As election year dawns, polls point to a looming Coalition electoral catastrophe at the hands of Bill Shorten and Labor. The Liberal party still reels from the idiotic political assassination of Tony Abbott and the disastrous self-indulgent reign of Malcolm Turnbull, not to mention the fallout of the leadership change, triggered by a lethal combination of Mr Turnbull’s poor policy judgment (the ludicrously-flawed and disingenuous NEG, a carbon tax by stealth) and his poor political judgment (‘I know, I’ll call a spill — that’ll teach ‘em!’).
Sadly, 2018 ended with Scott Morrison having no clear agenda, despite so many obvious ones to choose from, and the government sleep-walking to oblivion.
But Coalition supporters can still hope. Mr Shorten is as popular as bovine flatulence in a Canberra lift. Labor wants to buy its victory with lavish tax-and-spend policies exploiting populist politics of envy. Progressive luvvie activists, troglodytic union leaders like Sally McManus, its own Left faction, and pressure from the Greens are dragging Labor further and further to the ideological and industrial left.
On the positive side, the Coalition has presided over what Mr Abbott promised in 2013: budget repair. If the April budget delivers a substantial surplus, that reflects sound economic management quietly persevering beneath the open and vicious leadership and personality conflicts that have so appalled voters and fuelled Labor’s poll numbers.
Time, however, is short. To give his government a fighting chance, the prime minister should do several things. First, reclaim the political agenda from Labor. Mr Morrison can’t wait for April and the election campaign to set out a comprehensive plan for re-election, instead relying on ad hoc policy announcements. He needs an imaginative seizing of initiative, a clear and confident message that the government has a plan, knows what it’s doing and is rediscovering classic Liberal/conservative values of smaller government, personal freedom and private enterprise big and small.
Mr Morrison and his ministers should be in their offices, right now, preparing a comprehensive manifesto for the next term of government to be launched straight after Australia Day. It must be a genuinely centre-right plan for the next three years, with core Liberal values woven through every policy and initiative, and costs offset with sensible savings. Above all, it must be bold and daring whilst avoiding last-minute fudges like the half-pregnant recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or its socialistically intervening in the energy market to reduce prices without rejecting the biggest long-term pressures on those prices: the Paris emissions reduction targets.
It’s vital Mr Morrison recasts the pre-election debate on his terms, not Mr Shorten’s. Such a wide-ranging manifesto for next term would do just that. It would reassure core Coalition supporters, giving those reluctantly flirting with Labor reason to reconsider, and the parliamentary troops something to stand for. It would give a returned government a clear mandate. And if it appeals to disillusioned donors, all the better.
Second, get the government’s campaigning house in order. Get the best team on the paddock, and that means giving the Coalition’s best stumpers, Mr Abbott and Barnaby Joyce, major roles in both selling a positive vision and attacking Labor, and in the war room where their campaigning talents can bolster a team that, on recent performances, couldn’t run a church cake stall. Above all, the PM must lead his team in the ideological struggle against the enemy. He can only do this by giving his troops the tools and ammunition with which to wage war against the destructive socialist forces of the Left. Start by pulling out of Paris.
Third, draw inspiration from past giants, especially John Howard and Peter Costello. The release this week of the Howard government’s earliest Cabinet papers is a reminder of what a Coalition government truly can be. In 1996, it acted decisively to honour its election promises, rein in public sector extravagance, adopted tough policy measures with losers as well as winners, saved to spend, and entrenched the prosperity of the Australian economy through bold reforms of the tax system and labour market. But in tackling gun law reform after Port Arthur, Mr Howard and Nationals leader Tim Fischer also earned the gratitude and respect of middle Australia. The success of the Howard-Costello government, of which Mr Morrison and many of his ministers were never a part, should inspire its pale successor as it fights with its back to the electoral wall.
At this late stage, fearmongering about Labor isn’t enough to save the Coalition. Rather, the Morrison government needs to show vision, initiative and political courage. It must risk all, including defeat. But if the government rediscovers what it and its supporters believe in, and shows it is willing to stand or fall on true Liberal/conservative values and principles, it might just give itself a fighting chance.