The Politics    Friday, February 28, 2020

Nothing doing

By Paddy Manning

Nothing doing

© Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

The Morrison government is adrift, reactive and complacent

In a recent missive on Sky News Australia, Chris Kenny likened government to a big ship – if it’s not steaming ahead, it’s bouncing around at the mercy of the sea. He was dead right, and that’s where Australia finds itself under Captain Scott Morrison: engine in neutral, rudder jammed, lurching from side to side, with the poor passengers increasingly seasick and the ship drifting closer to the rocks.

It’s long been apparent that the government is determined to do nothing on climate change. It’s long been apparent that the economy is sinking under the weight of the government’s surplus-driven austerity, as tax and interest rate cuts have failed to fire things up. The government was so painfully late to respond to the drought and the unprecedented bushfires that commentators are now lauding its reaction to coronavirus as evidence the government is learning. But what’s become obvious, as the parliamentary year passes its third week, is that the government has no legislative agenda to speak of. Having failed last year to pass those few bills of substance – the “Ensuring Integrity” union-busting bill, religious freedom, and the desperately needed national integrity commission – the government is floundering. The do-nothing PM is all the more exposed when he stands next to a real leader, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who can rattle off in two minutes what her government has achieved in one term – more than this government has achieved in seven years. 

In today’s Australian Financial Review, political editor Phillip Coorey writes [$] that the government has embarked on a deliberate strategy of administering the country and doing very little else, on the basis of internal Coalition research at the time of the last election that showed voters were sick of upheaval. The result is a complete absence of an agenda. “When parliament sits, as it did this week, such is the dearth of legislation that people literally wander the corridors, swapping notes on how bored they are,” writes Coorey.

So, for example, the legislation listed for next week is a resumption of debate on 14 pieces of rats-and-mice legislation that have already been introduced. The Ensuring Integrity bill is subject to private talks with Jacqui Lambie – who is threatening to withdraw support unless the Gaetjens report into the sports rorts affair is released – and on past form may be shoved through both houses of parliament without debate when the government has the numbers. The proposed religious discrimination act is friendless – nobody would be surprised if it died a quiet death. The national integrity commission legislation will emerge in the fullness of time, but is headed for a likely stalemate unless the government is willing to bend on issues like public hearings, retrospectivity or allowing it to investigate politicians, which are red lines for the crossbenchers. The only possibility of progressing legislation is somebody like Llew O’Brien and other renegade LNP–Nats crossing the floor.

When the government does show some vigour, it is often simply defending the status quo. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg enjoyed himself yesterday, poking fun at his Opposition counterpart, Jim Chalmers’, discussion of a New Zealand–style wellbeing budget. Some might have found Frydenberg’s yoga jokes entertaining, and some found them offensive – I found them lazy, precisely the kind of schoolyard mediocrity that Donald Horne decried in The Lucky Country. As if we haven’t had decades of debate about the triple bottom line. As if business isn’t already taking a lot of these measures already.

And the less said the better about scandal-prone Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor’s forthcoming technology roadmap, which proposes to ditch investment in wind and solar and instead plough it into carbon capture and storage. Like debating investment in nuclear power, this is elaborate time wasting, because private money long ago abandoned these technologies, which are wildly uneconomic and risky. To all and intents and purposes, it’s a do-nothing strategy, because that’s what will come of it. 

Having no agenda is fine if things are fine. But they’re not. Until weeks ago half the country was in drought and experiencing unprecedented bushfires, and the economy is now tanking. Getting proactive on the coronavirus makes the prime minister look busy, but it’s no substitute for a substantial policy platform.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“I was just surprised when I saw it.”

Former Sport Australia chief Kate Palmer, telling the Senate inquiry into the Community Sport Infrastructure Grants Program of her reaction to a spreadsheet of applications colour-coded by electorate and political party. The spreadsheet replaced Sport Australia’s assessment of community projects, and was briefly shown to Palmer by a government liaison staff member.

“Well, I’m not sure what you are referring to.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, responding to a question from the ABC’s Sabra Lane about emails from Sport Australia warning the government about politicisation of the Community Sport Infrastructure Grants Program.

Scott Morrison’s fortunate disaster
Coronavirus is on the verge of becoming an international crisis but Scott Morrison isn’t going to let it go to waste. Paul Bongiorno on how the virus is helping the prime minister look like a leader, but why it might ultimately cost him his much-desired surplus.

The fall in the value of the ASX200 just before noon today, marking an official correction in the Australian share market due to investor fears over the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Gross Domestic Product can often be a misleading measurement of progress as it tells us nothing about people’s quality of life. Australia has long needed an index that reveals how the people and environment are faring in each of our states and territories – and this is exactly what the Social Progress Index does.”

Centre for Social Impact chief executive Kristy Muir announces the new Social Progress Index, which ranks the ACT the best of all states and territories overall, and best on meeting “basic human needs”, the “foundations of wellbeing” and “opportunity”.

The list

“This NGA exhibition brings all the discordance and the harmonies in Matisse’s and Picasso’s works into bold relief. The dialogue between the painters doesn’t require explanation for the casual visitor: the way the works are hung, the artists’ rivalry and their mutual influence leap off the walls.”

“People support and oppose Assange according to how he serves their interests at different times. During the 2016 US presidential election campaign, a grateful Donald Trump said the Democrats were in meltdown, and announced, ‘I love WikiLeaks.’ But as president, Trump told a CNN interviewer, ‘I think it’s disgraceful, I think there should be like death penalty or something.’”

“Regarding Australia’s treatment of refugees, Blanchett says: ‘So much has been compressed into a short period of time. When the Tampa decision was laid down, there was a political expediency about it [post-September 11] and that in and of itself didn’t create the current situation of Manus and Nauru, but it certainly laid the landscape for the “no asylum seeker who arrives here by boat will ever settle here” 2013 declaration by Kevin Rudd. Stateless is looking at a terrain created by a series of political decisions.’” 

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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