Opinion: Anthony Albanese's government is beset with problems after years of Scott Morrison neglect

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Sunday 19 June 2022

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

In the end, a government in thrall to its leader's supposed electoral mastery ended with a whimper.

Unable to list big reforms it proposed perhaps the thinnest future program attempted by a governing party.

For all his preening certainty, his claims to unique competence, Scott Morrison's premiership will be remembered coldly, when discussed at all. Cited mainly for climate failure, pork barrelling, and for acting only when all other options were exhausted.

While lacking polish at times, Anthony Albanese held his nerve in sticking with his original conviction that Morrison's character must remain the focus of voters.

That approach combined with the accelerating rise of third-party alternatives, and a degree of strategic non-Labor voting by Labor supporters, accounts for its primary vote, which, as my colleagues Nicholas Biddle and Ian McAllister note, was the lowest of any incoming government in Australian history.

A month later, the country feels like it is stretching out, both internally and to the world.

Yet the freshly minted Labor government faces huge problems.

Albanese may have wanted to hasten slowly but has been given no chance of that. Some problems such as inflation and soaring energy prices are globally derived, but all have been worsened by the neglect of his predecessor.

Consider the policy areas in need of immediate decisions. Climate-energy, hospitals, disability services, housing, aged care, early childhood education, Pacific relations, China, galloping inflation and rising interest rates. All against a debt-addled budget in need of repair and growing fears of a global recession.

If there is a disconnect between the policy-scant election theatre and the policy-heavy exigencies facing the new government, it originated in the inaction of the previous government.

This does not make remedial action easier, just more urgent. As any reforming government can attest, doing stuff is risky. Change creates asymmetries in which any beneficiaries tend to be diffuse whereas the losers anticipate their pain even before it happens.

Think back to the febrile 2019 debate over franking credit refunds currently paid out on share earnings. The change proposed by Labor (in opposition) was sound, and would have freed up billions for legitimate programs, yet it died when even pensioners with no shares fretted about losses.

Quick to tease up that alarm, the Morrison government addressed itself to no such structural challenges, content instead to bank the gallery applause for managing internal Coalition angularities.

What passed for outwardly governing too often involved creating grievances, and then presenting divisive solutions. Religious discrimination legislation being a good example.

As the reform needs gathered, parliament remained on light duties.

The looming expiry dates for a series of short-term political fixes attest to Morrison's chronic short-termism.

The halving of the 44 cent petrol excise runs only until September. Similarly, the briefly augmented low and middle incomes tax offset pays out its cash rebates from next month - before being discontinued altogether - notwithstanding the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

Ditto for the brief period of Commonwealth parity funding of hospitals at 50/50 with the states which was slated to end in September also, before Albanese extended it again at Friday's national cabinet meeting.

Typically, each of these was a problem salve rather than a problem solve - piecemeal action calculated to get the government through the election while changing nothing structurally.

The most cynical political fix was the net-zero charade through 2021 designed to neutralise a political problem of the Coalition's own toxic design.

Yet the election campaign would bring one final fix - Morrison's campaign-launch housing policy - which was withheld to the last week - after millions of people had already voted.

Usually, the campaign directors of the major parties deliver post-election debriefs to the National Press Club.

Of course, it's easier to front up when you've just won as Laura Tingle noted dryly on Wednesday, while introducing Labor's national secretary, Paul Erickson.

Incredulous to the government's empty offering, Erickson singled out the housing policy as indicative of the Coalition's core problem.

"It wasn't until the final six days of the campaign that the Liberals offered a new idea and when they did, it was a desperate attempt to make the superannuation system a new front in their ongoing culture wars."

According to Labor's research at the time, it "fell flat" when "voters saw it for what it was - bad policy that would undermine the superannuation system and push up house prices".

One did not need hindsight to conclude that Morrison's political judgment deserved none of the strategic genius status so routinely attached to him after the 2019 win.

A pressing question for political historians is, why did his party stick with him as he drove it off a cliff, taking some of its best and brightest with him?

How did they allow him to position them on the wrong side of voters on so many issues?

Remember during the campaign, Morrison lambasted Albanese as a "loose economic unit" for backing an inflation-equalling wage rise for the lowest paid?

Other Liberals said nothing, despite the fact that the take-out for voters from Morrison's attack was that he wanted wages to go backwards and was saying it aloud during an election campaign!

Note that the fully independent Fair Work Commission has since granted that pay rise, and in fact, exceeded it.

Of course, by then Morrison had already convinced voters he would do nothing about the poor treatment and under-representation of women and would not act decisively against corruption in politics.

Surely the most telling pointer to the result though was that the PM could not even enter his party's safest seats.

If that didn't alert his MPs, what would it have taken? Many of them are now asking themselves these questions as the search for work.

Mark Kenny is a political analyst for The Canberra Times. He is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast. 

Updated:  20 June 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager