MUNGO MACCALLUM. Scott Morrison’s cooing of doves.

Jun 2, 2020

 Morrison has finally built a store of political credit through his deft and lucky handling of the COVID-19 crisis and obviously believes that as long as he keeps moving, there is a fair chance that the punters will forgive him for a few mishaps.

Scott Morrison’s press club speech last week was almost drowned out by the rustling of olive branches and the cooing of doves.

If he is to be believed, he is willing, even eager, for everyone to put down the weapons, to lay down his sword and shield down by the riverside and study war no more. A new era of peace will be ushered throughout the economy, through the country, and we will all live happily ever after.

But even at his most evangelical, ScoMo must know that it doesn’t work like that. The distribution of power, the demarcation of rights and responsibilities, are inherently adversarial in their nature; if they weren’t, there would be no need for politics in the first place. At the end of every contest, there has to be a winner and a loser, and while the combatants may shake hands in a civilised manner and declare a temporary armed truce, this will not lead to eternal harmony.

But of course, this does not mean that last week’s initiative is not worth pursuing, and the amenable, but somewhat wary,  acceptance of it by a union movement which has been berated and attacked for years, decades, by the conservatives is encouraging.

However, it is not wise to get over-excited about it.

The commentators have correctly pointed out that this is not like the deal Bob Hawke implemented in 1983, a comprehensive deal in which wage increases were traded off for the social wage, public spending in areas like health, education, infrastructure and welfare. And the differences were far more extensive than the pundits seem to remember.

Morrison is reacting to an emergency, taking advantage of a situation in which some kind of a reset will be inevitable as the economy staggers back to its feet. And he is smart enough to realise that he can use his success in leading an agenda of inclusion – we’re all in this together – is the way to go.

He is, and always has been, a partisan player, a fierce and compromising (and frequently unscrupulous) political warrior of the right. This is why he is trying to shore up his credentials as a good-faith mediator by dropping his union-busting Ensuring Integrity Bill. His direct appeal to the unions, and in particular to the canny but accommodating ACTU secretary Sally McManus, is at least as much about his own self-interest as it is about a desire to produce some kind of industrial utopia.

Hawke, by contrast, was the great negotiator, respected by both sides and chummy with at least some employers – too much so, according to some of his union colleagues. One of his successors, Martin Ferguson, said pointedly that the idea should be not just to settle disputes, but to win them.

But Hawke was always determined to produce an outcome, to be able to walk away with a deal. His modus operandi was to bring the parties together and tell them they would not be leaving the room until they hammered out some kind of agreement. This, essentially, was the way he approached his 1983 summit.

And he had an agenda ready. While Morrison is making a virtue of not offering his own shopping list, Hawke arrived with the guts of his accord already agreed by the unions. Long before he became prime minister, he had gone past the three-word slogan of Recovery, Reconciliation and Reconstruction. He and the highly regarded union leader Bill Kelty had devised the formula which was put to the meeting.

Some of the employers felt they had been ambushed, but they could hardly walk away – although over drinks one group talked about forming an escape committee, and nominated the militant maverick Builders Labourers supremo Norm Gallagher as its president.

And if they attempted flight, Hawke was there to keep them on the job. Even when he was not physically in the chair (and he usually was) his presence, his authority, was all-pervasive.

This won’t happen to Morrison, partly because he will not be there. The four working groups proposed will be serially chaired by the Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter, who will take the fall if the whole idea collapses.

Which it easily may;  having declared universal disarmament, Morrison has thrown away the big sticks and is essentially relying on the goodwill of the protagonists to do the same.  This involves a leap of faith touching in a pentacostalist, but seriously risky for a hardened politician. Morrison may not have a shopping list, but both business and the unions have already prepared recipes of their own. Whether these will admit compromising will be the big question when the exercise wraps up in September.

This will entail something of a headlong rush to produce concrete results in time for the budget in October. The pressure is on,  but there are advantages in the rushed timetable, and Morrison has at least hinted that if consensus, or something like it, cannot be achieved, then his government will reluctantly go it alone, and try to bulldoze what it calls reform through the parliament.

That may well fail too, but he can say that he has tried and if the antagonists refused to co-operate, that is hardly his fault, and he did his best, offering, concessions and conciliation. Now he will just have to revert to his default position of relentless union bashing.

Whether the electorate will buy that is problematical, but Morrison has finally built a store of political credit through his deft and lucky handling of the COVID-19 crisis and obviously believes that as long as he keeps moving, there is a fair chance that the punters will forgive him for a few mishaps.

And if he stumbles, at least he has the wherewithal to buy his way out of trouble. The JobKeeper miscalculation may have been unfortunate, but any innumerate marketer can make a numerical error. And look on the bright side: $60 billion will buy you a shitload of doves and olive branches.

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