August 2020

Comment

A unitary theory of cuts

By Richard Cooke
Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

© Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The Morrison government is using the COVID-19 crisis to devastate the public service, the ABC, the arts and tertiary education

“Who is Scott Morrison? And why is he prime minister?”, The Sydney Morning Herald asked in March 2019, as the member for Cook made his surprise ascendancy to the Lodge. After more than a year in office, we have only half-answers to these questions. Morrison’s tenure has been so buffeted by extreme and unusual events – first catastrophic fires, then a worldwide pandemic – that there has scarcely been time for clichés to form around him. Leftish critics still lean heavily on his Pentecostalism, but the real Morrison has been hidden by acts of God.

So are many of his political tenets. The question “What is Morrisonism?” has even more unsatisfactory explanations, partly because his sole election promise, not being Bill Shorten, was fulfilled on ballot day. Then, the local franchise of The New York Times tried situating the Liberal leader as part of a “populist wave”. That wave, in the United Kingdom, United States and Brazil, has broken, and the result is an unmitigated version of the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbated by contempt for expertise. Locally, only the Murdoch media has made repeat, suicidal entreaties to pretend at business as usual, and Morrison has been careful to ignore these noisy mantras. Once bitten – criticism of his bushfires response clearly stung – he was far more prepared and applied this time. He coordinated the country’s first national cabinet, and seemed to relish working with moderate state premiers in lieu of reactionary backbenchers. Stimulus spending flowed, and the echoes of that haunting soundbite – “the end of the age of entitlement” – were drowned out by the brrrrr of the money printer.

All cause for relief, perhaps even for some cautious celebration. But the common cause will come at a price. The spending looks to be a down payment on future austerity budgets, and in the meantime, we have seen Morrisonism take a firmer shape. It is coherent. It has historical forebears. It is thoroughly ideological, and it is aimed at the enemies of the Coalition. 

The man Morrison’s critics in the media imagine – someone with the build (and wardrobe) of a retired prop forward, and the heavy-handed touch to match – is an unconvincing caricature. Yes, he is fond of a photo opportunity, and has a tendency to talk loosely when put on the spot. But a barren legislative program, and the supposedly clumsy, inauthentic public persona, are hiding a robust and formidable agenda: to undo much of the postwar consensus on government spending – who it is for, and what it is intended to do.

Almost exactly one year ago, journalist Laura Tingle asked an anonymous and senior governmental figure if Morrison might call a truce in the culture wars. The response came with a snort: “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“If anything, this government is more ideologically driven than Abbott,” the source said. “They want to win the culture wars they see in education, in the public service, in all of our institutions, and they’ll come for the ABC too, of course. There will be a big cleanout at the top of the public service, but Morrison will wait for a while to do that. They believe the left has been winning the war for the last 20 years and are determined to turn the tables. Morrison will just be craftier about the way he goes about it.”

This prophecy is being fulfilled. It turns out Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a populist, just not one in the Trump mode, and he is not wasting this crisis. He can let COVID-19 make the cuts for him, and hence devastate the Coalition’s longstanding foes – the public service, the ABC, the arts and the tertiary education sector – through government negligence rather than active measures. A competent response to the pandemic, and a tentative Opposition fearful of being wedged, can both take care of the polling.

We associate populism most strongly with its international consequences: withdrawal from free-trade agreements (or at least free trade with Europe, Mexico and China), increased distance from multilateral institutions, the anti-migrant and anti-globalisation rhetoric that is itself a globalised phenomenon. On these, Morrison is half-hearted, sometimes quarter-hearted. Domestically, however, he exemplifies an aspect of populism that was pioneered in Australia. It has been called “welfare chauvinism”, the post-free-marketeer idea that government spending should be retained (or increased), on the proviso it is directed to preferred groups.

This is what links Morrisonism to Trumpism (and, to a lesser extent, the economic program of Boris Johnson). Conservative voters, especially those who live in the regions, are couched as the truly worthy recipients of government money. Others are suspect – either mendicants wanting handouts instead of work, or institutional recipients of public money that then take policy positions at odds with the ruling party. Instead of the postwar understanding that such criticism is a strain of accountability, there is instead a belief, borne from business culture, that for the government to fund criticism of itself is an inefficiency. Ingratitude should be costly. 

In this worldview, government spending on assistance is understood to be conditional. Both major parties have underscored the concept of mutual obligation for those receiving unemployment benefits for many years; Morrison has expanded it and franchised it to other areas. His succinct expression – “I believe in a fair go for those who have a go” – was mocked as trivial sloganeering, although its deeper resonances were clear. Government money is a reward for good behaviour that can also be withdrawn as a punishment. It is for the pensioner who has “paid taxes all my life”, even if there are pensioners who have been unable to pay anything who need assistance more acutely. 

This model holds at the level of the individual, the family, the institution and even the region. Conservative-held seats are now pork-barrelled so openly that in the recent Eden-Monaro byelection, there was a clear implication that bushfire recovery funding would be expedited should the electorate return a Liberal member. The so-called “sports rorts” scandal – one of several in which Coalition-held seats were given grant moneys in spite of departmental advice – has been superseded by events and will result in no serious scrutiny. This punitive authority is also the authority to withdraw. So, for example, it can quell protests by climate-change activists by removing their welfare payments, and adds a kind of presumption of guilt to Centrelink customers who have been sent illegal and automated bills. 

Institutionally, the preferential treatment is openly lopsided. Museums in France are deemed more worthy of funding than museums in Australia, as long as they promulgate the cult of ANZAC. The Australian War Memorial, now envisioned as a kind of Liberal Party version of the Yasukuni Shrine, will receive half a billion dollars for a revamp, while the National Archives and National Gallery shed staff to make “efficiency dividends” (tellingly, the War Memorial is exempt from these). The former director of the War Memorial (and former leader of the Liberal Party), Brendan Nelson, advanced a claim that the spending was really for veterans’ mental health as part of a “therapeutic milieu”. It was ambitious, but if offshore detention can be rebranded as foreign-aid spending, anything is possible. 

It is, however, the pillars of cosmopolitan culture that are most threatened by this trend to national conservatism. The ABC, the arts and the universities were once part-protected by Coalition voter snobbery as much as anything else, but as working-class voters have drifted to the right, these sectors are a natural target for anti-elitist sentiments. 

Since Tony Abbott took office in 2013, after an election promise of no cuts to the ABC, Coalition governments have withdrawn a total of nearly $800 million in the broadcaster’s funding. More than 1000 staff positions have been lost since 2014. The most recent round of redundancies, announced in June, cost around 200 jobs. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann was unmoved by the attrition, telling the ABC that it was “in a much stronger position than any other media in Australia”. This reflected an attitude, made explicit by some commentators, that public-sector workers should “share the pain” felt by the private sector.

From a macroeconomic point of view, this is nonsensical. In COVID conditions, the government should be trying to preserve as many jobs as it can, and buoying the economy through existing stimulatory channels is an efficient method. Cormann’s comments betrayed the true rationale, which originated with commercial media and the perceived business interests of the broadcaster’s private competitors. Unsurprisingly, the lifestyle website ABC Life, which has been targeted by critics (especially News Corp critics) for the entirety of its short existence, was among the sacrificial offerings.

Not only are the cuts a sop for those who want to see the ABC diminished, merged or done away with altogether, they are also intended to be corrective. According to confidential documents obtained by the Nine papers, the ABC’s chief economics correspondent, Emma Alberici, is among the proposed redundancies. Alberici was already targeted for firing in 2018, and repeat attempts were made by government and management to interfere with her tax policy reporting. The then ABC chairman Justin Milne proposed sacking her outright, as well as political correspondent Andrew Probyn, because of Coalition animosity. “My view is we need to save the corporation not Emma,” Milne wrote in an email to then managing director Michelle Guthrie. Alberici’s continued precariousness does not seem to be coincidental.

This message – mute your criticism of the government and government policy “or else” – has also been absorbed by arts organisations. Historically, the Coalition is not as hostile to the arts as is sometimes assumed. It has been generous to large legacy organisations such as the Australian Ballet, and for the most part, left the ideal of a publicly assisted arts sector intact. 

A breach occurred in 2014, when artists at the Sydney Biennale threatened to boycott the event because of corporate sponsorship by Transfield. The company managed offshore detention centres for the federal government, and this embarrassment incensed the then arts minister, George Brandis. He withdrew $105 million from the Australia Council, instead declaring it would be dispensed by ministerial discretion. It was exactly the kind of personalised bureaucratic patronage the Australia Council had been designed to avoid. 

Brandis wrote to the Australia Council, asking them to develop a policy that would penalise arts organisations that refused corporate sponsorship on “unreasonable grounds”. While Brandis was replaced, and his successor was less confrontational, versions of these animosities continue. There is no longer a federal government department with the word “arts” in the title, and when Morrison announced a small, belated rescue package for the industry post-COVID (just $35 million of which was in the form of direct assistance), it was given grudgingly. “This package is as much about supporting the tradies who build stage sets or computer specialists who create the latest special effects, as it is about supporting actors and performers in major productions,” the prime minister said, as though money directed to the arts in their own right was intrinsically suspect. It was a more sophisticated form of punishment than Brandis’s clumsy politicking.

The ABC and larger cultural institutions will limp through, though shedding staff. The same assurance cannot be made for the tertiary education sector, which looks set to become a greatly diminished version of its former self. Cut by governments of all stripes, the universities filled funding gaps by inducing international students, and then spent their funds on shiny, brochure-friendly campus buildings to induce more. Post-COVID, this “model”, such as it is, has ceased to exist almost overnight. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg intervened three times to ensure universities could not access JobKeeper payments intended to keep their staff employed. The situation became so dire that staff took voluntary pay cuts to try to save their colleagues’ jobs. Revenue declines were estimated at almost $5 billion in 2020 alone.

Vice-chancellors stress the economic value of the universities, and their central contribution to research and development. Subsequent federal policies make the government’s intent clear: to push undergraduates away from humanities and the law, and towards subjects that seem more vocational, such as computer programming and engineering. That humanities graduates’ employment prospects are among the strongest is an irrelevance to those who see the higher study of culture only as a conveyor belt for producing Marxists. Their vision, and Morrison’s, is quite simple: a world in which everyone is a tradie, of one kind or another.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

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