Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

A serious man
The treasurer is slowly learning

Supplied by ABC News

There are some interesting ideas contained in a new report released today by Treasurer Scott Morrison. Morrison was keen to make sure people read about those ideas, which is why they were released to a bunch of newspapers ahead of time – you could try here or here. (Nothing wrong with that, by the way; I’d call it astute media management.)

For example, charging drivers for driving on roads. Shifting a small percentage of hospital funding to local programs to keep people out of hospitals in the first place. Basing university funding on student performance, rather than the current excessive production of research reports. Dismantling the immense power of pharmacists in this country by allowing other trained people to dispense medicines. Giving the states more power to raise revenue.

In keeping with the theme of yesterday’s piece, many of these are in the weeds of public policy, not the type of things that generate mass headlines, of interest mostly to people in that particular sector. But they have the power to change our lives in significant ways.

They may also deliver a productivity boost to the country, which will be necessary if we want our 26 years of continued economic growth to keep continuing.   

That was certainly Scott Morrison’s hope in commissioning the report, delivered by the Productivity Commission. Peter Costello had the Intergenerational Report, designed to focus attention on the long-term challenges for our country. That report still comes out; this is Morrison’s attempt to build a legacy of his own.

Three thoughts.

The first is political. Slowly, mostly quietly, Morrison has rebuilt his political stocks. They’re not where they were back when he was immigration minister, but then that is a comparatively simple job – which is where the trouble began. Morrison waltzed into the Treasury portfolio believing it was much the same. It wasn’t. He grossly simplified a dozen things, followed overclaim with overclaim, prioritised soundbites over comprehension, and ended up looking like a political bovver boy who’d woken, confused, in a library.

I don’t want to make Morrison’s old mistake and overclaim myself. He hasn’t leapt into any treasurer pantheon, and nor is he about to. He has yet to deliver really significant reform himself, make the case for or generate significant new ideas. But he has recognised the job is a serious one. The budget has, in retrospect, done exactly what the government needed it to, which was to put damaging debates behind it. The way Morrison talks about his portfolio has shifted. Treasurers have the ability to affect the economy with their language, so this is important. If Coalition leadership instability resurfaces at some point, Morrison should not be as far out of the running as six months ago.

The second thought relates to the chances of any of these ideas actually happening.

In his speech to release the report, Morrison argued that many Australians are now far more sceptical of change: “Whenever governments mention the word reform or productivity, they get nervous.” He said this was partly due to “a generation of Australians growing up without ever having known a recession”.

That might be right, but the truth is this government has not really tested that proposition. It dangled out the possibility of a change to the GST, and retreated immediately, before the public really had a chance to notice. The same happened on a proposal to let the states levy income tax (the states killed that one off, but it was never given a chance). Josh Frydenberg’s proposal for an emissions intensity scheme went the same way, as did the prime minister’s enthusiasm for a clean energy target.

If Morrison really wants economic reform, he should probably stop wringing his hands about how difficult it all is. Or put it this way: don’t knock it until you try it. 

The final point is that the main determinant of whether Morrison delivers any of the Productivity Commission’s ideas, and whether he has any chance at all of entering that treasurer pantheon, will be the longevity of this government. Of course, it’s a bit chicken-and-egg: if Morrison manages to deliver, the government will have a better chance of lasting.

That issue may also be out of Morrison’s hands, however – even out of Malcolm Turnbull’s. We found out today that the High Court will deliver its findings on the Citizenship Seven on Friday. If the court torpedoes Barnaby Joyce, all the astute media management in the world won’t save the government from a torrid time ahead.


In other news


Snapshots from the abyss

Meet Australia’s creatures of the deep

Nicole Gill

Vertebrate animals like fish form only a small part of the biota found living within the abyss. Melanie Mackenzie is a collection manager for marine invertebrates at Museums Victoria. When we meet, she apologises for smelling of sea cucumbers. Sea cucumbers, or holothuroids, are her specialty and passion.” read on


Network error

What will be the cost of a patchwork NBN?

Paddy Manning

“Let’s get one thing straight: Australia’s NBN was not designed on the back of a beer coaster. In early 2009 when the then communications minister, Stephen Conroy, finally caught up with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on a plane from Sydney to Melbourne, to hatch their new NBN plan, the venue for the meeting might have been unorthodox – they were literally on the fly – but Conroy was accompanied by the secretary of his department and armed with considered advice from a heavily qualified expert panel, backed up by the competition regulator. It was no thought bubble.” (April 2017)  READ ON


Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for Fairfax and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.



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