Scott Morrison’s leadership in the Covid-19 War has boosted his popularity, suggesting he will win the next election against Labor. However, such a conclusion would be premature.
While post-war elections are normally won by wartime leaders as Hughes and Chifley did after WWI and WWII, there was a stunning exception in 1945, when Churchill, arguably the greatest wartime leader ever, lost in a landslide.
This is very relevant to Australia today, because, although the Covid-19 War is nowhere near as devastating as World War II, there are uncanny parallels between Australia 2020 and Britain 1945.
Like the ALP now, British Labour supported the Tory Government’s prosecution of the war. Australians have responded as the British did then, accepting the harsh disciplines and hardships imposed on them. Heroic volunteers in both cases demonstrate that there are no limits to compassion and self-sacrifice. Also, Australians are becoming war-weary and looking forward to the day victory is achieved as the British people did in 1939-45,
These similarities are worth examining because they provide lessons for Morrison and Albanese today.
While the 1945 election result was a shock, it should not have been. Having stoically endured unrelenting pain and suffering, including hundreds of thousands dead and injured, the British people were exhausted and, while peace was a massive relief, yearned for much more – a new beginning, with the necessities of life, including health, education and income support underwritten by the government.
The seeds of Churchill’s defeat were sown in 1941 when a Labour Minister in his coalition government appointed a committee to survey Britain’s social insurance and allied services. It produced what became the historic Beveridge Report, whose basic thrust was comprehensive reform that would usher in the Welfare State.
British Labour’s good fortune was that its core values and those underpinning the Beveridge Report were in alignment, but were contrary to Tory beliefs that government expenditure must be affordable. This concern made Churchill’s reaction to the report somewhat dismissive. Labour leader Atlee, however, embraced it wholeheartedly, effectively making the promise of a Welfare State his election manifesto.
Turning to Australia today, Covid-19 War leader, Morrison, is clearly a war hero, But he too faces serious challenges, not the least of which is that the Coalition is hopelessly divided, with strongly-held ideological differences both between and within the Liberals and Nationals.
The much bigger challenge for him, however, is that his response to the crisis has taken the Coalition into territory that is fundamentally at odds with its core beliefs – a minimal role for Government in the economy, championing of the private sector, privatisation, tax cuts for big business and the like. Already, several Government spokespersons are questioning the trade-off between the health of the population and the strength of the economy and are calling for a rapid return to the way things used to be. Many are calling for lowering corporate taxation even more with cuts and constraints on handouts to the unemployed and new poor.
Unfortunately for him, these values are at odds with what the wider community now expects. Having seen how ineffectual market mechanisms were when the crisis hit, it is not going to settle for a return to the underlying insecurity of the old system. It will demand an ongoing role for government, not only to ensure that essential services are maintained, no matter what, but also to provide a genuine safety net underpinning what matters to most Australians – wages, jobs, unemployment benefits, pensions, health, education, housing and other essential services. This is remarkably similar to the caring, sharing Welfare State the British people yearned for in 1945.
Of course Morrison, as Turnbull described him recently, is ‘’a lifelong political operator and control freak”. So, he may well be willing to abandon his professed ideology and adapt to the community’s aspirations. However, the constituency he relies on, including big corporations, the wealthy, the ideologues of the right, all believe in minimal government, including further privatisation of essential services like health, education and even social services and defence, making it impossible for him to deliver the kind of Australia the wider community is crying out for.
For Albanese and Labor, however, their own core values and the current community mood are perfectly aligned. In fact, the Welfare State is a reasonable description of the reforms that Whitlam made after his historic “It’s Time” election victory in 1972, which Hawke and Keating later enhanced.
Of course, much of what they did was overturned by Coalition Governments, primarily under Howard, but also under Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison, with their extreme right-wing still clamouring for them to go further. This is diametrically out of step with current aspirations of the Australian people. So, however much Morrison might want to meet the community’s desires for more government intervention, his hands will always be tied behind his back. The Churchill precedent in 1945 comes to mind. He could never have delivered the Welfare State.
Albanese, on the other hand, is in the happy position of Attlee, because his and his party’s core beliefs and community sentiments are perfectly aligned, giving him a unique opportunity to seize the agenda. He and Labor can deliver as Attlee and British Labour did from 1945 onwards. This will require a change from the low key ‘style he seems to prefer, to something far more aggressive and adversarial, without abandoning his support for the Government’s response. He will need to present a grand comprehensive vision of a rejuvenated, independent Australia that lifts the spirits of a tired electorate as Gough did in 1972 – under the banner ‘’It’s Time Mark II”, perhaps!
It’s there for either side to win. The big question is will Albanese seize the moment and do an Atlee? Because Morrison and the Coalition are as ideologically constrained as Churchill and the Tories were in 1945!
Neville J Roach AO Former Chairman of Australian Government’s Business (Migration) Advisory Panel