Summed up well by Peter Hartcher … and great illustrations!
Arise, Prime Minimal, your country needs you
Political and international editor for The Sydney Morning Herald
October 26, 2019
After winning power on a minimalist platform, Scott Morrison is so far governing on a minimalist program. He seems so intent on the idea that his government is having trouble responding to Australia’s changing realities.
The recurring theme of the Morrison government is the inadequacy of its responses to the big problems. Most prominent in the Parliament have been the inadequacies on drought policy and economic reform.
Is he Australia’s Prime Minimal?
There was much talk after his unexpected election victory of the tremendous “authority” he would wield in his ruling Coalition. If so, he’s certainly not making use of it to develop policy ambitiously.
When called on to do more, on the drought or the economy, the government has developed a standard response – everyone else is “panicking”.
No problem is so important that it can’t be met with a feeble response. Whether it’s a supposed area of Coalition strength such as national security, with ASIO this week pleading for more funds for a second consecutive year as it is “overwhelmed” by an “unprecedented” number of threats to national security.
Panicking, no doubt.
Or it’s an area of perceived Coalition indifference, such as climate change. “Over the past several decades, as the world has increasingly warmed, so has its potential to burn,” NASA reported last month.
Internal Coalition frustrations have started to boil over into public view, which is exactly what happened this week on drought policy when the Nationals broke ranks to demand action on a worsening crisis. A Nationals member of the Coalition was privately scathing, contrasting Morrison’s well-publicised visits to demonstrate concern for farmers on drought-scarred land against the government’s inadequate responses where it counts – in the privacy of the cabinet room. Panic merchants, obviously.
The hotter atmosphere and gathering drought is bigger than farming as water supplies dwindle across the country, in town after town and even in the biggest city. Even with Sydney’s desalination plant already pumping, “dam levels are dropping faster than they have in decades,” according to a spokeswoman for Sydney Water this week, at a rate 50 per cent faster than in the Millennium Drought, she said.
Probably just a panic attack.
Australia’s economy has gone from being a global standout to being just another also-ran. Quite apart from the short-term signs of global problems ahead, for years now Australia’s productivity has been chronically weak and growth rates enfeebled.
*Among many other expert voices, the most authoritative of all, that of the Reserve Bank Governor, is calling on the federal government for economic reform. “The best option,” Philip Lowe said in an interview with the Herald and The Age, is “creating an environment where firms want to innovate, invest, expand and hire people. I think that’s the best option. I’m sure at the analytical level the government would agree. The challenge they have is to develop a program to do that.”
The challenge remains on the table.
Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have made no move to pick it up. Not to worry.
The central bank is probably just having a productivity panic.
Morrison is not responsible for creating the drought, now in its eighth year. Or Australia’s productivity failure, which has been running even longer. Or climate change, which has been gathering force for decades. Or the increased risks to national security.
But he wanted to be prime minister.
That makes him responsible for the responses to all of these problems. They are big problems, immense in some cases, and they are hard. Denial, bluster, talking points and attacks on the opposition will not solve any of them.
*Worse, the government has made a habit of congratulating itself. For what? The masterminds in its backrooms have had the inspired idea of rebadging complacency and denial as “stability and certainty”.*
It’s now the stock phrase recited by every government backbencher reading out a Dorothy Dix question script to a minister in question time. The backbencher invites the minister to boast about the government’s “stability and certainty” in one field or another.
The former Labor senator Doug Cameron once complained that serving in the Labor government was “a bit like having a political lobotomy”. Twenty-somethings in backrooms write talking points and hand them out to elected MPs and senators. Who recite them mindlessly.
Hot tip. It’s not just a Labor phenomenon. “Stability and certainty.” Ten times in a single question time. Was it only Cameron who realised how brain dead they sound? And then they complain that the people have “switched off” politics.
There is a sound argument for deliberation and care, of course, in national policymaking. A government, especially a conservative one, should be cautious about any major change and suspicious of demands for revolutionary reform.
But this government shows troubling signs of going beyond deliberation and into denial.
The more deeply it digs in against demands for action, the harder it makes it to act ultimately when the force of events become irresistible. For example, to deflect Labor’s calls for more fiscal support to support economic demand – by bringing forward planned tax cuts, for example – the government now furiously denounces Labor’s record on fiscal policy.
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Morrison splutters with faux indignation about the Rudd government sending out stimulus cheques to dead people, and so on.
The problem with Labor’s big stimulus program in the global financial crisis of 2009-10 was not that it was imperfect. Of course it was. But it was effective, and helped save Australia from the painful recessions suffered by most other developed countries.
The problem was that Labor, once it started spending to stave off recession, couldn’t stop. It kept spending way too much for way too long. And sent Australia deeper into deficit. The Coalition for most of its time in office, incidentally, was not much better, and continued to run up the national debt until belatedly discovering the high priority of balancing the budget just last year.
*CAAN: QUESTION: Did Labor send Australia deeper into deficit? When in fact in 2013 when Labor lost the Election to the Coalition, Australia was the best economy in the World.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan … saved the country. Australia was the only developed nation not to go into recession during the global financial crisis but the ignoble response from Opposition leaders Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott (who soon replaced him) to the stimulus and borrowing required sowed the seeds for the difficult times the country now faces.
~ Pádraig Collins, Irish economics writer, 2017
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If Morrison continues to carry on, demonising the idea of government action to stave off recession, he will make it much harder for himself to act in the months ahead when a deepening global downturn engulfs Australia.
And the government’s rhetorical line does not assist confidence. The government is right not to declare an economic emergency just now.
It has to project confidence across the economy so that people keep spending and businesses keep investing. But it does need to sound realistic. It does need to reassure the country that it is prepared to act to boost growth in the event of a serious downturn.
*In sum, it has to sound like it knows what it’s doing.
At the moment it sounds shrill and anxious.*
It’s not that the government is doing absolutely nothing. It’s acting in a number of key areas. It’s in the process of enabling three new trade liberalisation deals, one with Indonesia, one with Hong Kong and one with Peru, for example.
And, thanks to Morrison, Australia is belatedly pursuing a Pacific “step up”, discovering the needs of our Pacific Island neighbours after decades of neglect. This means that China’s ambitions to obtain sway over Australia’s strategic hinterland will not go entirely uncontested.
*It did act on its only signature election promise, to hand out tax cuts. And has now legislated one of its lesser promises, its housing affordability policy, however inadequate it may be.
And, after months of goading by the Reserve Bank, Morrison did write to the premiers to offer federal help in bringing forward infrastructure projects that may help to support demand in the economy.
It’s just that, on the big problems that are fast unfolding around it, the government’s responses have been seriously inadequate.
After just half a year since the May election, it’s way too early to write off this government. But, after six years in power, it’s not too much to expect the Coalition to get organised.
If we had no developing problems, the status quo would be fine. A developed country with strong, independent institutions doesn’t have much need of political leadership, as Belgium demonstrated when it went for almost two years without a government in 2010-11.
*But Australia does have big, developing problems and they are not going to solve themselves.
Over the Christmas break the Morrison government has the opportunity to emerge from post-election self-congratulation and into purposeful leadership. Only Morrison can decide whether he’s to be Prime Minister or Prime Minimal.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.