MUNGO MACCALLUM: Morrison suffers mental congestion

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(Image courtesy @TwoEyeHead / Twitter)

Scott Morrison’s slogan of the week was congestion busting — he was in favour of it.

This was hardly surprising, as he had already christened his Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population, Alan Tudge, his "Minister for Congestion Business" – something of a demotion from his complex portfolio, one might have thought, but still a better result than that for the Immigration Minister, David Coleman, who appears to have been frozen out altogether.

In any case, the great marketeer has taken it over – at least for the week – and has been spruiking it through the traffic jams of Sydney and Melbourne. But, like so many of his brain bubbles, this one too is all spin and absolutely no substance.

Morrison’s solution to the congestion is, apparently to reduce by some 30,000 the cap on permanent immigration. Last year this was calculated at 190.000. But in fact, only a few more than 160,000 arrived (where the hell were they?), so the cap seems hardly necessary. And of course, even if it was reduced more drastically, it would do less than bugger all for congestion — as long as any net immigration continues, congestion will get worse.

But that’s the good news – when it comes to congestion, immigration is only the tip of the tail of the elephant in the room. Some 80 per cent of our congesters are not immigrants, but Australians being born, tourists, student and guest workers — and no one is suggesting their numbers should be cut. And as Morrison has always insisted – well, until last week – immigration is a net economic benefit anyway.

The problems of congestion come not from the new arrivals but the lack of facilities to manage them. Morrison keeps boasting about the vast amount of infrastructure in the pipeline, but even when it is delivered, it will be too little and too late. Infrastructure has been a political plaything, announced as ad hoc pork-barrelling on the eve of each election.

What is needed is serious planning in all levels of government. It must entail not only housing and jobs but schools, hospitals, parks and above all, sensible transport options — not just more and bigger roads but public trains and buses to actually do something about the congestion.

Morrison’s only other idea is the age-old one of decentralisation – our current Prime Minister’s version is to restrict the visa of newcomers to keep them outside the congested areas. This is clearly unenforceable and possibly unconstitutional, but it accords with Morrison’s authoritarian instincts. And it sounds tough. Who needs a plan when you have a slogan?

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten at least had a plan last week — not a great plan, certainly not an ideal plan, but its mere existence was greeted with some relief. His solution to the long-running stand-off on energy and climate change consists, basically, of Josh Frydenberg’s National Energy Guarantee (NEG) with ramped out targets for emissions reduction and renewables and the obligatory set of steak knives in the form of subsidised batteries for those who could afford them.

And – given that although Frydenberg’s NEG had been passed by the party room and was described by Scott Morrison as the best thing since sliced bread, it was eventually canned by the mad right – Shorten is ready to bypass Parliament to implement its core elements without legislation if that becomes necessary.

The policy is obviously a compromise, so it is hardly surprising that both the Greens and business have their reservations but interestingly, the two sides have the basis of furious agreement. Both would prefer something far simpler, more certain and more efficient — a carbon tax, or if that is a step too hard, some kind of emissions trading system.

Labor’s spokesman Member for Port Adelaide Mark Butler has already hinted that this could be in the mix, which has predictably sparked the arsonists of the Coalition to start their usual inferno. Energy Minister Angus Taylor, in his standard inflammable mood, calls the Labor policy a wrecking ball — déjà vu from the Abbott years. Time for the Whyalla wipe-out and the $100 leg of lamb.

But given the total inability of Abbott, Turnbull and now Morrison to manage the issue in more than five years in office, the big scare campaign must suffer from a credibility problem. Taylor’s only reply is to ignore the climate change entirely and rabbit on about the big stick he will wield on the wicked energy companies and a vague warning of divestiture — an idea that horrifies business across its many boards.

The Labor plan needs a lot of improvement but at least it’s something — it’s a start. Whereas, after the Victorian disaster, the Liberals are again floundering around behind the blocks.

As the senior Victorian Liberal, Deputy Leader Josh Frydenberg offered the usual excuses: the result a was all about Victorian State issues and had absolutely nothing to do with the Federal shenanigans. And indeed, State Liberal leader Matthew Guy was a political hole in the air and the sinister presence of State President Michael Kroger lurking around the edges did not help.

But no more did our Prime Minister’s rare and unwelcome appearance with his boorish intrusion into Pellegrini's in search of a photo opportunity. A  loss of this magnitude means that there is plenty of blame to share around and Morrison will collect a fair chunk of it.

The only possible straw to cling to is the hope that the Cabbage Patchers’ righteous wrath will now be assuaged and they will be kinder to Morrison when his own poll comes to fruition in the all too near future. But you wouldn’t want to count on it. And the immediate indications are that Morrison is permanently on the nose in what the triumphant Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews now calls "the most progressive state in the country".

The sainted former PM Robert Menzies used to call it the "jewel in the Liberal crown". These days it is clearly a very long way from the mythical base — the electorate has moved on but Morrison is still running around in ever decreasing circles and if he continues, his destination is inevitable.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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