John Hewson
Flogging a near-dead horse

We have now entered the territory where governments throw policy integrity to the wind. That is, we are in the final days leading up to the so-called caretaker period, which starts from the point that the election is actually called, and during which governments are prevented from making any policy decisions. This period tends to be characterised by panic. Governments get really worried about their chances of re-election and become increasingly inclined to say, do or promise whatever they think it will take to win. Honesty, truth, reality and policy substance are always at risk of being ditched as spin saturates the public discourse.

The latest Newspoll has measured the re-election task for the Morrison government, with Labor maintaining its long-term significant lead on a two-party-preferred basis (now 55-45). Scott Morrison has also lost his long-held lead as preferred prime minister, with Anthony Albanese drawing level for the first time in two years.

The cost of living is becoming a rapidly escalating election issue, but the government has little capacity to do much about it in the near term. Rumour has it that the integrity of fiscal policy may be further compromised in the budget, which has been brought forward to March 29 for reasons of political expediency. Specifically, it is expected there will be cuts in fuel and beer excise, on top of the unaffordable stage 3 personal tax cuts and perhaps even some new additional tax cuts, and massive increases in defence spending.

While the cost of living will undoubtedly be a major issue in the campaign, there is little the government can do about it directly, hence the momentum to reduce excise taxes. However, a cut in petrol excise is poor tax policy. I could explain the detail here but that would be wading dangerously into cake territory and would probably bore everyone witless. It would be much better if the government targeted assistance directly to those most adversely affected by living costs, even by a direct one-off cash handout to those most vulnerable, those on JobSeeker, pensioners and those on fixed or low incomes.

The temptation for Morrison to cut petrol excise must be great, however, under pressure from his mentor John Howard. Of course, Howard ditched the indexation of petrol excise to win the Aston byelection, having lost the Ryan byelection, and it worked then. Morrison may think it’s worth another shot.

It is important to recognise that while Morrison and his media mates are focused on exposing the “vagueness” of what Anthony Albanese stands for and where he would take Australia, the budget may be Morrison’s last chance to pull back disenchanted and disenfranchised Coalition voters.

Since the last election Morrison has basically pursued a pig-headed strategy from under his Doona. It is pig-headed in the sense that he is not listening to informed advice and tending to stay under the Doona as he seems incapable of genuine empathy, demonstrated most recently when he avoided walking among flood victims in Lismore. He obviously feared adverse reactions and abuse, as was the case during his disastrous visit to Cobargo after the bushfires.

Just as he refused to listen to former Fire and Rescue New South Wales commissioner Greg Mullins and his Emergency Leaders for Climate Action warning about the bushfire dangers, he has ignored their flood warnings. Moreover, Morrison hasn’t acted on at least 60 of the 80 recommendations of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, which would have ensured we were better prepared for the floods.

His pig-headedness has not been confined to natural disasters, either. He has demonstrated this tendency on climate more broadly and has refused to listen on childcare costs even though he saw the positive outcomes of increased support during the pandemic for families and particularly women. He has refused to adequately support the unemployed by resetting the JobSeeker payment deliberately below the poverty line. And he refused to meet with university vice-chancellors wanting to warn of the damage being done by his neglect of higher education during the pandemic. Finally, he has failed to take on board constructive suggestions regarding his proposed legislation to establish a national integrity commission.

Morrison has compounded his difficulties by always blaming others when he receives legitimate criticism – the states, the opposition, left-wing radicals, whomever. He clearly puts politics above people.

Mullins and his group released a statement and held a press conference this week, to emphasise that the Morrison government was warned ahead of the 2022 floods and failed to prepare and help alleviate the horrific impacts. They said “the handling of this disaster echoes the lack of national preparation in the lead-up to the Black Summer bushfires when the government ignored warnings months before the disastrous fires hit”. Mullins said: “The federal government’s fumbling of this flood disaster is Black Summer all over again … The government knew what was coming and it did not adequately prepare our communities or first responders.”

He continued: “Those of us who do hold hoses know just how dangerous climate change has become. Australia is underprepared, and Canberra has no answers to how it will rapidly slash emissions this decade.”

Morrison’s strategy clearly is not working. The headline polls have moved against him, despite his attempts to influence these polls with making headline-grabbing announcements during the polling period, hoping to distract voter attention.

Another aspect of the recent Newspoll revealed that Morrison remains the least trusted prime minister in more than a decade. Albanese’s rating is close behind. Both have significant trust deficits with the electorate. Morrison is still regarded as more experienced and decisive than Albanese, but he is also seen as less caring, more arrogant and significantly more out of touch.

Newspoll also polled voters on a range of attributes considered to be important to informing their choice. It charted a significant decline for Morrison in these attributes since he became PM. As to Albanese, this poll reveals a “warming” towards him, but “a large proportion” had yet to make up their minds about the opposition leader.

Basically, voters have relatively low expectations of our political leaders. This makes it even more important that those leaders listen and operate on expert advice and evidence in times of crisis and natural disasters, to provide the essential direction by being prepared, and to respond in a timely manner with genuine empathy and support.

Not surprisingly, there has been some agitation within the Coalition concerning Morrison’s failure to deliver the leadership Australian people have reasonably expected. The motivation to consider replacing Morrison as leader has been that Morrison himself has become the issue dragging down the government in the polls, to the point where they recognise they could lose government. The hope is that a change could “save the furniture” in the sense of minimising the loss of seats. Some cite Labor’s return to Kevin Rudd in 2013, claiming that saved the then government some 10 seats.

I doubt changing the jockey can save the government when the horse is also crook. They have failed to deliver good evidence-based policy on so many fronts. Moreover, the contemplated alternatives, namely Peter Dutton and Josh Frydenberg, are hardly star riders. Each will be fighting hard to save their seats. I am told that Labor is polling well in Dickson against Dutton, and Frydenberg is facing a tough challenge from a strong female independent, Monique Ryan, in Kooyong. More broadly, Frydenberg has been so concerned about the strength of the overall independent movement that he has called and heavied some of the declared donors who support the Climate 200 movement.

Surely it should be possible to have a mature debate about these issues without it degenerating into some fictional contest based on name-calling between so-called autocracy or socialism and conservatism or capitalism. Voters want mature, commonsense arguments that are obviously in our national interest, labels aside. The chances of that, though, are as slim as the margins in the polls. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Flogging a near-dead horse".

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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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