Opinion

John Hewson
Scott Morrison is being economical with the truth

The Australian voter deserves better than a demeaning and trivialising gotcha campaign, driven mostly by the agendas and biases of the media and ignoring the principal policy issues that will confront and dominate the next government. It is reasonable to expect that we will be made aware of the facts and truth of an issue against which we can reliably judge the utterances and promises of our politicians and would-be politicians.

Since Scott Morrison declared the central issue of the campaign to be economic management, he and his media mates have taken any opportunity to cast Anthony Albanese as an economic novice, having never held an economic portfolio, except as deputy prime minister, and who is not on top of his brief.

The daily campaign format seems to focus on the morning presser of each leader wherever they are, mostly with junior journalists on the road, the “name” journos remaining at their desks. The takeout from these pressers dictates the focus of the evening TV news and the front pages of the papers and morning television for the next day.

This process is easily manipulated by the government. All they need is some of their media mates to pose the gotcha question and then follow up claiming victory in their own presser. The gotcha on economic data could easily have been such a stunt. How quick was Morrison to jump on it with the grin of a cat that just swallowed the canary, blurting out a mass of employment data memorised from his brief? Really? Altogether too smooth, like the kid who just nailed his nine times table read off the back of his smudged hand.

Morrison has tried to set employment as the benchmark for good economic management. It is true that his employment outcomes have been better than had been expected, but the detail doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, the figures should not be allowed to be used to divert attention from the government’s economic policy failures. Let’s not forget the government’s record inflationary spending and waste, the rorts and overpaying of pandemic support to mates, the high taxation through reliance on bracket creep, the unaffordable and inequitable personal tax cuts, and the huge structural budget deficit and record debt.

The focus of the early days of the campaign has barely moved beyond gotcha questions. Finally we arrive on integrity as an issue, something on which Morrison is completely exposed. Morrison has pushed hard to try to ensure “character” wasn’t a defining issue of the campaign, but his failure to deliver a national integrity commission as promised before the last election is – and should be – a significant issue. His defence is appallingly weak.

Morrison claims to have released the draft legislation for such a commission, but, true to form, he ignores all the expert opinion about its inadequacies. Morrison seems to believe he and his ministers should not be held accountable for the public monies allocated to shore up his government via rorts for sports clubs, car parks, golf courses and community and regional funds, and in the allocation of bushfire and flood relief. The recent budget, the biggest pork barrel in our history, certainly needs the scrutiny of a national integrity and anti-corruption commission. His draft legislation does little more than offer protection to his ministers and their staff.

Morrison says he wants to avoid the “Star Chamber” effect of the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption. This is code for wanting to avoid any accountability. Does he seriously want us to accept that Eddie Obeid, Ian Macdonald, Barry O’Farrell and Gladys Berejiklian should not have been held to account? None of them, including Morrison, are beyond reproach – and neither is the Morrison ministry.

The prime minister’s hubris on this issue should be a much bigger gotcha than that of Albo not being able to remember the unemployment rate. Pause to think about the orders of magnitude here. Morrison is claiming Albo isn’t fit to be PM because he can’t recall certain economic data. He certainly wants to divert attention from his own failures in economic management, which seems to include data manipulation for his political ends. Where is the scrutiny of his use of key numbers?

For example, Morrison boasts of full employment. But what does this mean when the definition of “employed” is working one hour a week? Morrison’s figures hide the reality of those who are underpaid for the work they get and ignores the need to work more hours. It clearly hides the fact that some are working multiple jobs each week to make ends meet.

It should also be recognised that there are still some 500,000 people unemployed and that the government reset the JobSeeker payment, the unemployment benefit, below the poverty line.

It is also important to recognise that Treasury has a very poor track record of forecasting and predicting our economy, sometimes as a result of political interference. Where is the accountability here?

Given the regular budget revenue windfalls, it seems relevant to ask whether there has been a conscious strategy to underforecast the likely coal and iron ore prices, building in a “buffer” and allowing the government to waste even more public monies and to ultimately claim more budget repair than is in fact “real”. Morrison doesn’t believe in the need for any accountability. He continues to claim these budget “improvements” as the biggest budget turnaround on record, for example the $100 billion improvement in the 2022 budget.

More to the point, look at the claims in this budget regarding real wages, a significant issue where Albanese is wanting to do more while Morrison wants to play down the issue. In the budget table that lists the main forecasts, we are told that the consumer price index is forecast to outpace the wage price index through to 2025, implying falling real wages, but at page 56 of the document they use a broader wage measure more akin to average weekly earnings to argue that real wages will rise every year.

The challenge is yet to come for Morrison. It will be important to scrutinise the pre-election fiscal outlook, which is supposed to be a pure and honest Treasury statement on the economic outlook, independent of the government – a requirement at each election.

While Morrison and his colleagues were happily strutting around in the first week of the campaign, acting as if the election was won on the basis of Albo’s economic “gaffe”, the subsequent Newspoll didn’t confirm that arrogance. Both parties lost ground in primary votes, falling to levels where the chances of either winning in their own right were seriously diminished.

Perhaps the poll was more reflective of overall voter disenchantment with the quality of the early campaign, generally avoiding serious and mature debate of major policy issues. This disenchantment probably increased significantly as the major parties drove the campaign ever lower by simply attacking each other and slinging mud.

Here’s irony for you: Morrison, the demonstrated liar, accused Albanese of a “despicable lie” over claims the Coalition would extend the cashless debit card to pensioners. Meanwhile, Labor went after the government and the Energy minister, Angus Taylor, who had attacked the costings of its energy policy. What a tragedy that the campaign is now “my scare is bigger than
your scare”.

We all have to fear that the more frustrated and desperate the major players get, the more they will resort to dirtier tactics and less substance in terms of what they would propose as a future for our nation. The economic challenge for the next government will get harder from here as it becomes clearer when and by how much the Reserve Bank plans to increase interest rates as inflation continues to explode.

Maybe, just maybe, our political leaders will offer some policy substance in response. Voters need to know exactly how each party will react to this inevitable reality. It is really up to the media to drive this, to ask this and other important questions.

We need more than gotcha moments. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Economical with the truth".

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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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