Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Scott Morrison’s trust pitch

Seventeen days out from the 2007 election, the Reserve Bank raised interest rates. It was the final blow for John Howard’s re-election hopes – a time bomb he himself had set in the 2004 election campaign.

And make no mistake, Scott Morrison set his own bomb in 2019 when he ridiculed electric vehicles and claimed Labor’s Bill Shorten wanted to ruin the weekend. It exploded spectacularly this week.

Howard in 2004, like Morrison now, had a trust deficit problem. The then Liberal prime minister was finally pinged by a senate inquiry for lying about asylum seekers throwing their children overboard in a desperate attempt to force the Australian Navy to rescue them.

The day he announced the election, Howard turned the trust question on Labor by rhetorically asking, “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low?” The gaze of voters was turned away from a “mean and tricky” prime minister to the lucky coincidence that interest rates under the Liberals were lower than they had been in the Hawke–Keating years.

After the election, and during the following three years, with the economy powering along, the Reserve Bank began raising interest rates to put the brakes on surging inflation. Its sixth rise on the eve of the election outraged then treasurer Peter Costello but the bank’s governor, Glenn Stevens, was unapologetic. He judged that the real-world situation took precedence over party political convenience.

The parallels are hard to miss. Morrison, like Howard, has made no secret of his determination to turn the election into a referendum on who people can most trust to run the economy, secure in the knowledge that come next May the country should be humming along.

On Monday, the last day this year that Morrison was able to call a December election, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg opened the election campaign batting for next year. The most likely date now is May 21 after an April budget sets the scene for another election-buying exercise.

In an effusive opinion piece in The Australian, Frydenberg cited a list of impressive numbers showing a speedy recovery from the pandemic-induced recession. He did not mention rising interest rates, chronic housing unaffordability and continuing weak wages growth – all issues knocking the shine off the macro-economic results.

However, the prime minister and the treasurer are well aware that the good ship Morrison has some very big barnacles on it that need to be urgently scraped off. The biggest, of course, is its legacy after eight-and-a-half years in government of climate vandalism. So while the treasurer was delighting in his abacus, Morrison hit the road spruiking a “green hydrogen” future to the workers of Newcastle, a city that boasts the world’s biggest coal port.

Never mind that three years earlier Morrison had lampooned as “pie in the sky” Labor’s promise to allocate $1.1 billion to develop the hydrogen industry and build on the LAVO hydrogen battery technology. He announced a piffling million dollars for more research and, with a grin a kilometre wide under his hard hat, was taken for a ride in a hydrogen battery vehicle.

But it was the next day in Altona, Victoria, that the prime minister had his John Howard moment. His new-found love of low- and no-emission vehicles provided the first of six picture opportunities of the day. In this one he refuelled a bright red Toyota hydrogen car.

The successful scare campaign of the last election came back to haunt him. After another of his seemingly interminable word salads, the first question was how he could “honestly spruik electric vehicles” when he campaigned against them in the last election. He denied point blank that he had. He accused the press pack of peddling a “Labor lie” against him and mischaracterised Bill Shorten’s policy as mandating what cars people should drive. It was so blatant it was breathtaking. TV news bulletins that night dug out their vision of Morrison saying how an electric vehicle “was not going to tow your trailer”, “tow your boat” or “get you to your favourite camping spot with your family”.

Maybe it would be tolerable if the conversion to electric cars and the target of getting to net zero by 2050 was matched with a suite of real policies and not window-dressing that ignores the imperative of joining the rest of the world in attempting to halve global emissions by 2030 to avoid catastrophic global warming.

Midweek, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Australia was ranked last in an evaluation of about 60 countries’ efforts. The climate change performance index, compiled by consulting experts in individual countries, also scored Australia last for climate policy. We were the only country to score zero in that category.

The environment minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, John Gummer, Lord Deben, told RN Breakfast that Australia was putting other people’s lives at risk through its failure to get serious about climate change action now. He said Morrison’s address to the conference was “just words” and “you can’t go forward without signing up to eliminating coal”.

Lord Deben, who is now chairman of Britain’s independent committee on climate change, warned that other countries that were taking action would not tolerate Australia being a laggard and this posed a threat to our exports. He said the British–Australia free-trade deal was “under huge pressure because we don’t see why we should import things from Australia unless Australia meets the same standards”.

There is evidence in the latest Essential poll that it is not only other countries that are unimpressed with the Morrison government and the prime minister’s performance at Glasgow. His approval has plummeted 17 points since February this year, to 48 per cent. The poll found 43 per cent thought it was more important to set ambitious targets for 2030 beyond the 26-28 per cent unchanged since Paris in 2015. Significantly, 33 per cent of Coalition voters support that proposition.

The findings come as no surprise to the Labor Party. Research in the Melbourne seat of Higgins, held by the Liberals’ Katie Allen, has the seat on a 50-50 knife edge. Morrison will be hoping that his picture opportunity having a haircut at a barber in the electorate isn’t a harbinger of what might happen to him at the election. Climate change is a significant issue for the voters there. Allen and other urban Liberals have pushed back against the Nationals in favour of climate action with only limited success.

Melbourne Labor backbencher Josh Burns sees a real opportunity for Anthony Albanese to capitalise on what is happening. He believes people are looking to Labor for leadership – certainly, the Newspoll has put it in a winning position for most of this year. He says there is a chance for Labor to be bolder and develop a climate response beyond what is possible for the climate-conflicted Coalition government.

Burns has called for Labor to have stronger 2030 targets than Morrison’s commitments. He is unwilling to nominate how strong, but the fact is the Business Council has given cover by arguing for a 46-50 per cent cut by 2030.

Liberal voters in Higgins and similar electorates in Sydney and Brisbane will not automatically accept any response from Morrison damning more serious ambition as economy-wrecking. That scare was useful for the past eight years, but the world has drained it of whatever credibility it ever had. Indeed, the opposite is true. Frydenberg has been spelling that out in terms of access to international investment and credit.

Anthony Albanese’s brains trust is acutely aware of the fact that despite Labor’s lead in the polls, an unlosable momentum has not been established. “This is not like the lead-up to 2007,” one told me. Labor is yet to settle on a target but the argument for being bolder is gaining traction. No one wins the next election by fighting the last one. This is true of Morrison, but equally true of Albanese.

The Essential poll may calm Labor nerves and further spook the Liberals, with a significant finding that 45 per cent of Australians think it’s time to give someone else a go. Only 34 per cent thought the Coalition deserves to be re-elected.

Lord Deben would find it hard to disagree with Albanese when he says “this government isn’t up to the task of governing Australia in this century”. It may well be that an electric car ride out of The Lodge awaits Morrison. Who would have thought a key argument winning the last election would undermine him so badly at this one?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "In plod we trust".

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