What happens if you win the election?
Whoever wins this election, Australia’s next government will face enormous challenges across the full spectrum of foreign and domestic policy. But the arsenal of policy tools available to the incoming government will have been undermined after nearly a decade of short-term thinking, deeply politicised decision-making and misspent political capital. For the national interest, this must stop.
The modus operandi of recent governments has been twofold: focus either on problems entirely of their own political imagining, or on phony debates about real policy challenges that they have deliberately distorted for domestic political advantage, such as China, climate change and the risk of an interest-rate-induced recession. The next government won’t have that luxury. Reality has now begun to bite, well beyond the reach of even the most well-crafted Morrison one-liners.
Five major challenges stand out: diversifying our economy; safeguarding our national security; acting on climate change; rebuilding the social contract, including on gender equity; and taking the next major step on reconciliation. In each of these, for nearly a decade, our national political discourse has been radically misdirected.
The phony debate on the economy, for example, has unfolded in two acts: first, that debt and deficit were the only proper metrics of economic success, until of course Scott Morrison blew the budget to pieces; and second, as a series of inflationary sugar hits to drive short-term growth each quarter, the long-term consequences be damned, and economic restructuring left swinging in the breeze.
The result is that we are now beset by roaring inflation, eye-watering debt and deficit, and a budget riddled with rampant rorts and record levels of taxation, with expenditure projected to remain at pandemic levels well into the 2030s. The extra $70 billion pumped into the economy since December alone is more than Labor spent on stimulus in the first two years of the global financial crisis. As I have said in an earlier context: this reckless spending has got to stop.
Despite the giant Morrison splurge, what does the economy have to show for it? We didn’t avoid recession. No new economic infrastructure was added to spur future waves of productivity growth. There is no added supply of affordable housing to keep prices under control. The NBN is no faster than it was before. And the next government faces a budget depleted through a combination of financial profligacy and squandered opportunities.
It was the Liberal government that decided in 2014, for purely political reasons, Australia would no longer manufacture automobiles. The result is that we sacrificed tens of thousands of jobs in Australian manufacturing, despite the fact our industry assistance levels were among the lowest in the world. Consequently, Australia is now deeply vulnerable to global supply chain disruption.
With new technologies, such as 3D printing, we can once again become a manufacturing power, with factories around the country supported by better quality broadband. Our universities, which have been financially starved out of ideological hatred, can be rebuilt as engine rooms of learning, research and innovation. This can be turbocharged by a revitalised Australian venture capital industry that takes these innovations to the global market – rather than continuing to flog off our innovation offshore.
On national security, the phony narrative goes like this: Australia’s China challenge is unique and our politicians’ resolve to deal with this challenge can be judged by the volume switch on the megaphone. On this measure, the Liberals are strong – albeit swinging from outright appeasement under Tony Abbott to frenzied warmongering under Peter Dutton – while Labor is depicted as weak because it chooses to scream less but do more.
The truth is more complex. Any Australian government would find China challenging right now because our problems are not unique: they are shared by friends and allies worldwide. This is because of the shifting balance of power and Xi Jinping’s decision to pursue a more assertive foreign and security policy.
This real-world challenge is highlighted by Solomon Islands’ new agreement with Beijing. It is the result of both an assertive Chinese strategy in the South Pacific and Australian policy neglect towards our Pacific neighbours for a decade. This created a strategic vacuum that China was able to occupy.
A successful China strategy should be non-negotiable on our core values: our liberal democracy, our commitment to universal human rights and our alliance with the United States are not up for debate. But we should talk less, do more, and – when we inevitably disagree with Beijing – we should always hunt in packs so that Australia cannot be easily singled out for retribution. Over time, with careful diplomacy, it is possible to reduce the temperature in the relationship, to stabilise it and, eventually, even normalise it without making substantive concessions to Beijing’s so-called “14 demands”.
Restoring Australia’s Pacific diplomacy will be essential, whether that is with France or the other 17 states of the Pacific Islands Forum, whose faith has been battered by successive aid cuts totalling $250 million. Australia cannot simply deny these cuts happened, as Scott Morrison does. The next government must also reassure Pacific leaders that we understand their existential climate concerns.
On climate change, the phony narrative goes like this: Australia’s 2050 commitment on carbon neutrality places us in the global mainstream, so the world should quit whining and pin a medal to our chest.
In truth, our net-zero commitment isn’t worth the paper it’s written on unless it’s backed by a strengthened, near-term 2030 Paris target. Unless we act this decade, the adjustment curve to reach our 2050 target becomes impossibly steep. Furthermore, the Paris targets are not “set and forget” but a down-payment on more ambitious targets in the future. As at COP13 in Bali in 2007, Australia can re-enter the global climate change fold and this time we can stay there. Better that than permanently joining Vladimir Putin and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in the international naughty corner – which, in the eyes of the world, is where we now sit.
For the driest inhabited continent on Earth, deploying our diplomacy to bring about real climate action is a no-brainer. The alternative is more climate disasters, hostile carbon-adjustment tariffs and greater vulnerability in the Pacific.
Alongside these priorities is a fourth: Australia’s social contract is now at breaking point. Wages have been flatlining. Cost-of-living pressures are going through the roof. Healthcare, aged care, disability care, Medicare and childcare are being progressively defunded. These are all part of the safety net. They are also fundamental to workforce participation and productivity growth. Unless these are dealt with, not only will the economy suffer but it will also fracture our politics, taking us further down the dystopian road on which America is travelling.
There’s another part of the social contract that’s not working. Australian women are furious that, having been victimised and having seen brave young women stand up and say “enough”, the conservative political class remains tone deaf to the need for fundamental change.
Why was Australian of the Year Grace Tame, who dedicated her life to protecting other adults and children from the same predation she endured, excluded from policy consultations? Why did the government sit on the Respect @ Work report recommendations for two years before doing anything publicly? The next government must act on these without delay.
Fifth, the next government must implement in full the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The statement is not prescriptive. It requests a First Nations Voice be enshrined in the constitution and a Makarrata Commission to oversee truth-telling and treaty-making, leaving vast scope for the parliament to negotiate the detail. The fake debate around constitutional entrenchment of an Indigenous voice being a “third chamber” must end.
It’s time to complete our national reconciliation journey.
In acting on these five priorities, the next government must also rebuild the capacity, integrity and independence of the Australian public service, which has been eroded through political appointees, private contractors and institutional decline. The tragedy is that the public service is a shell of what it once was. At its head is Morrison’s former chief of staff, Phil Gaetjens, a veteran Liberal staffer.
While there is always room for a modest number of political appointments – I sent Kim Beazley to Washington – we now have a foreign service that has been stacked with a record number of former conservative politicians, to the extent that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade looks like a Liberal Party retirement home. Political appointments to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which accounted for 5 per cent under Labor, now reach 40 per cent. As we had to do in 2007, the time has come to once again rebuild the fundamental principles and institutions of Westminster – including a robustly independent public service. And the key to restoring integrity to our entire system of public administration will be a national anti-corruption commission with teeth.
Finally, if the Labor Party is elected today, the Murdoch media will waste no time trying to tear it down. They did this to my government. They will do so again. Murdoch has campaigned viciously for one side of politics in 22 out of the past 22 federal and state elections. They have become a cancer on our democracy. They are little more than a protection racket for the Liberal and National parties.
In a country with the highest level of media ownership concentration in the Western world, media reform is now the most urgent reform of all.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "What happens if you win".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.