Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Morrison and Albanese set out their plans

Already, the race is on for the next election. Both a jubilant Scott Morrison and a perky Anthony Albanese are off and running. Morrison has set himself the task of winning a fourth term for the Coalition, while Albanese is determined to learn from the wreckage of the unloseable election and keep the focus as much as possible on the government.

Morrison comes to the task with his authority over the Coalition parties enhanced. Even though the seat outcome is practically the same as the 2016 result, when Malcolm Turnbull almost crashed and burned, this time the prime minister’s gravity-defying performance has forced allies and opponents to reassess their views of him.

Morrison’s ability to turn himself into “the opposition leader” in the five-week campaign and make it a referendum on Bill Shorten and Labor’s taxing agenda is something Albanese is resolved to prevent happening again. On Tuesday, during his first fence-mending visit to the Labor wasteland that is the Sunshine State, Albanese spelled it out. He said: “During this campaign we looked like a government in waiting. They looked like an opposition. It is time that the fourth estate held the government to account.” He said the Liberals have just been elected and Labor’s policies “frankly ... are academic at this point of time”.

After the TV cameras left the relieved and euphoric government party room on Tuesday, the prime minister named the 10 extra seats he will target to win in three years’ time, to deliver a more comfortable majority. His rousing speech to the troops, before the media was kicked out, set the pathway. He said: “Here we are, a fresh team. A team that is hungry, a team that is committed, a team that is united in the way we were able to fight on this campaign, to do one simple thing; that is to ensure Australians will be at the centre of our gaze. We will govern with humility; we will govern with compassion. We will govern with strength and we will govern for all Australians.”

The call to arms is noble in intent, but translating it into reality will require as much good luck as good management. One of the Coalition’s more seasoned backbenchers says if there’s a recession within a year, as feared by the Reserve Bank, “we’ll be dead”. Then it won’t matter how protective the Murdoch tabloids are, the failure to deliver a “strong economy” will be impossible to deny, even for as skilled a marketer as Morrison.

And when it comes to marketing, the claim of a “fresh team” is more gloss than fact. But the intent here is to present the government not as a third-term Coalition government but as a first-term Morrison government. If he can pull it off, it makes winning a fourth term a lot easier. Before then, of course, he will have to persuade many on his own side that the “gloat fest” since the stunning election win is dangerous. It is perilous if it encourages ministers and indeed backbenchers to think the result was a complete repudiation of everything Shorten and Labor put up at the election.

Midweek, the Australian Electoral Commission had the Coalition on 51.75 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. Labor was on 48.25 per cent. Looking at it another way, 6.35 million voted for the Liberals and Nationals while 5.92 million voted for Labor. Among the Labor voters were thousands of urban former Liberals in hitherto safe seats who believed the government was in the thrall of the coal lobby and was not doing enough on the climate emergency.

Here, Morrison’s cabinet appointments don’t encourage optimism. He has given Angus Taylor climate change action as well as energy. Besides the fact Taylor is still under a cloud over his involvement in a Cayman Islands-based company that sold valuable water leases back to government, he is also a climate sceptic. He was a relentless campaigner against wind energy. He encouraged the government to use leftover credits from our Kyoto targets to achieve the extremely modest Paris emission reduction targets of 26-28 per cent by 2030, the effect of which would further weaken Australia’s response, given that Kyoto actually allowed us to keep increasing emissions.

All this flies in the face of the considered advice of longtime Liberal “consigliere” Arthur Sinodinos. Last week, he admitted the government “needed to do more” on climate change and this week he has not shied away from his views. He says “it’s always a good strategy to build a big tent if you can, without disappointing your traditional support base; in other words build outwards where possible”. Sir Robert Menzies certainly did that after his near-death experience in 1961, adopting some attractive Labor initiatives to go on and recover a handsome majority at the next election. But whether Morrison “builds outwards” on climate action or merely resorts to glib rebadging will be a test of his salesmanship and his authenticity.

Rather than making his tent bigger, Taylor called on Labor to come inside his smaller teepee, telling The Sydney Morning Herald his opponents should “recognise the will of the people and back the government’s plan”. In the energy space there may be a sliver of difference between him and the reappointed resources minister, Matt Canavan, on support for a new coal-fired power plant in central Queensland. Canavan may be tempted to back the project with taxpayers’ funds, whereas Taylor told a doorstop “it’s a matter for the market”.

Sinodinos’s considered voice will not be heard around the cabinet table. His longtime ambition to be our ambassador in Washington has finally been fulfilled. While this is generally seen as a good appointment – he already has many contacts in the United States capital – it is the loss of a moderate voice in government. Some in the environment movement were hoping he might be given the key portfolio rather than Taylor.

Morrison has won wide praise for his appointment of Ken Wyatt to cabinet. He is the first Aboriginal Australian to be given the portfolio of Indigenous affairs. Key stakeholders have welcomed the move but meeting their expectations may be more than Wyatt or indeed anyone could do. Some are taking heart from Morrison’s participation in the AFL’s Indigenous round anti-racism initiative, when he joined the Long Walk to the MCG last weekend. But his timetable for constitutional recognition is decidedly relaxed and he has not matched Shorten’s more ambitious policies, as Indigenous academic Marcia Langton lamented on ABC TV’s Q&A.

Morrison’s pledge to lead a “compassionate” government will be welcomed by the welfare sector. His new minister for families and social services, Senator Anne Ruston, is in cabinet and has clout as manager of government business in the senate. But her task, if she has the will for it, will be daunting, according to analysis of the April budget by the welfare sector. One of the biggest agencies, Catholic Social Services Australia, is lobbying key senators to split the income tax bills when they come before the senate in July. The fully implemented seven-year plan involving tax cuts for the wealthiest Australians would reduce government revenue by an estimated $95 billion over five years from 2024-25. The Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick says he’s received a submission that spells out shrinking government outlays on a per capita basis in the forward estimates. He is seeking briefings from Treasury and the Reserve Bank.

Albanese seems to be attracted to Shorten’s opposition to stages two and three of the government tax plan, but the new Labor leader has repeated in practically every interview this week that everything is now up for grabs. Again, there are lessons to be learnt from developing too early a comprehensive and “courageous” suite of policies on the premise you will be facing one prime minister – Turnbull in this case – only to find another one turns up. Labor’s opposition to tax cuts for “the top end” had more cachet when you had a PM some cartoonists delighted in drawing with a top hat rather than a baseball cap.

The new Labor leader insists that “all policies when you lose an election, the policies lapse … So we will be defining our proposals on our time line, based upon our values put forward very clearly.” The welfare sector is urging all the non-government players in the senate to ensure the delivery of adequate income and services to the poor and vulnerable before it forgoes $158 billion in revenue.

On the day it was confirmed he would not be challenged for Labor’s top job, Albanese had this message for Scott Morrison: “I’m not Tony Abbott. People want solutions, not arguments. They have conflict fatigue.”

Politics, though, is a conflict business. Bill Shorten performed best when, despite misgivings in his shadow cabinet, he decided to attack the newly installed Abbott government’s budget of broken promises.

Tony Abbott did not let a chaotic Labor government off the hook as easily as Shorten let off the shambolic Liberals. There is more than enough for the latest protagonists to chew over in the race to the next finish line. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "Fresh teams and grand schemes".

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

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