Opinion

John Hewson
A rat with a gold tooth

One of the most demeaning features of the so-called theatre of our parliament is the government’s use of the Dorothy Dix question as a platform by which to attack and ridicule the opposition.

The basic strategy is to attempt to set and control the narrative on an issue, casting the opposition in the worst possible light, trying to create concern, even fear, about the opposition’s possible alternative response.

The process involves (usually) having a backbencher read out a question to a minister, seeking details of the government’s policy response on an issue, with a kicker: “Is the minister aware of any alternatives?”

The minister then gets to exaggerate and boast about what they would like us to believe they have achieved and to define the risk of a switch to the opposition.

Do not be surprised if Scott Morrison attempts a similar format in the coming election campaign; what I call a “trust and fear” strategy. Essentially, Morrison will pose the question to voters, “Who do you trust to manage the pandemic and our economic recovery and more broadly your personal and our national security?” He will even share his version of whether he is “aware of any alternatives”, telling voters that they should fear whatever Labor policy he mentions, real or invented.

This is already under way. Morrison’s key Dixer claims that our response to Covid-19 is world-leading, citing our low death rate and high vaccination rate, ignoring, of course, the hiccups in the response and what was a stuff-up in terms of the vaccine rollout, against the claims made about our preparedness.

Similarly, Morrison is claiming that Labor can’t be trusted to handle our economy. Without proof, he claims they will put up interest rates, petrol and electricity prices, and on issues such as climate they will ultimately succumb to pressure from the Greens, selling out in a deal to target even larger reductions in emissions by 2030, which he says would cost jobs and put up electricity prices.

The “Who do you trust?” strategy worked for John Howard back in 2004, when he went into that election as Morrison sits now, the underdog, behind in two-party preferred terms but ahead as preferred prime minister against an untested Mark Latham. Of course, Anthony Albanese is no Latham, and Morrison has a significant trust deficit, being well behind in the public’s perception on honesty, integrity and accountability. He has been shown to have lied on many occasions, has failed to deliver his promised national integrity commission, and has corruptly allocated public monies to various sports, car parks and other rorts, in the hope of buying electoral support.

True to form, Morrison’s arrogance won’t have him accept the significance of this trust deficit. Expect him to push on a bit like a rat with a gold tooth. In time he will come to understand the force of the various independents movements that are mostly running on integrity and accountability, as well as issues such as climate, where he is particularly vulnerable.

Morrison would do well to recall the Wentworth byelection, which he lost. Previously, this was a very safe Liberal seat. Kerryn Phelps ran heavily on climate and prevailed. Wentworth is again contestable on climate, with an excellent independent candidate in Allegra Spender.

I believe the independents will determine the outcome of the next election. It is significant that all declared independent candidates are strongly qualified and experienced women. This highlights another vulnerability of Morrison’s: his sluggishness to respond on a range of women’s issues.

A number of government seats under challenge by independents are held by so-called “moderates” who are widely seen to have failed within the party processes to stand up and fight for moderate positions on key issues such as climate, inequality and the like.

Since Howard, the Liberal Party has boasted of being a “broad church”. While this is largely true in terms of the greater membership, Howard and other leaders have tended to govern more to the right-hand side of the pulpit, isolating and sometimes directly penalising moderates.

I personally found it challenging to be a small-l liberal on social issues, such as welfare reform, native title, inequality, the role of women and, of course, climate, in a large-L Liberal Party. I have never liked the idea of Liberal, right or wrong.

Initially, the party was not “born to rule”. Have we forgotten Robert Menzies’ challenge to represent the “forgotten people”? It’s not about governing for mates and donors, which seems to be the position to which the party has drifted.

I can imagine Menzies turning in his grave over this and what it means for both party members and the nation. Shouldn’t government be about the pursuit of excellence, rather than entitlement? Certainly, it should not be that the outcome is mediocrity.

These attitudes are not confined to politics. They are creeping more broadly into civil society, into our schools, workplaces et cetera, where the promotion and recognition of excellence is being lost. Here, special deals, nods and winks, donations and “understandings” are becoming more the order of the day.

The future is not a destination. Rather, it is being created by the attitudes and actions of superficial, self-serving individuals. This certainly falls well short of the vision of Sir Robert Menzies and all those who joined the party in the hope of contributing to a better world.

This erosion of the Liberal Party is of great concern to me and I know too many long-term party members who have become very disillusioned with the way the party has drifted.

It wasn’t that long ago that some were propagating the idea that the party should become “hardline right”. As I have argued on many occasions, it was, and still is, insane to imagine that such a party could ever win let alone sustain government.

The last thing Australia needs right now is to be subjected to a dishonest “trust and fear” election. Voters are entitled to a genuine assessment of where we sit as a nation, of the risks to our wellbeing and of the opportunities over the next decade or so.

Against this background, the election should be a contest in alternative visions and possible transitions. It will be, and should be, a test of our maturity as a nation, able to debate and make informed, evidence-based choices.

Our political leaders need to recognise their responsibilities in this respect, and rise above hubris, exaggeration, misinformation and scare campaigns. Voters deserve better government, a government prepared to do what is right, not just politically expedient.

It is time for a reset of our politics. In recent decades politics has drifted away from a focus on delivering good government; it is now little more than a short-term game, the sole objective of which is winning or keeping government.

Policy decisions are taken for short-term, politically expedient reasons – what is perceived to be the advantage relative to winning or keeping government. As a result many of the big issues have been left to drift – childcare, aged and disability care, genuine tax reform, systemic welfare reform, universities and higher education reform, and many more.

The process of politics has become very self-absorbed. It has been attracting the wrong sort of people, focused more on their political careers within the party and in some cases what they can extract to their personal benefit, during or after politics.

The major parties know what needs to be done to clean up politics by way of reforming campaign funding and advertising, improved candidate preselection, codes of conduct for members and senators and their staff, lobbying reforms, workplace relations and so on, but they operate as if they are better able than others to exploit the weaknesses and anomalies of the present system, and simply don’t rise to the challenge.

It should not be a contest to the political death, as it tragically is, but rather of ideas and alternative visions for our nation. Specifically, some of the bigger issues such as climate would be dealt with more effectively with a degree of bipartisanship.

It has been well documented that Menzies became disillusioned with his party towards the end of his time in politics. Imagine what positions Menzies would be taking on the policy challenges of today. Of course, few in politics would bother.

Yet isn’t it more important to focus on the extent to which Liberals have drifted from the principles on which Menzies built the party in the first place? The political reality of the party is that the Coalition’s primary vote has collapsed from 47.3 per cent under Howard to somewhere struggling to get out of the 30s.

One in four Australians no longer vote for either major party. Please tell me, Mr Prime Minister, that you are not just going to rely on frightening people to another victory.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 18, 2021 as "A rat with a gold tooth".

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