Governments age in dog years: far quicker than the voters that elect them. Wear and tear takes its toll on the machine of government. Policy becomes sclerotic. Talented people leave or are forced out, replaced by second and third-rankers. Leaders become isolated, cocooned in luxurious power. Mistakes are made. Political damage accumulates.
The Coalition government led by Scott Morrison is now 101 months old. It’s older than Rudd-Gillard, older than Curtin-Chifley, older than the governments of Malcolm Fraser or Joseph Lyons. The spring of 2013, when Australia needed Tony Abbott, seems a very long time ago. Only Luke Breust and Jack Gunston are still playing from the Hawthorn side that won the AFL premiership that September. Children who were in kindergarten in 2013 are now in high school.
You might argue that Morrison himself is fresher: he has only been the Prime Minister for three and a half years. But even this highlights the increasing antiquity of his government. As prime minister, he has been in office longer than any Australian leader since John Howard. Two of those years have passed during the pandemic. If, like me, you’ve spent most of those two years in a Zoom meeting while home-schooling your kids, those are two very long years indeed.
Another way of measuring the government’s antiquity is to recall the casualties who have fallen along the way. Morrison is one of the last survivors of Abbott’s original cabinet, along with Peter Dutton and Greg Hunt Abbott himself is long gone, not just from government but from the Parliament too. Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Christopher Pyne, Ian Macfarlane and Mathias Cormann have all departed the fray, generally to sinecures at foreign embassies, lobbyists, friendly think tanks, or board rooms.
The government that currently rules Australia is a different beast from the Abbott and Turnbull administrations. Lacking in talent and sorely in need of better organisation, the general tiredness of the Morrison Coalition government is obvious even to friends and supporters. Although assorted time-servers eke out meagre careers in various corners of the ministry, the front bench is largely composed of Morrison loyalists and C-graders, plus Josh Frydenberg and a thin sprinkling of up-and-comers. Even some of the younger talents have flamed out: Christian Porter is departing politics in disgrace, Alan Tudge’s career hangs by a thread, while Alex Hawke has been marked for destruction by his New South Wales factional enemies. Barnaby Joyce is deputy prime minister, which more or less sums up the malaise.
All of this goes some way to explaining the Coalition’s abysmal start to an election year. This has been most obvious in Parliament last week, when the government’s attempts at passing long-promised religious freedom legislation collapsed in a chaotic all-night sitting. The religious freedom disaster was meant to be the biggest piece of unfinished business for Morrison’s government—important enough to devote some of the last sitting days of the Parliament before budget week, where Josh Frydenberg will rain bribes on voters in an attempt to kickstart the Coalition’s re-election campaign. Instead of delivering for a key Coalition constituency, the result was a week-long implosion.
After an all-night debate culminating in a bunch of moderate Liberals crossing the floor in the early hours, the government got most of its two key bills passed by the House. Even the much-maligned ‘statements of belief’ clause was in there, which if passed into law will essentially provide legislative protections for hate speech.
But stung by the humiliation of Rebekah Sharkie’s amendment, Morrison and Michaelia Cash then pulled the bills from being debated by the Senate, sending them off to the never-never of committee land. Given that the government had actually got both the bills it put up passed (albeit one with amendments), the inescapable conclusion was that the main thing that Scott Morrison and his government wanted was a law that allowed trans schoolchildren to be expelled from religious schools. To add insult to injury, the Senate then voted down Josh Frydenberg’s new rules attacking proxy investment advisors.
Albanese and Labor made much of its reverse wedge and its supposed victory with superior Parliamentary tactics. Communities who watched their very existence tossed around as a political football on the floor of the House of Representatives may take a different view. But Labor’s prevarication is nothing compared to cynicism of Morrison and his gimlet-eyed advisors. Albanese was right to point out that the government ended up wedging itself—with Liberal members crossing the floor and the moderates and conservatives once again at each other’s throats, it’s hard to know what other conclusion could be drawn.
Morrison has never been a particularly sound tactician in parliament, and matters have not improved since the departure of Cormann and Porter from their leadership roles in the Senate and House. With the religious freedom bill withheld, Morrison and his caucus are now in the embarrassing position of having no important legislation left to debate. They could introduce a bill for an anti-corruption commission, but they don’t want to. The government is running down the clock. By the end of the week, journalists were openly speculating about leadership challenges, and news reports were dominated by leaks against Morrison from within his own cabinet.
But the religious discrimination implosion did confer one advantage on the government. It distracted many from the disaster unfolding in aged care.
Since beginning of the year, more than 500 Australians have died in aged care facilities—facilities that are regulated and supposedly supervised by the Commonwealth. These are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Many have died alone, in circumstances that can only be described as terrifying. Perhaps the government is pleased that the media is no longer talking about the government’s failure to order enough RAT kits, or hounding the hapless Richard Colbeck to come back from the cricket and do his job. If so, this is a measure of the government’s desperation.
The catastrophe in aged care is just one of the crises confronting Australia, crises that the Morrison government appears to have little understanding of how to address. While the Omicron wave that swept the eastern states over Christmas and New Year period is now receding, it has left a terrible toll. More than 2,300 Australians have died since Christmas, more than the entire death toll from the pandemic up to that point.
The damage to state and territory health systems has been astounding. Most of the Victorian hospital system was placed on ‘code brown’, a crisis mode that stopped elective surgery and diverted resources to COVID wards. Highly trained nurses, doctors and paramedics are leaving in droves, burnt out and exhausted by two years of double shifts and moral injury. The pandemic has exposed the run-down and jury-rigged nature of much of Australia’s public health provision, where wards and even whole systems were routinely run at 90 or 95% of capacity in the name of efficiency. Of course, resourcing spare beds and investing in a health workforce is expensive. But the cost of running the system into the ground for years may end up being much higher. The states run the hospital systems. But the Morrison government has offered little in extra funding.
Crisis in the health and aged care systems are just two of the straws in the wind. The pandemic has changed society in all sorts of ways we are yet to fully understand. When COVID-19 first hit in early 2020, there was a lot of talk comparing the pandemic to the twentieth century’s two world wars. We don’t see as much of that chatter these days, but in one respect the current mood captures one of the enduring historic phenomenon of complex social challenges: public dissatisfaction.
‘Pandemic weariness’, if you can call it that, appears to be setting in in many parts of the world. While most citizens are only dimly aware of the sacrifices that health professionals have made, everyone is tired of the pandemic. Where once we tuned in every morning to watch Dan Andrews or Gladys Berejiklian hold their daily media conferences, now we are being forced back to the office and the worksite, whether we like it or not. Schools are back all over the country, and parents who had been told for two years that they must keep their children safe at home are now being told to send them out with little more than a mask and RAT. As Brigid Delaney observed in the Guardian in January, ‘we’ve gone from nationwide surveillance, policing, punishment and public shaming in the media for having [COVID], to … the government saying it’s OK to go to work and be a close contact.’ The whiplash is real.
It’s not surprising that the widespread dislocation and anomie of the pandemic has generated significant new protest movements. While the mainstream of the electorate may look upon the freedom rallies with jaundice or bemusement, dismissing them would be a mistake. As I explored in an essay here last year, the anti-vax movements draw from deep wells of post-industrial scepticism with roots in both the left and the right of western politics. In the US, despite eye-watering casualty figures, many Republican-voting states have abandoned public health measures like mask wearing, and vaccination rates are lagging. In Canada, a blockade of anti-vaxxer truckers has shut down the national capital Ottawa. And in Australia, a growing radical right has teamed up with a ragtag collection of ‘freedom’ campaigners to stage a string of violent protests in Melbourne and Canberra. As right-leaning opportunists like Clive Palmer and Craig Kelly try to harvest votes for their minor party, it is unclear whether this will help the Coalition come election day. Morrison certainly seems worried: he has consistently refused to condemn the protests, instead offering coded signals of tacit support.
But despite the pandemic’s aftershocks, Morrison’s biggest problem might be the economy. The Coalition generally enjoys a healthy advantage when it comes to voter perceptions of economic management, and many voters supported Frydenberg’s massive stimulus spending of 2020. But despite strong GDP growth in recent quarters, the economy is far from the good news story the government would like to depict.
The problem, once again, is the pandemic, and the lingering consequences of the way it has upended supply chains and industries over the past two years. Strong aggregate growth and falling unemployment figures conceal many local weaknesses. Industries like tourism, hospitality, higher education and culture have been smashed by the pandemic, and are only just starting to recover. The same is true for the parts of Australia that have relied on these sectors, such as southern New South Wales, northern Queensland and metropolitan Melbourne.
Finally, like much of the rest of the world, Australia is in the grip of a nasty inflation shock. After decades of static or falling prices for many essential household goods and services, prices are rising again. Although originally caused by the supply chain chaos wrought by the pandemic, price rises have flowed on to many different categories of goods and services. The December quarter consumer price index showed prices rising at their fastest rate since 2014. For so-called “non-discretionary” inflation—essential items such as food, transport and housing—prices are rising at 4.5%. That’s given households a nasty reminder that the ‘cost of living’ is not just a well-worn political slogan.
Rising prices would be less distressing for households if wages were growing at comparable levels. But they’re not. Australia’s wage growth has been at historically low levels for nearly a decade, and while there has recently been a slight improvement, the spike in inflation means the median wage is going backwards in real terms. Once inflation is taken into account, Josh Frydenberg’s own figures in the December ‘MYEFO’ mid-year economic statement predict falling wages out to 2023.
A cost of living crisis is not the sort of territory any government would feel comfortable traversing in the run up to a difficult election. But that assumes Morrison can keep the wheels from falling off altogether. Recalling Morrison’s slick campaign of 2019, everyone seems to think he will be able to repeat the effort this year. A glance at his government’s record suggests this is not guaranteed: Morrison has been running a disorganised and often incompetent administration for years now. The fumbles and pratfalls stretch back to his disastrous mishandling of the bushfire summer of 2019-20, followed by the vaccine ‘strollout’ of 2020 and 2021, the querulous politics of ‘opening up’ in the second half of 2021, and then the paralysis of the Omicron response over the Christmas and New Year period.
Plenty of media stunts were organised during these periods. But policy failure meant that the media narrative backfired. Morrison’s problems are substantive ones: policy failure, administrative incompetence, and a stench of corruption. At times he looked slimy and untrustworthy, as when he turned up to Cobargo to caress bushfire victims without their consent.
Certainly, the government has planned for a big spending campaign. The budget has been stocked with a $16 billion war chest for electoral pork barrelling—presumably more useless commuter carparks and giveaways to friendly sporting clubs in the run up to the May vote. Morrison has been up to his old tricks, staging media appearances and mugging for the cameras. The recent stunts included a bewildering performance at a hairdressing salon, where he rather creepily cut an apprentice’s hair, and a risible turn on the ukulele during a friendly chat with 60 Minutes.
In 2019, this stuff worked a treat for voters who disliked Malcolm Turnbull, and disliked Bill Shorten even more. But there are signs that the antics are wearing thin. Indeed, the haircut and the 60 Minutes puffery only served to remind many observers of one of the Prime Minister’s other major problems: his manifest inability to come to terms with the reality of misogyny and violence against women. These were points hammered home last week by stirring speeches at the National Press Club by Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins. Faced with credible campaigns by a string of well-credentialed female independent candidates, the Coalition’s unpopularity with women has suddenly put a significant number of its safest seats in play.
All governments lose cohesion towards the end of their terms. Unity is now an open question for the Coalition. Personal enmities are no longer being hidden. Scores are being settled via high-profile leaks to press gallery journalists. The factional infighting in New South Wales has spilled over into the federal party. Moderates and hard-liners are baying for blood, and both factions are fighting Morrison’s smaller centre-right grouping. As a result, key seats in New South Wales have no pre-selected Liberal candidate for an election just months away. In the background, Frydenberg and Dutton openly position themselves as alternative leaders.
As the ALP amply demonstrated in 2013, politicians can do silly things when the likelihood of losing office becomes apparent. With most of the good embassies already populated with former cabinet ministers, there are not enough life rafts to go round.
Morrison’s government suddenly looks in danger of disintegrating altogether, much as Julia Gillard’s did in early 2013.
Ben Eltham is a journalist and researcher. He lectures in the school of media, film and journalism at Monash University.