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QUARTERLY ESSAY 74 The Prosperity Gospel

 

Correspondence

David Marr

Because we got it so wrong, we need to pay particular attention to the 2019 campaign. The we is all-embracing: journalists, politicians, punters and the people. Even as the nation queued in May to re-elect Scott Morrison, barely a third of us thought he might scrape home. This is error on an epic scale. Making sense of it matters. Bill Shorten was swiftly consigned to the fat bin marked non-recyclable. Christ and Coal, those very Aussie allies, wasted no time claiming victory. As it has since Hawke’s day, the Australian Electoral Study at ANU is doing its exquisite work of matching votes to voters. While we wait for its findings in November, we have Erik Jensen’s entirely different approach to understanding what happened on 18 May. His eyes are sharp. Ditto his ears. He asks us to pay fresh attention to what was said on the election trail, particularly by Morrison.

It’s good to be reminded that Morrison got into the advertising game as a child actor spruiking for Vicks VapoRub. There’s a big essay to be written about the damage done to lives and ambitions by too much applause too young. Not now. What matters at this point is that we have a prime minister with a depthless – and not misplaced – faith in jingles. He says: “They stick in your head, don’t they?” He never tires of the vaguely decent: “You’ll get a go if you have a go.” But the jingle that counted most in that long campaign was an old favourite of the man and his party: “Schools, hospitals, medicines, roads – all guaranteed by a strong economy.” The key word in that sentence is guaranteed.

Shorten’s picture of tomorrow’s Australia was sketched in detail. His party had policies. He won debates. But Morrison’s message – clear, now, when we come back to it in Jensen’s essay – was simple: Labor’s plans to get Australia back into shape aren’t really needed. Prosperity will do the work. No tough decisions have to be made. No one need lose out. Fairness is beside the point. So we’ll soon be bleeding $6 billion a year topping up the dividends of the nation’s richest investors. So what? We’re so prosperous with the Coalition in charge it hardly matters. First item on the agenda if the government is re-elected: tax cuts for everyone.

The media do a strangely poor job of reporting what politicians say. It’s not as if we have to hunt and forage. It’s there for the taking. But less and less of what is said makes it to the news. The drift of the press is to cut everything short. This guts argument. Jingles matter more than ever. So little of the key speeches by our leaders go to air these days it’s a wonder they bother making them. The great pleasure of The Prosperity Gospel is to be immersed in the language of the campaign and reconsider the state of politics in this country knowing that what was dismissed as blather in those weeks worked so well on election day. It’s an exercise in hindsight that’s not only surprisingly entertaining but speaks with almost scientific clarity. Prosperity was, after all, the only message Morrison preached in 2019 and it came always with the same warning: “Bill Shorten’s Labor Party can’t manage money.”

Pollsters surveying the wreckage of their trade after 18 May argue at least one finding pointed to a Morrison victory: PPM, preferred prime minister. Shorten never closed the gap and Shorten lost. PPM is not infallible, but it’s rarely let us down. Contrary to political myth, Abbott even edged ahead of Rudd in the days before the 2013 poll. The wrecker was the nation’s PPM. Deep in the figures of all the pollsters, there’s another fundamentally reliable figure. It doesn’t predict outcomes but measures the perpetual disadvantage Labor faces in federal politics: despite the economic record of the Hawke, Rudd and Gillard governments, Australians are convinced by a wide margin that the Coalition handles money better than Labor. For a few months in 2010, polls showed Labor’s struggle to deal with the global financial crisis earnt the respect of the nation. That was a blip. Revisited in The Prosperity Gospel, Morrison’s speeches and press conferences read as a long riff on this bleak theme.

Why is change so hard in this country? Part of the answer to that perplexing question is Australia’s hesitation to trust Labor with the cash box. This isn’t a fresh discovery, but Jensen’s examination of the campaign just past suggests we need to pay this attitude some serious attention. It survives, year in and year out, despite the mixed economic record of both sides of politics over the past decades. It shapes our politics. I believe it explains why Labor needs particularly charismatic leadership to win government. In 2019, Shorten discovered that putting Labor’s policies on the table years in advance and opening a national conversation about the future of the country could be beaten simply by Morrison’s message of blather and fear.

David Marr

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 74, The Prosperity Gospel. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 75, Men at Work.


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