Politics

John Hewson
The Peter Dutton principle

While it is still early days, it is becoming clear that the Coalition and their media sycophants didn’t believe they would lose the election. They seem unprepared to move on.

Beyond the immediate disappointment – both individually, for those who lost seats, and collectively, for a party now facing at least three years in opposition – clearly some are soul-searching.

Presumably a few, such as Josh Frydenberg, are wondering why they didn’t run on Scott Morrison last September. There was an opportunity when it became clear his toxicity was eroding the party’s chances of re-election, and while Morrison’s claims of superiority in handling the pandemic and in overall economic and security management were being examined and exposed.

The transition to opposition was made more difficult for the Coalition and their media mates as Labor’s Anthony Albanese arrived much better prepared for government than they had predicted or hoped. Despite the Coalition’s exhaustive scare campaigns, Labor hit the ground running, especially on foreign policy, where they’ve been able to clean up some of the mess created by Morrison’s neglect of key issues and relationships. Albanese has also been delivering on his promises about wages and climate targets, which the Coalition and some complicit media mocked during the campaign.

Many journalists should be hanging their heads in shame, not only for delivering the most biased coverage in the campaign but also for their performance since the election. Several appointed themselves kingmakers in support of Morrison and were hell-bent on influencing the outcome, such as the Sky News monsters and some Nine Entertainment journalists who warned of a takeover by the extreme left wing.

Those journalists are now intent on proving they were right and are working to undermine the Albanese government, hoping to see, or make, it fail. Frankly, it’s just very tedious telly. The obviousness of their errors is so clear now that their desperate scrambling for relevance has cost them all credibility.

There was an awkwardness about the Coalition’s leadership changes, with a lot of revenge and disloyalty. They struggled to pick an effective shadow ministry from a gene pool depleted in terms of both talent and relevant experience. To counter Albanese’s high-powered and experienced ministry, some unproven square pegs were placed in round holes.

The shadow ministry under Peter Dutton lacks relevance. The most noticeable example is shadow treasurer Angus Taylor, who called a press conference to which nobody came. This was a surprise to him and his boundless ego, but not to others concerned about his failures as Energy and Emissions Reduction minister. He had every opportunity to fix each aspect of the energy crisis and now he’s rendered himself pointless. A Rhodes scholar… well, that column on entitlement is for another day.

The National Party had to move on from Barnaby Joyce and his negative contributions to government. They went to the untested David Littleproud, the most aptly named politician in Canberra. Given the Nationals’ record of disruption and disloyalty, their sellout to the fossil-fuel lobbyists and the policy vacuum beyond the aim to secure more dams and slush funds, they indeed have little to be proud of, despite their disproportionate weight in the Coalition.

Our democracy needs a strong and effective opposition. We need an opposition that holds government to account but is also willing to be constructive by contributing to the debate on key policy issues and challenges in our national interest. Perhaps even an opposition that is willing to get out in front with attempts to set the policy agenda. This calls for a willingness to set partisan desires aside and offer genuine co-operation where required for the betterment of our nation and its people.

It is hard to imagine Dutton in this role, given his head-kicking record and his recent media performances. He seems more in the mould of Tony Abbott, whose singular focus was to destroy the Labor government, ignoring the negative effect that would have on our national interests.

The magnitude and urgency of the current policy challenges are the result of neglect and incompetence under the Coalition. Morrison’s government certainly was not God’s gift to the Australian people, as he tried to have us believe. Now they are simply working to ensure the Albanese government is not a success.

The major policies will need constructive bipartisanship to be delivered. The key issues include constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, energy policy, reform of our federation, budget repair, a national integrity commission and the policies necessary for a just and fair transition to a low-carbon country, consistent with our global commitments.

Focus for a moment on constitutional change. Our history tells us that this can be a very difficult process. Since Federation in 1901, there have been 44 proposed changes to the Constitution, across 19 referendums, of which only eight have carried. Indeed, it has been seen as part of the wisdom of our founding citizens who drafted the Constitution that they made it difficult to amend, requiring a “double majority” – a majority of voters and in a majority of states.

Generally it is true that referendums won’t succeed if there is a partisan divide between the two major parties on the issue, especially a nationally divisive one. However, it is worth noting that the most successful referendum in our history was the 1967 vote that empowered the federal government to make laws in respect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to help address inequalities. It was carried with 90 per cent of votes in its favour. Its success is widely attributed to the Freedom Ride led by Charles Perkins in 1965, through towns in regional New South Wales, to raise awareness of the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing.

The recent discussion of the so-called energy crisis has been a national embarrassment. Energy has been neglected for decades and sensible discussion of essential policy initiatives has been prevented as the major parties scored points off each other and generally disagreed for the sake of disagreeing. Lately, the Coalition, assisted by their media mates, have made ridiculous attempts to blame Labor for the mess, generally avoiding a mature factual debate in search of a solution, and thereby constraining, if not completely obstructing, any moves forward.

The dishonesty has been breathtaking. The claims about the reliability of gas and coal-fired power have been ridiculous, along with the suggestion that the push for renewables has helped cause the current mess. The overlay has been the sustained influence of climate deniers, especially in the media, still attempting to defend the indefensible, rather than acknowledge the urgency of the challenge and offer to support effective action.

To create the essential bipartisanship, it is important to work from an agreed set of facts. Albanese may have helped this along by giving some life and substance to the national cabinet, which of course is not a “cabinet” but a variation on the Council of Australian Governments. It was used by Morrison to give himself some relevance in response to the pandemic when the heavy lifting was being done by the states.

Albanese has now created an opportunity to begin a constructive process of reform for our federation, with an agreement to create a once-and-for-all allocation of responsibilities for policy development, implementation and funding. This should minimise, if not eliminate, duplication and put an end to the blame game. It could go one step further towards full bipartisanship by extending a limited invitation to the opposition to join the national cabinet discussions. The group should also strive for agreement on tax and transfer policy reform. The latter will become increasingly important as governments move to address the imperative of budget repair.

Storm clouds are gathering on the economic outlook. A global recession seems inevitable given the recent sharemarket corrections, the historically large losses in bond markets, the collapse of cryptocurrencies, and the biggest fall in United States consumer confidence in 70 years – all in the context of the major central banks raising interest rates, perhaps too rapidly.

In Australia, however, this is a recession we don’t need to have. Strong bipartisan backing of the Treasury and the Reserve Bank in fiscal and monetary management can allow us some alternative.

Unfortunately, here we sit, with Albanese needing bipartisanship to govern as he has committed. He faces an opposition not ready for the job, without a strategy except disagreement and disruption. Peter Dutton and his lot are living in hope, doing whatever they can to ensure that Albanese leads a government of only one term. Our nation deserves better.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "The Peter Dutton principle".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.

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