What has Australia gained from the crisis the pandemic represented?

Jun 29, 2021

This time last year, I was arguing that Morrison would be judged at the next election not by his success in managing the pandemic, but by his success in reviving the economy. I think it is largely his fault that he is now about six months behind schedule in leading Australia out of the pandemic, and that this has reduced his political opportunities. Had he done as well as, say, Israel or Spain in organising vaccines – and he could have – he could be thinking of an election towards the end of this year. It looks as if he must now look to the first half of next year.

But that’s not to say that the state of the economy is not working his way, and right now. There are still pockets of unemployment, and regional dislocations because of the pandemic. But the economy is now bigger than it was before the pandemic, unemployment is down and even in local economies which suffered more than most from lockdowns and lockups, business and consumer confidence is high, and interest rates remain low.

And unless there is a big fall in iron-ore demand, it appears Australia has weathered most of the Chinese embargoes. “Free trade” with Britain will have almost no impact on that, but Australia is well poised to jump on any extra buses caused by rising global economic growth.

If Albanese allows the next election to be about the economic outlook, he will lose, and probably badly. If he allows the election to be a mere rehearsal of settled Labor policy contrasted with Morrison’s general optimism about the future, he will lose, and in the same manner, and for many of the same reasons that Bill Shorten lost an almost unlosable election two years ago.

Labor, indeed, may be even more vulnerable this time around to rally to different sets of voters about climate change, the future of coal, and the future of blue-collar jobs. Even where skilled Labor campaigning could achieve some cut-through – for example with social housing programs and cutting the price of access to the housing market for young couples, Labor remains vulnerable to coalition scare campaigns suggesting that house prices – for those already settled – will fall or face additional taxes. It’s traditional wisdom that Labor can’t win elections when the economy is the issue; it ought to be equally traditional wisdom that voters will choose Labor only in crisis, or where they trust the Labor leadership’s instincts.

It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s what a good economy is for

But Labor need not be glum, if only because of the government’s own goals and vulnerabilities. Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have spent billions fostering an economic recovery. In doing so, they junked 50 years of neoliberal ideology on debt and deficits. Yet their ideological prejudices prevented a focusing of spending on new jobs for a new century. Most of the subsidies went to old jobs and declining industries.

Some opportunities – particularly about reskilling the workforce, improving the quality of education, and reforming health care and better integrating it with aged care, childcare, disability services and hospital reinvestment were consciously avoided. Ideology made government give almost all new spending to the private sector, with continuing restraints on the public sector.

At the same time, corrupted government ideas about log-rolling, rorting, looking after cronies and party donors have deformed proper public administration and accountability for proper spending. Morrison is not so vulnerable to nit-picking, point-scoring on particular programs, or shouts of triumphs as yet another silly idea gains traction. It should have a general critique of how Morrison has been taking the public for granted and has diverted public funds to private interests, including his own. It’s a pattern that is accentuated by Morrison’s personality, resistance to accountability, chronic secretiveness, and refusal to admit fault.

If Morrison is almost compulsive in refusing to describe his vision for a better (and less polluting) Australia, Albanese must fill the void. Not by mere announcements, and ever-expanding promises, but by locating what he does promise, and what he does say, within the framework of a vision of a new economy, a new sense of citizenship and a new understanding of what Australian society, the Australian economy, and our place in the world could do for local communities, the nation as a whole and for our neighbours.

It’s not a matter of a slick new speechwriter – Albanese’s gruff doggedness would do if he could get the content right. It’s not a matter of marketing and empty slogans – it should be a retreat from too much of that. If Albanese cannot persuade the electorate that he is a better and more decent man than Morrison, he deserves to lose.

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