Michelle Grattan: Morrison in his element, but Albo is barely seen, rarely heard

The pandemic is the worst of times to be governing but Scott Morrison is determined to make it the best of opportunities to be seen to be doing things.

Oct 02, 2020, updated Oct 02, 2020
Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese say natural disasters will become constant, cumulative. (Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese say natural disasters will become constant, cumulative. (Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

It’s also the most difficult period to be in Opposition. In contrast to Morrison, Anthony Albanese is struggling to find any political chances.

The Government has used the last nearly three weeks to launch a tsunami of policies in the run-up to Tuesday’s budget. We’re seeing a reform agenda, although it’s not big bang stuff.

Labor complains about particular measures and keeps calling for “a real plan” for recovery but it is not cutting through.

In theory, such an age of anxiety could play for the Government, or for its critics. In practice, it has elevated Morrison (and premiers too) and swamped Albanese.

The recent policy announcements include a clutch of initiatives on fuel storage, energy and emissions reduction, upgrading the NBN, a digital business plan, relaxing restrictions on credit assessments, a revamped insolvency regime, and a manufacturing plan.

There are several key takeaways from this hyperactivity. Morrison favours both intervention and deregulation. He’s big on “road maps” (in energy, manufacturing) but wary of tying himself to long-term destinations. He’s untroubled by what was previously said and done by his own side.

Morrison hasn’t been called “Scotty from marketing” for nothing. Policy releases are carefully controlled. They’re given to the newspapers in the afternoon on an embargoed basis — no comment can be sought. They then dominate the morning headlines, surf through the news day and they usually are on that night’s TV.

The $1.5 billion manufacturing blueprint Morrison announced on Thursday selected six areas for special assistance. In terms of sectors, it is unashamedly picking winners.

The energy policy embraces one big controversial winner — gas. “If you’re not for gas, you’re not for jobs in our manufacturing and heavy industries,” Morrison says, in bold overstatement. Specific new and emerging emission-reduction technologies have also been nominated for encouragement.

The Government’s preoccupation with removing what it sees as excessive regulation stretches from environmental approval processes to borrowing to buy a house.

Last week’s decision to free up access to credit by easing the checks banks have to make on borrowers aims to help stimulate the economy. The Government brushes off fears it could lead to people financially over-extending.

The energy policy concentrates on the immediate and medium term; Morrison refuses to embrace a 2050 target of zero net emissions, despite this being accepted by a wide range of stakeholders and countries. One reason is he doesn’t want to stir dissent in his ranks.

In its commitment to an NBN upgrade, embracing fibre running past homes that will be able to connect for a price, the Government argues it is following a course it had in mind from the start. Some commentators agree; the more common interpretation has been this is belatedly catching up with a version of what the Labor government planned.

Will Morrison stir the hornets’ nest?

There are more policy changes to come, notably in industrial relations although we don’t yet have a fix on how far the Government will be willing to go in stirring that hornets’ nest. Morrison was bellicose about the waterfront dispute this week.

Much of the reform program needs legislation — for measures due to start early next year, this will require some parliamentary haste. The senate crossbench is easier for the Government than it once was, but not a pushover.

An immediate test will be an earlier announced reform — the proposed (and contested) restructuring of higher education fees, due to start in 2021.

Aged care is looming as one of the most challenging reform areas the Government must tackle, where it is hostage to a royal commission Morrison set up.

The pandemic has exposed a weakness

COVID-19 is a “stress tester” — it locates systemic weaknesses. Morrison has highlighted this in relation to Australia’s supply chains. The PM promised “sovereign manufacturing capability plans” in vulnerable areas. They’re likely to be assisted through procurement and contracting arrangements.

The pandemic also exposed a very different sort of vulnerability, in the nation’s nursing homes. Here we saw the result of years of loose regulation, inadequate staffing requirements and poor oversight.

The aged care royal commission in a special report on COVID-19 tabled on Thursday said the Government should establish a national aged care plan for COVID-19 and a permanent national aged care advisory body.

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The report’s various recommendations have been quickly accepted but these stick in the government’s craw because it has insisted it had a plan and that the advisory group it (reluctantly) set up was temporary.

What’s happened in aged care is a disgrace — comprehensive reform is imperative after the commission’s final report early next year. It will require more money but that’s only part of it. Much better and tighter regulation is vital and there is a wider issue about the “for profit” industry.

A dangerous clash is forming

Looking to the other side of politics, in textbook terms Albanese has done what an Opposition Leader should do in the first half of a term. He has outlined broad approaches to policy in so-called “vision statements”. Not unreasonably, he hasn’t wanted to be tied down to detail, especially in such quickly-changing times.

But he’s up against it. His party is split on energy/climate policy, and it’s increasingly hard to paper over the wide rift between resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon and climate change and energy spokesman Mark Butler.

Butler is seen much less than he used to be. Fitzgibbon is bluntly outspoken.

This clash has the potential to become dangerously destructive for the Opposition. Climate is one of Labor’s core issues. If compromises that accommodate both Butler and Fitzgibbon can’t be found, the falling out could be extremely serious for the party. Fitzgibbon has floated the threat of leaving the frontbench.

Labor’s critiques of the Government encounter two hurdles. Firstly, with so much happening, and Morrison occupying such a huge political space, people aren’t listening to the Opposition.

Secondly, the public are still not in a mood for partisanship. The Opposition has felt it necessary to dial up the conflict metre but that does not match where people are at.

Of course, the dynamics will change when the election gets close.

The poll (due early 2022) could be late next year. That is still a long way off. Politicians tend to be in-the-moment sort of people and Labor MPs are frustrated their attacks are having little impact.

On the other hand, from Albanese’s point of view, a possible late 2021 election is frighteningly close, given he has yet even to begin to establish himself as a strong alternative.

All this makes Albanese’s budget reply next Thursday more than usually important for Labor. The speech is being talked up as policy-rich. Budget week is the Government’s, but Albanese knows his performance is also crucial, to show he’s still in the game.

Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra and chief political correspondent at The Conversation, where this article first appeared.

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