Opinion

John Hewson
Morrison’s ‘too-hard’ basket just keeps getting bigger

At the start of a new year, especially after such a tumultuous year as 2021, and in what will be an election year, it seems reasonable to take a look in the “too-hard basket” to see what policy issues were missed, or deliberately ignored, or simply “kicked down the road” by the current government.

It also seems reasonable to ask election aspirants, be they parties or independents, to indicate their positions on key policy issues and, where appropriate, seek a commitment from them to act on the issue in the next parliament.

The place to begin is with the continuing challenge of the evolving Covid-19 virus, now in its Omicron phase, which probably won’t be the last or even the most challenging, and with lingering difficulties still around from its predecessor variant, Delta. In response to the increasingly significant criticism of the Morrison government’s poor handling of this health crisis, and as a counter to a key “too-hard basket” issue, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has issued a call to establish a Covid-19 rapid response group, rather than just leave it to governments. In addition to ACOSS, the proposal would include unions and peak business groups as well as public health experts.

Consideration of this proposal is becoming urgent with the very rapid spread of Omicron and the pressures it is creating on our health systems, the failings in the vaccine, booster and rapid antigen test rollouts, and the need to give the Australian people some certainty as to the likely future pathways, especially in light of Scott Morrison’s declared but undefined objective to “live with the virus”.

It is the mounting uncertainty that has most people scared about the future, especially when they are already struggling with the accelerating costs of living, flat wages and mounting job insecurity. The Morrison government’s boasts about how well the economy is performing even with Omicron spreading fast, with inadequate testing, just doesn’t match people’s daily lived experience. An excursion to any local supermarket walking down empty aisles tells you that.

The pandemic has also raised the profile of the mental health of the nation and increased pressure for an effective national mental health strategy, including suicide prevention, particularly for our veterans and our youth. The government has nodded at the issue but offered no real solutions.

Similarly, there is an urgent need to develop a national strategy on violence against women. After the intensity of public debate in the past year, importantly through the sustained efforts of Grace Tame, this is an obvious priority.

There are a couple of other major policy challenges in the “too-hard basket” for what at this point seems like perpetuity. The failure to address them has become a national disgrace and a global embarrassment. The most conspicuous of these is the failure to give proper and effective recognition to the First Australians and to effectively address Indigenous disadvantage. Indigenous communities produced a framework, based on a detailed national consultative process, for a way forward in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is yet to receive appropriate consideration and response from government.

Whatever we may ultimately do about Australia Day, this year the major political players should combine to make a firm commitment to address this issue in true bipartisanship as a priority in the next parliament.

The other major policy challenge that has lingered without response is refugee policy. Ironically, this recently has been focused on because of the detainment of Serbian tennis ace Novak Djokovic, held in a detention hotel where some asylum seekers had been detained for many years. The failings of governments of both persuasions, beyond the creeping inhumanity of offshore and onshore detention, has been to fail to develop an effective refugee resettlement policy, to offer these otherwise desperate people some hope of a path forward.

Our governments have been in a unique position to lead our region in reaching such a resettlement agreement by convening negotiations with source, transit and possible destination countries. It is frankly mind-blowing that the New Zealand resettlement offer remains rejected.

Another major issue that has come to a head in the course of the pandemic is aged care. It has been festering since the Howard government’s Aged Care Act 1997. The impact of this, and the terrible neglect it has caused, was documented by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. Specifically, the commission noted the decline in the quality of food and nursing services, as well as shortages of staff, many of whom are undertrained, underequipped and underpaid. The sector clearly wasn’t ready to handle the pandemic, which was not helped by the Morrison government shirking its responsibilities and initiating a blame game with the states.

Not surprisingly, little seems to have been learnt from the experience of the pandemic last year and the sector is struggling again in handling the Omicron variant. Journalist Michael Pascoe has released some particularly disturbing data in a recent column, showing that the number of care homes experiencing an outbreak has rocketed from 54 on December 17 to 1107 on January 14. Staff shortages have been crippling, with illnesses and limited capacity to hire “surge staff” from various agencies. All this is compounded by supply difficulties with vaccines, boosters and tests. This has often resulted in patients being confined to rooms and visits limited to “end of life”. The significance of these staff shortages has been pointed to by former New South Wales premier Mike Baird, who has called for the army to be deployed to assist.

A similar challenge exists in relation to disability care. There are warning signs that the National Disability Insurance Scheme is in some trouble. It has become a massive and expensive bureaucracy, losing its sensitivity to the genuine needs of the disabled.

Defence is another important area in urgent need of review. It is a portfolio that has never really been subjected to the same scrutiny and accountability as other portfolios. Most noticeably, Defence procurement processes have seen an absence of adequate transparency and accountability, with so-called tender processes that have committed billions of dollars to projects only to see costs blow out and timetables not met.

A specific Defence issue is the outstanding Brereton report, which highlighted a culture of secrecy, fabrication and deceit in relation to our SAS deployment to Afghanistan. The report recommended that 19 soldiers be investigated by police for the murder of 39 prisoners and civilians and the cruel treatment of two others. Although a strategy to handle the formal response was established, the silence since has been deafening.

Beyond these mostly specific social policy challenges and the others mentioned, there are a number of overarching whole-of-government policy challenges that are of rapidly increasing significance, including climate change, budget repair, tax and welfare reform, reform of higher education and research, and reform of the Federation, now much more difficult after the acrimonious experiences of the pandemic. The interdependencies between some of these may prove very important to our national future – for example, research and technology development and commercialisation.

Of these, the climate challenge needs urgent and particular attention. We have been embarrassed internationally by our inaction – singled out both in terms of our targets for emissions reductions and our policy response. The challenge is to put in place policies to ensure the transition to a low-carbon Australia over the next 30 to 40 years. This calls for sectoral strategies for power, transport, agriculture, buildings and heavy industries, reducing dependence on fossil fuels in each case.

There is also a pressing imperative for political reform to clean up politics, including campaign funding; lobbying; truth in political advertising and in political behaviour, which includes parliamentary workplace behaviour, especially in relation to the treatment of women; and the formation of an effective, properly funded independent integrity and anti-corruption commission. Integrity and accountability will be defining issues at the next election, which will take place against the Morrison government’s record of rorting and spending for perceived political advantage. Twitter has concentrated on this issue, although Morrison rejects the platform as the work of “the evil one”. He would be wise to pay more attention.

A disturbing feature of recent days has been the government’s attempt to elevate issues on which they believe they can win. For example, the attempt to hark back to Howard-era border protection policies in the response to the Djokovic saga. Alex Hawke’s decision to cancel the men’s world No. 1’s visa was on the basis of a risk to health and to our social order. Clearly Morrison and a number of his ministers would fall foul of this criteria were it to be applied across a number of portfolios, most noticeably climate policies. The recent and unjustified attempts by Peter Dutton to create a “khaki election” with his accusations of Chinese aggression and the “risk of war” also fall into this category.

This is not, nor is it meant to be, a complete list of the policy challenges that will confront an incoming government this year. Rather, it is what I suggest should be the policy priorities. It should be seen as an embarrassing list by those who have been in government in recent decades and who have had the opportunities to address them as they arose.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 22, 2022 as "Basket cases".

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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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