May 27, 2019

Grattan on Friday: Morrison government brings back memories of McMahon days

Grattan on Friday: Morrison government brings back memories of McMahon days

As the Morrison government thrashes around trying to stave off defeat
or just save the furniture, it reminds one historian of the ill-fated
McMahon administration.

The run up to the Coalition’s 1972 ousting is detailed in a
just-released life of Billy McMahon, titled Tiberius with a Telephone.
McMahon, often rated at or near the bottom in rankings of modern
Australian PMs, has been long overdue for a biography – now he has a
776-page tome.

Author Patrick Mullins, of the University of Canberra, says the “similarities between now and then are too conspicuous to ignore”.
These include a history of leadership instability, party disunity,
depleted Liberal finances, confused, reactive and inconsistent policy
directions, a credible opposition and a feeling for change in the

Admittedly, as Mullins says, there are differences. Morrison has a
benign economic environment, support in important sections of the
media, and a much better image than the widely-ridiculed McMahon.

But the fundamental point is that those were desperate days for the
Coalition and so are these. “McMahon was in survival mode,” says
Mullins, and the same could be said of Morrison.

Mullins’ observation of the McMahon government – “For every achievement and move towards new policy there was another fight, another muddle, another problem that should never have been cause for concern” – resonates when assessing the present one.

A government on the ropes acts impulsively, looking to the moment,
compromising sound policy-making and broader, longer-term interests.

So it has been with Morrison’s suggestion Australia would consider
moving its embassy to Jerusalem, a proposal born out of political expediency that’s brought him grief this week.

The Indonesian displeasure was felt as soon as the announcement was
made before the Wentworth byelection. Subsequently, things have just
got worse.

The free trade agreement with Indonesia, which Australia originally
hoped would be signed this week when Morrison was in Singapore for the
start of the summit season, has become hostage to the embassy

Earlier the government tried to fudge the signing delay by a faux
nonchalance about timing. Nobody was fooled. Now in public and private
comments, Indonesia has made its position clear in the past few days, to Morrison’s embarrassment.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also piled on, saying he’d
pointed out to Morrison that “adding to the cause for terrorism is not
going to be helpful”.

Rather than having an easy ride on his international round, the
embassy issue has put Morrison on the back foot.

There was no immediate way out. The government still has to declare
what it will do. Morrison says a “process” is underway – presumably
bureaucrats’ advice is being sought and examined, after they were initially bypassed. There’s to be a decision before Christmas.

This can’t end happily. Morrison is caught between, on the one hand,
the right of the Liberal party and the Jewish lobby, and on the other,
the strongly-held view of our biggest neighbour in particular.

And the angst has been all for nothing – Wentworth was lost.

The Jerusalem question isn’t the government’s only looming no-win
decision. It has yet to provide a response to the religious freedom
report, a time bomb left by Malcolm Turnbull, who set the inquiry up
to placate the right.

In the meantime negotiations with Labor remain unfinished over legislation announced by Morrison (pre-Wentworth) to prevent discrimination against gay students.

The still-suppressed report has brought little but controversy for the
government, and backfired on the right, even before we have a policy from it.

Yet this week we have a new inquiry that reflects ideology more than need, with Education Minister Dan Tehan’s announcement of a review of freedom of speech in universities.

The right has been agitated about the unwelcome receptions some
conservative speakers have received from demonstrators on campuses.

Adding to the right’s broader anger with universities was the
conservative Ramsay Centre’s failure to persuade the prestigious
Australian National University to accept funding for a proposed course
on western civilisation, which came with conditions the ANU felt would
compromise its academic autonomy.

The freedom-of-speech inquiry seems little more than another
manifestation of the culture wars, symptomatic of the
anti-intellectual stance of some of the Liberal hardliners, who see
tertiary institutions as seeding grounds for the left.

Tehan said the inquiry, undertaken by former chief justice Robert
French, would “outline realistic and practical options that could be
considered to better promote and protect freedom of expression and
freedom of intellectual inquiry”.

It will “review existing material regarding free speech, including
codes of conduct, enterprise agreements, policy statements and
strategic plans”. French is to report in four months, so before a May

Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, says
vice-chancellors “are questioning of the rationale for the review” -
they “do not see there is an issue to address. Every day on university
campuses across the country there is vigorous debate across a wide
range of issues,” she says.

This inquiry could end up producing fresh pinch points for the
government, like the freedom of religion one has. At the least, it
seems an odd priority – the issue wouldn’t engage too many ordinary

That’s in contrast to energy policy, undisputed core business for
government and public. But this remains ad hoc and fraught, as the government goes about strong-arming companies on price and searching for opportunities to support new investment in so-called “fair dinkum” power.

The highly interventionist approach is problematic on two fronts: it
is contrary to Liberal philosophy, and it’s unlikely to be effective.

The Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood says: “In the absence of a stable
climate policy and good management of the electricity market we seem
to be left with nothing more than threats, which are easy to make but
hard to implement, and subsidies, which may be popular but make no
sense from a policy perspective”.

A politically-inspired thought-bubble with serious fallout, an
unnecessary bow to the right, a core policy that’s unfit for purpose.
Taken together the embassy issue, the free speech review, and the
energy shemozzle point to a survival strategy that’s not cutting it.
Just as McMahon’s didn’t.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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