As regards the economy, the government has some runs on the board – reasonable growth, good unemployment numbers and a projected return to surplus. Trouble is, none of these seem to be cutting through with the voting public. One of Tony Abbott’s three campaign issues was to get the nation’s books back in order by restoring the surplus and reining in debt. His first, possibly overly ambitious, budget was met with fierce resistance. I get the impression that this current generation of voters doesn’t care much about debt and deficit, so I’m inclined to believe Abbott was elected on the strength of his two other planks.
Why should Morrison fare any better, especially with a sinking housing market and the concomitant “wealth effect” reversing itself in the public mind? When home owners see their property worth, say, 15% less than it was a year earlier they feel a chill that runs through their wallets and they stop spending. Yes, the economy is looking cheerful, but going to the stump with an argument that Australians have never had it so good probably won’t cut it any more than it did for Abbott — worse if the property slump gathers further strength.
For too many voters, a sound economy will be a ‘nice to have’ as long as they get the other goodies they are expecting. I note here Terry McCrann’s recent column in The Weekend Australian arguing that the government should opt for an early election on the basis that, during the campaign, the economic debate would centre on MYEFO, which is crafted by the government, whereas the economic debate in a later campaign would be muddied by the prognostications of the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook (PEFO) which is ‘owned’ by Treasury. In McCrann’s words
…no government would rationally risk having a PEFO that significantly contradicted its official portrayal of the economy or the budget, or which “sprung” a negative fiscal or economic surprise. But in 2019 that is exactly one of the two key risks of a “later” election.
McCrann also reminds us that the Howard-Costello government still lost in 2007 despite its impressive economic record.
But tackling obscene power prices will work, right? Well it should work and, indeed, would work were Morrison & Co not neatly wedged by the cognitive dissonance enshrined in their own mutually contradictory policies. On the one hand, they say they want cheap electricity. On the other, they fret about global warming and, to save a planet no hotter than it was 20 years ago, endorse subsidies for every renewables rent-seeker who comes calling.
Despite what we sometimes say about them, our elected leaders aren’t entirely stupid. Most, some at least, must by now have grasped that forcing power prices higher is no way to make them more affordable. Unless Morrison is prepared to draw a bold line and differentiate the Coalition from Labor on ‘climate change’, the stated objective of cheap power is unattainable and, therefore, unlikely to win many votes come election day.
‘Ax the tax’ worked as a slogan because it was within the government’s power to do just that. But when it comes to getting prices down — any prices — governments don’t have a great track record and voters may well think Labor’s prescription would be just as effective as that of the Coalition. If Morrison believes his 26% emissions cut differentiates him from Labor’s 45% he is either seriously deluded or, more likely, a garden-variety coward who knows what needs to be done but is scared to rile the forces and lobbies that can turn out mobs of brainwashed kiddie climate activists. Surely he knows those people won’t vote Liberal in a pink fit.
As Abbott has repeatedly argued, the government must craft a new narrative based on a nod to the possibility of human induced global warming and couple that with a pragmatic stance which, since all the Paris agreements in the world will not make a jot a of difference, we should spend big on adaptation measures such as dams, more robust power infrastructure and better bushfire prevention and management. There is ample evidence to support this position. It should not be beyond the wit, or more to the point, the courage of a supposedly centre-right party to develop this theme.
Will that happen before Australia votes? Don’t be silly! When the Liberals’ chief NSW powerbroker is not only a paid lobbyist for the renewables scam but also the man whose five factionally endorsed candidates threw their weight behind Morrison to pip Peter Dutton in the leadership ballot you will get shorter odds on the Messiah will turn up at the MCG to umpire next year’s AFL Grand Final.
So that just leaves border protection. But is it still the vote-winner it once was?
Despite its successful manoeuvring last week to avoid a defeat in the House over a media-feted grandstanding independent’s private member’s bill, the matter will again come before the Parliament in February. It will be interesting to see if Labor persists in supporting this bill, given the imminence by then of an election in which, at this stage, the only two things the government has going for it are the economy, which no-one seems to care much about, and its record on border protection, which many voters do indeed value highly. We will soon get an indication of Labor’s resolve if, as has been reported, a ‘Nauru medivac provision’ is adopted at the upcoming national conference.
That’s not to say the bill will pass. The ABC reports that independent Kerryn Phelps and Labor still needed the support of all crossbenchers plus one government rebel MP. By my reckoning, it would take only six crossbenchers to carry the day. The government has 73 members (not including the Speaker). Assuming Bob Katter supported the government, that would give them 74. Labor has 69 seats. With the support of the other six independents that would see the bill passed. No wonder the government was spooked.
If the bill does get through the House in February, what then? We might well find ourselves in uncharted waters, as a government has been defeated on the floor of the House on only two occasions, both of which saw the government resign and, were Morrison to honour precedent, he would take his party to an election earlier than planned. There is no onus on him to do so, however, and it is conceivable he might choose to soldier on. Without a doubt that would cause a furore. We could expect Labor to pound the point that he is flouting the will of Parliament, with the inevitable motion of no confidence almost certainly carrying the day. Mr Shorten would be in a position to advise the Governor-General that he commands the numbers to form a minority government, meaning the current government would lose the advantage of incumbency on the hustings.
Either way, Morrison should enjoy his Christmas break because, come February, it will be a sticky wicket. If I were Morrison I would be mobilizing my campaign team right now. In such circumstances it would be hard not to argue and portray border protection as the election’s central theme. The government would be fighting on ground of its own choosing. And as Terry McCrann points out, there are advantages to an early election on the economic front as well.
And just by the way, when the current Katowice climate conference fails, as it inevitably will, that would provide a convenient and plausible trigger to start redefining the Coalition’s ‘climate change’ strategy. That would require both nous and courage, however.