Morrison's lack of national strategy

Leadership drought reaps its harvest

As John Hewson wrote, The global world of politics is beginning to embrace the digital newsroom adage: Wrong, but not for long! Political leaders shoot from the hip under some perceived pressure to state an ill-considered position for short-term political advantage, only to change their minds as circumstances break against them.

This has become the modus operandi of Donald Trump who, as one biographer puts it, is ‘‘thriving on chaos’’. Consider his actions on Syria. To distract attention from the mounting momentum for his impeachment, he suddenly announces a decision to withdraw all troops, loosely justified by a campaign commitment to end US involvement in ‘‘endless wars’’.

When Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan seized this longawaited opportunity to invade Syria to attack the Kurds, bringing significant global condemnation of Trump, he shifted three days later and sent a half-baked letter to Erdogan suggesting he not be a ‘‘tough man’’ and a ‘‘fool’’.

Then, as the Kurds sought support from Syria and Russia, and it seemed these events may rekindle Islamic State, Trump dispatched Vice-President Mike Pence to negotiate a ‘‘ceasefire’’, and as that proved tenuous, he announced that perhaps he may leave some troops in Syria, after all. This whole process reeks of shortterm opportunism rather than well-developed strategy for good government. A disturbingly similar modus operandi is echoed by the Morrison government.

It was elected without much of a policy agenda, except to legislate personal tax cuts and to deliver a budget surplus. Scott Morrison has been hell-bent on delivering both, even though times have changed and most considered analysis now suggests he won’t be able to afford the tax cuts in the early 2020s given the considerable spending commitments that will kick in, and the government is now under pressure to stimulate the economy.

Good economic management would involve stimulating much earlier, especially recognising the lags involved in responses to any economic policy shift and our notoriously slow approval and funding processes for any infrastructure program. A genuine broad-based reform agenda is becoming an imperative.

Do I hear it yet – ‘‘Wrong, but not for long’’?

Morrison made a loose, undefined campaign commitment to ‘‘legislate for religious freedom’’ but, as this process unfolds, and arteries harden, he is being buffeted with the mounting difficulties of doing so. It is an issue that may consume him, especially the way he wears his Pentecostal credentials on his sleeve, but any legislative response promises to be divisive, and perhaps to be ultimately abandoned.

Morrison has also been caught short on press freedom. He is at best bumbling along, with pointless and offensive murmurings about ‘‘no one being above the law’’, and compounding the issue by having Attorney-General Christian Porter assure us that no journalist will be charged without his consent.

When the issue is in large measure about creeping government actions to restrain press freedom, especially given some 75 pieces of so-called antiterrorism legislation since September 11, and a couple of controversial raids by the AFP, such assurances are just dumb.

And while Morrison continues to assure us the drought is his No.1 priority, his knee-jerk responses reflect the lack of a longer-term national strategy. Some farmers and regional communities do need cash handouts and other support, but that can’t be all there is. It is time for more innovative thinking, such as providing farmers with HECS-style, income-dependent loans, to be repaid in better times, rather than welfare.

And Australia needs to fully embrace a program of regenerative agriculture, to make our soils more resilient and significantly more droughtresistant, while generating carbon credits to negate emissions from other sectors, providing farmers with significant additional income.

Former governor-general Michael Jeffery’s regenerative agriculture proposals – the product of his having spent 10 years on a personally funded Soils for Life campaign – are finally getting some traction with Morrison. However, you would think that in a claimed $7 billion drought package, considerable scope could be found for such initiatives.

And still, Morrison’s indefensible obsession against even a mention of climate, let alone recognition of the magnitude of that challenge, boxes him in to totally inadequate responses to his No.1 priority. Scott, please admit you’ve got it wrong. But not for long.

Dr John Hewson is a professor with the Crawford School Public Policy at ANU and a former federal Liberal opposition leader

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