Why Scott Morrison is likely to be mugged by reality

RECKONING: Scott Morrison's record as prime minister is one of dodging national responsibilities. Picture: Mark Jesser
RECKONING: Scott Morrison's record as prime minister is one of dodging national responsibilities. Picture: Mark Jesser

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is obviously a devotee of former US President Harry Truman, who once said: "If you can't convince them, then confuse them."

Morrison is increasingly defined by his theatrics, rather than leadership or policy substance.

His focus is mostly on the "big announcement", not on delivery.

He doesn't seem to understand nor accept responsibility.

He relies on spin and hubris, and is quick to shift the blame.

He readily attempts a political stunt to distract, but not always achieving the desired outcome.

In recent days, he has been exposed for governing to the conspicuous benefit of his mates - promising a gas-led recovery; paying 10 times the value for a piece of land at the Badgerys Creek airport; turning a blind eye to employers gaming JobKeeper; and to some wealthy owners of private aircraft exploiting assistance to the aviation sector.

He has attempted to cover this up by cutting funding to the Auditor-General and by resisting a promised national integrity commission, in particular failing to release draft legislation that has sat on his desk since the end of last year.

Morrison has consistently ducked his clear national responsibility for quarantine and aged care in his response to COVID, hoping to be absolved by claiming that in both cases "he was working through the states" - a lame attempt at blame shifting.

Ignoring these responsibilities, Morrison and his team have incessantly bagged Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews over his handling of Victoria's second wave of COVID and emphasising the drag of lockdowns on the national recovery.

Yet he simultaneously boasts the recession is over and our economy is already recovering, somewhat faster than expected.

Morrison has also attempted a couple of stunts in an attempt to distract from much of this.

For example, his attack on Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate, for paying bonuses in the form of luxury watches rather than cash.

I say stunt because if the bonuses had been paid in cash, they would have gone pretty well unnoticed.

He also confined his criticism to Holgate, ignoring the overarching board responsibility for such a decision.

Again, he was protecting mates - four LNP luminaries on the board - able to avoid public comment and the scrutiny of Senate estimates.

Similarly, Morrison's recent calls to some world leaders were another hoped-for distraction.

However, this too didn't quite go as planned when UK Prime Minister Johnson focused on our inadequate response to climate.

As released by a Downing Street spokesperson, catching Morrison somewhat off-guard, Johnson urged Morrison to take "bold action" on climate stressing the need for "ambitious targets to cut emissions and reach net-zero".

Johnson noted: "The UK's experience demonstrates that driving economic growth and reducing emissions can go hand-in-hand."

This comment exposed the fallacy of what has been an LNP position since the Howard assertion that responding to climate must cost growth and jobs.

It doesn't have to be a choice. Indeed, the transition in key sectors such as power, transport and agriculture creates new markets, industries and jobs.

Similarly, the additional fallacy reflected in the slogan "technology not taxes" is the suggestion that this, too, is a choice.

No. Technology will certainly be important in an effective transition to a low carbon Australia, but it would only be helped, indeed accelerated, if there were to be a price on carbon.

Transition would be facilitated if those doing the polluting, from coal and gas fired power stations, or petrol and diesel powered vehicles, were to be penalised for the pollution they create, that contributes so significantly to our carbon emissions, and impacts so heavily on health in our society.

Morrison continues to ignore that important trading partners - China, Japan, Britain and South Korea - have all adopted net-zero targets, some threatening to impose climate tariffs on laggards in trade deals.

Indeed, he obfuscates with false arguments about "sovereignty", threats of higher prices, and ability to carry forward Kyoto credits.

In all this, Morrison is setting his government up to be mugged by reality.

I fear that while 2020 was a tough year, both economically and socially, 2021 could be even tougher as we transition out of recession, with government phasing down assistance and challenges such as climate becoming even more urgent.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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