MICHAEL KEATING. Scott Morrison’s Policy Agenda

Feb 4, 2020

As is frequently observed, Scott Morrison’s Government has a remarkably thin policy agenda. This article explores why this lack of ambition – indeed resistance to change – makes perfect sense from Morrison’s point of view.  

Much to the surprise of most of the pundits Morrison won the last election. The basis for Morrison success, however, was not really a miracle – it was his appreciation of the changing nature of the Australian electorate.

As I argued in a previous article, “Australia’s Political Fault lines” (Pearls and Irritations, 13 Nov. 2019), the fault lines which create the framework within which political debate occurs in Australia, have changed over the last few decades. Instead of the traditional political divide between labour and capital that historically defined our two main political parties, there is now a much wider diversity of interests.

Today that traditional divide between labour and capital is being over-lapped by other political fault lines between:

· Educated and knowledge rich voters and those who are knowledge poor

· Those who feel secure and embrace change and those who feel threatened by change

· Those whose material demands are largely satisfied and whose post-material values are built around quality-of-life issues, and those who are struggling to achieve their material aspirations.

· Those who want maximum freedom for the individual to pursue their own interests and those who desire a society where communities are encouraged to cooperate together and enhance social capital.

In my view, this much greater diversity of political values and interests make the task of achieving the necessary consensus for a reform program much more difficult.

First, this differentiation of political values has led to the emergence of more political parties (such as the Greens and One Nation). Alternatively others have felt that they can better achieve their political goals by engaging with one of the many interest groups and social movements which have emerged in response to the greater diversity of values and interests. While many other individuals have mixed positions, being most influenced by particular values, or sets of values, according to the issue.

A critical feature of this lack of consistency or pattern to the variety of overlapping values is that it makes it much more difficult for governments today to develop a consensus around a coherent set of policies that will gain majority support. Furthermore, very often single-issue interest groups don’t want to compromise and/or have little authority to negotiate with Governments (for example: remember the Rudd Government’s experience in trying to negotiate an emissions trading scheme).

Second, many of the problems that Governments are now being asked to solve are intractable. Issues such as the environment, or moral issues such as abortion and marriage equality, involve significant clashes of values where a negotiated settlement between the different partisans is extremely difficult – quite different from the negotiated settlement between labour and capital that, as Paul Kelly showed, provided the framework for the first eighty years of Australian economic policy.

This trend to an increasing diversity of political values, often initiated by quality-of-life issues and popular reaction to them, is of course not especially new – indeed, Gough Whitlam recognised its beginnings half a century ago. However, the gathering strength of this increasing diversity of values has led over time to a regrouping of the support bases for the different political parties, and especially the two major parties.

Today, the Labor Party no longer has the exclusive loyalty of the working class. Instead, its support base increasingly comes from what I will call “post-materialists” who are confident that they will be able to meet their material aspirations and are concerned about quality-of-life issues. This support-base tends to be younger and/or better educated, less trustful and deferential to authority, and values liberal pluralism. These people are typically secure in their jobs and are happy to embrace change.

By contrast, ever since John Howard targeted and gained the support of “tradies”, the Liberal Party has increasingly attracted the support of those who are struggling to meet their material aspirations, and who feel less secure, both in their jobs but also more generally, and who oppose change. Often these people respond to what they see as a loss of security and status by embracing nativism and are attracted by strong leaders. Typically they are unquestionably loyal to inherited values, and can be hostile to pluralism, viewing it as another challenge to inherited values. They also mistrust experts, especially when that advice clashes with their inherited beliefs and traditional way of life.

This gradual regrouping of the support bases of our major political parties and the increasing difficulty in forging a majority consensus around reform proposals has, of course, not prevented various governments from successfully pursuing reform agendas in the past.

However, as Stephen Bell and I show in our book, Fair Share, over the last couple of decades technological change has impacted on the distribution of income and job security, particularly those who are less skilled and educated. Furthermore, we then show how this increased inequality has resulted in economic stagnation since the Global Financial Crisis.

Not surprisingly therefore the resistance to change (of any kind) has now increased, both here in Australia, but even more in the US, the UK and many European countries whose economies have also stagnated and inequality has markedly worsened.

My argument is that Morrison won the last election because (like Trump) he appealed to these people who feel that they have lost security and status, and who therefore oppose change. Morrison offers reassurance to this group of voters, who feel themselves threatened by change, partly because of his style, but also because of his resistance to new policy reforms.

Indeed, even when circumstances force Morrison to act – and I mean “force” – Morrison confines himself to what he calls “practical stuff” which usually involves throwing more money at the problem.

We should not be surprised therefore that it has taken a catastrophic drought and bushfires before the Morrison Government very belatedly even considered a response to climate change. The Government’s support base wasn’t interested, although the bushfires may have changed that for the moment at least.

But even this response is minimal with no real plan to mitigate future climate change in the time required. Instead, Morrison proposes to spend another couple of billion dollars on power generation, but there is no significant change in policy – indeed, all the additional funding is through existing government programs.

Real policy reform to mitigate climate change would change incentives and behaviour, and thus the need to spend so much more. But that sort of policy change would mean rejecting the status quo and thus risk Morrison’s support base.

Similarly, the Morrison Government has no real policy to better prepare Australia for the likely increasing frequency of both droughts and bushfires. Instead, Morrison is focussed on photo opportunities and handouts.

Equally significant, the Morrison Government has avoided any substantial program of economic reform, as by definition that again would involve change and risk upsetting the Government’s constituency. Thus, problems like housing affordability are ignored – his supporters mostly own their own homes already. The use of pricing to help resolve problems like the allocation of water rights and traffic congestion are also off the agenda because that also would represent too radical a policy change.

Finally, the Morrison Government has no real plan to combat the economic stagnation that Australia has been experiencing over the last five years. Instead, the Government continues to claim that the Australian economy is very resilient, and when it is obvious – as it will be – that they have failed to meet their Budget forecasts, you can bet they will blame overseas headwinds and accept no responsibility themselves.

As the Reserve Bank has repeatedly pointed out, however, the critical factor undermining economic growth in this country is wage stagnation and resolving this problem will require more fundamental reforms than this Government has ever contemplated. In the end the Government might well find itself having to raise more revenue, but this is off the agenda as it would mean a radical change in policy, and thus risk upsetting confidence of the Government’s core constituency in its capability.

In sum, the Morrison Government’s political strategy is to offer reassurance to its core constituency which is largely resistant to change. That reassurance therefore comes principally by maintaining the status quo, while the Government presents itself as the most competent manager and avoids radical policy reforms.

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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