applied to the finance industry wasn’t working as intended. To take just one example: the incentive structure under which mortgage brokers operated was bound to lead them into conflicted conduct, and that should have been understood at the outset. The truth is that the regulators were asleep at the wheel, and that means so were their political masters in the Government.

Right now, there are a number of areas, in addition to financial services, where the regulatory regime needs tightening, such as:

  • The allocation and policing of water rights by irrigators
  • Safety and quality of buildings, especially high-rise buildings
  • Land clearing
  • Waste management

While it might be argued that many of these regulatory areas are under state jurisdiction, in our federal system, it would help if the national government gave a lead. But we have learnt from experience not to hold our breath waiting for this government.

Instead the Morrison Government says that it wants to remove “unnecessary red tape”, although even here it seems confused with its talk of plans to force the electricity industry to keep coal-fired power stations open.

But the real problem with Scott Morrison is that he is fundamentally uninterested in policy reform. Instead, Morrison lives by slogans and avoids debate.

In principle, he is happy to endorse the conventional conservative wisdom in favour of “trickle-down economics” and the need for productivity reforms, but don’t ask him to elaborate the slogans with some policy details.

For example, Morrison (when he was Treasurer) asked the Productivity Commission to analyse Australia’s productivity performance, the factors affecting that, and the policy changes to improve Australian economic performance. The interesting thing about the Productivity Commission’s (2017) report in response to that reference is that:

1. The Productivity Commission thought the main opportunities for improving the supply-side of the economy were improved public services and governance. On the other hand, recommendations relating to the hardy perennials for reform that the Government and the Business Council keep banging on about – lowering taxes and changing the industrial relations system – were conspicuous by their absence.

2. Nothing has come from the Government in response to this report in the two years since.

Furthermore, the experience of genuine economic reform is that it requires much more open government than this Government has been prepared to embrace. Successful reforms involved considerable community consultation based on the provision of information, often involving public inquiries and/or the provision of a Green Paper indicating the policy options under consideration, before the final provision of a White Paper which sets out the rationale for the policy reforms. This Government, however, has truncated the information that used to be available through regular evaluations of all programs and reporting of program performance.

Unfortunately, the Government’s apparent fear of encouraging a rationale public policy discussion may be the reason why it is so loathe to embrace a good policy process. The result, as an independent review found (see Percy Allan, Pearls & Irritations, 21 November), is that even when this Government does make a policy change it is “still woeful at policy making”.

In sum, the evidence is that Morrison has no policy agenda, and is just hanging on with slogans. Given the poor track record of his government with a stagnant economy, no wage growth, increasing inequality in incomes, the increasing disparities in access to housing, jobs and services, and extraordinary levels of household debt, one can wonder whether the “quiet Australians” will be so undemanding in another three years.

Michael Keating is a former Head of the Departments of Prime Minister & Cabinet, Finance, and Employment & Industrial Relations. He is presently a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University.

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