May 15, 2019

Federal politics

Our distorted politics

By Russell Marks
Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Coalition campaign launch. Source: Twitter

Why is the Coalition even competitive under Morrison?

Australians are now being told that we can expect a “narrow” Labor victory. The ALP was ahead 51–49 on a two-party-preferred basis, according to the Newspoll of May 9–11. Assuming a uniform swing across the nation, that would see Labor collect a grand total of five additional seats and limp over the line to form a 77-seat majority government.

Isn’t that prospect something of a shock? Australians have endured six years of bottom-of-the-barrel leadership and public administration. The Liberal–National Coalition government’s third prime minister, Scott Morrison – a former property and tourism industry bureaucrat and the nation’s first Pentecostal PM – has been as utterly bereft of policy solutions as his predecessors were. His government’s campaign has continued the trend, answering the ALP’s suite of policy proposals with a simplistic appeal to voters’ perceptions of which party can be trusted to better manage the nation’s finances. It was in August, around nine months ago, that Morrison became prime minister after a spill that had been forced by months of trolling by Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton and the party’s hard right. It’s difficult to imagine a more childish and churlish government than that which has been variously led by Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Morrison: a far cry from the government Abbott had originally promised, back in 2013, as stable and “grown-up” with “no excuses”.

And yet, according to news reports on May 13 – five days before polling day – Labor would just sneak into government. A full 49 per cent of voters are apparently willing to endure another three years under the Coalition – even after most of its leading members have resigned – rather than risk giving a Bill Shorten–led ALP a go. How to make sense of this state of affairs?

The first point to make must be about the reporting of the single Newspoll result itself. As is often stated but rarely heeded by news outlets, single poll results by themselves don’t mean much at all. It would have been more useful for outlets to have reported the latest Newspoll result in the context of the trends shown by aggregating the polls conducted by all major polling companies. It just so happens that William Bowe’s Poll Bludger website performs such an aggregation, and records trends in aggregate voting intentions over time on the “BludgerTrack”.

What BludgerTrack shows is that the aggregate of Newspoll, ReachTEL, Essential, Ipsos and YouGov Galaxy poll results has Labor actually sitting on a 51.7–48.3 lead. That would translate to a swing of over 2 per cent, an additional seven to nine seats and a comfortable majority of between 13 and 15 seats over a Coalition opposition.

At the time the Liberal Party’s hard right moved against Turnbull, the government’s electoral fortunes had been steadily improving since late 2017. In August last year BludgerTrack had the government behind at roughly 48–52 and trending up: a winnable position, given that dramatic narrowings in two-party-preferred poll results are normal in election years in Australia (as we’ve seen this year). The feeble explanation offered for the spill against Turnbull – that he would surely lose the next election – was about as nonsensical as switching to methamphetamines because cigarettes are too unhealthy. There are only two possible explanations: either the hard right hated Turnbull so much that it preferred electoral suicide, or it was so deluded as to believe Dutton was more electable. The obvious fact that the Coalition would have been in a much better position had Turnbull been allowed to remain as leader is curiously not spoken of now.

But why is the Coalition competitive under Morrison at all?

In the near-complete absence of policy proposals, the Morrison government’s campaign has relied on a deeply held belief in the Australian electorate: that the Liberal and National parties are better than Labor at “economic management”. It’s a belief that harks back to collective experiences of the 1990–91 recession (when Hawke–Keating Labor was in government), the 1973–75 recession (when Whitlam Labor was in government), and long boom periods between 1953 and 1966 (with the exception of a brief credit squeeze in 1961, when the Menzies Coalition was in government) and between 1992 and 2008 (which mostly overlaps with the Howard Coalition government). It’s also a belief that is often contradicted by facts: the postwar boom was set up by Labor’s government-led economic recoveries; the 1973–75 and early 1990s recessions were global (and would have been much worse in Australia had deregulation been pursued even more vigorously, as Coalition Oppositions had advocated); Howard’s era was underwritten by the rise of China and the mining boom, and he recklessly spent its bountiful proceeds on one election bribe to the middle classes after another; and Rudd Labor clearly engineered a fortuitous escape from the 2008 global financial crisis.

But the collective belief in the Coalition’s superior economic management is difficult to displace. (It’s often held by a majority of Labor voters!) We might ask, then, whether the belief stacks up with recent economic realities. Annual GDP growth, which had been on the rise under Labor following the financial crisis, slowed in about 2013 and hasn’t really recovered. Wages have grown since 2013, but at a rate noticeably slower than during the six previous years. Most other economic indicators tell a story of soundness until about 2013, collapse until 2015–16, and then slow recovery. It is tempting to link these to respective administrations; in this case the emergent narrative would show that Rudd–Gillard Labor was okay, the Turnbull–Morrison Liberals were sort of okay, and Abbott was a disaster. (How quickly we’ve forgotten Joe Hockey’s flagitious jaunt as treasurer.) Of course, it’s a narrative that’s much too cute. Australian governments tend to overplay the extent to which they can “manage the economy”; for the most part, the biggest economic trends depend on what happens elsewhere.

Ultimately there’s no real basis for the belief that the Liberal Party is better at “managing the economy” than Labor is. It’s frustrating, then, to see Morrison allowed by Australia’s political journalists to repeat the claim without being seriously questioned over it, particularly given his government’s lack of policies in key areas. Perhaps even more frustrating is the number of political journalists – and the media companies they work for – who seem to have accepted that running a budget surplus is the single most important measure of economic competency for an administration. A surplus reflects, rather than predicts, broader economic trends: it means that government spending is less than government revenues. That’s fine when the broader economy is buoyant, because the major concern then is inflation. But to actively pursue a surplus during economically sluggish periods – such as now – is folly, for the simple reason that surpluses result in economic contraction.

Australian governments may not be able to do much to influence global economic trends, but they can mitigate them – at least to an extent – for the population here. And pursuing economic policy that’s both contractionary and divisive, which is what the Coalition has done for six years, simply means that Australians are more exposed to economic shock than they might otherwise have been.

Here’s what I wrote in the wake of the 2016 election:

All of the Abbott–Turnbull government’s policies have been designed to contract the economy. Cutting social spending means taking disposable income out of the pockets of low-income earners. Pursuing a budget surplus means withdrawing stimulus from the economy, and shifting the debt burden to households. Increasing the cost of primary services (such as general practitioners) can only lead to a greater burden on the much more expensive tertiary services (such as hospitals). None of this analysis formed any part of the election coverage in Australia’s news media.

The same can be said of the situation in 2019. Why will the result of Saturday’s poll be so close? In part, because a great many Australian voters don’t know just how poorly their government has pursued their economic interests for six years.

What voters do know, however, is just how many preselected candidates have had to stand down due to one kind of indiscretion or another, ranging from youthful poor-taste jokes to sexist slurs in strip clubs. Indeed, these “resignations” (from the candidates’ respective parties, but not – awkwardly – from ballot papers) have provided perhaps the greatest talking points of the campaign.

There are three main lessons to be learnt. The first is that Twitter and Facebook are publishers, not just communication media. Had 22-year-old Luke Creasey made bad-taste jokes about rape, Catholics and lesbians in a pub in 2012, his Labor candidacy for the seat of Melbourne in 2019 – aged 29 – would presumably have been unaffected. But because he’d made the jokes on Facebook, they disqualified him.

As things stand, it’s unclear as to whether anybody who posts anything bigoted or wacky will ever be able to run for a major or minor party – even if the post is years old, and even if the post was intended in jest. This is the second lesson to be learnt from these disendorsements. The permanence of internet publishing means that a person’s character will, apparently, be judged by everything they have ever posted – and taken literally. The idea that a person’s world view might change over many years, or that a person might misrepresent their own views so as to infiltrate and investigate a rival group (which is what former Greens candidate David Paull apparently did), is seemingly difficult for us to accept. (Happily, perhaps, it only seems to be bigotry and nuttery that sticks in this way. Fabianism doesn’t, otherwise Mark Latham’s candidacy for One Nation would be unsustainable.) This may change in future as we learn more about what youthful, satirical or insincere social media posts really mean. Or it may not.

The third lesson is that there is still some conduct that goes too far for political parties – even bigoted parties like One Nation. The parties, it seems, still have a gate-keeping role in ensuring that tin-foil hats and conspiracy nuts are kept out of parliament. (Fraser Anning was an earlier failure of One Nation’s vetting processes.) But the proliferation of parties on the hard right means that the definition of political lunacy is ever narrowing.

In the scheme of things, Luke Creasey’s throwaway jokes uttered in poor taste are – or should be – of little consequence. That they’re embarrassing for Labor is obvious. But Labor is a party that, during its most recent period in government, reintroduced the indefinite imprisonment of asylum seekers on Pacific islands, continued the “intervention” in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, refused compensation to members of the Stolen Generations, placed remote communities at the mercy of the Territory government, and didn’t act on the constitutional recognition of First Nations people. That Labor could be embarrassed by some seven-year-old Facebook posts by one of its youngest candidates is quite remarkable. Likewise, that the Liberal Party could be embarrassed by Islamophobic comments by Jessica Whelan, its once-endorsed candidate for Lyons, is difficult to reconcile with that party’s readiness to trade on similar fears ever since September 2001.

Ultimately, this focus on disendorsements is just the newest example of the personality genre that plagues modern politics and its media coverage. It’s yet another titillating distraction from the questions of policy and representation that can make differences to lives.

Economically Labor didn’t do too badly last time, but its big-ticket policy items – its attempt at carbon pricing, the NDIS, a free market in undergraduate education, school “league tables”, social security contraction – were a long way from the triumphs the party hoped for in 2007.

Australia is perpetually caught between “not again please” and “at least they tried something”, generally addressed to the Coalition and Labor respectively. But each party’s respective policy record doesn’t figure prominently in journalists’ media coverage. Day after day, well-paid journalists who work for major media organisations – the ABC, Nine, News Corp, Guardian Australia – travel around with the prime minister and Opposition leader on their buses, delivering them extraordinarily valuable advertising for free. It is unclear why this practice continues in an era in which journalists’ resources are relatively scarce. Senior ministers typically refuse to answer serious questions: witness Environment Minister Melissa Price’s refusal to answer questions about her approval of the Adani coalmine now that the ABC has obtained documents showing that what she’d previously referred to as CSIRO’s “approval” was not an approval at all. The Murdoch press (and broadcasters on Sky News Australia) and the new “intellectual” right for whom it has created cultural space (in magazines like The Spectator and Quadrant) are even more rabidly anti-Labor and anti-Green than they’ve ever been. The Daily Telegraph and its bulldog brothers in the Murdoch kennel – the Herald Sun, the Courier-Mail, The Advertiser – tell their millions of suburban readers daily (hourly, if anyone can keep up with Andrew Bolt’s blog) why Labor can’t be trusted and why the Greens are practically heretical. This frenetic activity on the right regularly produces bizarre results – witness Liberal ministers vowing to protect tradies’ utes from Labor’s “socialist” electric car target, which turned out to look quite similar to the government’s own policy.

Decades of Murdoch influence and an unwillingness to curb industry rent-seeking has vastly distorted Australia’s political culture. (Compare the political culture in New Zealand, where Murdoch has no major newspapers and where Jacinda Ardern is reminding Australians – or teaching us – that our political world doesn’t need to be an interminable show reel of dog whistles, industry lobbies, Murdoch stooges, and uninspired appeals to self-interest and fear. Next to Ardern’s New Zealand, Australia – with its material excesses, its cruelty to those most desperately in need, its fossil-fuel dependence and its deregulated gambling markets – looks like a nihilistic alternate reality.) Barring unexpected events in the last days of the campaign, Labor will form government after Saturday with a small majority. Should that happen, Labor will face extreme opposition when it tries to knock off a handful of very expensive corporate and investor–welfare items, beginning with negative gearing. Australians will be in need of a state concerned with their welfare and wellbeing, and a government with a genuine plan to tackle climate change, to tackle regulatory capture and corporate malfeasance, address the country’s post-2013 slide down the global anti-corruption rankings, and to reintroduce the basic notion of government as being for the common good.

Good luck, everyone.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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