QUARTERLY ESSAY 82 Exit Strategy



Dennis Altman



Dennis Altman

The difficulty with writing about current events is that they change faster than it takes to produce and circulate an essay. I am writing this during Sydney’s Covid-induced lockdown, which has shattered the myth that the New South Wales government could manage the epidemic more successfully than the other states, even as it reinforces George’s argument about the fracturing of the federation.

Where George’s essay is strongest is in its assessment of the shifting political landscape of party loyalties and the Coalition’s hostility to universities, which he sees as connected. He is correct that state allegiances have changed, particularly that of Victoria, once the jewel in Menzies’ Liberal Party and now the strongest Labor state. But there seems to be some confusion in his argument, which shifts between suggesting that political fault lines lie along state lines and that there is a city–country divide.

Massive swings against Labor in regional Queensland at the last election certainly reflected perceptions that Labor is hostile to coalmining, but this hardly explains Labor’s failure to win back seats in suburban areas of the capital cities. While Labor seems obsessed with winning back coastal Queensland seats, it could easily win government if the five metropolitan areas of Australia voted similarly to Melbourne. Of the ten most marginal government seats following the last election, all but three are in the capital cities, and those three include electorates in Cairns and Launceston, neither of which depends on mining.

Only in Melbourne and Adelaide does Labor hold a clear majority of seats; Sydney, once reliably Labor south of the harbour, is now fairly equally divided. That Sydney has become much more culturally conservative than Melbourne is suggested by the results of the plebiscite on marriage equality in 2019. Of the ten electorates that recorded the highest “no” vote, eight were in Sydney, with only one (Maranoa) in rural Australia.

George suggests that the Coalition’s hostility to universities is closely related to Morrison’s apparent disregard for Victoria. Yes, the major export industry of Victoria has become higher education, while New South Wales’ is coal, but it is unlikely that this is a major factor explaining votes in metropolitan Sydney. Josh Frydenberg claims universities are victims of their own success, citing their willingness to embrace a corporate model, but he saw no problem in allowing major corporations to access JobKeeper and JobSaver programs, which were denied to universities. Given there are well over a million local university students in Australia, one would have thought the electoral calculus alone would encourage governments to be more supportive.

The consequences of declining financial support for universities are severe, not only for staff who lose jobs and students who can expect declining support. After the University of Western Australia, one of the richest universities in the country, embarked on a round of midyear cuts, Professor Mark Beeson pointed out that the cuts would drastically reduce the number of people working in the areas of international affairs and the politics and societies of the Indo-Pacific, with Asian Studies becoming further marginalised, Other universities have seen major cutbacks in language programs, including major Asian language programs.

Governments of both persuasions are obsessed with the need for more science and technology students, but in a complex and threatening global environment there is an equal need to increase competencies in disciplines associated with international studies. If, as the Morrison government believes, China presents a major long-term threat to Australia’s security, there should be a greater emphasis on building deep ties with the countries of Southeast Asia and expanding Australia’s diplomatic footprint, which is smaller than that of other countries of comparable wealth. One detects in Morrison something of an echo of Tony Abbott’s obsession with “the Anglosphere,” and a failure to recognise the long-term damage of successive cuts in foreign assistance to regions other than the Pacific.

The key question is whether either side of politics has the skills and vision to guide Australia into a post-pandemic world. One of the consequences of the pandemic has been an emphasis on the role of government; the neoliberal panacea of letting the market rip is no longer attractive, as George indicates. Sadly, the lack of a vision for the future is largely bipartisan; having been scared off by the reaction to Shorten’s mild suggestions for correcting some of the rorts within our taxation system, the current Labor Party finds itself unable to argue for the increased government commitments needed to improve our health, education and welfare systems. At a moment that calls for radical innovation, Labor risks missing the opportunity to offer a genuine alternative to the lack of imagination which George so accurately points to in the Morrison government.

Dennis Altman


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 82, Exit Strategy. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 83, Top Blokes.


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