Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Let's not go back to politics as usual. It doesn't work.

With life cautiously returning to normal after the great lockdown, it’s time for Scott Morrison – who’s “had a good virus” – to think about where he goes from here. Does he want to be remembered as a single-minded warrior for his Liberal tribe, soon replaced by another scrapper, or as one of our great prime ministers, up there with Curtin and Menzies?

Does he want to cling to office by exploiting our divisions, or by uniting us in common cause? Does he want to deliver for the party base and its big business donors, or for everyone, even those without political clout?

After the shock of winning an election neither he nor anyone else expected him to, then being caught with no plans to do anything much, Morrison has been on a fast leadership learning curve. First his failure to take command of the bushfire crisis, then rising to the challenge of a pandemic for which we were quite unprepared.

Along with the premiers, his popularity has soared. At times of threat, people crave strong, confident leadership, and he has provided it. But as things start returning to normal, will it be back to squabbling politics as usual, as so many smarties are gleefully predicting?

Certainly, that’s where all our politicians’ instincts would lead them, and the media’s love of conflict would want them to be. But if Morrison allows that to happen, all the goodwill and community spirit will be lost – to Morrison’s detriment and ours.

Much has been made of our loss of trust in politicians and governments in recent years, but new polling by the Australian National University shows that, between January and April this year, confidence in the federal government increased from 27 per cent to 57 per cent, with state governments up from 40 per cent to 67 per cent.

This may be explained solely by our need for strong leadership, but I suspect another part of it is the cessation of politics as usual. Morrison has been too busy fighting the virus to waste time badmouthing his political opponents, saying things calculated to mislead, or making promises he can’t keep.

He’s been busy explaining how viruses work, what he plans to do about it and what he needs us to do. He’s been explaining, explaining, explaining. He’s stopped taking shots at the unions because he needs their co-operation. The opposition hasn’t been game to make any criticisms that weren’t constructive.

And we’ve loved it.

The news media are getting far more attention from their customers than usual. That may be because the virus is so new and frightening, but it also suggests the public finds a constant diet of the pollies’ squabbles and misbehaviour less engrossing than the press gallery does. Maybe people might be more interested in sensible discussion of the policies affecting their lives.

The handling of an epidemic and the way we cope with the huge economic cost of the medicos’ drastic remedies have obliged Morrison to rely heavily on his health and economic bureaucrats – the same people he was telling a few months earlier to keep their policy opinions to themselves and just do what they were told.

The ANU polling shows the public’s confidence in the public service has gone from 49 per cent to 65 per cent. Apart from serving the public, the bureaucrats’ job is to keep their political masters out of trouble. Who knew? Another of Morrison’s recent “learnings”.

Like most issues, responding to pandemics is a shared federal-state responsibility, requiring much co-operation and co-ordination – which, except for those holding neatness to be the highest virtue, has not required states with widely varying experiences of the virus to move in lockstep.

I suspect one reason the pollies are rating high is the blessed relief from federal-state bickering and buck-passing.

What all this says is that politics as usual wasn’t working well. The public was sick of it – as demonstrated by the two main parties’ ever-falling share of the vote and the rise of various populist parties.

Those who think there’s no alternative to politics as we’ve grown used to it show their ignorance. It wasn’t always this unedifying. And now Morrison has demonstrated how well he’s doing without it, there’s no reason we should return to it.

There’s no shortage of problems that need fixing, so governments need a big to-do list. They should focus on explaining and defending those programs, leaving no time for denigrating their opponents. They seem to have no inkling of how unpersuasive and off-putting voters find this.

If you don’t want voters to stop listening, stop refusing to give straight answers to questions. Pretend you’re a real person; throw away the talking points. Stop trying to get elected by telling us the other guy would be worse.

There’s always an important role for oppositions to keep governments on their toes. But less of the “they said white so we’d better say black to make us look different”. And, as Morrison has lately demonstrated, it does impress when you under-promise but over-deliver.