Finance Finance News Michael Pascoe: Earth to Morrison, it’s reality check time
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Michael Pascoe: Earth to Morrison, it’s reality check time

Earth to Scott Morrison: The economy was struggling even before coronavirus. Photo: TND
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You may not be sure where you are going to, but it helps to know where you’re coming from. Scott Morrison seems to be coming from another time zone.

The Prime Minister’s National Press Club speech on Tuesday was mostly an amalgam of Coalition platitudes and folksy phrases without much meaning – his image shapers remain locked in “Daggy Dad” slogan mode.

Questions nearly all went without genuine answers and the one-question-per-journalist system ensured he never felt any pressure.

But among the polly waffle, there were a couple of interesting hints and three clear messages.

Two of those messages were depressing, while the promising third line still managed to be qualified.

The good news first: Yes, revamped and improved training and education are vitally important.

It’s probably the best thing any government can do for the nation’s future, close to the only thing that eventually really matters.

How quickly it can bear fruit is open to question, given the immediate and approaching crisis.

Mr Morrison seems to have a quaint faith in the ability of bureaucrats to predict skills needs and training to respond.

“The National Skills Commission has been established under Adam Boyton’s leadership, and will now provide detailed labour market analysis, including an annual report each year setting out the skill needs of Australia, replacing those existing lists for apprenticeships and skilled migration,” he said.

“This will be supplemented by the publication of closer to real-time data on the labour market drawing on emerging data sets, such as single-touch payroll, to flag emerging skills shortages and other labour market trends and pressures.”

We have an emerging shortage of farnarkle strappers: Immediately produce farnarkle strappers!

For the moment we’ll let pass the irony of the Prime Minister highlighting the importance of “an educated and highly-skilled workforce” after tertiary education and VET have been allowed to run down on the Coalition’s watch.

Greater investment in the “soft” infrastructure of education – along with the hard infrastructure – is something the Reserve Bank has long wished for. It is marvellous that the PM seems to be backing it.

However – you knew there would a be “however” – even while declaring it one of his two key focuses for Tuesday’s speech, Mr Morrison was cagey about whether he would put more money into it.

The way the Prime Minister spun the story, it’s more a matter of the states and businesses working out better systems.

In the Q&A session, Nine newspapers’ David Crowe nicely found the nail’s head: “Every year, the Mitchell Institute does a study of spending or investment in skills and training. You’ve highlighted a reform plan there. But we have seen total investment in VET fall from, I think, $9.3 billion in 2013 to $7.7 billion in 2017. Now, that’s total national investment, not just the federal money. But you set out your ambitions – in order to achieve them, do you need to commit more funding, and is money the problem here?”

In answering, the Prime Minister might or might not have promised to put his money where his mouth was: “I don’t think money’s the only problem here, David, but you’re not going to invest money in a dud system. That doesn’t fix it either.

“And that’s why I’m saying that we need to have this system more focused on what it’s actually supposed to do. And that is that someone who’s looking for training can get trained with skills that an employer might actually want.

“Now, that’s not happening to the degree it needs to for our economy to grow again in the way it needs to. That’s why I made it pretty clear – I’m very, very interested and very committed to investing more in a better system.”

I’ll take that as a maybe, somewhere down the track, perhaps.

That’s in keeping with the most depressing of Mr Morrison’s three key messages: He remains firmly rooted in the old and faintly ridiculous “household budget” view of fiscal management, the post-GFC Liberal political rhetoric straitjacket.

Unsurprisingly, Scott Morrison at the National Press Club didn’t veer from Josh Frydenberg at the National Press Club or the Treasurer’s economic statement two weeks ago.

Like his Treasurer, the Prime Minister indicated he was surrendering hundreds of thousands of Australians to the ’Rona Recession.

The difference was that he did it through a tortured cultural appropriation of caring for country: “Governments therefore must live within their means, so we don’t impose impossible debt burdens on future generations that violates that important caring for country principle.”

With the exception of a hint that the government was looking at a package to encourage new home building, the message was that the nation would be expected to magically leap from the immediate and expiring JobSeeker and JobKeeper safety nets to the JobMaker nirvana – ignoring that, on a good day, the outlined JobMaker policies are years away from having meaningful traction.

(And could someone please sack the next hack in the Prime Minister’s office who comes up with a JobsAnything. Tell ‘em to stick to what they’re good at – #sportsrorts and such.)

What’s missed in media and Labor commentary/criticism over the $60 billion JobKeeper mistake is that the government had accepted the world would not come to an end if it spent that money, that Australia could indeed afford it, that our looming government debt still won’t be bad by international standards and, with a little sophistication, growth would take care of it.

More in embarrassment about the mistake than anything else, the government is trying to make a virtue now out of not spending the money it knows it can afford on job-creation programs beyond JobKeeper.

The result will be people needlessly broken by lengthy unemployment – broken families, lost homes, deaths.

Earth to Scott Morrison: You will have blood on your hands by persisting with neoliberal dogma over pragmatism.

Scott Morrison on Tuesday. Photo: AAP

But Mr Morrison isn’t quite in our time dimension. He’s still fighting the last political slogan war, still living in “back in black” days, as he demonstrated early in his speech: “The problem was not the economy. And we should be encouraged that we have restored jobs and rebalanced our Budget before.

“Prior to the COVID crisis, more than 1.5 million jobs had been created right across the country, as we had promised, and the Budget had been restored to balance from chronic deficits.”

And the Wallabies won the Rugby World Cup in 1999.

Earth to Scott Morrison again: The economy wasn’t flash going into this recession.

It’s a shame Morrison/Frydenberg/Cormann have not been honest enough to admit that because until they do, there’s little hope for the Prime Minister’s claimed second key focus: Achieving a productivity miracle through a series of rushed roundtables on aspects of industrial relations reform.

The reality of the past half-dozen years has been labour losing ground through weak wages growth or worse – going backwards in real, after-tax terms.

Labour’s share of the national pie has fallen while capital’s bite has grown larger.

With the exception of a couple of remnant militant unions, organised labour has never been weaker or less relevant.

There are more private contractors than full-time union members in the private sector. Industrial disputes have never been lower.

But here’s the world Scott Morrison and his confidants live in, as described by Scott: “Our industrial relations system has settled into a complacency of unions seeking marginal benefits and employers closing down risks, often by simply not employing anyone …

“It is a system that has to date retreated to tribalism, conflict and ideological posturing.”

Oh, take me back to the halcyon days of Eric Abetz warning of a wages “explosion”.

We could always do with a less complicated awards system, but the actual evidence is that we have already achieved a flexible workforce, that major industrial relations reform takes years and is often counterproductive in the meantime.

It was a huge stretch by Scott Morrison on Tuesday to aspire to anything like Bob Hawke’s Accord.

Among other things, Mr Hawke had unquestioned intellect and was a highly skilled negotiator and consensus builder – qualities not obviously on offer in the government.

Earth to Scott Morrison yet again: You can’t expect Christian Porter to be accepted as a good faith negotiator today after scheming to destroy unions yesterday.

There’s no mystery about what the surviving union movement wants – increased job security, a curtailment of the gig economy, the extension of benefits to all workers and a bigger slice of the pie.

None of that is of any interest to the government or capital.

The Prime Minister made that obvious after the ABC’s Andrew Probyn asked: “One of the secrets of the accord in the ’80s was that the Hawke government greased the wheels with a social wage – things like Medicare, superannuation, higher family payments, childcare payments too. When you come to the table on pushing for industrial relations reform, what are the sorts of things that you can offer the employees and the union movement?”

Mr Morrison’s answer boiled down to: If labour plays along, it might get to keep what it’s got.

Hardly the inspirational stuff of a great negotiator.

In the “hints” department, aside from a housing construction package, there was a reprisal of ensuring “there is the opportunity in Australia for those who have a go, to get a go” – code for tax cuts for the more successful.

And this paragraph: “Resources and agricultural sectors that can both fuel and feed large global populations, including our own, and support vibrant rural and regional communities.”

Yes, the fossil fuel-led recovery remains centre stage.

The cast of characters with strong fossil-fuel connections drafted to plan our economic revival are creating it in their own image with the blessing of Scott Morrison, the man forever remembered for bringing a pet lump of coal into Parliament.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane has made a strong case that our political system has been corrupted by fossil fuel money and lobbyists, that the corruption and its cost is blatant.

Earth one last time to Scott Morrison: Corrupted political systems don’t deliver for the benefit of the nation.