Scott Morrison may have done Anthony Albanese a big favour by taking some time from his paterfamilial labours saving the nation from coronavirus to engage instead in a little discreet fundraising and rallying of the Coalition's troops. A leader of the opposition has only limited opportunities to score political points during a time of national crisis - and if and when he does, however mildly, he is likely to be accused of having no decency or sense of restraint at a time when we all ought to be pulling together. Now, however, he can feel permissioned.
It is not entirely true that he has been hogtied since coronavirus reached our shores. We only recently had a byelection, for example; indeed it was one that Labor won. (It was altogether typical of Labor's present seeming incapacity to grab control of the narrative from News Corp organs that it seems to accept that it won only by the skin of its teeth, and that it morally lost the contest.) But the battle for Eden-Monaro was a very restrained affair - in no way presented to electors as some sort of referendum on how the Prime Minister and his government were managing the assaults from COVID-19. It was to be, all agreed, fought strictly on issues local to the electorate, and, apparently, with only passing reference to the fact that Australia at large had sunk into deep recession, with parts of the electorate providing very good examples of it.
No doubt Albanese did not want to make this the centrepiece of his campaign, given the consensus that Morrison was managing the crisis fairly well - in particular shifting sharply from Liberal dogma about deficits and government debt to enormous public spending designed to reduce the effect of sudden unemployment, the collapse in business operations and sharply reduced incomes. His calm, and seeming willingness to embrace radical measures, was in some contrast to his appearances during the bushfire season, as it happened particularly in the electorate of Eden-Monaro only months before.
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The polls seemed to suggest both that Morrison had learnt from the debacle, and that he had retrieved much of his lost popularity - even if many of those who had suffered greatly from the bushfires were still suffering from bureaucracy and delays in rebuilding their lives and their communities. Likewise, Labor, now split on what to do about climate change (even if it is agreed that whatever it decides will involve even less courage than before), seemed unable to compete hard on the fact that the Coalition candidate was an open climate sceptic. One might have thought that Eden-Monaro, of all places, had constituents who had faced fires of an intensity and scope never before seen, in part because of global warming. Albanese is a reasonably effective and experienced campaigner, and had a personable enough candidate. But he seemed strangely reluctant to rouse voters, or to make the occasion one for an appeal to the broader Australian population. Never has Labor seemed so prepared to die wondering. The weeks after saw party bickering over coal and support for the mining industry, some members openly plotting sabotage, and a leader still seemingly content to keep his head down, waiting for an opportune and appropriate moment.
One can see the risks, whether for him or for Labor. He could be seen to be - and he could certainly be accused of - upsetting that sense of national unity and "we are all in this together" spirit which Morrison and the state and territory premiers and chief ministers have engendered. He could be accused of breaking the nation up into tribes again, and of undermining that common resolve by which sections of the population (for example, younger workers or students) have suffered so that the population as a whole, but particularly older Australians, are more safe. We have seen elsewhere around the world, particularly in the United States, how a fractious and partisan spirit, manipulated by political leaders, has undermined public health efforts and potentiated the spread of the disease.
Should Albanese be acting as though Australia were engaged in an honourable war in which we were, for the moment, desperately, calling on all loyal citizens to swing behind the commander in chief? After all, it might be said, the premiers and chief ministers had done so. Or, when they had their differences of opinion about the facts or the relevant priorities, they had had their arguments behind closed doors, and maintained a public veneer of unity and mutual respect.
Morrison has never been so vulnerable to fundamental attack. It is about time the Albanese army began probing his defences.
The public indeed might have increased their respect for Morrison when they saw his hopes that he would be bestriding the stage alone - the undoubted leader and saviour of the people - fall to the political realities of a different progress of COVID-19 around Australia, requiring different local responses. He allowed room for different responses, and concentrated on getting as much unity of general purpose as he could. Although the Commonwealth alone has the borrowing power to throw tens of billions at the economy, many of the practical responses, and many of the powers required, have been vested in the states.
Yet the very give and take that this has required from Morrison has seen him expose his weakness. State premiers may be blamed if anything goes wrong locally - such as when passengers on a cruise ship are allowed to disembark without even a cursory check of their disease status, or when, as it seems, there is appalling mismanagement of compulsory quarantine arrangements at Melbourne hotels. One can expect, in any event, that the hysteria of News Corp's animosity to the eastern Labor premiers will see them blamed even when it is not their fault. That campaigning was at one stage attacking the Victorian Premier, Dan Andrews, for not moving quickly enough to relax controls; soon after, when a reason for his reluctance became clear, it was accusing him of being gung-ho and taking too many risks.
The impact of the resurgent pandemic in Victoria over the past few weeks has reinforced the natural sense of caution of the premiers (Gladys Berejiklian least of all). It will continue, whether in arguments about school closures, the wearing of masks, the blockading of cities (and even states), and soon, no doubt, forms of state and Commonwealth intervention to protect people in nursing homes. One can never be wrong in wanting more precautions, longer periods of shutdown and fewer opportunities for the virus to spread. If the disease does not spread after all, it is proof of the efficacy of the controls. If it does spread, it shows that one should have been more cautious, not less.
Throughout the arguments, Morrison has been the person most anxious to get things going again, least patient with arguments for delay or some continuing controls and most inclined to "have a go" despite some risks involved. That is quite understandable - down the track he is much more likely to be judged by the extent of the economic recovery he has fostered than for his crisis management of the pandemic itself. The longer it takes to get a serious recovery started - over most or all of the federation - the longer the economic agony will be prolonged, and there is a real risk that the social and economic damage of the pandemic may make any short- or medium-term recovery impossible. Yet If things do go awry, Morrison will generally be seen, publicly, to be on the wrong side of caution - potentially the person who, with the help of tame advisers, needlessly exposed us to more death and disease.
Should Albanese plunge right into the fray, attacking Morrison and his lead ministers for their performance, or for their program or lack of one? Should Labor be nasty, with carping criticisms of officials no doubt working flexibly and inventively, if sometimes disastrously, in completely novel circumstances? Should it be loudly calling everyone to account and making them paralysed by fright and unwilling to do anything which might be criticised? Should it be indulgent with the public-spirited business folk riding their hobby-horses to town, if this time on the public payroll and with their supposed independent and disinterested advice sheltered behind a bogus claim of Cabinet confidentiality? Is it time, in short, for politics as usual? Or would that be insensitive to the public mood?
One thing is for certain. Labor can hardly expect the mood of the public to lean in its direction unless it is part of the discussion about the right things to do. That's not a part for which Morrison has allocated much space - even less so given his capacity to close Parliament when it is politically convenient. A parliament suits only an effective opposition at the moment.
Labor's present sotto voce criticisms are not being heard by the public - scarcely even by that part of the political class consumed by the day-to-day exchanges. An effective opposition has to be heard. It ought to have an alternative approach - one which, one might hope, was guided by its philosophical fundamentals. Such criticisms might be respectful but firm. They might be scathing or divisive. But they ought to let the public knows where Labor stands at the most critical moments since the end of World War II.
If all that we can expect is some slight difference of emphasis in social and economic measures - the inclusion, for example, of university employees, or a nod to the arts sector by giving money to the ABC - Labor will have failed to present itself as a worthy alternative government. Labor has never had such an opportunity to show that it stands for certain things the other side does not, and that it approaches social, political and economic problems with a different frame of mind and a different optimism about what members of a community can achieve for each other.
Forget the trench battles. There's a war to be won
Morrison has never been so vulnerable to fundamental attack. It is about time the Albanese army began probing his defences.
There are some who would argue that Labor is compromised in its effort to sell a philosophy of government because Morrison and his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, have made a great lurch to the left - towards a "socialist", certainly a Keynesian vision - in seeking to batten down the hatches. Does this pre-empt a genuine battle of ideas and ideals?
Certainly, if only because of the limitations that the Morrison government unnecessarily put on its abandonment of its debt and deficit dogma. For one thing, not much of the billions being spent so far is actually doing anything, or building or making anything. It is merely sustaining people who are not working, and businesses that are not making profits. There's vague talk of infrastructure projects, and some encouragement to engage in house-building or renovations, but there has been no shift of resources, capital, or human capital into projects that will create new public and private wealth for years to come. There is little the government has done yet that is capable of creating that business and consumer confidence that will see companies invest, put on new employees, and develop that sense of security and belief in the future that individuals, families and communities will spend. Indeed, as I discussed last week, the government seems so afeared of doing (or paying for) too much that its very meanness of spirit is likely to make prudent workers concentrate on lowering their debt rather than buying more.
It is also clear that this government imagines there will be some magic moment in the future - perhaps in two or three years - when it can be said that the recovery has occurred, that growth has resumed, and that there is no longer any occasion for government to be "propping up" the economy. At this point, government debt may well have reached the trillion-dollar mark. That debt may not be repaid in our lifetimes, but that will not trouble Morrison so much as the risk or the possibility that he cannot resume efforts to work towards an annual surplus again. His "Australian" way of solving problems has worked hard to ensure that there has been no structural increase in the size of the public service, or in programs by which goods and services are supplied to citizens, directly or indirectly. The coronavirus measures stand separate from the ordinary budget and can be turned on or off at will. There is no plan to increase general spending in any area other than defence.
There is no vision of a better Australia, a healthier Australia, a more educated and inventive Australia, or a better-connected Australia that Morrison or the government hopes will be a legacy of these times and of this unprecedented, but effectively one-off, burst of public spending.
In the Depression era, and in the Whitlam era when governments developed labour market programs to sop up the pools of unemployed, critics sometimes accused the government of getting people to paint rocks, or to dig holes and fill them in again. In some places, things like that happened. In other areas, councils seized with a sense of social purpose used programs to improve local roads, to kerb and gutter, to put in sewers, improve power supplies and to refurbish public buildings, including schools, hospitals and aged care facilities. More than a million Australians are presently getting pandemic payments because of the hardship caused to them by the shutdown of the economy. But most - certainly right now - are doing the equivalent of painting rocks, if only because of a hope that, sooner or later, their old job will be back. The truth is that for more than half of them future employment will be with new employers, often in new industries. It would be better if educational and vocational training services were being retooled right now for that purpose, rather than left to wither as a part of the Coalition's distaste for the academy, for culture, and for training provided through the community, rather than, badly, for profit.
There is no reason why Labor should feel constrained in attacking poor ministers or poor performance. But there are systemic weaknesses ripe for political exploitation. One is the way in which the crisis has made worse the reflex Morrison tendency to be less and less accountable, to be more and more secretive, to reward and operate through cronies, and to use dubious stratagems to avoid having to explain his activities. That, coupled with the government's resistance to an integrity body with teeth, invites real questions about actual corruption, or a corruption of the idea of fair dinkum and transparent government in the public interest.
Labor does not need to adopt pie-in-the-sky projects, let alone ones of dubious economic, social and environmental value. Its first goal, as after World War II, is the establishment of full employment. Its second involves, or ought to involve, a better life for all, including for those who usually miss out, such as our Indigenous population. It is to be hoped that this also embraces a sense of world citizenship, in which Australians help their neighbours and act as a force for peace and social justice in our region. In physical infrastructure, there is as much scope for employing Australians, all over the continent, in refurbishing and restoring what we have, as there is in extending it. In social infrastructure, with reinvestment in public housing, in schools adapted for the 21st century, in hospitals and community health care, and in public and private facilities helping aged and disabled people live in the community or in residential facilities, the open and avowed purpose should be to improve the quality of Australian lives. That need not necessarily involve a bigger bureaucracy, but it should involve abandoning the spirit of meanness, retrenchment and limited government that has become a banner for the other side of politics.
These are, or were, goals and ideals with which Anthony Albanese was once associated, when he was a standard bearer for his party's left. He is, or was, adept and practised at articulating them. Right now he seems strategically and tactically uncertain about deploying the very gifts and charms which made him a party favourite, and the party leader. He was chosen for being what he is - or was. Not because people thought he could walk backwards on a tightrope to the party's - or the electorate's - centre.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. firstname.lastname@example.org