Unlike the great Prime Ministers, Scott Morrison will not be remembered for his achievements. Instead, he will be judged by his unwillingness to take responsibility and provide the necessary leadership to adequately respond to the principal challenges facing this nation.
Historically the performance of each Prime Minister has been defined by what they accomplished using the power of their office. We therefore assess the quality of their leadership by their response to the principal policy challenges of their time.
Right now, the two key policy challenges facing Scott Morrison are:
· how best to protect our health and the economy from the Covid19 virus, and
· the need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions to minimise the impact of climate change
This article argues that Morrison’s response to both challenges has been inadequate, representing a failure of leadership.
The Covid response
What is most striking about this government’s response to the Covid pandemic has been the handing over of Commonwealth power to the States. This reverses a long history of increasing national direction of policy on most major issues.
From the outset, Morrison refused to accept the Commonwealth’s responsibility for quarantine. As John Howard, graphically put it: It is the Commonwealth that should be responsible for determining who can come to this country and the circumstances in which they arrive.
But starting with the docking of the Ruby Princess, at the beginning of the pandemic, Morrison has done his best to hand over all responsibility for quarantine to the states.
Thus, when the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney at the outset of the pandemic, it should have been the Commonwealth and not the NSW State government that took responsibility for determining who could disembark and whether they needed to quarantine. But Morrison found it convenient to pass this responsibility to NSW, and he was thus able to escape responsibility for this policy failure – at least in his own mind.
Since then the Commonwealth has continued to refuse to accept its responsibilities for quarantining overseas arrivals. Instead, the States have been forced to house all overseas arrivals in what have proved to be inadequate hotel quarantine facilities. No special purpose quarantine facilities have been provided by the Commonwealth, other than the existing facility in the Northern Territory.
Similarly, the strategy for suppressing the virus has largely been handed over to the States. This strategy depends upon getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible and using lockdowns and contact tracing to suppress any outbreaks of the virus.
Over time, both arms of this strategy have largely passed to the States. The Commonwealth has had an inescapable responsibility for the purchase of sufficient supplies of the vaccine(s), and initially it was in charge of their distribution. But the Commonwealth made a mess of both, and the States have progressively taken over responsibility for getting people vaccinated and the associated decisions about who should be prioritised.
As regards lockdowns – the other element of the suppression strategy – the Commonwealth was initially opposed. Consequently, all such decisions have been made by individual State Governments; often in spite of Commonwealth criticism before they were seen to work.
Now the latest challenge is whether or not and in what circumstance vaccination should become mandatory. Again this is a situation calling for national leadership, but Morrison has given no guidance at all to employers as to whether they can require their employees to be vaccinated.
In the absence of this Commonwealth Government leadership, employers are instead being forced to rely on the legally untested opinions provided by the Workplace Ombudsman. Similarly, it is the States who seem likely to determine the circumstances (if any) where a vaccination passport will be required as a condition of entry to say restaurants, bars and various forms of entertainment.
In the past, however, it would have been expected that the Commonwealth would have played a leading role in achieving a national approach. Indeed, that was a principal function of the former Council of Australian Governments (COAG).
At COAG decisions may have been reached collectively by all governments, nevertheless COAG operated very much under Commonwealth leadership. By comparison, Morrison’s so-called national cabinet appears to be completely leaderless, with individual States going their own way.
As Morrison constantly reiterates his government’s response to the threat of climate change is based on ‘technology not taxes’. However, this is little more than a slogan and is not a policy.
Of course, there is no disagreement that new technologies represent the best way to reduce carbon emissions. But what Australia needs are policies to first encourage this innovation and then the take-up of the resulting new technologies.
This is why economists have insisted that the best policy to encourage the new technologies needed to reduce carbon emissions is to put a price on carbon that reflects its long-run cost to the environment and our way of life. That way the market would provide the necessary incentives as well as determining the most efficient way to achieve this necessary emissions reduction – a policy that most people would have thought would appeal to a Liberal Government.
But given the refusal of this government to contemplate price incentives to reduce carbon emissions, we instead need a plan with targets for when we will reduce carbon emissions. These targets would then provide more certainty to business and householders so that they could invest in new technologies with confidence.
So far, however, the Morrison Government has only given us an aspiration that it hopes to achieve zero carbon emissions in thirty years’ time. Frankly this is pathetic. It is so vague, that it will do little to encourage new technology.
Nor does this aspiration respond to the real need which is to front-load the reduction of emissions. As the recent IPCC Report has laid out, the build-up of carbon emissions is cumulative, and it is the size of the stock of carbon that matters, not when we achieve zero emissions.
Accordingly, Australia needs an ambitious target of at least a 50 per cent reduction in our 2005 carbon emissions by 2030.
Indeed, all other developed countries are already committing to such ambitious targets for lowering their carbon emissions by 2030, precisely because they now know that this is the only way of restricting global warming to 1.50C. Any hotter than this 1.50C increase in global temperatures will be very damaging for the planet and our way of life.
But the usual suspects in the Morrison Government ignore the evidence. They seem determined to prevent Australia joining this international consensus and declaring an ambitious target for 2030, to match that of the other developed economies. And this is notwithstanding the international pressure and the damage to Australia as well as to the rest of the world if we do not play our part in reducing carbon emissions.
Instead, the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, seeks to justify this recalcitrance by arguing that he wants to see the plan for reducing carbon emissions and its cost. This argument should not however be taken seriously.
The lack of a plan is the Government’s fault. Furthermore, while it may not be possible to estimate the cost precisely, this has never been a problem for this government when it comes to its approval of infrastructure projects where far less is at stake. What we do know is that the cost of taking action to reduce carbon emissions quickly is far less than the cost of not taking action.
But faced with this sort of intransigence in his government, Morrison again fails the leadership test. His determination not to set a new intermediate target for carbon-emission reduction by 2030 allows him to duck the issue and avoid a brawl within the government..
Instead, Morrison’s aspiration for zero emissions by 2050 is not much more than a symbol. This vague target will be realised only in thirty years’ time, when he will be long gone. It is therefore a useful distraction that allows him to avoid dealing with a troubling policy issue.
Most people who enter politics typically do so because they have convictions that they want to realise. Certainly, that has been especially true of those who aspire to become Prime Minister. Successful prime ministers have always used the power of their office to pursue what they thought was right and needed to be done.
But Morrison is different. His ambition seems to stop at being there and making as sure as he can that he will continue to be there.
Morrison therefore is most focussed on avoiding controversy, and especially internal controversy within his government. His failure of leadership is probably because he is not committed to any policy outcomes, and his ambition is limited to just remaining there in the top job.