April 05, 2020 05:00:59
There were some terrible global milestones this week in the coronavirus crisis.
The total number of cases worldwide passed one million. The death toll passed 50,000. Spain recorded more than 10,000 deaths. The US is fast heading towards that number.
By contrast, in Australia we’ve seen the first rays of hope. The number of new cases each day came down. The curve started to flatten.
No one is getting carried away with this flash of better news. The caseload and death toll will continue to climb.
But there’s hope now our health system won’t be completely overwhelmed as some of those attacking the Prime Minister for not shutting everything down earlier had warned. There’s hope we won’t end up like New York or northern Italy.
There was also a palpable sense of relief at the Prime Minister and Treasurer’s willingness to cast aside their debt and deficit dogma and roll out the fiscal cannons.
Morrison knows a thing or two about marketing
Since coming to office in 2013, the Coalition has favoured three-word slogans all revolving around a similar theme.
First we were told the “age of entitlement” was over, then we were divided into “lifters and leaners”, finally we were assured the budget was “back in black”.
Of course plenty of “entitlements” continued and the budget was never “back in black”, but these slogans were all about creating the impression the Coalition was far more capable than Labor at managing the books.
This premise has been core to the Coalition’s brand for decades. As his critics like to point out, Scott Morrison knows a thing or two about marketing. He knows the value of a political brand.
That didn’t stop him, however, from making the critical decision to plunge the nation into deeper debt than ever before.
The side of politics that believes in smaller government is now directly subsidising workers’ wages, funding free child care and nationalising private hospitals.
The political brand was binned. Morrison put the nation’s needs first. And for this he was rightly praised.
Business leaders, union leaders and the opposition all welcomed this extraordinary government intervention. There’s still debate around the edges of various measures, but the support packages will pass through Parliament swiftly.
Even Coalition backbenchers, who have built careers warning against the dangers of debt, welcomed the spending (or at the very least stayed silent).
On Tuesday, a day after the JobKeeper security blanket was unfurled, government MPs took part in a “Town Hall Teleconference” with the Treasurer to go through the details. No one complained it was too generous.
Bipartisanship hopefuls can keep dreaming
Inevitably there will be some who say Morrison went too far in the heat of the moment and has saddled our children and grandchildren with too much debt.
The Prime Minister pre-empted that argument with a powerful warning.
“Many countries may well see their economies collapse,” he said as he prepared to announce the details. “Some may see them hollow out in the very worst of circumstances, we could see countries themselves fall into chaos. This will not be Australia.”
This was his “nation-saving” moment.
If the PM continues to steer Australia on a better health and economic path than the rest of the world, he’ll build up an enormous stock of political goodwill, says David Speers. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)
For those hoping this “Team Australia” bipartisanship will become the new normal, keep dreaming.
Normal political transmission will resume when it comes time to work out how and when to end all this spending — and how to pay it back.
These decisions will be much tougher than deciding to open the floodgates on spending. Morrison is right to say it’s too early to determine even the conditions for declaring an end to the crisis.
Is it when the caseload drops to a certain level? When a certain proportion of the population has had the virus? Or only when a vaccine is widely available?
How to use this enormous stock of political goodwill?
It’s also too early to be ruling in or out various options to pay this enormous bill. This week the Prime Minister indicated he won’t touch franking credits, and the Treasurer suggested the top-end tax cuts promised at the election will still go ahead.
When we still don’t know how long this crisis will last — and therefore what the eye-popping bill will ultimately be — it seems crazy to take any options off the table.
As Morrison said this week, “It’s no longer about entitlement, it’s about need.”
Good luck justifying the “need” for franking credits, negative gearing and other tax breaks when so many will remain unemployed on the other side of this.
If the Prime Minister continues to steer Australia on a better health and economic path than the rest of the world, he will build up an enormous stock of political goodwill.
He should be prepared to use it on the other side when difficult decisions are required.
David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV at 9am on Sunday or on iView.
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