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The Victory of Small Visions: Scott Morrison Retains Government

Australian politics since the 1990s has been marked by a dedicated loathing of the “vision thing”. For those keen to see policies lasting beyond the life of the Mayfly, disappointment lies. Federal governments, at best, have shelf lives of three short years. Governments are effectively encouraged to be agents of small change if, indeed, they are to be agents of any change whatsoever. Anything beyond that is bound to be what Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister terms “courageous”, so brave as to be an act of folly and a discouragement.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten of the Australian Labor Party never quite had it. He had, it is true, overseen the end of two prime ministers – Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – and came close to sneaking in during the 2016 election. But his stewardship of the federal Labor Party never cured that sense of a permanent “trust deficit”. Not even a phalanx of credible female politicians, aided by his wife’s support, were able to protect him against a highly personalised campaign that stressed the simple, the visceral, and, the importance of self-interest. The world might be burning, but what did that matter to retirees concerned about their share income from franked dividends?

Labor’s strategy had been geared towards a battle of details kept in a stuffing of income distribution. But the campaign got bogged down. Documents and policy statements were designed for the deposed Turnbull. With the coming to power of Scott Morrison after a palace coup in 2018, a sense of hopeless fun pervaded proceedings. This was not an election for him to win – keeping losses to a minimum would have been seen as an achievement of sorts.

Shorten, in contrast, exuded agitation and weariness. He seemed to wear the spectral crown of an impending coronation with discomfort. Morrison, in turn, revelled, getting his hands dirty, donning a baseball cap, making sporting analogies and being seemingly everywhere.  A fossil he might have been, but a very enthusiastic campaigner he proved to be, leaving his opponent ragged.

The election was an object lesson of personal politics. Morrison made the election a matter of himself. He became a ventriloquist for the “quiet Australian voters”.  He muzzled other ministers, and patched over the fact that Coalition government had done away with two of its own prime ministers since winning power in 2013. Astonishingly, he could use the term “stability” and get away with it, masking the party’s own dysfunction and lurch to the right.

Climate change disappeared from coalition discussions; the environment minister, Melissa Price, went into hermetic hiding. Having given Indian mining giant Adani approval on water management plans in the long battle of the Galilee Basin, the onus was on Labor to show their colours. In the process, they were wedged: to oppose Adani for environmental grounds sounded like a rebuke to miners, however fictional and disingenuous the projected figures of the Indian company were. Pro-Adani Labor members of parliament such as Cathy O’Toole in the North Queensland seat of Herbert were left in outer orbit from the metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne.

There have already been attempts to see the Australian federal election of 2019 as a version of Trump 2016 or Brexit.  Predictably, similar venting has taken place at the result, with despondent voters snorting on social media that they would move to New Zealand to escape the ignoramuses of the Australian populace.

The comparisons, and the responses, have been facile, and can only be sustained if you remain a continuing believer in the flawed witchdoctor’s art of opinion polls. In other senses, the Australian federal election was won, and lost, along lines markedly similar to the 1990s. Queensland always tended to be out of reach, with Labor hugging the metropolitan regions and incapable of convincing rural and less urbanised dwellers that they were a safe option. When Labor did return to power in 2007 with Kevin Rudd at the helm, it did so with a leader from Queensland, and a figure billed as the ALP version of John Howard.  

Throughout the Howard years, federal Labor found itself constantly incapable of recovering the “aspirational” blue-collar voters who had found comfort in the arms of the conservative Coalition government.  Howard’s book-keeping ruthlessness and refusal to countenance abstract notions stood him in good stead. If you cannot reduce policies to spreadsheets and ledgers, forget it. This came with a good dose of fright – terrorists, boat people, refugees – when needed.

Morrison’s own words suggest a re-incarnation of Howard on several levels. Those who voted for him “have their dreams, they have their aspirations, to get a job, to get an apprenticeship, to start a business, to meet someone amazing, to start a family, to buy a home, to work hard and provide the best you can for your kids, to save for your retirement.” This was cradle-to-grave simplicity.

Morrison’s positioning of Labor as a penny-pinching tax agent with a spending agenda writ large did the trick. And even if the effect of their income distribution policies would have had virtually no impact on the blue-collar vote let alone a good number of young voters, the damage was done: they were said to be going after hard earned cash and the precious share income of retirees. Rumours abounded in the state of Queensland that Shorten’s Labor party might also be considering bringing back the unpopular death tax. (Nothing of the sort had been planned, but rumours have remarkably agile wings.)

The victory of Morrison was, at its end, not for an idea, but an absence of ideas. There were no Periclean orations, and no concerns about the fate of humanity beyond elemental, immediate desires. Future elections are bound to repeat this pattern. The lengthy dossiers and policy manifestoes are bound to be scrapped, and targets kept small. But even as Morrison celebrates, his hardnosed strategists such as Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos are thinking how best to pinch the ideas of substance from the defeated Labor opposition. Even ad men need some tincture of substance from time to time.

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12 comments

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  1. Neil

    I think this a moment of incredible weakness, for both parties. Only a month ago we thought the Liberal Party would implode. Now it’s Labor’s turn. I believe the centre is collapsing and this will be a false dawn for Scooter, the most absurd, truculent non-entity almost in an Aristotelian sense to run for ”office”. The real questions are China and ‘revolution’ in culture?

  2. Phil

    Enough of the waffle on this subject it could fill a history museum. Shorten lost this election end of, he has all the charisma of a dead dried out speckled trout. Watching the media and Morrison walk all over Shorten was pathetic in the extreme. What’s more, Bowen should be taken out and shot for the unmitigated disaster of ‘ Franking Credits’.They should have waited to be elected before springing that monumental cock up on the greedy bastards in our ranks. The Labor party needs to get back to its roots. It needs to have a purge, enough with the lawyers and other academics who frankly couldn’t find their own arse holes with both hands.

    As one who voted for Albanese last time he put in for the job. after watching his performance this morning at a media stop, rattling off a load of self congratulatory swill, that was a bullet well missed. Anyone listening to him would have thought he had found a cure for cancer. They need a head kicker and the longer they put off putting one in the longer they are going to be in opposition. Someone like Keating who I loath would have had Morrison on his knees. I despair.

    Just wait the real fun is about to start. I can’t wait to see the look on people’s faces when the pension age goes up to seventy, when old people will need a mortgage for blood tests etc. Those few left on penalty rates wont be happy. We have lost the collective plot.

  3. Cool Pete

    The worst aspect of this election, too, is that the evil Dutton was returned.

  4. RosemaryJ36

    IMHO the worst outcome is once more putting action on climate change on hold for another 3 years.
    The Coalition are responsible for criminal neglect of our most urgent problem.

  5. New England Cocky

    The 2022 Federal election campaign has started already. Solidarity for ever ‘cos the union makes us strong!

  6. John

    Ironically the “conservatives” carry on about the curse of identity politics, yet there entire spiel was an appeal to to their supporters very individual family and religious identity – whats in it for me and my family.
    Such policies are of course reinforced by focus groups which enable their propaganda machine to target and play/appeal to the concerns of the focus group which vary from region to region, even suburb to suburb, especially suburbs with a significant number of conservative religionists.

  7. Matters Not

    Someone should have a quiet word in Bowen’s ear and tell him to keep his head well down – not run for any leadership positions – keep doing the mathematical calculations (he’s good at that apparently) – but stay well away from the political policy making process for at least a decade.

    But I suspect he won’t. Not that I think Albo is the answer. In an ideal world, Wong would be – but in terms of name, appearance, gender, sexual preference and the like, it’s not even a remote possibility. More’s the pity that the best intellect in the Parliament will remain on the sidelines.

  8. Michael Faulkner

    While there are multiple factors as to how Labor lost this election, there are two elephants in the room that the mainstream media skip over quickly and superficially, in their breathless quest to turn this into a contest between just two personalities, in so doing, accepting totally at face value Morrison’s defensive ploy to avoid the policy vacuum the Liberals ran on.

    First, my understanding is that Rupert Murdoch has not lost an election in this country, since 1969.
    This includes a couple of times his media outlets have grudgingly supported Labor. So much for the statement that Queensland don’t like ‘ foreigners’ such as Tasmanian Bob Brown telling them what to do, given that NewsCorp media almost totally carpet bombs that state on a daily basis, offering political, social and economic views that are always designed to advance that corporation’s commercial interests.

    Second, the other elephant in the room is Clive Palmer’s massive media advertising blitz to augment NewsCorp’s condemnation of Labor and its leader at this election. Again this was a commercial decision, that will yield financial rewards for Palmer, and under the Morrison government, assist in the continuing march towards plutocracy in this country.

    While Labor consistently sought to focus on policy matters, and to emphasise the team approach of effective governance, equally consistently these directions were distorted by media outlets, and particularly by the media savvy advertising man, Scott Morrison.

    If ever there was a need to be developing alternative media platforms, it is now. If ever there was a need to curb financial interests corrupting the democratic process in this country, it is now.

    The new Labor leadership contest will just become titillation fodder in the mainstream media in coming weeks, effectively providing a veil over the many pressing issues this nation faces, and which the electorate is encouraged not to consider. Instead, many will continue to watch the trivia and the ephemeral paraded on daily on morning television shows offered by the commercial television stations, and continue to have their political views shaped by addictions to watching programs such as ‘ Married at First Sight’ or ‘ Game of Thrones. ’ Then living in the dominant paradigm bubble that envelopes Australia, a narrow band of perspectives is reinforced by the pervasive Murdoch newspapers and Sky News, just everywhere: airports, fast food outlets and cafes, doctors waiting rooms, and many other places.

    The ‘miracle ‘ is not that Scott Morrison could win this election, but rather, given the sheer forces of opposition aligned against it, that Labor could win it.

  9. New England Cocky

    The media reports today 220519 that Shorten is continuing to impede the will of the people by advocating against Albanese. I do NOT take that as any more than continued propaganda, but if true it is time that the ALP woke up to itself and elected a leader on merit rather than union affiliations.

  10. guest

    Phil and Cocky

    The character assassination and the connection with unions have been the linch pins of criticism from Murdoch and the Right ever since Shorten entered politics. It is the modus operandi of the Right. See how they attack everybody whom they regard as an enemy, especially if he looks as if he might be successful.

    They attack him for his marriage (he is a social climber); his religion (he turned from Catholic to Anglican); he colluded with big business; he refused to kow-tow to Murdoch; he has ideas opposed to IPA ideological base; he thinks about people as opposed to the mantra of money worshiped by the entrepreneurial go-getters…

    Shorten’s speeches are the best I have heard in the past six years compared to the rants and lies of Abbott, the muddled politics of Turnbull and the shouting of snake-oil man Morrison.

    Perhaps Shorten should have spoken more often, not just in the reply to Budget speech, but he did go around the country speaking in halls large and small. For a while he led the Government 54-46 and the Coalition lost some 58 polls in a row.

    But Bill was no match for the vindictive assault of Murdoch and the shouty bullying of Morrison, aided and abetted by sleepy Palmer.

    And not just against Shorten, but also against the ABC with protests of bias if anything was broadcast which criticised the Right. One of the topics which opposed the Murdoch scribblers was Climate Change/Global Warming which Murdoch espoused only as a collection of weird denier anti-science on almost a daily basis.

    With Murdoch propaganda dominant in Queensland, no wonder Queenslanders see Adani and coal as the go-to occupation, with no consideration of the CC/GW consequences of burning coal. Despite the fat that Queensland is one state badly suffering from CC/GW effects, some of which are concealed in the misinformation espoused by some scientists clearly implicated in vested interests.

    What is really disppointing is the fact this Government, which has proven itself to be bereft of ideas, shut up shop for the past six months, shouting misinformation at us from a one man band while so many of the ministry either retired or hid out of sight.

  11. Phil

    guest
    May 22, 2019 at 3:00 pm .

    I agree with most of that except Shorten for mine is, that shallow he could parachute out of a snakes arse. I hate to repeat myself but, Keating would have had Morrison on his knees. Moreover, the media would have been more than careful asking Keating stupid questions. Btw Hawke and Keating were and are no friends of the working class.

    Until the left in this country invests in a frequency on the radio spectrum and Television, they will go on with their short stays in government forever. The Tories have it all sewn up. I have mentioned before, I was corresponding with the editor of one of the local rags in my area, after my complaints of bias, he at least replied and conceded the bias I was complaining about was real. He told me ” Do like we do” Buy your own paper. Simple really.

    But for mine, make no mistake it was Gillard, Shorten, Combet, and others I’d rather forget, that in the end gave us Morrison. The coup on Rudd was the start of the rot and the party hasn’t recovered since. Oh the irony of Abbott getting the arse who was no doubt involved in the coup. Gillard’s votes in the caucus against the working class are well known, but to listen to the feminists, she was a ‘ Joan of Arc ‘ no less. For mine, the experiment with the lawyers and other accademics running the Labor party should be over. These new crop of politicians Labor is grooming has as much in common with the workers, as Gina Rhinehart. Time to have a good clean out.

  12. Paul Davis

    Golly, they aren’t wasting any time. The Ruling Class have telegraphed their intentions to attack the industry super funds regardless of their clean bill of health in the Haynes RC. Apparently these funds are controlled by the unions and syphon off vast sums of the hard working mums and dads money to themselves and their Labor mates. Of course this is true, ask any Fin Review, NewsCorp or even ABC finance journalist. Meanwhile the shonky insurance industry and the banks will carry on business as usual.

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