Watching and hoping, Mr Morrison
With our post-election parliament finally operative, what can we now expect from the new Morrison government? For the last two months our media has carried opinions on what happened on May 18. How did Scott Morrison gain his ‘miracle’ victory? Or perhaps more pertinently, how did Opposition Leader Bill Shorten come to reverse the old adage that ‘Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them’? Many Coalition MPs will believe they did it all themselves. On the contrary, I take nothing away from the prime minister’s canny, dogged and highly energetic campaign when I say that people didn’t so much vote for him as they voted against Shorten and his threatening policy package. As my pre-election Dis-Con Note (‘How to vote, conservatively’, 11/05/19) said, ‘the Scott Morrison-led Coalition would not normally be worthy of our votes’. However, ‘given that we cannot contemplate a Shorten Labor government’, it was necessary to hold your nose and preference the Coalition.
Even then, many Dis-Con votes did not return directly to the Liberals, but filtered back to them indirectly. In the key state of Queensland, for example (and much the same was true in Western Australia), while the Liberal National party vote barely rose to 43.7 per cent (from 43.2 in the 2016 election), big gains were made by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party (up from 5.5 per cent to 8.86 per cent) and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (from zero to 3.34 per cent), with strong majorities of their preferences flowing back to the LNP. This suggests that Morrison has not really succeeded in what still needs to be his primary task of winning back the Dis-Con vote.
Of course, Morrison may take the view that, with Labor now headed by a life-long, deeply committed leftie in Anthony Albanese; with Shorten still prominent on its front bench; and with little sign that majority support exists within Labor ranks for a genuine move back towards the sensible centre, that will suffice yet again to carry his government through the 2022 election. On that calculation, Morrison could contemplate a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ policy agenda involving little change from where we stand today.
So far, with one exception, that seems to be the course in prospect. With its taxation policy promises triumphantly achieved, the government is now moving to revive its Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill, to enact a number of national security measures, and so on. There is also said to be a Bill in drafting by Attorney-General Christian Porter to protect religious freedoms; but although (as the Israel Folau case demonstrates) such freedoms certainly do need to be protected, so – and even more importantly – does freedom of speech more generally. The exception stems from Morrison’s having also placed workplace relations in the hands of Porter – one of the few frontbenchers with the drive and intellectual fire power to push through significant change (e.g., amending the unfair dismissals legislation to relieve small employers of the ‘go away money’ scandal) in this long neglected area. But when it comes to bringing us Dis-Cons back inside the Liberal tent, measures of those kinds won’t do the trick. The reason is that these measures (except for what may emerge on religious freedoms) relate only to economics. The Dis-Cons, by contrast, need to be convinced that we now have not just a somewhat less Labor-lite government than its Malcolm Turnbull predecessor, but one centred on genuinely conservative values. If – which is by no means clear – Morrison had the imagination to discern it, this presents him with a great opportunity – one that, if pursued, could ensure his name really would stand in the pantheon of our greatest prime ministers.
What if Morrison were to announce a series of decisions, some large but many small, that all pointed in a conservative direction? Suppose, for example, he were to say that, while Australia would continue to adhere to its Paris Agreement undertakings regarding carbon dioxide emissions, it would no longer attend the interminable series of meetings of the Contracting Parties, nor would it contribute another cent towards the Green Climate Fund. What if, better still, he were to emulate Trump in establishing a public inquiry, comprising real scientists both national and international, into the whole matter of ‘climate change’, and the (ir)relevance of human-produced carbon dioxide emissions to that topic?
There are literally dozens of ways in which it would be open to Morrison to give a clear, non-temporising lead. For example, whenever some academic activist or some puffed-up corporate ‘champion for change’ (think, ANZ Bank re Israel Folau’s wife, Maria) enjoins us to be more politically correct, he should come down on such nonsense like the proverbial ton of bricks; and believe me, when he does, all those ‘quiet people’ who won him this election will cheer him to the echo. Or again, instead of temporising, characteristically, on the footling matter of so-called ‘recognition’ of Aboriginal Australians in our Constitution, Morrison should come out and flatly dismiss the proposals as an intrinsically bad idea that is never going to happen (as, to do him rare credit, Malcolm Turnbull said in October 2017). Hold on, though, you might say. There are still numerous (though fewer) ‘moderates’ in the Liberal parliamentary party room, who surely won’t put up with such a clear swing to the right. Amusingly, however, it is now these ‘moderates’ who, as Mark Textor (in)famously said of us Dis-Cons in 2015, ‘have nowhere else to go’. What are, say, the Trent Zimmermans of this world going to do? Cross the floor and vote with the Labor-Greens alliance? Even their complaisant pre-selectors wouldn’t put up with that for long. So, over to you, Mr Morrison. We Dis-Cons will be watching, and hoping.