Opinion

Richard Denniss
Scott Morrison is stuck

Scott Morrison has an answer for everything and a solution for nothing. Like the neoliberalism of which his party was once so proud, he is all promise and no delivery. His press conferences have long been a masterclass in dictating the terms of debates, dodging accountability and delivering attacks on his rivals. But now that the public expects him to actually secure their health and their jobs, the limits of his tricks and the cracks in the Coalition’s faith in “market forces” are beginning to define him and his government.

After quibbling with Pfizer about the price of vaccine, the Morrison government failed to start the rollout on time. As a result, the prime minister now loudly supports lockdowns – the only alternative to taking responsibility for the fact aged-care workers remain unvaccinated.

The mistakes aren’t just his. Peter Dutton couldn’t book a flight to Afghanistan in time to help those who helped us. Greg Hunt’s COVIDSafe app is yet to make anyone safe. And the promised anti-corruption watchdog, like Josh Frydenberg’s fabled budget surplus, is nowhere to be seen. The Morrison government has simply failed to deliver.

Failure doesn’t usually faze Morrison. The plan was to bury the past under a mountain of new policy promises and political attacks – to shift the debate, the blame and the goalposts ahead of the next election. But with Covid-19 cases rising and the economy shrinking it’s become impossible for him to distract from his to do list.

Voters want him to complete the things he started, and he doesn’t like it.

Scott Morrison and his cabinet aren’t stupid. There is a clear strategy and a cruel calculus at the heart of their decision-making. They’ve won three elections, passed the most expensive tax cuts in history and spent hundreds of billions on a stimulus package that boosted Gerry Harvey’s profits and busted public universities. It’s impossible to accidentally deliver money that accurately.

What then are the priorities and principles that guide his government? He’s clearly no ideologue; but no prime minister in the past 25 years really was. He has no big policy goals; but that has been a strength not a weakness, as was his lack of determination to deliver anything for the nation beyond his own ascent. Until now.

Morrison’s political strategy has always revolved around perception not policy. The great marketer knows the safest way to sell the sizzle is for someone else to cook the sausages. But a population that’s hungry for health and economic security simply will not settle for his spin. They actually want him to deliver success or take responsibility for failure. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We were supposed to be talking about tax cuts by now.

The fact that the Coalition lacks a clear ideology doesn’t mean that they lack a clear internal strategy. Apple doesn’t have an ideology; but the company does have a strategy for promoting its brand, undermining rivals and making lots of money. Likewise, Morrison didn’t need an ideology to know which friends he had to keep loyal, which enemies he needed to buy off, which voters he needed to win over, and which he could leave behind.

Morrison knows that offending some voters is the easiest way to simultaneously ensure the loyalty of his backbench and win the support of the swinging voters he needs. He also knows that people can’t vote against you twice, which is why he doesn’t care about criticism from the university sector; he knows he has already lost most of those votes due to his position on climate change, and he knows that criticism from such “elites” won’t prevent him winning votes from those on whom he is focused. Morrison isn’t just immune to criticism from some groups; he actively courts it.

But it’s hard to play identity politics when people won’t stop asking where their vaccine is, how long the lockdowns will last and why they can’t get JobKeeper anymore. It’s hard to shift the blame onto the premiers when they have better access to the media than you. And it’s hard to make everything about Labor when they keep reminding everyone that the prime minister failed in his two tasks: quarantine and vaccine supply.

It’s even harder to play identity politics when the real job of governing gets in the way of the fun job of politicking. Morrison knows he must support lockdowns, vaccines and enormous public spending to avoid catastrophe. But trumpeting his support for these measures has drowned out the dog whistle he’s been using for a motley crew of anti-vaxxers, QAnon conspiracists, ultra-libertarian anarchists and free marketeers. Morrison’s careful strategy of courting the extremes while playing to the middle has been mugged by the reality of Gladys Berejiklian’s failure to control Covid-19 via non-lockdown means.

The government’s inability to move on from the enormous tasks at hand makes it impossible for it to fill the media cycle with new distractions and culture wars. As a result, the old contradictions within the Liberal–National Coalition aren’t just getting harder to hide, they’re opening up.

The biggest cracks are around the budget. The idea that “you can’t trust Labor with money” has saved generations of Liberals from having to outline any vision for what they want government to do. But having delivered the biggest deficits since World War II and set Australia on course for $1 trillion in debt, that old scare story isn’t winning any votes any time soon.

The budgetary problems aren’t just political, either. Lockdowns across the country mean the economy needs another large injection of public spending, but the last time Morrison did that he had the authority of a recent election win behind him. This time he’s behind in the polls with a grumpy backbench and conservative media telling him to restore “fiscal discipline”. What the economy needs and the needs of Morrison’s political strategy are again at odds.

Some conservatives are angry at how much money Morrison spent last year, but few are angry at how he spent it. JobKeeper saw the profit share of GDP rise during last year’s recession for the first time ever. The decision to shovel money onto elite private schools and private universities didn’t do him much harm in the party room either. The plan then was that the inequity of these choices would be forgotten by the time the next election came around. If the next stimulus is that unfair, however, it won’t swing the votes Morrison needs; but if it’s not unfair, the “fiscal conservatives” will go on the attack when they realise the money isn’t flowing their way.

And then there’s quarantine. While on cost-benefit grounds it’s clear the Commonwealth should have built and run their own centres, that would have sent the wrong signal about the efficiency of the private sector. The Coalition doesn’t hate public spending: they hate the public sector. Outsourcing isn’t designed to improve the quality of services. It is designed to shrink the size of the unionised public sector workforce and the public’s faith in public services.

Morrison’s whole career has been based on the ability to leave jobs unfinished while getting himself promoted out of trouble. Now that he’s in the top job, however, he’s run out of options. There is nowhere to go and the Covid-19 crisis is simply too big to leave unfinished. Worse still, he has built a whole government in his image, which means he has a whole cabinet full of ministers who can’t possibly finish the things they have started before the next election.

Just as the COVIDSafe app will never be fixed and most of the Afghans who helped our troops will never see our shores, an anti-corruption watchdog will never be created, and there will be no significant policies to fix the gap between men and women in the realms of income or safety. Those failures weren’t unexpected, but before the third wave of the pandemic, Morrison thought they would be unimportant compared to the distractions he was planning to unleash.

And that is his problem. How can you start a fight about religious freedom with “the left” when you’re in a fight with your own backbench about lockdown freedoms? How do you start a fight about net zero targets ruining the economy when your own quarantine and vaccine failures have cost far more jobs? And how do you start a scare campaign about Labor’s love of spending when you are rolling out the next phase of stimulus to prop up the economy that your Covid-19 failures caused?

The next election is likely six months away and while any election result is still possible, what’s not in doubt is the death of liberalism in the Liberal Party. The Morrison government is a big-spending, interventionist and increasingly authoritarian grouping held together not by shared principle but by shared enemies.

While the fight against unions, environmentalists and Labor will continue to unite MPs as diverse as Barnaby Joyce and Josh Frydenberg, it’s not at all clear that raging against those enemies will be enough to conceal Morrison’s failure to do anything other than shovel money on to his friends while carefully avoiding help for his foes. Will that be enough to swing the swinging voters in the key marginals again? Maybe. Who knows how well he will work his magic again. That said, who knows how he will get out of the predicament in which he is stuck, where the tricks he has used all his life have finally stopped working.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 21, 2021 as "Scott Morrison is stuck".

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Richard Denniss is The Australia Institute’s chief economist.