Grattan on Friday: 2018, the year of governing badly


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Looking back on the federal politics of 2018, voters can conclude
they’ve been given a rough trot.

What’s been dubbed “the permanent election campaign” to which we are
subjected these days is a curse. Too often it encourages expedient
rather than sound decisions and ugly behaviour dominated by noise and
stunts.

Added to that, we’ve had from the Coalition this year an extraordinary
series of leadership, policy and individual meltdowns. A government
that started 2018 with a one-seat majority ends it in a minority,
after the loss of a byelection and a defection to the crossbench.

This has indeed been the year of governing badly.

As the Coalition struggles towards Christmas it has been buffeted this
week by a sex scandal involving an obscure Nationals MP and an attack
from its own side over its energy policy.

The cavorting of Andrew Broad in “sugar baby” land has left the
Nationals looking for a candidate for the Victorian seat of Mallee,
safe in normal circumstances, but not to be taken for granted in these
days of community independents and when the incumbent has been
disgraced. (Broad will be around until the election –
there is no byelection.)

Senior Nationals want a woman to run. The party’s deputy leader,
Senator Bridget McKenzie, is not ruling out seeking preselection but
has no connection with the area. One government source says “it would
be pretty late for her to be carpetbagging” into the seat. A strong
local would seem better.

Whether the Liberals will make it a three-cornered contest is an open
question (though they probably wouldn’t field a candidate if McKenzie
ran).

In 2016 the Nationals contested Murray after a Liberal retired, and won the seat; the Liberals might think they could
benefit in this contest from any backlash against the Nationals over
Broad’s conduct. On the other hand, would they want to spend money on this seat in an election when dollars will be tight?

The Nationals have often been a steady and stabilising force within
the Coalition. Coming out of this year they look like a chaotic rump,
unable to manage their personal and political lives.

Barnaby Joyce destroyed his leadership with an affair and has been
undermining his party as he attempts to get it back. McCormack is a trier
facing a job that often looks beyond him. He’ll last to the election
(well, presumably) but probably not after that.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is the ultimate trier, believing the
only possible salvation for the government is constant activity. For a
very short time, he looked reasonably effective. But then all the
freneticism started to appear contrived and fake.

One big challenge Morrison has not been able to handle is the
Coalition’s “woman problem”. Minimal female representation in both
Coalition parties, claims of bullying in the Liberals, and the
defection to the crossbench of Liberal MP Julia Banks will inevitably
put off female voters. The Broad scandal feeds into the negative
narrative.

Morrison himself has a “blokey” image that might turn away some female
voters although Liberal sources dispute this.

It’s ironic that neither Coalition party will embrace quotas but
Morrison wanted a female candidate in Wentworth (only to be rebuffed
by the preselectors) and now Nationals president Larry Anthony urges a woman for Mallee.

Women are thought to be useful in desperate circumstances, it seems.

Amid all the year’s bedlam in conservative politics, one major policy
issue remains a complete muddle – or more precisely it is the intersection of
two issues, energy and climate.

The bitter battle within the Liberals over energy didn’t just bring
down Malcolm Turnbull – it stopped the formulation of the sort of
viable policy business pleads for, to give certainty to investors.

This week the Berejiklian government called out its federal
counterpart; state energy minister Don Harwin declared it “out of
touch” on energy and climate policy, saying “it’s time for them to
change course”. But at a testy meeting of the COAG energy council
federal minister Angus Taylor was defiantly unmoved.

Also this week came criticism from the Energy Security Board, which
says in its 2018 Health of the Electricity Market report that when
investment is needed “it is not helpful for the Commonwealth
government to be threatening powers of divestment, price setting and
discretionary asset write-downs.”

Energy policy both symbolises the deep ideological divide in the
Liberal party and is at the core of it. The party won’t be credible on
policy until it can formulate a broad position that is acceptable to
stakeholders and the community. If it goes into opposition next year,
doing so should be a top policy priority.

Its plan for a National Energy Guarantee was scuttled by the
government itself during those crazy coup days in August. But this was
not before devising the scheme had given then energy minister Josh
Frydenberg a chance to show his credentials, as a policy formulator
and a negotiator.

Frydenberg lost the NEG but won his colleagues’ respect. He received
an overwhelming vote for Liberal deputy; as things stand, he’s well
placed to lead his party at some future point.

Now treasurer, Frydenberg is one of the few senior Liberals who has
looked half way impressive this year. His next test will be the April
2 budget, although naturally ownership of that will lie as much or
more with Morrison.

The timetable for a May election is now set. The government wants to
maximise the period it has to try to regroup.

When parliament rose there was speculation the government might not
want it to return in February because the Coalition faced a House
defeat on a amendment to facilitate medical transfers from Manus and
Nauru. This might make a March election more attractive, so the
argument went.

But the government doesn’t seem so concerned about that vote now,
believing some of the crossbenchers will drop off the amendment or
want to weaken it.

Looking to 2019: the betting is firmly on an ALP victory, in the
absence of a surprising turn of events. A win by either side would at
least bring an end to the revolving prime ministerships, thanks to
rule changes.

Assuming Labor won a solid majority, hopefully the voters might also
get a little respite before the continuous campaigning started up
again.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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