20-20 hindsight may be clear, but the year 2020 is anything but

Simon Cowan

04 January 2020 | Canberra Times

Last year’s biggest winner was Scott Morrison. At the start of the year, you wouldn’t have wanted your last 10 bucks riding on him winning the 2019 election. Indeed, Sportsbet went so far as to pay out those who bet on Labor before the election was held.

Of course, in retrospect, it’s possible to identify many of the factors that led to his victory. Bill Shorten and Labor promised a fairly radical agenda premised on the idea that there were too many rorters not paying their fair share, who needed to be taxed to the very hilt in order to pay for a veritable Santa’s sleigh full of promises.

It probably surprised a number of middle-class retirees to discover that they were on Santa Shorten’s naughty list.

The biggest element of Morrison’s success – both in the lead-up to the election and until recently – was that he managed to get the government out of the thick of news coverage.

For a decade, pretty much every big news story in Australia has either been about the government (because we’ve knifed another Prime Minister) or been viewed through the prisms of “how did the government cause this problem?” or “why hasn’t the government fixed this problem?”. Not to forget “why the front-running leadership contender thinks the government’s response is wrong”.

This approach is fatal to good government. Until the recent coverage of the fires, Morrison seemed to have found a way to sidestep this. And he may well feel that the media response to his family holiday was unfair, and could rightfully point out that (a) Australia was not leaderless, McCormack had deputised, and (b) there is nothing that the PM could do in any case.

But none of that really matters. He only has to look overseas to see that the media have become political players in their own right, with their own agenda – which doesn’t match his.

He can take solace in the fact that the ordinary people seem to have a markedly different view from the media consensus. Something that this year’s other big winner – Boris Johnson – can also be thankful for.

More broadly, it’s been a fairly positive year for the populist strain of conservatism. Trump’s re-election bid is probably in better shape than anyone would have anticipated at this point in his presidency, Johnson won a thumping majority in the UK, and the left appears to be doubling down on identity politics – despite the public’s aversion to it.

The opposite is true for moderate progressivism, which is really struggling in a lot of ways. They are the most likely victims of a ruthless “cancel culture” that seeks to erase any views not conforming to the absolute latest in progressive thinking.

Politically they are in retreat too. Not only has Corbyn decimated the centre of the Labour Party in Britain, his successor may be a (non) carbon copy. Biden is under attack from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom are way to the left of the ordinary voter.

And in Australia, senior opposition figures from the right (the Victorian right’s Shorten and the NSW right’s Chris Bowen), who lost the election for being too left-wing, were replaced with the NSW left’s Anthony Albanese, who will hardly be the natural person to lead Labor back to the centre of politics.

Labor has won a majority in just one of the last nine elections – that being one in which they triumphed largely by promising incremental change, not radical reform.

Yet their base, and their cheer squad in the media, are not happy with the idea of slowly building a coalition for reform.

Perhaps part of the reason Labor is in trouble is that they have viewed the Greens on their left flank as their primary threat. They have successfully restrained the growth of Green votes – which have sat fairly consistently at around 10 per cent for a decade or more – but this has come at the expense of winning government.

Labor’s agenda was designed to appeal to inner-city progressives, which it did successfully. Yet no strategy seemed to exist to speak to middle Australia, other than a grab-bag of handouts and generational war. That, at least, is not Shorten’s fault.

It was undoubtedly a terrible year for Shorten. To have been at the forefront of the second “unloseable” election loss in 25 years would be fairly painful. Especially when you then have to watch everyone put the boot in and blame your personal unpopularity for the result.

Labor may have been overly confident of victory, seeking to define the terms of government by its expansive election agenda, rather than win the election. But it will go down as Shorten’s loss.

Of course sympathy is not the universal response to this fact. A number of those middle-class retirees who were accused of rorting the system may have taken some smug satisfaction from the result.

Moreover, a number of the policies that Labor took to the election were a mistake, not only politically but from a policy perspective. Income tax rates should be lower, not higher, at the top end. Negative gearing is a legitimate feature of the tax system, as are refundable franking credits.

And the policy that would have given tax advantages to retail and industry super funds over self-managed funds was outrageous.

Yet for all of this, the biggest mistake for those on the right would be to assume that these trends will continue unabated. Swings and roundabouts are the absolute norm in politics. 20-20 hindsight may be clear, but the year 2020 is anything but.

Political alignments are shifting, as former working-class voters drift towards conservative parties, in turn pulling those parties left economically. Climate change remains a real problem for parties on the right. Morrison is unlikely to have things his own way for much longer.

And the new year has just begun.

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