Scott Morrison’s re-election pitch is built on a mirage – the false hope that the havoc of three years of fires, pandemics and floods is over and we are entering a “time of opportunity” when he can be a nicer version of himself and we, with a collective sigh of relief, can return to pursuing our personal aspirations.
But the pandemic isn’t over. More than 5,600 Australians with Covid-19 have died this year, more than twice the number who died in the previous 24 months.
And it exposed disturbing fissures in Australian society; the underfunded hospitals and public schools, the underpaid care workers, the shockingly inadequate aged care system, and the desperate need for an unemployment payment at a livable rate.
The government did cushion the human and economic impact of the pandemic by closing the borders and putting businesses and workers on government support, but returning to a new kind of “normal” life has highlighted other crises; families are living in cars and tents because they cannot afford housing, and household budgets are at breaking point because of the soaring price of food and essentials. Full-time workers are reliant on food banks. The climate crisis is a lived reality, its consequences a rolling national trauma. The tectonic plates of geopolitics are shifting, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.
This is not a time for slogans of false reassurance. Australia needs to learn from what we are enduring, rethink priorities and reset for what is to come. As a nation, we need to muster all our smarts and all our resources to meet these challenging times. As the prime minister said in a speech this month: “The job’s too big to be small.”
But neither major party is offering a transformative agenda in this campaign. Neither is offering policies commensurate with the task.
Determined not to fall at the finish line, as Bill Shorten did in 2019, and mindful of an electorate wary of more upheaval, Anthony Albanese is positioning as a “safe” change. His platform is deliberately modest and, in places, sorely lacking. But it does address some of the biggest challenges where Mr Morrison’s does not.
On global heating, the existential issue upending our lives, this campaign has glossed over policy differences between the major parties because both have promised to reach net zero emissions by 2050 (although some in the Coalition remain unconvinced).
But Mr Morrison’s promise is a veneer. He has a slogan, “Technology not taxes”, but almost no policies to reach the target he promised at the Glasgow summit. The vaunted $22bn for technology investment includes expanding gas-fired power and hydrogen made from fossil fuels. Wholesale power prices are increasing precisely because the Coalition has so woefully mismanaged the transition to renewables. Labor’s modest plan, to speed up building transmission lines and activate a Coalition policy to reduce industrial emissions, is also inadequate. But it has been comprehensively supported by business because it at least makes a start on the economic transition that has to come. In three years a Coalition government will have subsidised new fossil fuel extraction and its 2050 target will be even less plausible than it is now. After a decade of confected, scandalous, time-wasting “climate wars” for political advantage, we cannot squander three more years.
On the services essential for a decent society, Labor also has more to offer. On aged care, for example, Mr Albanese matched the government’s big spending increase in response to the royal commission, added $2.5bn, and – critically – said he would support and fund the current wage claims by aged care workers. On the national disability insurance scheme he has promised a review to make sure support plans are not arbitrarily cut. He is promising more for GPs and healthcare. Sadly, neither party has promised any further increase to payments for the unemployed, which remain below the poverty line.
Labor has also largely matched the government’s efforts to ease cost-of-living pressures, including the temporary measures in the budget and increased subsidies for medicines, and has offered much more generous assistance for childcare, arguing that this spending helps both families and national productivity. As interest rates rise and homeownership becomes a pipe dream for many Australians, each of the major parties is offering modest plans to help people into the property market – neither really addressing the crisis nor doing much to increase housing supply. Then Mr Morrison activated the controversial idea to allow first-homebuyers to access some of their superannuation for a deposit, a last-minute point of political difference – but poor public policy likely to drive house prices even higher.
Labor has a fund to build affordable housing but neither major party is promising to increase the subsidy for low-income renters, despite a finding that no rental properties are affordable for someone on government benefits, and only 2% are affordable for someone on a minimum wage.
Critically, Labor has also promised to move quickly on a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament, unfinished business for justice and reconciliation that is opposed by the Coalition.
Voters across the political spectrum are disgusted by rorts and pork barrelling and the lack of accountability in federal politics, fuelling deep disillusionment and corroding trust in the democratic system. But Mr Morrison is obstinately clinging to an integrity commission model that experts say would be worse than nothing at all, arguing, implausibly, that corruption is primarily a problem for the states and that politicians should enjoy an unfettered ability to spend taxpayer funds as they choose. Labor, by contrast, has promised a federal Icac with teeth.
And then there are the challenges for whoever wins on Saturday – record levels of national debt and the largest budget deficit on record, or the more precarious foreign policy environment underscored by Solomon Islands’ decision to sign a security pact with China – where the parties’ stances are broadly similar despite attempts to contrive differences.
It is the roll call of the Coalition’s policy vacuum and inadequate answers on so many issues that matter, rather than any sweeping or comprehensive ambition from Labor, that makes a compelling case for a change of government on 21 May.
Guardian Australia believes that case is compounded by the leadership styles of the two men vying to be prime minister.
Australians have watched Mr Morrison’s leadership for years. Fearful of defeat, he now concedes he may have come across as a “bulldozer” at times, but only because he was intent on “getting things done”. But getting things done to what end? The record shows he has too often elevated political expediency over decent outcomes – the reckoning over the toxic workplace culture for women in Parliament House and the political weaponisation of transgender children being just two cases in point.
Mr Albanese’s leadership qualities are untested in office but he has united Labor. The electorate may not be wildly inspired by him but a personable consensus style of leadership based on policy commitment may be exactly what it needs.
The polls tell us that many voters, disillusioned by these choices, are turning to smaller parties and independents.
Some support the Greens, who are campaigning on ending new coal and gas projects, adding dental care to Medicare, offering affordable homes and abolishing student debt – instead of proceeding with the next round of personal income tax cuts.
Many have been inspired by the grassroots “voices of” independents movement, joining, with renewed hope that politics can be different, campaigns in the inner-city “teal” electorates and also in some seats in the regions. The teals have stared down increasingly hysterical criticisms from the Coalition that their election would cause chaos. (We would point to the demonstrated productivity of the last hung parliament elected in 2010.) If these independents, alongside the Greens, were to hold the balance of power in a hung parliament, Guardian Australia believes policy could be influenced for the better.
If Liberal moderates do lose inner-city seats to the teals, the Coalition will face a history-defining choice – to heed the lessons of those losses and return to the political centre or to veer further towards the populist right. We do not believe this is a reason to shun the teals – the Liberal moderates have had a decade in government when they could have fought harder for their causes – but such a result could be a lasting consequence of this election.
And if Mr Morrison were to pull off another “miracle” victory, it would be via his canny preference deals with the United Australia party and, to a lesser extent, One Nation – minor parties that are harvesting the same voter dissatisfaction but with strategic cynicism rather than grassroots enthusiasm and hope. One Nation is so distant from some of the constituencies it is contesting it was forced to find candidates from different states, including the candidate to whom the deputy prime minister is directing his second preferences. The UAP is outspending even the major parties with advertisements promising superficially attractive but completely undeliverable policies, including capping home loan interest rates at 3%.
The Coalition’s siren song of returning to a time of pre-pandemic calm might be enticing, but it’s an illusion. Australia cannot afford three more years of Scott Morrison’s self-serving spin and negligent inaction. Despite his limited agenda, Anthony Albanese offers the best hope that we will rise to the challenges ahead. The election of grassroots independents or Greens candidates could influence an Albanese government for the better. Based on his record, and his threadbare re-election agenda, Guardian Australia believes Scott Morrison has forfeited the right to another term.