Opinion: Why should Labor sweep the Morrison government's incompetence under the rug?

Photo by Lukas on Pexels
Sunday 31 July 2022

By Mark Kenny

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

How long will it be plausible for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to blame the Morrison government for difficulties facing the country?

On one level it is ridiculous that immediately upon replacing a three-term government notorious for letting problems fester, this question is even valid. The modern news cycle is lamentably shallow, but surely it is not so superficial as to designate wanton public policy disasters as old news.

Yet senior ministers are weighing this danger right now - especially in light of the promise made by Albanese that his government would "do politics differently" and that the atmosphere in parliament would be more productive, respectful and collaborative.

After just one week of sitting, the tone of Question Time in both houses looked better but not dramatically so as ministers justifiably hammered their vanquished foes for multiple policy and administrative failures.

Two of the standouts were first-time ministers, Clare O'Neil in Home Affairs, and Anika Wells in Aged Care. Each has been handed plenty of past failure to critique and each has prosecuted the case with verve.

More broadly, however, the aggressive atmosphere has rocked the new and mostly female newbies on the expanded crossbenches.

After raising eyebrows to each other as skirmishes kicked off, they are now discussing what they might do to drive an improvement in parliamentary tone. More will be said about this in coming weeks with some form of direct action one possibility.

As to the shelf-life of a new government blaming the last lot, don't expect that to end soon. Why should it?

Peter Costello and John Howard were still banging on about Labor's $96 billion of debt a dozen years later. Through the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison reigns, the Coalition never tired of talking about irresponsible GFC spending by the Rudd and Gillard governments. Not to mention Labor's boats policy. Disgracefully, this was still getting a run on election day this year!

Yet already some commentators are tut-tutting about Albanese Labor's tendency to frame problems instead of simply fixing them.

And it is not just the usual suspects. Within hours of Treasurer Jim Chalmers making a suitably dire economic statement to the House of Representatives last Thursday, the Sydney Morning Herald published an editorial under the headline "Chalmers should drop the sob story and outline his policies".

Sob story? Inflation slated for 7.75 per cent, with interest rates in hot pursuit and real wages slipping further behind? Mortgage defaults, unemployment and a parsimonious $46-per-day dole that will buy even less? This is a sob story? Priceless. Thankfully, the text of the editorial was more measured.

Still, this is typical of the certitude that comes from a media pack who routinely failed to appreciate the scale of Coalition underperformance over nine years in office. Indeed, too often press gallery journalists appeared flattered by the PM's selective attention with some asking questions of the opposition leader supplied by the PM's office. Many also ignored, until election night, the reason for the tidal shift in voter sentiment (Morrison) which saw the Liberal Party haemorrhaging support from its heartland, and one-third of voters declaring their intention to go to "others".

Yes, the economy has sharply deteriorated since the beginning of the year and that nosedive has steepened in the last couple of months. Does that make it Labor's doing? To claim so is absurd.

Even before Chalmers spoke, the Opposition's economic spokesperson, Angus Taylor was doing the broadcast rounds lamenting Labor's lack of a plan. Taylor, who presided over no discernible plan in energy policy and never failed to insert politics into the gap where it might reside, says Labor should by now have worked it all out.

In fact, Chalmers had got the political process right - fully outline the problem, establish clearly why, and only once that has been explained, propose the policy solutions.

"This is about giving you the best sense we can of what is really going on, because there is no use tiptoeing around the pressure that people are under," the new Treasurer told voters from the Despatch Box.

"You didn't send us to this place to bury the bad news or gloss over the glaring issues or wish away the warning signs or to pretend that our problems will solve themselves with more waiting, and more wasting time. That approach has already given our country a wasted decade of missed opportunities ... nine years of mess can't be cleaned up in nine weeks - it will take time."

Which part of this is contestable? There's no shortage of evidence. Things like the incompetence in aged care, the endemic abuse of discretionary local grants, the treatment of universities and the arts, or the betrayal of vital foreign policy equities besmirched by climate change denial, faux regional engagement, and domestically motivated sabre-rattling.

If it was ever in doubt, the clarity of defeat has shown the pandemic didn't ruin the Coalition's third term agenda; it gave it one.

The COVID crisis provided cover for inactivity in key areas of national importance.

Now promoted to deputy Liberal leader, Sussan Ley as environment minister, received a crucial state of the environment report in December and apparently thought nothing of hiding it for six months lest it damage the government's re-election bid.

Labor will encounter its own problems in time, and no will doubt weather a scandal or three before its number is finally called.

But if it succumbs to media lecturing to forget the last government, it will end up owning a lot more than its own failings.

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:  4 August 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager