Monday, May 20, 2019

Morrison's miracle election may turn out to be the easy bit

The great risk from Scott Morrison’s miraculous victory is that it will lead politicians on both sides to draw conclusions that worsen our politics and our policies. Bill Shorten offered us a chance to change the government and change the nation, and was answered with a firm No Thanks.

It’s a great win for the Coalition, but a loss for economic policy. The voters’ "revealed preference" is for more personality, less debate of the tough choices we must make to secure our future in a threatening world.

The first lesson the pollies will learn is that disunity doesn’t have to be death. Almost six years of fighting like Kilkenny cats can be forgotten during the eternity of a five-week election campaign, provided you put all the focus on the latest guy, and his predecessors are kept hidden.

The second lesson the pollies will learn is that the only safe strategy for oppositions is to make themselves a "small target", with only a few, popular policies, so all the focus is on the failings of the government.

Whatever policy changes you may be thinking of making, keep your intentions to yourself and don’t, whatever you do, seek a mandate for change.

Almost 28 years of continuous growth have rendered Australians a timorous nation. No national emergency, no need for change. As Kevin Rudd was the last Labor leader to understand, what voters crave is change without change. Promise it. (Since such a thing is impossible, deliver something else. Expect a backlash.)

Politicians have understood all this since Dr John Hewson (his PhD said: "knows more about economics than politics") used Fightback – "the longest suicide note in history" – to lose the unlosable election in 1993.

Labor forgot this because it wanted to be seen as less negative and destructive than Tony Abbott, and because, knowing Shorten lacked charisma, it decided policy substance was the best substitute. As it turned out, wrong.

In this era of unreal reality game shows, and multitudes of disillusioned, disengaged voters, the most successful politicians are those best at show biz. Morrison may not be the lovable larrikin Bob Hawke was, but he comes a lot closer than Hawke’s union mate did.

Morrison spent five weeks performing for the cameras to the exclusion of all others, and the electorate warmed to what it saw. Perhaps what Labor needs is a casting director.

The third lesson the pollies will learn is that the eternal reality of conflict between the classes must always remain covert. Any overt attack on privilege does more to fire up the defences of the well-off than to whet the appetites of those missing out.

In this country, the only envy that works is the downward variety. Envy the jobless for being able to eat without working, or the Indigenous for the extra help they get? Sure.

This government has spent its time beating up on boat people, public servants and those on welfare and, in the process, has gained more votes than it’s lost.

The well-off may have benefited from a lot more good luck (as I have) than it suits them to admit, but they are adept at convincing the punters than an attack on my five dollars is an attack on your five cents.

Labor fashioned a policy to pay for more of the spending on health and education voters genuinely want by reducing the tax breaks of the top 10 per cent (including the top 10 per cent of retirees), but almost every oldie was convinced they’d be a victim.

Same with the way the nation’s real estate agents put the frighteners on their tenants over negative gearing.

Highlight the conflict between the generations and you’re smacked by the demographic reality that voters get older every year, and the over-65s far outnumber the young.

In this election it was the Morrison government that made itself a small target so all the focus would be on Labor’s perceived policy losers.

Believing he had nothing to lose, Morrison staked everything on offering the world’s most expensive tax cuts.

But did he lie awake in the early hours of Sunday morning wondering how on earth he’d pay for them without the budget heading back into deficit? About the hugely optimistic forecasts of the economy’s early return to strong growth used to bolster his economic record? About the requirement that there be zero real growth in government spending per person over the next four years?

Morrison has no policy to control electricity prices, no convincing policy on climate change, no policy to halt the rising cost of health insurance, no policy response to any downturn in the economy, no solution to “cost of living pressures” and no plan to increase wages except yet more waiting.

The day may come when he decides winning the election was the easy bit.