Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Today by Paddy Manning

Is the prime minister lifting his game?

Source: Twitter

Since the election, Scott Morrison appears to be growing into the job. After wisely ducking media around the first anniversary of his leadership, he will return from the G7 a more confident prime minister. His characterisation [$] of the US–China trade war as structural and inevitable makes the best of a crisis. And at the recent intergovernmental meeting in Cairns, Labor premiers were falling over themselves to applaud Morrison’s down-to-earth, constructive approach, with Daniel Andrews calling it “one of the very best COAG meetings I’ve attended in the last five years”. Last week the PM delivered a surprisingly confident rev-up to the federal public service, sounding like the leader of a new government settling in for the long haul. Policy deep dives on issues like recycling and youth suicide may bear fruit. Could Morrison be laying the foundations for a successful third term? That some say he is claiming [$] Howard’s mantle, and is even determined to win a rare fourth term, certainly suggests things are looking up. Except they aren’t…

The Coalition’s supposed strengths – economic management and national security – may turn against the government over the next three years, and may even prove to be its greatest weaknesses. Morrison is right to reframe the trade debate in terms of the need for new “rules and engagements” that recognise China’s incredible transformation over the last 20 years, and which could guide the world economy over coming decades, rather than engaging in a slavish “will-he-or-won’t-he?” analysis of Trump’s tweets. “It’s totally structural,” Morrison told The Australian Financial Review’s Hans van Leeuwen overnight. “It’s a history issue. We’re finding ourselves in a new phase. And we don’t have to place or characterise people’s motives in any of this, it’s just this is the juncture we’re at and we have to deal with it.”

But the Morrison government can’t protect Australia from the fallout if the US–China trade war continues to worsen, and the domestic economy is exceedingly vulnerable, with recession well and truly on the cards. At least, as Ross Gittins writes today, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s speech on declining productivity growth this week was “an encouraging sign that the Morrison government may be moving from happy slogans to careful consideration of the problems besetting our economy”.

On national security, meanwhile, with flashpoints in the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf, anything could happen over the next three years, up to and including war. Australia’s deployment of troops and assets into the Strait of Hormuz is a sure sign that the Coalition has not learnt the lessons of the past, following the US into another unnecessary military engagement in the Middle East. Notwithstanding the deployment having bipartisan support, it was the right time for Australia as a loyal ally to use its leverage to urge the US – forcefully – to go back to the negotiating table with Iran. As things stand we are stuck hoping and praying that the planned meeting brokered by French president Emmanuel Macron at the G7, between an erratic US president and Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, goes ahead and goes well.

Assuming that Australia can avoid recession or new military confrontation this term, the challenges for the Morrison government are the same that wrecked the Turnbull and Abbott governments. Early signs are not good: promising new ministers, such as Paul Fletcher in communications and Ken Wyatt in Indigenous affairs, appear welded to the same old policy positions on issues such as the NBN and a First Nations voice to parliament; Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor carries on with his policies of climate-change denial; and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton remains Peter Dutton. Newstart is not going up and the disastrous robodebt program may be expanded. The Nationals are still ruining the Murray–Darling Basin Plan. Agenda items on religious freedom and industrial relations will prove divisive, inside and outside the party. A smart, competent Coalition government would patch these open wounds with sensible compromises, ditching the ideology and culture wars. On past form, that seems unlikely.

“This year’s NAPLAN results show the Liberals are failing to reverse declines in reading, writing, and maths. Since 2013, some NAPLAN results in reading, writing, and maths have gone backwards. Combine that with Australia’s falling performance in international reading and maths tests, and it’s not a pretty picture. In fact, on some measures Russia is achieving better than Australia.”

Tanya Plibersek blames the federal government and inadequate funding for this year’s declining NAPLAN scores.

“I’m not sure that we want to draw attention to this though.”

An unidentified official succeeded in having the Australian Bureau of Statistics remove references to data showing that wealth inequality hit a new peak in 2017–18.

Inside the Greens
The Greens is a party with a leader whom many think is too mainstream, struggling with the growing pains of infighting and factionalism. It is also on the cusp of another step change. Paddy Manning on Richard Di Natale and his third force.

The claimed price of Rolls-Royce’s new compact nuclear power plants, which some members of the Coalition hope will replace Australia’s fleet of ageing coal-fired power stations.

“Education Minister Dan Tehan will set up a university foreign-interference taskforce to combat cyber and foreign influence threats and protect ‘Australia’s interests’. Four working groups, comprising a 50 per cent split of university and government officials, will be tasked with providing a formal framework responding to risks to the higher education sector.”

The list

“My suspicion is that ‘Old Town Road’ will join the ranks of Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ (Australian number one for six weeks in 2012) and ‘Achy Breaky Heart’, by Billy Ray Cyrus (number one for seven weeks in 1992, and let us never speak of that pestilential song again), as a one-off hit, the kind that spawns dances and lingo and then, when its reign is over, becomes a memento to a phase of collective madness ... But a song doesn’t stay at number one for nigh on three months for no reason, and, in the case of ‘Old Town Road’, a few reasons come to mind.”

“In Dogman’s first frame, a close-up shows a white pit bull terrier baring its fangs, lunging and snarling at the camera. Confined in a steel washbasin and restrained by a heavy, wall-mounted choker-chain, the dog is lulled with kindness by the film’s protagonist, Marcello, a diminutive dog groomer living in a bleak Italian coastal town ... But while Marcello is able to control the dog with kindness, Simone is a force beyond the power of compassion.”

“When Breakthrough Media invited me and a select group of other Muslims to attend a ‘voice accelerator workshop’, the invitation described it as a grassroots initiative undertaken at the request of the Muslim community ... The disclosure that the program was funded by the Department of Home Affairs’ Countering Violent Extremism Sub-Committee ... was hidden in the middle of an eight-page registration form.” 

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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