Flat White

Good government needs a good opposition

4 May 2021

12:00 PM

4 May 2021

12:00 PM

Here’s a quick point more than a few people overlook.  What a government can and cannot do politically depends in large part on how and where the opposition will push back.  Back in the Turnbull election of 2016, I preferenced Labor over the Liberals for the first time.  I thought Labor could hardly be worse than a Coalition government on a host of fronts.  Looking back I think that judgement was right. 

Take spending.  Josh Frydenberg and Scott Morrison and this Coalition government have been spending unbelievable amounts of money.  Here’s the thing.  Had Labor been in power I think they’d have spent less.  Yes, less.  Why?  Because with Labor in office we would have had a Coalition opposition harping daily about the fact the government’s Jobkeeper and Jobseeker programs were the world’s most generous and highest per capita spending programs with rorts and overspending galore.  And any Labor government would have had to trim its sails, spending-wise.  But for Josh and ScoMo the only thing Labor does is to urge more spending.  So if you are a PM seemingly devoid of core convictions (take a bow Mr Morrison), the easy thing to do is to spend like a drunken sailor.  They have.  It’s politically cost-free, at least in the near to middling term (after which the ‘pragmatist’ like our PM doesn’t really care that our grandchildren will be paying off this debt for all of their lives).  I’ll say it again.  Had Labor been in power these past couple of years there would have been less government spending and debt than we’ve had with the Coalition.  And now this Coalition government cannot stop.  They have to keep the taps flowing all the way to the next election.  You might have thought that a sane Labor Party would spot this market opening and start arguing, rightly, that the Libs were totally out of control in their spending.  But this is beyond today’s Labor Party. 

Is the same thing true as regards the last 15 months’ inroads on our freedoms with these tyrannical lockdowns?  We’d better set the stage with this digression.  Anyone notice that in no-lockdown Sweden, my hero country along with the US States of Florida, Texas and South Dakota, they have now released data showing that there have been zero excess Swedish deaths last year for those under 65.  Covid is a very dangerous disease for those over the expected life expectancy, not statistically for the young.  So if you’re under 50, US data now shows that if you catch it there is a 1 in 50,000 chance of dying – a whole football stadium of people all with Covid to deliver one death.   Or go and take the Oxford University Covid calculator test – you punch in your age, health status stuff, weight, height, and leave blank the postal code.  This then calculates, in Britain with all of its attributed Covid deaths, how likely you are to die of Covid, again if you catch it.  My 27-year-old son who lives in London did so and was told he had a 1 in 250,000 chance of dying.  My daughter lives over there too and her chances of dying from it were even lower.  My wife and I, just turned 61, scored less than 1 in 10,000.  All sorts of daily life tasks carry worse odds than this.  Florida has been open, and wholly lockdown free for over seven months now and its deaths per million are much, much better than lockdown mad New York’s and the same as lockdown mad California’s.  None of our response makes any sense and nor does it ‘follow the science’. 


But in that world would we in Australia – those of us with a core commitment to freedom and who agree with retired British Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption that Western governments have imposed the biggest, most egregious curtailments of our civil liberties in two centuries – have done better under a Labor government?  This one is hard to say.  If the Libs in Opposition were as feeble, pathetic and unwilling to stand up for the cause of freedom and restraint (as with every state Liberal opposition in this country) then the answer is ‘no’.  But if the Libs were to act the way some US State Republicans have, or as Scandinavian Oppositions have, and stood up for freedom and some sanity in how we deal with a virus that has an infection fatality rate of under 0.3 per cent, then we would have had a lot fewer intrusions.  That’s because an opposition matters.  It moves the political ground on which the government can operate.  And the less the government has fixed, committed principles – or put differently, the more it is just a ‘pragmatic’ operation focused on winning the next election – the more the Opposition can move the government’s response. 

That is precisely what has happened in Australia.  If you landed from Mars and knew nothing except what this ScoMo government has done – how much it has blown out the budget, how it’s been unwilling to fight the States over border closures or open up our international borders, how it has spent unbelievable amounts on submarines with century-old technologies just to create South Australia jobs, how it won’t fight against cancel culture, the spreading cancer of wokeness, the incredible lack of political diversity in our universities and on the ABC, the sort of school results and curriculum suggestions it has overseen, the list goes on – then as that alien you’d say this has been a left-of-centre government.  You would, wouldn’t you?  Not right-wing.  Not centrist.  Perhaps not even centre-left.  Just left. If that conclusion irks you, then try listing anything right-leaning these past few years Turnbull/Morrison governments have done.  It’s not easy. 

Of course this has all been partly in response to how left-leaning Labor has become.  That fact has made it ‘pragmatic’ to move left as a Coalition government.  And if you are someone who cares only about ‘your team’ winning elections then the Morrison response has worked splendidly, at least for now.  But if, instead, you care about outcomes and implemented policies, this is a left-leaning disaster.  Team Morrison is a left-leaning disaster.     

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.

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