Irrelevance is the enemy of political leaders, and to avoid sinking to the bottom of the field, they need to keep moving, adapt and make continuous announcements, even when there’s not too much to announce.
During a crisis, it’s absolutely essential for a prime minister to be seen to be ‘doing things’, while keeping an eye on their long-cherished agendas and engaging in political gamesmanship.
Scott Morrison is not one to miss opportunities, and engages in doublespeak, mistruths and fabrications to achieve his goals. And why not? There’s so much that can be achieved when a largely compliant media is happy to wave away political problems and create avenues for him to achieve his agenda with the least amount of friction.
During the week, Morrison was asked if he would consider a temporary salary reduction as a sign of solidarity with the Australian community. After all, he has frequently said “we’re all in this together” and, during the coronavirus crisis, many employees across Australia have had their salaries reduced, and many have lost their jobs completely.
Morrison rejected this idea, simply saying “I will continue doing the good job that I’m doing”. Which, of course, was the narrative that featured in the evening news, rather than his refusal to accept a pay cut.
‘Solidarity’ seems to be anathema to conservative politicians and unless it’s the form of solidarity implemented in the 1980s by the Polish union leader, Lech Walesa – which precipitated the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and ultimately introduced a brand of Thatcherism in Poland that was more extreme than Thatcher herself – it’s unlikely to embraced.
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But when there’s a break in the media news cycle, a politician needs to fill it immediately and from absolutely out of nowhere, Morrison announced it was time to “put down the weapons” on industrial relations and extended an invitation to business groups and unions to reach agreements on how to change a system which he claims is “not fit for purpose”.
Morrison has not yet outlined which purpose the current industrial relations system doesn’t fit into, but the media was quick to announce Morrison’s move as ‘Accord 2.0’, and made comparisons with former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, the instigator of the original Accord in the 1980s. Hawke was a giant of Australian politics: these are grand comparisons, but are they reasonable and is it fair to place Morrison and Hawke on the same pedestal? Short answer: no.
The Labor Accord
The original Prices and Incomes Accord was a series of seven reforms introduced by Labor administrations between 1983–1991 and included far-reaching consequences for employees, businesses and the economy. It was largely a response to the recession of the early 1980s and an attempt to revive a moribund economy still recovering from the 1970s oil crisis, the high frequency of industrial disputes, and poor economic management from Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal–National government.
The Accord became the centrepiece of the Hawke–Keating governments reform agenda to implement wage increases linked to the consumer price index; introduce universal health care (Medicare); agreed pay rises of over 6 per cent between 1985 and 1986; mandatory superannuation; increases in pensions and unemployment benefits; a reduction of the top personal tax rate; tax cuts for low and middle-income workers; and family income supplements for low-income families.
In addition, there were structural adjustment and investments plans for manufacturing industries; implementation of key tax avoidance measures; a national workplace health and safety framework; and a target of achieving the highest level of employment and economic growth among OECD countries.
The Australian economy at the end of Fraser’s tenure in 1983 was at a crossroad. Between 1981–83, there had been a 3.7 per cent fall in GDP (a 6.2 per cent fall in GDP per capita), unemployment had risen to 10 per cent, and much-needed reforms recommended by the Campbell Commission into Banking – supported by many economists and business leaders at the time – were shelved.
The measures introduced through the Accord were necessary to turnaround a badly performing economy but, in all likelihood, could only have been implemented by a Labor government, with Bob Hawke as the consensus leader. Many of those key reforms and financial supports for working people required strong support and trade-offs from the union movement, and these reforms were antithetical – and still are – to the values of the Liberal Party.
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Fraser was never likely to win that 1983 election but, even if he did, he would not have had the political capital or the abilities to achieve any of the key reforms arising from the Accord. And this is precisely the same situation Morrison finds himself in now.
The key attributes of a post-coronavirus economy in Australia are different to Morrison’s core beliefs and those of the business community. Stabilising the economy – which had been performing poorly even before the economic effects of coronavirus became apparent – will require strong and effective government intervention, social security support and high levels of productive national government debt, and these are the measures the Liberal Party and the business community, traditionally, are not supportive of.
And, like Fraser after his role in the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government, Morrison is an opportunistic and divisive figure, untrustworthy, and unlikely to have the ability to bring diametrically opposing parties together to work towards a united goal.
Morrison hasn’t articulated what he hopes to achieve with his invitation of union leaders, employer and industry groups to “put their differences” aside and work towards a series of workplace changes that will overhaul Australia’s industrial relations framework. But whatever that might be, it’s unlikely to be as comprehensive as the original Accord. The Accord was a series of reforms implemented over eight years; Morrison wants a new industrial relations model formed by September, just three months away.
He has proposed five policy areas for discussion: award simplification; enterprise agreements; casual employment; compliance; and ‘Greenfield’ agreements for yet-to-be established enterprises.
Of course, assessing industrial relations, the role of the Fair Work Commission and the future of employment, especially during a time of crisis, is an essential part of government. The world continuously evolves and governments that fail to adapt to this changing world or fail to implement economic benefits that spread across as many of its citizens as possible, usually suffer the same fate as the Fraser Government in 1983 – ignominious removal from office for ignoring necessary and inevitable reforms.
Conversely, political parties forcing agendas too radical for the times, or ideological overreach – such as John Hewson’s Fightback! proposals in 1991, or John Howard’s WorkChoices agenda from 2005 – also suffer electorally. The correct balance has to be met but will Morrison be the one to achieve this?
A closer look at Morrison’s record suggests he is not the political leader with the ability to make a consensus.
In pages lifted directly from former Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke–Petersen’s strategy book, Morrison rarely provides direct or clear answers to the public and frequently engages in brazen lying and obfuscation.
There’s no question about this: from the time of the battle with Michael Towke to win Liberal Party preselection in the seat of Cook in the 2007 federal election, Morrison will say the words that he needs to use to achieve his personal and ideological goals.
As Treasurer in 2017, he claimed he’d never made any cutbacks to aged care services, even though the 2016 Budget papers clearly showed a $1.2 billion reduction.
In early 2019, Morrison told the public his government had enacted “world’s best practice” legislation for the protection of endangered species, even though no such legislation had ever been tabled by Parliament or even discussed by his government.
In late 2019, Morrison’s office denied he had left the country during the bushfires emergency across Australia, even though he was actually on a family holiday in Hawaii. Afterwards, he claimed he was “receiving regular updates on the bushfires disaster” but Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary, Phil Gaetjens recently told the Senate Committee Hearing on the Black Summer Bushfires, no such briefings were ever made.
Morrison also denied any involvement in the misappropriation of funds from the Community Sport Infrastructure Program, even though the former Minister for Sports, Bridget McKenzie made the claim that it was the Prime Minister’s office that made the final adjudication about which marginal seats should be targeted in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election.
These are just a few of the litany of mistruths Morrison has put out into the public realm and, somehow, he’s managed to seduce the media to such an extent that egregious mistakes and lies are subtly filtered away or ignored, as if they never occurred.
Will his claim that he won’t pursue union-busting legislation (the Ensuring Integrity Bill) as “a sign of good faith” just be another case of about-face, followed by a denial that he ever made the suggestion, or yet another rejection of an assertion?
We have to remember the Morrison government re-tabled this Bill in Parliament last month, a few months into the pandemic and just weeks after Morrison suggested this was “not the time for ideologies”.
Like Howard before him, a complete overhaul of the industrial relations system to benefit business, at the expense of employees, is Morrison’s ‘Holy Grail’ of agendas, and it’s very unlikely he’ll be putting this agenda aside.
In November 2019, he announced he wanted to remove “unnecessary clutter” within industrial relations, including a reduction in award compliance measures, wholesale changes to enterprise bargaining, and allowing businesses to employ staff as subcontractors without the same protections currently offered to employees.
And there’s nothing new in this agenda: it’s a replica of Morrison’s comments when he was Treasurer in 2015, and it’s the ongoing wish list of the Business Council of Australia. And in classic political marketing, Morrison keeps repeating “the industrial relations system is broken”, without offering a clear idea of what is actually broken.
Already, he has refused to guarantee existing pay and conditions but surely an “act of faith” to the union movement would be to make such a guarantee?
John Howard eventually added a ‘no-disadvantage’ test to WorkChoices, when it became obvious the policy was designed to reduce worker benefits and favour the business community, and became a political liability for the Liberal–National Government.
Morrison wants to avoid the mistakes made by Howard, mistakes which ultimately contributed to his loss in the 2007 election. And, through one side of the mouth, he’ll try to convince workers across Australia these reforms – if it comes to that – are in their best interests, while through the other side, telling the business community sotto voce they’ll essentially be getting everything they’ve ever wanted. And then he’ll deny he ever said any worker wouldn’t be worse off, once they discover they’ve lost most of their working conditions and stability of employment.
Because that’s what Morrison does: he manipulates and denies evidence from his past and it’s a behaviour which has been a key feature of his time in office.
The framing of Morrison’s proposals as ‘Accord 2.0’ is premature. The reforms and employee benefits from the original Accord were developed over eight years and the main architect of the program, Bob Hawke, had the experience, the intellect, the ability for consensus as well as the stature, to bring parties together and work towards common goals. Morrison has few of these abilities.
Of course, we’ll have to wait to see what the outcomes are in September, but Morrison is unlikely to support measures which are anathema to his personal political thinking and the business community. And this is where the problem lies: Morrison wants to force more free-market philosophies at the worst possible time to implement them, and is reluctant to accept these ideas might just have been the cause of the many economic problems in the first place.
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