Features Australia

How the Libs could have won (easily)

Five key mistakes of the government

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

Let me put it out there: I’m a person who watches Question Time. Not religiously and not always for the full hour and a quarter. But this does give you a clear indication of my interest in local politics as well as my tolerance for the boring/puerile/pointless/unenlightening. I like getting to know the senior members of the government and the opposition, to observe their (pathetic) scheming and posturing. Some members of the House (I can’t bring myself to watch the Senate) are good at the theatre of parliament; others, not so good.

To answer a question and then not listen to the answer – a common tactic of Albo – is not just bad manners but also indicates a lack of respect for QT. (Gosh, if he had only listened, he would have known the unemployment rate.)

When it comes to this federal election campaign, however, I can’t really bring myself to follow it closely. The fundamental problem is that there is so little real difference between the two major parties – just different emphases.

The essential messaging of both parties is that the principal role of government is to look after us by doling out free goods. Consequently, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that most voters will select their preferred party on the basis of what’s in it for them – they are encouraged to do so.

The real tragedy is that it could have been otherwise. Scott Morrison could have deliberately sought to differentiate his government from Labor on a number of important policy fronts. Instead of trying to convince voters that the Coalition can do a better job than Labor while running essentially the same set of policies, the alternative was to offer a quite distinct set of policies to excite voters. While it’s obviously too late for Morrison to outline points of policy difference from Labor, it is worthwhile considering the options that might have given the Coalition a better chance at being re-elected – certainly, than the polls currently indicate. It might even work next time around.

There are at least five candidates that spring to mind: immigration, the promotion of nuclear energy; energy policy, more generally; eliminating wokeness in the education system; and budget management. There are, of course, other possibilities, including industrial relations, but this topic is always tricky politically.

It has been clear for a number of years that the general public is strongly in favour of a lower migrant intake. Rather than return immigration rates to pre-Covid levels – around 235,000 net overseas arrivals per year – most voters would prefer to have fewer migrants, particularly those heading towards Melbourne and Sydney.

On this point, however, the government has not been prepared to listen, preferring to appease the property sector, universities and other businesses. It is clear from the Budget Papers that the government has every intention of returning to pre-Covid rates of immigration as soon as possible. The government has even recently boasted about the substantial surge in the number of international students arriving in the past several months.

Now no one is suggesting that we have no overseas arrivals, but rather that the target should be reduced – say to 100,000 per year – and that the focus should be placed on truly skilled migrants rather than the assortment of migrants we currently bring in, many of whom fill unskilled jobs.

When it comes to nuclear energy, it is true that there are a number of legislative impediments to its development in this country.  But with the signing of the Aukus arrangement and the switch to nuclear submarines, it would have been an appropriate time for the government to announce its wider support for nuclear power. In this way, Labor would have been forced to state its position – the party is split – thereby creating some political opportunities for the Coalition.

To be sure, nuclear might be a tricky sell, but so was the GST. Given overseas developments – both France and the UK now plan to ramp up their nuclear power industries significantly – and the possibility of using the sites of decommissioned coal-fired plants, this was a real opportunity for the Morrison government to be forward-looking as well as supporting emissions-free, 24/7 electricity generation.

At a broader level, there are actually some points of real difference between the climate change policies of the two parties, but Morrison has chosen not to emphasise these going into the election. (Mind you, the government’s support for net zero by 2050 muddied this pond significantly.) In particular, Labor’s proposed escalation of the Safeguards Mechanism is, in effect, a carbon tax by another name and will put very real commercial pressures on emissions-intensive plants that provide many high-paid jobs in certain electorates.

Alan Tudge, as education minister, was giving it a shot to address the problem of excess wokeness/political correctness infecting the education system, from preschool to university. In fact, he did achieve some success by emphasising the fundamental skills in the school curriculum.

Even so, the government could have made much more political capital of this issue, including the frequent examples of restricted free speech on campuses, the cancel culture and the inclusion of radical race/gender theories at both the school and campus levels. The recent Virginian election result in the US points to the potential political impact (including parents’ right to know and be involved) of this issue.

Budget management would normally be considered a strong suit of the Coalition, with Labor often accused of excessive spending and poor debt control. When it comes to the Howard/Costello years – and the comparison with Labor’s years under treasurer Wayne Swan – this claim is easy to verify by reference to the facts.

In more recent times, however, the Coalition government has jacked up government spending to proportions of GDP not seen under Labor. The maximum spend by Labor when it was last in office was recorded in 2009-10 at 25.9 per cent of GDP – in response to the Global Financial Crisis.

Under the Coalition, government spending as a proportion of GDP is expected to be 27.2 per cent this financial year, having peaked at 31.6 per cent in 2020-21. Even in 2025-26, government spending is expected to be 26.3 per cent, higher than Labor’s peak and well after any Covid impact.

If voters were expecting the current election campaign to be a contest of ideas, they were seriously mistaken. It’s more akin to a hand-to-hand battle about nothing much at all. Differences? What differences?

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