QUARTERLY ESSAY 79 The End of Certainty

 

Correspondence

Phillip Coorey

To those of us fortunate enough to have had a ringside seat to the unfolding of some of the most dramatic events in contemporary political history, Katharine Murphy’s essay The End of Certainty should come with a warning. Kath’s documentation of those initial days and weeks of chaos, during which the government struggled to find the bottom of the crisis while the rest of us hung on for the ride, is not only an important and compelling piece of work, it is also mildly trauma-inducing. At least to this writer.

There were days that seemed surreal. Still do. Such as 19 March, on which, as Murphy recollects, the government dropped its longstanding aversion to increasing the unemployment benefit and doubled it, just like that. Qantas was grounded and laid off thousands of employees, the dollar fell to near or below US$0.50, the Reserve Bank of Australia cut what was left of interest rates and trundled out more than $100 billion in cheap credit just to keep the banks lending – all by mid afternoon. Later that day, the government announced almost $1 billion to bolster staffing levels at aged-care facilities in anticipation of the virus taking hold among the elderly.

In my front-page story for The Australian Financial Review, which attempted to hoover up all that had occurred and contextualise it, that near-$1 billion was the last paragraph of a 1000-word news report. Such was the magnitude of events that day. And there were many others just as insane.

Only weeks before, the government had been nickel-and-diming every single spending decision, even those worth a few hundred thousand dollars, as part of its pre-coronavirus intention to return the budget to surplus. That surplus, of course, never eventuated. Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and the government, along with the states, did what needed to be done to avert a national health crisis and to soften the blow of crippling economic shutdowns.

It was as though Morrison was made for the moment – and it is this that Kath so expertly captures. In his relatively short time in federal politics, Morrison has been the true fixer. In an audacious interview with Sky News some years ago, Christopher Pyne ascribed that title to himself as he tried to extricate himself from a policy mess of his own creation. We all laughed.

Morrison entered the parliament in 2007, when Kevin Rudd beat John Howard, and he became a minister in 2013, when Tony Abbott took back power from Labor. As a minister, Morrison cultivated a reputation as someone who was not particularly idealistic, but rather the sort of fellow you point at a problem, turn the key in his back and tell him to go fix it. In this vein, he “stopped the boats” and then, as social security minister, fixed up the pension policy mess that Abbott had bequeathed through the disastrous 2014 federal budget and its planned cuts. As treasurer, Morrison established the discipline to return the budget to surplus. His predecessors had each kept pushing back the target date for surplus, so he drew a line and decreed it would be 2019–20. He didn’t quite get there, but a balance was achieved.

When Malcolm Turnbull fell, Morrison came up the middle and took the top job. Even though he did so by outplaying those on both sides of the coup, he still brought a sense of the fixer to the problem. The Liberal Party had been tearing itself apart for a decade due to the feud between Turnbull and Abbott, which Morrison derided as the “Muppet Show.”

“Many years ago, I can recall,” Morrison said, “I was listening to a presentation from General Norman Schwarzkopf, and he said this: ‘When placed in command, take charge.’” And so he did. And furthermore, he did not discourage the departure of the foot soldiers of that era, among them Pyne and Julie Bishop. It was an exercise in cleansing the party of the internal rancour which had held it back for so long. He also showed he was not to be underrated, by friend or foe. As a colleague once perfectly observed, Morrison would follow you into a revolving door and exit ahead of you and you’d have no idea how it happened.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Morrison and his government were facing criticism for lacking an agenda – with some justification, given it was, after all, a third-term government. Other than being determined to steer the economy back to surplus, it was hardly bristling with ideas. This was exacerbated by Morrison not being particularly visionary. No one has ever accused him of being a policy wonk.

When the pandemic struck, all that criticism went out the window. It was a situation that needed a fixer, and a bloody good one. Of course, not everything went to plan. If the government had its time again, it would do some things differently, such as unveil a wage subsidy before doubling the dole, thus preventing those catastrophic and morale-destroying queues outside Centrelink. But by and large, and certainly in terms relative to the rest of the world, we have been pretty well served over the past six months. Moreover, it was a crisis that needed a pragmatist, not an ideologue. This is where The End of Certainty is a must-read for anyone who thinks they have a handle on our prime minister.

We have all observed and written about how Morrison is a pragmatist much in the mould of John Howard – which, from the perspective of his opponents, makes him difficult to corral. I clearly remember an exasperated Opposition leader Kim Beazley, after being outfoxed by Howard on something or other, exclaiming that trying to best Howard was akin to “trying to catch a fruit bat by the tail.” Morrison is, as Kath details, ruthlessly transactional and just as pragmatic as Howard, but even less of an ideologue. Howard could backflip as well as the next guy but he had his shibboleths, namely tax reform and industrial relations.

“I’m a problem-solver,” Morrison told Kath, before amending a principle often espoused by Peter Costello: “They say good policy is good politics. Well, actually, good problem-solving is even better. That is what I mean by suspending ideology – you’ve got to find the right answer.” When Morrison and ministers were shovelling hundreds of billions out the door in assistance, stimulus and loans, Morrison cautioned us not to confuse such actions with an ideological shift. “Why did I do JobKeeper and JobSeeker? Because the security of the country was under threat. I wasn’t setting up for some long-term welfare program.” But he showed he will do whatever is necessary, as required.

Between the writing of Kath’s essay and the writing of this response, Morrison handed down a recovery budget festooned with Labor policies. It was an updated and refined version of Paul Keating’s 1992 One Nation blueprint designed to bust the recession. The key flaw with Keating’s offering was that it was too late. Aside from that, Morrison and Frydenberg pretty much aped it – tax cuts to boost aggregate demand, wage subsidies to encourage hiring the unemployed, skills and training incentives, and, still to come, industrial relations flexibility (but nothing even approaching WorkChoices).

If he had wanted to embrace ideology, Morrison could have opted for company-tax cuts instead of the $27 billion investment allowance, which enables businesses to write off the full value of an asset in a bid to get them spending. This was a policy similar to that Labor took to the last election. Similarly, the budget brought forward the stage-two tax cuts Labor supports, but not the more generous and expensive stage-three cuts Labor does not support. Morrison took the path of least resistance in the budget. His aim was to fix the problem, not create intractable Senate battles over tax policy. Morrison even brought the ACTU into the tent to help with both crisis management and IR policy reform. It is understood Howard thought this a bridge too far. Morrison is – at the other end of the spectrum – the antithesis of Abbott, who always believed a fight was better than a fix.

As we emerge from the crisis and walk the long road to fixing the economic mess, Kath poses the fundamental question, which is the crux of her piece: “The economic recovery required after COVID will define a Morrison project, events will demand that. But going in, it is difficult to identify Morrison’s abiding objectives in public life. What hill would Scott Morrison die on? Howard died on the hill of WorkChoices, losing his seat at the 2007 election.”

It is a brilliantly clarifying question, and it must be one that Anthony Albanese and Labor are pondering. They thought they had Morrison pinned after his ham-fisted handling of the bushfires. But Morrison used the coronavirus to show he had learned. He did what he didn’t do during the fires: listened to the experts and acted decisively and pre-emptively.

In as little as a year, he will be seeking for the Coalition a fourth term in office. But Morrison gives the impression of just getting started.

 

Phillip Coorey is political editor for The Australian Financial Review.

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 79, The End of Certainty. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 80, The High Road.


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