Morrison is nowhere near Government 101

by on October 19, 2018

“This is just Government 101: carefully consider the issues in front of you and make the best possible judgments about the way forward,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said about the reason for the Government withholding the Ruddock report on religious freedom. It presumes basic university-level learning. Alas, this Government’s behaviour belongs in primary school.

The reference to “101” is to the way universities label their subjects. Government 101 would be the subject Government in first semester of first year.

I daresay no university course in good government, as distinct from base politics, would say it was good government to withhold for five months a report paid for by the public into a matter of great public interest.

Nor would such a course advocate members of parliament voting unquestioningly according to party instructions. That all Coalition senators did so this week to support a blatantly racist motion without any of them raising the alarm bell is not Government 101. It is primary school stuff: “Do it because I say so.”

Holding 90 children in indefinite detention in hellish concentration-camp conditions as “an example” to people smugglers is not Government 101, rather it is Totalitarianism 101.

Changing significant foreign policy (on Iran and the location of the Australian Embassy in Israel) against the national interest for dubious short-term gain at a by-election is not Government 101. Rather it is Expediency 101.

Morrison’s statement about “carefully considering” the Ruddock Report does not sit easily with the perfunctory way in which he dropped the National Energy Guarantee without even a party-room or Cabinet meeting and a dozen other off-the-cuff dismissals of policy proposals. This is not Government 101. Rather it is Hypocrisy 101.

The whole ideological Coalition cocktail of policies since Tony Abbott as the newly installed climate-change-denying leader of the Liberal Party began to verbally abuse Prime Minister Julia Gillard in unacceptably sexist ways well before Trump verbally abused Hilary Clinton is now unravelling: on religious freedom; “freedom” of speech; refugees; climate-change inaction; subsidising futureless energy sources while cutting those with a future; undermining academic freedom in universities; undermining public broadcasting; polluting the pubic space of the iconic Sydney Opera House; over-funding of religious schools; tax breaks for the wealthy despite growing inequality; slashing foreign aid while squandering on defence building in marginal seats and building a defence export industry; dog-whistling on immigration; abusing people on social security benefits while allowing tax dodgers to get away with it; resisting an inquiry into banks and financial services when it was so obviously needed; allowing higher levels of anonymous donations and delayed reporting of them; not disclosing lobbying activity; cutting public health and education; out-sourcing the public service and perhaps some other poisonous policies I have overlooked.

You cannot govern in the face of implacable ideology. As former Liberal Leader John Hewson said, if you do not have a credible policy to deal with climate change you have forfeited your right to govern. That very credible position reflects that of an increasing number of principled former Republicans in the US who are repudiating Trump in the hope that the party will return to its senses.

Tonight the results will come in for the Wentworth by-election. A few weeks ago this column said: “In an increasing number of seats it will be possible for the minor parties to harvest preferences so that the last minor-party or independent left standing would be ahead of the worse major-party candidate and pick up their preferences to beat the other major-party candidate.”

I fully expect, and the polls now also strongly suggest, that that will happen in Wentworth, and that Independent Kerryn Phelps will win.

I hate to say “I told you so”. Indeed, to the contrary, I rather enjoy saying “I told you so”, particularly when the “you” being told is a political party behaving dumbly.

But even a defeat in Wentworth, or a scary close finish, will probably not be enough for the Coalition to change its ways so it is eligible to enrol in Government 101.

And there is a lesson for Labor here, too. It will not be able to take any comfort from Wentworth with a primary vote in the 20s. If, as is likely, it gains government by default next year, it must do real Government 101 and more. It must govern from the sensible centre and be open and accountable. It must do government in the sunshine for the greater interest of all Australians and dismiss sectional interests.

All this sectional, sort-termism is catching up on the major parties.

Leaving Government 101 aside for now, let’s instead look at an imaginary Government 302 – second semester, third year.

The course outline might say something like: “The course will build upon candidates’ existing interest in long-term national-interest policies, developing strategies to neutralise short-term sectional interests, appealing to the better instincts of voters and exploring a range of methods to educate and engage the electorate in the importance of evidence-based policies.

“Prerequisites: candidates must have passed Government 101 and not have failed any elective course related to the subject matter.

“Background information for candidates: the only eligible Australian federal politicians recently have been Bill Hayden, John Hewson and Kim Beazley.

“Bob Hawke failed the elective Ego Management 101. Paul Keating failed the elective Hubris Control 101. John Howard failed the elective Ecclesiastical Studies 101 when his main essay failed to even mention let alone understand the importance of the northern side of the nave.

“Some state-level candidates qualified: Nick Greiner, John Fahey, Steve Bracks and Jon Stanhope, to name some.

“Some frontbenchers, however, who are not yet in full leadership positions, show promise: Tanya Plibersek and perhaps Josh Frydenberg.”

But by and large, however, history shows that few Australian politicians get to Government 302, let alone to courses that go beyond the under-graduate.

Scott Morrison. Government 101. Pass me the red pen.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 20 October 2018.

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