Opinion

John Hewson
Morrison focuses on the economy at the expense of workers

The essence of Scott Morrison’s so-called marketing strategy for the election campaign is to attempt to control the narrative by creating doubts and even fear about the alternatives. Hence the themes “who do you trust to manage the economy?” and “who do you trust to manage our national security?” In each case, Morrison has pushed the argument that Anthony Albanese is unprepared, inexperienced and a risk. However, Morrison has tried to adopt narrow definitions of “economic management” and “national security”, which have proved difficult to sustain as the campaign has unfolded.

Take his attempt to confine national security to, essentially, military preparedness. This framing has been challenged by neglect of climate change – to many our most significant election issue and national security challenge – and by his government’s failure to maintain effective relationships with Pacific Island nations. That issue runs far beyond the Solomons – see the criticism from Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, and China’s involvement in Vanuatu.

Similarly, Morrison has attempted to confine considerations of “economic management” to his recent budget as a “plan” for our future. In reality, it’s just a huge pork barrel. Money is being spent for perceived political advantage, without a deliverable process for budget repair or a national productivity strategy – the key to sustainable growth, jobs and job security, and increases in real wages.

Morrison continues to ignore the fact that budget repair will be a dominant issue for future governments, with structural deficits stretching as far as the eye can see and further spending blowouts likely in defence, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and debt interest. It is reckless in such circumstances for Morrison to be foreshadowing further unaffordable tax cuts, when the reality is that future governments will have to consider raising taxes and making significant cuts in other spending.

Morrison’s narrow framing also neglects industrial relations, an issue that is likely to dominate the early challenges for our next government, and for which he hasn’t got a strategy. Morrison can argue that Albanese has never held an economic portfolio and can’t recall key economic data. However, Morrison would have to concede that his opponent is better able to manage industrial relations, with a Bob Hawke-like capacity to pull employers and unions together for accord-style discussions and pathways forward. Moreover, Morrison carries the legacy of John Howard’s WorkChoices, which has been seen as an attack on workers’ rights.

The next government will need to address a multiplicity of industrial relations tensions. Many wage relativities are out of line, which has led to some of the recent strike activity – particularly among teachers, nurses and aged-care workers, and other essential services including paramedics and ambulance drivers. There are several examples of wage theft, with big supermarkets reportedly in wages arrears and – perhaps the most significant – instances of “stolen super”. The Australian Taxation Office has recorded that some three-quarters of employers had stolen super from their workers, totalling $5 billion, a practice that has arisen because it is legal to pay super just four times a year, instead of at each payday. In addition, there are many abuses in the “labour hire industry” and in the payment of penalty rates. Debate continues about the need for increases in public service pay, and various wage cases are before the Fair Work Commission.

Morrison has no policy on these industrial relations issues and would have a significant trust deficit to overcome in any discussions or negotiations.

Another disturbing trend in the campaign as it has unfolded has been the mounting paranoia in the Morrison government in relation to the significance of the independents movement. Several so-called safe seats are under threat. This came to a head last weekend with imagery of Howard in his old seat of Bennelong with John Alexander, the retiring member. Howard attacked supporters of independents as “anti-Liberal groupies” and urged traditional Liberal voters to stay the course even if they feel “disgruntled”.

What this appeal ignores is that Liberals in what were assumed to be “safe” seats have become increasingly disenfranchised by the Morrison government and the prime minister’s influence in their party. They are drawn to independents in the hope that their votes will deliver better government.

Nobody should recognise this more than Howard, who lost the support of Bennelong voters, as well as government, for not representing their interests and leading the country in sensible directions. His failures to say sorry to the Stolen Generations and to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and develop an effective climate policy gave Kevin Rudd an election-winning opportunity.

Howard surely could not have missed the significance of Alexander’s loss of confidence in the Morrison and Barnaby Joyce coalition in his decision not to recontest the seat. Alexander had to accept that his tireless work in a number of policy areas, including for improved housing policy, had been ignored by Morrison.

His call for a high-speed rail authority was ultimately adopted by Albanese, and Labor might now win the seat.

It is sad to say that Alexander has gone the way of many “named” candidates that the major parties encouraged to enter politics to win a seat – indeed, he won Bennelong from Maxine McKew, who had taken it from Howard – only to be used as cannon fodder in someone else’s political career.

It is also instructive that Morrison has learnt little from the Wentworth byelection, when independent candidate Kerryn Phelps achieved a massive swing against the party, running mostly on climate.

Morrison can be expected to sustain his attack on the independents, pretty much as a distraction from his failures. He will focus on their unwillingness to declare which side they would support in the most likely event of a minority government. However, it is unreasonable to expect an answer until the actual election outcome is known and the independents are confronted with a choice, with information on which minor parties and how many independents will be in the mix. Morrison must know that he is behind on the key issues of character, integrity, climate and women.

Morrison’s attempt to constrain the narrative to his narrow terms has failed. This has been compounded by his overall unwillingness to accept responsibility or to defend the detail of his positions. As the campaign goes on, I suspect he will continue to block himself further, becoming more exposed on certain issues.

And as bad as his performance has been for the traditional Liberal voter, he and his team, with the likes of Josh Frydenberg and Peter Dutton, are unlikely to attract swing voters looking for an Australia that’s moving forward. Far from being an asset in the campaign, these two are mostly seen as lurking grim reaper types, waiting for the quiet death of their leader. The irony is that each of them is facing real challenges in their own seats – Frydenberg from a strong female independent in Kooyong, Monique Ryan, and Dutton from Ali France for Labor in Dickson.

Unfortunately, the reality is that there is no effective succession plan within the party. Many who otherwise might have risen through the ranks have been discouraged, both within the party or from seeking preselection. It is sad that an election defeat will be what it takes to recalibrate the party, its leadership and its policies. 

John Hewson is a member of Climate 200’s advisory council.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 30, 2022 as "Industrial noise".

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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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