Morrison, the man with no abiding beliefs, also lacks agenda, map or destination

Dec 23, 2020

Assuming that the Morrison government goes more or less to full term — and some senate obstruction should not be enough to persuade a governor-general, even one in a witness support scheme — to grant an early dissolution — Morrison has probably about 15 months of economic recovery, ordinary economic management, and general steering of the ship of state before he must face the electors.

His recovery results will be heavily influenced by matters now out of his control, such as the future of trade with China, consciously put in jeopardy for no clear reason. For the moment, iron ore prices may overcome, in total value, the losses faced by coal miners (many of the mine owners actually Chinese), wine, fish, and barley, and any other item chosen for impact on the Australian economy and Australian public opinion. But it is China setting the pace, not us.

Quite separate from that is the impact on the world economy, on the United States, and on Australia, of the continuing trade war between China and the US. It is said that President Joe Biden is as hardline on China as Trump, but of a somewhat different style, more focused on negotiation and multilateral channels. All that may be so, but one can be sure that the economic conflict and the “local hegemony” pushing and shoving will be resolved by Chinese and American negotiators in their own interests, and without any regard for Australia’s. Nor should we kid ourselves that the cost of going out of our way to provoke China is being negated by a wave of world sympathy for the way China is said to have been bullying us. Deeds, not words, will matter, and all of our traditional trading competitors will be trying to grab Australian market share.

The pandemic has hit many economies very hard. Even with the availability of vaccines, including ones being distributed free, mostly to the third world, by Russia and China, it may take a long time before trade supply and demand and the movement of money and people between countries is anywhere back to normal. An obvious example from the Australian viewpoint involves air transport and tourist income from overseas. Sooner or later, the Australian recovery is going to bump hard against such considerations, which operate quite independently of our attempts to provoke a war with China or the resolution of the trade war.

 It is by no means clear that Morrison has the currency or the cred with international players to manoeuvre Australia into a position where we can pick the low-hanging fruit of world recovery. Indeed we may have squandered the hard-won advantage of good virus management and an earlier restart by the way we have become involved in unnecessary quarrels.

We are certainly not improving our standing with other countries with our position on climate change, loyally maintained by Morrison to the supposed advantage of some tiny constituencies against strong opposition from the wider electorate. Australia is now an international rogue — almost a pariah at the level of apartheid South Africa — on the matter.

Many of our traditional friends, particularly in Europe, Canada, the Pacific and now the US are looking at us with disdain. Morrison is ignoring the advice of some he regards as friends, such as Boris Johnson. Biden has been a good friend of Australia but has no real relationship with Morrison (or any of his ministers) and plenty of reason to treat them (as Barak Obama did) with a certain disgust. This is not least because of how Morrison tried to associate himself with Donald Trump. If Biden thought about it, and there will be people who remind him, the resentment will extend to Morrison’s association with deeply politicised American cults operating rather more as Trump public action committees than in furtherance of religious beliefs. George Pell apparently to the contrary, God is not a registered Republican, and nor should any Australian PM be.

Morrison learned from both John Howard and later Tony Abbott, a certain type of anti-internationalist rhetoric about Australia making up its own mind about international problems and refusing to be bullied by others. It may serve well, up to a point, with an Australian audience when our leaders are getting lectures on human rights from Libya or dealing with critical commentary from the OECD, under present management, on our lack of meaningful or effective action on climate.  But Australians do not, by and large, have a chip on their shoulder about being citizens of the world, champions of human rights and advocates of collective action to fight common problems, including pandemics.

 It was Morrison, in particular, who ramped up the rhetoric against refugees, and treated them not as people fleeing war and oppression but as invaders, possibly terrorists engaged in intrinsically illegal activity. Liberal ministers have incited hatred against groups of refugees and confected a law and order crisis — one which was, it is to be noted, repudiated by the electorate.

Morrison and Frydenberg (when the former was Treasurer, the other, minister for the environment) were notionally on the side of Malcolm Turnbull when he was trying to coax some (minimal) action on climate change. But Morrison is now personally one of the most reactionary and obstinate ministers on the subject. He is seemingly unable to make any sort of significant shift, and will not if it makes him look bad.

But his obstinacy does not come from philosophical or scientific opinion — he simply ignores the science and the advice coming to his government that are entirely against him. Nor is he doing this simply from a strongly-held opinion (or detached independent external advice). On matters such as these Morrison is pragmatic and conviction-free. If he has any abiding beliefs they cannot be deduced from what he says. Most likely he now recognises the need to move in a significant way but hasn’t yet worked out a marketing trick for making any concessions seem enormous to an outside audience, while minuscule to voters. It’s a hard ask, made more difficult every day. Perhaps he fears that a major move would have a few cross the floor — but to vote with whom?

Morrison acts as though he is on top. But carrying on in the way he does can only make his government more vulnerable. Labor might want to avoid being wedged — on national security for example — but should reflect that hardly any of Morrison’s views or policies are in the national interest.  I cannot think that a smart opposition ought to be assisting him to resolve any of his dilemmas, or helping to smooth the contradictions of his policies. It needs more mongrel, not more understanding, deference and discreet assistance. But a winning opposition must do more than inserting more “nots” in government policy statements. It should be imaging and selling, an altogether fresh view of what Australia and Australians need. It ought to on about an entirely different, yet strangely familiar concept of the role of government, the purpose of government, and the way good government is done. In my lifetime not a single alternative Labor government has won simply by promising not to be like the government.

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