Morrison’s ‘clever’ politics will ultimately fail the pub test


While perhaps this strategy has worked as a distraction, and to his short-term political benefit, the Prime Minister is gradually entrapping himself in a mire of indefensible positions and undeliverable promises that will surely cost him dearly personally, and undermine the standing of his government, in the longer-term.

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Under pressure, he tends to “double down”, as he has done on the economy and climate. This has echoes of John Howard’s intransigence in refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and to say sorry to the stolen generations. Ultimately, both were election-winning issues for Kevin Rudd.

There are many examples. Morrison has persisted with the (unprovable) myth that his “miracle” in winning the last election was due to the support of the “quiet Australians”, and he claims that his positions are now framed to be consistent with their “values”.

Most recently he has been desperate to be seen as sympathetic to the hardships of people affected by drought and bushfires, while wanting to avoid any discussion of the causes of these catastrophes, in particular the role of climate change.

Similarly, recall his responses on our slowing economy, on the Uluru Statement and an Indigenous Voice, on our relationships with China and in the Pacific, on religious freedom and press freedom, on his threat to outlaw activists engaging in secondary boycotts.

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His government has clearly let our economy drift for too long. The evidence that growth is slowing and that employment is at risk has been accumulating over the past couple of years, yet it has stuck with the exaggerations that “growth is strong” and the “fundamentals are good”, and to its obsession with achieving a budget surplus.

The Morrison government has not only completely misread the economy but miscalculated the likely effects of sizeable tax cuts and interest rate cuts, which have failed to stimulate consumer spending or business investment as hoped. With record household debt, flat wages, house price and job insecurity, and rising costs of living, households have tended to repay debt rather than spend, and business has been too uncertain to invest.

With lags in response to macro-policy shifts of some 12 to 18 months, it is quite surreal that only now is the government considering further stimulus. Better means of near-term stimulation would be increasing the Newstart allowance and a sizeable program in affordable social housing. Even if infrastructure projects were to be accelerated, they would take too long to take effect.

However, the spare fiscal capacity is already limited, not only given the commitment to a surplus but because of of significant existing spending commitments running into the 2020s, especially in the National Disability Insurance Scheme, defence and infrastructure, and the now considerable pressure to pour funds into aged care. Tax revenue is dwindling with the legislated tax cuts, the slowdown in employment and the prospect of less favourable export prices.

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In short, contrary to the Morrison sales pitch, our economy is not strong, and the global risks, both economic and geopolitical, are very significant.

Rather than make policy the government seems to have decided to hope that the global slowdown will miraculously reverse.

The Prime Minister as boxed the government in to an indefensible position on climate. With almost every Morrison dodge and utterance, he digs an even deeper hole. The average punter simply can’t understand why he doesn’t admit a link between the drought and fires and climate, as many of the victims and fire service experts have done, and why his responses don’t include policies to improve drought and bush fire resistance rather than mere handouts.

On Morrison’s other whims, he will struggle to deliver legislation through the Parliament that matches the varying expectations on freedoms and boycotts.

Watch for the quiet Australians peeling off the government as it attempts to navigate through its self-inflicted mire.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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