The federal Liberal Party has now won seven of the past 10 federal elections. Yet sometimes you wouldn’t know it. Saturday’s election victory proved that – at least in Canberra – the Liberals are good at politics.
What the Liberals are not so good at is policy.
What Labor understands, in a way that the Liberals don’t, is that long-term change to a country is accomplished through policy, not politics. Australia’s civic, corporate and cultural institutions are all drifting to the left, and the Liberals in the Lodge have been largely powerless to stop it.
If the Liberals remain in power until the end of the new parliamentary term in 2022, they will have been in government for 20 out of 26 years.
If they’re not careful all they’ll have to show for these two decades are things like a level of government taxation in Australia higher than the OECD average, the world’s most expensive electricity, an industrial relations regime stuck in the 1980s, and a financial system dominated by the trade union movement via industry superannuation funds.
Scott Morrison has to make his victory count. The last term of Liberal government has been almost Fraser-like (if not McMahon-like) in its indolence.
Morrison’s brilliant, albeit narrow election victory is an opportunity to change the trajectory of the country.
If the Prime Minister spends the next three years merely implementing and paying for the social programs inherited from the Rudd and Gillard years his success on the weekend will be electoral folklore but little else.
Morrison has political skills and an antennae for public sentiment not seen in politics since John Howard. What he must do is use those skills to improve Australia.
Turning values into policy
Morrison’s critics have claimed his campaign was almost policy-free. They’re right. Beyond promises of tax cuts two elections into the distance and a half-baked scheme of government guarantees of people’s home mortgages there wasn’t much by way of policy from the Liberals. In terms of naked politics Morrison put into practice the adage of Napoleon’s “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”.
Any policy that Morrison would have put up would have diverted attention from what Labor was proposing.
Morrison’s great insight, though, was that to win the election he didn’t need policies because he offered something better than policies. He offered values.
It is ironic that Morrison, who presents himself as a “pragmatic centrist” who eschews philosophy, ran a campaign that was in fact deeply-rooted in ideology and principle. All politicians are rhetorical, but the difference with Morrison is that the Australian people believed that Morrison believed sincerely in what he said.
When Morrison said his job as Prime Minister was to help “mums and dads who are trying their hardest to do what’s best for their children”, he clearly struck a chord with the public. He captured the ideals of aspiration, the importance of the family, and the hope parents have, which is that their children will be better off than they were. Against this Labor offered higher taxes and policies to fight climate change. Put this way, maybe the Liberals could even have won by more.
The challenge for Morrison is to translate his values into policy. Here’s five ways he can do so.
- First, he makes it an objective of his government to increase the rate of home ownership.
- Second, he frames industrial relations reform not only as a way to improve national productivity but also as a means to reduce joblessness.
- Thirds, he starts a red tape reduction program that is initially focused on lifting the burden of regulation on small business.
- Fourth, he begins a discussion about tax reform with the explicit objective of reducing the overall tax burden.
- Finally, if the Liberals don’t yet have the courage to abolish compulsory superannuation, Morrison implements reforms to encourage as many Australians as possible to manage their own super.
These measures are just the beginning of what economic reform agenda of the Morrison government could look like.
When they’re in power Liberals usually just try to be competent economic managers – which is why under Liberal governments nothing much ever changes.
Morrison can be different. He can try to put his values into practice.
John Roskam is executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs.