MUNGO MACCALLUM.- Delivering on threadbare policies.

Dec 16, 2019

And so ScoMo’s annus miraculous staggers to an end, with the promise that the next one will be the year of delivery, the one that produces the outcomes which will make all the dithering, procrastination and avoidance of issues all worthwhile.

2019 may not have been a series of unalloyed triumphs, but hey, think of it not as the start of a third term of a jaded and worn out government of muppets, but a fresh first term with Scott Morrison phoenixed from his previous leaders to offer – well, what?

Clearly not a lot in the way of policy, which Morrison apparently regards as some kind of socialist distraction from the real business of government, which is, it now seems, reinforcing and bulletproofing his personal bubble, which The Australian has now christened his network of influence.

The last time this phrase was used was when the Melbourne Age accused the Labor attorney-general turned high court judge Lionel Murphy of dubious and perhaps even corrupt misbehaviour to look after some of his shonky mates and maybe The Australian is, for once, on to something.

Because it is now clear that our Prime Minister is determined to enshrine croneyism as the centrepiece of his administration. Dissenters, whether institutions or individuals, are to be frozen out, while supporters and sycophants are to be embraced and feted. If you have a go, you get a go.

Of course all governments, all prime ministers, have their own republican guard of trusted advisers, but few rely on them exclusively – they are supposed to be the defensive rearguard, not the front line. And it helps if they are competent. Morrison mates, by and large, do not have a good track record.

Interring them in the bubble may be a source of comfort, but is unlikely to produce useful results – or, in the end, even the political outcomes Morrison is presumably hoping for, simply because his coterie of yes men, women and androids are just not on the same page as most of the voters.

The key principles, to give them a status they hardly deserve, which govern the ethos of the ScoMo bubble are largely negatives: avoid any serious action about climate change (indeed, do not even talk about it, it is never the right time); lock in the obsession with a budget surplus in spite of all the evidence and advice that what is needed is stimulus, not some ideology of fiscal consolidation; resist any suggestion of bipartisanship from the Labor Party, apparently simply because the National Rifle Association’s handbook insists on kneejerk attack at all costs – never apologise, never explain; and crucially invoke the magic formula of national security to prevent the public’s right to know what is going on.

This is the essence of the bubble: it is based purely about us versus them – them being all but ScoMo’s privileged elite. So although Morrison thinks he is cementing his own authority, it hardly extends beyond the fragile film he has constructed around his vulnerable ego. If you are going to surround yourself with those content to grovel, you are unlikely to convince the masses that you have their (our) interests as a priority.

Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, saw the importance of implementing her own network of influence, but it extended a long way past her personal bubble. At one stage she told her followers that the whole point of government was to secure the active collaboration of what she called the 60 people around the country who really ran the place, who would keep her legacy alive, preserving the culture of Thatcherism long after she had left active politics.

They may not have always been her disciples, but they could be persuaded, with carrots, sticks and if necessary mass hypnosis, to sign into her agenda – or at least not to oppose it. But the point was that these 60 were the ones who mattered.

The line up provided breathlessly by The Australian over the last couple of weeks includes a raft of nonentities who have little to do with real influence, and everything to do with acquiescence. And more importantly, many of those who actually make the decisions in Australia publicly eschew the bubble, some actively criticising it and even working against it.

And of course others will join them, simply because they will be miffed at not being invited into ScoMo’s mad hatter’s tea party. Morrison obviously thinks this is not a problem, but all this shows is that his tin ear remains very tinny indeed.

The great public service purge of last week is a prime example. It was not the biggest shake-up of the bureaucracy since the Hawke years; John Howard’s night of the long knives, in which he sacked a full third of the permanent heads in 1996 remains the dismal benchmark.

But it was almost certainly the most ill-considered. The idea that you merge departments but leave their ministers intact is surely delusional. In the past there have been super departments – defence was a good example. Originally it comprised a senior overarching department and its minister, with junior ministers overseeing portfolios of army, navy and air. But when these were consolidated, the junior ministers moved on or out as was required of them.

Morrison says that his super departments will retain all their old ministers, and on an equal footing – with the certainty of bickering, unease and general divisiveness. Trying to amalgamate agriculture and environment, for instance, was always going to be a hard ask,, but with two seriously ambitious ministers who are not even in the same party vying for supremacy trouble is all but certain.

However, back in the bubble, Morrison rules – so by definition, if (when) something goes wrong, it cannot be his fault, and there will certainly be no one game to tell him if it is – until the bubble bursts, its network of effluence spilling all over the place as the electorate decides that staying quiet is not quite the answer they were looking for.

And perhaps ScoMo , as he is finally forced into the open air, bereft of his protective membrane, is not either.

(Welcome back to Mungo who has not been well. John Menadue)


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