Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
PM under the pump over drought and economy

For Scott Morrison, God obviously votes Liberal – that’s how he explains his “miraculous” win in May. His mother-in-law confirmed on election night the family had all been praying for the result they got. On Tuesday, at the National Prayer Breakfast in Parliament House, the prime minister told the gathered faithful, which included Anthony Albanese, “The only prayers that you can be assured are never answered are the ones that are never prayed.”

Back in July, Morrison told the yearly conference of Pastor Brian Houston’s Hillsong Church that the nation needs more prayer, humility of leadership and to see “what He [God] sees and to move towards that”. He led his fellow Pentecostals in prayer for rain to break the drought.

Three months later those prayers haven’t been answered, and Morrison is increasingly worried the politics of the drought are going badly for the government. Maybe he remembers the old Sunday school adage that “God helps those who help themselves”. It certainly gives cover to the deity but unfortunately leaves certain believers exposed. Morrison told the Coalition party room meeting on Tuesday that metropolitan members need to spread the message the government is neither ignoring the farmers and rural townships nor treating them ungenerously.

One senior government adviser says the feedback from the suburbs is that people are getting the wrong impression from the dramatic pictures of the drought and the heartbreaking stories of struggling farmers and their families on the nightly TV news. It explains why the first thing the prime minister did on his return from his United States visit was to head straight to parched Queensland. Last weekend, he flew to Dungowan in northern New South Wales to announce a $1 billion joint investment program with the state government for “priority large-scale water infrastructure projects”.

The government’s cause isn’t being helped by Alan Jones, one of the country’s more influential broadcasters, with a large audience in regional Queensland and NSW as well as in Sydney and Brisbane. In a bruising interview, Jones pressed the PM on how all these announcements would “feed a cow”. The shock jock lived up to his reputation, not giving Morrison a quarter and demanding – without specifying the cost – a blank cheque for graziers to truck feed and water from interstate to save their breeding stock. It would amount to billions of dollars of aid. One farmer said that feeding his herd costs $30,000 a month. “They need cash now,” Jones railed.

Jones scoffed at the Farm Household Allowance of $250 a week, dismissed the $5 million for rural financial counselling and the $115.8 million that Morrison said “went directly to drought communities”. And when Morrison spoke about the importance of weed eradication, Jones interrupted, “Oh, PM, don’t talk to me. I’m a farmer’s son, you’re not.” That night, the broadcaster cried on his Sky After Dark show, telling viewers, “My old man would be ashamed of me if I didn’t fight.” He said his tears were prompted by his viewing of the afternoon’s question time, where “it was as if the drought didn’t exist”.

When Morrison could get a word in, he told Jones he wanted farmers and communities to get through the drought, “but we can’t kid ourselves that there is a magic wand and a magic cash splash that is going to make this thing totally solved”. He said there are lots of ways to help, “but the government cannot make it rain”.

Labor says the highly critical views of some of Jones’s farmer listeners are typical. Joel Fitzgibbon says farmers know the government isn’t doing as much as it claims. He was delighted when he wrung from Morrison an admission that the Future Drought Fund, touted as a $5 billion pool, will get there “over the course of the decade”. And its first $100 million drawdown next July will go to “water infrastructure resilience projects”. Not one cent of it will go directly to farmers – which is what Fitzgibbon has been saying for weeks. For Fitzgibbon’s pains the prime minister described him as “a dill”. The speaker of the house, Tony Smith, regretted that the discourse wasn’t “a bit better” but ruled it was parliamentary.

Labor is convinced Morrison’s legendary temper and propensity to stretch the truth and deny reality is a major weakness to be exploited. “We’ll keep hammering it right up until the next election and at every opportunity,” says a key Labor strategist. Albanese seized on the weekend press release that had announced the dams’ funding, saying it obscured the fact the government will fund just 25 per cent of the cost, “not the 50-50 investment that he claimed … just 48 hours ago”. “Why won’t the prime minister admit [this]?” he asked. Morrison claimed he had been very clear that the contribution was half grant and half concessional finance. Anyway, he added, it was the states’ responsibility and he was just helping them out.

Climate change is never far from any discussion on drought and Labor did some urgent repositioning after the embarrassment caused by Fitzgibbon the previous week. The shadow agriculture minister hasn’t resiled from his view that the party should match the government’s 2030 target of 26-28 per cent emissions reduction and ditch its 45 per cent goal. As it happens, in parliament the prime minister and Energy Minister Angus Taylor referred to the target as 26 per cent. They appear to be crab-walking away from the slightly higher number. Albanese says Labor will be guided by the science and come to a new figure closer to the next election. His climate spokesman, Mark Butler, rejects the government’s target – whether it is 26 or 28 per cent – as a long way short of delivering its Paris commitments.

In an attempt to reclaim its credibility, Labor served notice that it would move to have the parliament declare a climate emergency. The Greens and the crossbench beat them to the punch and Labor ended up supporting their attempt to bring on the debate. The government ridiculed the idea as a meaningless stunt. But the Greens’ Adam Bandt says they were just three Liberal MPs short of getting the numbers and he will try again. Butler says Labor will, too. He explains it is an important statement not only of intent but of accepting the warnings coming from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He points out the parliaments of Canada, New Zealand and Britain have supported similar motions.

At the prayer breakfast, Morrison said prayer reminds us of “our human frailty and vulnerability”. He added, “We are reminded that the great challenges we face in this world are ones that we need to continue to bring up in prayer.” The International Monetary Fund reminded him midweek that, besides a drought intensified by climate change, the biggest challenge he faces is a dramatically slowing economy.

In its latest World Economic Outlook, the IMF sharply downgraded forecasts for the Australian economy. It slashed its growth forecast for Australia this year by almost 20 per cent – from 2.1 to 1.7 per cent. It is part of a global slowing that has world growth at 3 per cent, the lowest since the global financial crisis of 2008-09. These forecasts are well below those in the May budget and leave our growth rate below that of Spain and Greece.

Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers says these new IMF numbers “really do torpedo what was left of the government’s economic credibility”. He says the forecasts for Australia have been slashed more substantially – “four times bigger” – than for the other advanced economies. The IMF report coincides with the release of the minutes from the Reserve Bank board’s October meeting. The RBA board notes that its stepped cuts in the official cash rate to a historic low of 0.75 per cent have not yet produced evidence of a lift in household spending since the tax or cash-rate cuts.

The IMF echoes the RBA governor’s message that monetary policy alone can’t do the trick. Its report says, “Monetary policy cannot be the only game in town and should be coupled with fiscal support where fiscal space is available.” This is at the cutting edge of the political argument in Australia. “Fiscal space” means spending the budget surplus or going into sustainable debt. Neither option is palatable to the government. The budget surplus is the Holy Grail it will deliver, no matter the collateral damage.

In an extraordinary outburst in parliament, Morrison slammed the Rudd government’s fiscal stimulus, which is universally recognised as saving Australians from the ravages of deep recession at the time of the GFC. He described it as one of Labor’s “reckless policies” that saw “billions upon billions upon billions wasted on overpriced school halls and on pink batts”. He said Labor never learns from its mistakes and the Coalition will not engage in “policies of panic and crisis”.

The most appealing model, apparently, is that of former conservative New Zealand prime minister John Key, who did not follow the Australian Labor government’s fiscal response to the GFC, only to see his country plunge into recession, with rising unemployment and businesses forced to the wall. If this is Morrison’s idea of “stable financial management”, then we all had better start praying.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 19, 2019 as "Vanishing into thin prayer". Subscribe here.

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