The political landscape after the May 2019 federal election is becoming clearer, with all sides of politics starting to develop their strategies and navigate a pathway towards the next election, due in 2022. There are a wide range of new faces and new voices we’ll have to get used to and the key talking points and battle lines are being pushed forward by these new characters and new players in the Government and Labor Opposition.
The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is not one of these new faces: he’s been in the most prominent political position in this country since August 2018 and it’s a face and voice that needs no introduction. But he has introduced new terminology into political lexicon: the concept of ‘unfunded empathy’.
During the May 2019 federal election, the Prime Minister was very convivial, saying virtually ‘yes’ to everything – swilling beer, shearing sheep, and calling out all the winning numbers in rural bingo halls. But that was the election campaign: negativity about your own political intentions has no place on the campaign hustings, and with the election won, it’s time to get back to the reality of governing. But is the Prime Minister and his cabinet team up to the task? Not if you’re a recipient of Newstart, live in the Pacific Islands, or a supporter of the GetUp group.
There was a broad chorus of support across the political spectrum to raise the Newstart allowance by $75 per week, up from $245 per week: Liberal, National, Labor, Greens; the business community; the Australian Council of Social Services. It’s rare to have such a unilateral consensus of support for the unemployed – usually, they’re on the receiving end of negative reports in the mainstream media, and deemed to be unworthy of any further support from government, irrespective of how severe the employment market might be.
But such a raise for Newstart was not on the agenda for the Prime Minister, immediately ruling out any possibility of an increase and claiming the Government wasn’t in the business of “unfunded empathy”. Political narratives can sometimes hinge on key phrases uttered by a prime minister: John Howard was hamstrung by his notion of ‘core promises’ and ‘non-core promises’ to justify breaching important election campaign pledges (not that it hindered him too much – he was Prime Minister for another 10 years after he mentioned). Will a few loose words about “unfunded empathy” create any issues for Scott Morrison?
Unemployment is starting to rise, which means there will be more Newstart recipients in the near future. And this also means more people – including those who are employed and are doing relatively well – will know either a friend or a family member on Newstart. Demonising these people, even if it an old favourite punching bag of the mainstream media is fraught with problems.
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Contrary to the negative perceptions perpetrated by conservative media interests, there are very few people that actually ‘rort the system’ to obtain the Newstart allowance of $245 per week. In real terms, the Newstart allowance hasn’t increased since 1994, 25 years ago. Over the same period, salaries for members of parliament have increased by 88 per cent; wages for most workers have increased by 44 per cent; and corporate remunerations for directors have increased ten-fold.
If Newstart was to increase by $75 per week, the cost to the annual budget would be close to $3 billion dollars, an amount that compares quite favourably to the current franking credits refund system – where shareholders receive a tax rebate, even if the tax hasn’t been paid in the first instance – which costs around $6 billion per year.
But whether there is merit in increasing the Newstart allowance – and the evidence suggests there is – there is little chance of the Government budging on any new spending up until July 2020. Morrison has staked the credibility of the Government on the back of the promised $7 billion surplus for the 2019/20 fiscal year, and will do anything to avoid another deficit over the final 10 months of this financial year.
If deflecting the calls to raise Newstart was considered an easy task for Scott Morrison – with the support of a string of reports on mainstream media, which denigrated Newstart recipients and erroneously announced 78 per cent breached their obligations – there won’t be as much luck dealing with a sinking economy and predictions of an economic recession over the next 12 months.
While some analysts are suggesting there is a 20–30 per cent of recession, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia had suggested there is a 100 per cent chance of recession, it was just a question of when.
While it’s not a figure commonly used within economic circles, the Australian economy is currently in a per capita recession, after two consecutive quarters of negative growth between July and December 2018 – 0.1 and 0.2 per cent – and indications from the retail sector suggest the next round of reporting will show a further deterioration.
Annual growth figures are currently at 1.8 per cent, well below the expectations of the Reserve Bank.
How will the Government explain these figures if their electoral credibility is based on the perceptions of superior economic management? During the recent election campaign, both Morrison and the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, suggested the Labor Party had created so many economic problems during their reign between 2007–13, that it’s taking such a long period to correct these problems. Again, a compliant media can help with the Government’s attempt to push forward this message, but it’s coming up to six years since Labor left office.
At what point does a government take on responsibility for economic management, and stop blaming its predecessors for their woes? Although they will continue to push this argument, attributing fault with a long-gone government only has a certain shelf-life, and other credible reasons will need to be found.
Other problems are starting to develop for this Government and, while it’s still early in this new term, it’s starting to form patterns that were consistent with the early days of the Abbott government in 2014. While it might not register with the Australian electorate, Morrison’s appearance at the recent Pacific Islands Forum was a disaster. Australia refused to agree to a communiqué until all references to coal (except for one); global warming and net zero emissions by 2050, were removed.
The Prime Minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama, accused Australia of being “insulting and condescending” towards other Pacific countries, and suggesting Morrison’s negotiating style was confronting and heavy-handed, forcing other countries to accede to Australia’s perspectives and wishes.
Generally, Pacific Island leaders can make political mileage by grandstanding and making attacks on Australian governments for not doing enough in the region but, in the context of expanding Chinese interests in the Pacific, Morrison’s actions have been foolish. It’s almost a repeat of the 2015 Pacific Islands Forum, when Prime Minister Tony Abbott, again, removed references to coal and rising sea temperatures, and dismissed the concerns of government leaders in the region.
On his return to Australia, Scott Morrison addressed the South Australia Liberal state council, outlining his concerns about the activist group, GetUp, suggesting he would launch another inquiry inspecting the links between GetUp and the Labor Party – even through three previous inquiries by the Australian Electoral Commission have confirmed the independence of the organisation.
Again, this is a reflection of the antics of Tony Abbott in 2014, when he launched the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission to restrict the actions of non-government organisations that were deemed to act against the interests of the Liberal–National government.
Essentially, electors vote in governments for the provision of economic security and the wellbeing of the Australia community. Targeting groups, such as GetUp, in ideological pursuits and gamesmanship on the periphery of political activity, are a sign of a government obsessed with personal party interests rather than the community’s interests. While this type of obsession didn’t end the Liberal–National Party’s time in government, it did end the Tony Abbott time as Prime Minister.
It has been just over three months since the Liberal–National Party won the 2019 election, but the Morrison government is quickly becoming rudderless and moving towards an empty cul-de-sac of ideologically-driven pursuits. It might be entertaining for the conservative base of the party, and provide for opportunities to divert attention away from the critical issues facing the economy, but it’s no way to manage effective government.