Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison’s amazing disappearing government

Small government has long been a mantra of the conservative side of politics. It was famously expressed by Ronald Reagan and then, in more colourful terms, by Barnaby Joyce during his last stint in exile on the backbench.

In a social media post the Christmas before last, Joyce gave the country an insight into why he is now holding his own Coalition government to ransom. He said against a backdrop of a paddock looking more like a dust bowl that no one had to persuade him the climate was changing. “My problem has always been,” he said, “whether you believe new taxes are going to change it back.” Joyce, as we are seeing, doesn’t like new taxes half as much as he likes spending money raised by old ones to look after his big coal backers.

But the clincher was his heartfelt lament: “I just don’t want the government any more in my life. I am sick of the government being in my life.” There are some in his own party, such as Darren Chester, and more than a few in the Liberal Party, such as Jason Falinski and Dave Sharma, who fear the born-again deputy prime minister is doing his utmost to get the government out of all of their lives.

But maybe their fears are unfounded. The prime minister has a more cunning plan, which he unveiled in his first party room pep talk to Coalition members on their return to parliament after a six-week break.

Scott Morrison gave new meaning to “small government”. His approach is more akin to “no government”. There are several prongs to the plan. The most obvious is to leave as much as possible to the states and territories, with a view to blaming them when anything goes wrong and claiming all the credit when things actually work out.

Another key aspect to Morrison’s amazing disappearing government is to explain policy paralysis as being prudent and staying focused, rather than rushing to judgement, which presumably is another word for governing. The prime minister said the previous Labor government was captured by short-term tactics rather than strategy. “If you favour tactics over strategy,” he warned, “you always lose the war.”

The war most of his MPs are worried about is the looming election. Labor leader Anthony Albanese told his party room it could be called for December 11, as soon as the prime minister returns from the Rome G20 meeting and the Glasgow climate summit. He said Labor would be ready and homed in on the net-zero brawl tearing the government apart. Albanese said it was “a colossal failure” on Morrison’s part because he was abrogating his responsibility as prime minister and leaving it to Barnaby Joyce to decide the policy.

Morrison’s frustration is that for all his careful plans his own side is gripped by disunity. He reminded the room there’s always a narrow path to victory and “it requires the discipline of all of us to stay on the path and focus on the things we have to”.

He must be aware that some of the older hands in the Liberal Party wish he would get on with governing, because he countered that the most important thing in politics “is patience to get the right outcomes”. According to the official briefer, the prime minister said “there’s a great temptation in this place to go and chase the next 24 hours”. No less an authority than John Howard had counselled him to focus on results instead.

The result he was explicitly focusing on was not the unresolved struggle to keep his Coalition government together on a commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050; that barely rated a mention. No, the results were Australia’s world-beating vaccination rates, which he claimed he had planned all along. This of course depends on which plan he was talking about: it certainly wasn’t the one hatched in July last year that went up in flames in March, when it was glaringly obvious its target of four million vaccinations by Easter would not be reached. Plan B was put in place then.

In a burst of honesty, Joyce told the party room he thought it was likely to have been “at best a draw”, but now “it’s a win” and something the Coalition can stand behind because “people’s lives have been saved by the actions of the government”.

By any measure, though, it is the states that have led the response to the pandemic. The Commonwealth was dragged to stump up the $70 billion in employment support through the poorly designed JobKeeper program. It was withdrawn earlier this year before New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT were plunged into protracted, brutal lockdowns, precisely because of the Morrison government’s initial failure to supply and deliver vaccines in a timely manner.

There is no doubt the lockdowns became a huge financial incentive for people to get vaccinated. It was the ticket to freedom and a return to fully paid work. The cost of this incentive was $20 billion to $30 billion in scaled-down payments from Canberra. Many businesses, particularly smaller ones, will never return. It was a perverse path to success. Labor’s Mark Butler says in the first phase of the pandemic Australia was up with the best in controlling the virus, but “we ended up the worst developed country on vaccination”.

The fact is the government was too slow securing vaccines last year – lagging about five months behind comparable countries. And by any measure the way in which the prime minister and his health advisers trashed the reputation of AstraZeneca, the one vaccine we had, worsened the crisis. Far from being measured and patient, Morrison had to scramble and belatedly scour the world for the mRNA vaccines he had failed to order enough of in the first place.

In parliament on Tuesday, Morrison sought to deflect attention from the ugly unfinished business of a Coalition climate policy. He ensured that the first question from the government side was about the “national plan to safely reopen” and live with Covid-19. The hope is enough voters will have short memories and agree with Joyce that the runs are on the board now “the states are starting to open up and Christmas is coming”.

Before then, Glasgow is coming. The COP26 climate summit with 100 world leaders attending has been on the calendar since the Abbott government signed up to its 2030 emissions reduction target at the Paris summit six years ago. The Australian states and territories – Liberal and Labor – have risen to the challenge. Morrison is again missing in action.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the host of the summit, along with the presidents of the United States and France, have been vigorously campaigning for nations to sign up to net-zero emission targets by 2050 and at this conference to strengthen their interim targets for 2030 and beyond to mitigate the catastrophic trajectory towards global warming above 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius.

This week the “second party of government”, as the Nationals senate leader Bridget McKenzie refers to her clutch of country politicians, failed to endorse the net-zero target but successfully forced Morrison to abandon any more ambitious targets beyond 26-28 per cent for 2030. They pleaded more time to understand the 900-page proposal Energy Minister Angus Taylor presented them with last week.

On Monday, the Liberal party room, with more regional members than the claimed champions of the bush, supported net zero and Morrison drew praise for reaching a compromise that managed to keep his Coalition government together. But the plaudits may have been premature.

As the week dragged on without agreement the impression strengthened that Morrison was a hostage to the Nationals. His claimed strategy of patience looked increasingly like impotence. But the prime minister insisted any decision would be a decision of cabinet, where he is confident of the overwhelming numbers. Then it got murkier. Senator McKenzie warned that if the prime minister accepts net zero without the approval of the Nationals “it will be ugly”.

Another Nationals cabinet minister, Keith Pitt, went on ABC Radio to disown the science of climate change mitigation as a costly waste of time. All the while, Barnaby Joyce studiously avoided supporting the net-zero target, which up until now he too has attacked.

Further eroding the government’s credibility was the vow of former Resources minister Matt Canavan to never support in parliament any measures towards net zero. Two other Queensland LNP members, sitting as Liberals in Canberra, are also considered extremely shaky in their support for net zero.

In another capitulation, Morrison has abandoned any plan to legislate a road map similar to the British Climate Change Act that Sydney independent Zali Steggall has modelled for her private member’s bill. She cites the British legislation with the stinging rejoinder that any 2050 net zero without a strong interim target is meaningless. Steggall’s bill is strongly supported by regional independents Helen Haines and Rebekha Sharkie.

The Greens, meanwhile, have unveiled a campaign built on research in Liberal metropolitan seats that will capitalise on the shambles. They are fundraising for billboards featuring Joyce holding a lump of coal with the statement, “If you vote Liberal, you get Barnaby. This time vote Greens.”

In this zero-sum game of climate politics, being a do-next-to-nothing government riding on the back of the states looks like a losing strategy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "Morrison’s amazing disappearing government".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.