The “vision thing”, as then US presidential aspirant George Bush snr put it in 1987, has prompted mixed reactions in Australia. Paul Keating, the most prominent recent proponent of big-picture politics, dared to imagine Australia as part of Asia, a republic constitutionally separated from the Crown and reconciled with Indigenous people. He packaged it all up and sold it with an aggressive, sarcastic political demeanour.
In 1996, he lost in a landslide to John Howard, who had assiduously modified or obscured his own harder-edged views on issues such as industrial relations to run a small-target election strategy. He said he wanted Australians to feel “relaxed and comfortable”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison: “Economy strong, Australians safe, Australians together. That’s what I’m trying to do.” Credit:James Brickwood
There were echoes of this history in Deborah Snow’s revealing interview with current Prime Minister Scott Morrison in The Age at the weekend. Mr Morrison is not much interested in the vision thing. The very idea of leaving a legacy was a preoccupation of the vain, he told Snow. “It’s just not how I think about things.”
As for Australians generally, they don’t “want to spend every afternoon talking about politics. They want to live their lives … They want to own their own home, they want to raise their kids … save for their retirement and not get too much debt and live their life the way they want to do giving back to their community. These are the great aspirations. That to me – that’s a big idea.” And again: “Economy strong, Australians safe, Australians together. That’s what I’m trying to do. Every single day.”
Safety, security, togetherness. It might be a modern-day rendering of Mr Howard’s infamous slogan – and no doubt Mr Morrison would be delighted to emulate his predecessor’s electoral success. We think Mr Morrison is partly right. Most Australians are not interested in the narky to-and-fro of politics, the point-scoring and opposition for opposition’s sake. They are, of course, interested in their family, their security and their community.
But we also think his view vastly underestimates Australians. Many are vitally concerned about what climate change is already doing to our planet and our country, and they look on in horror at the level of bullying and sexual misconduct in Canberra and beyond, at how the government has handled this pandemic, from quarantine to vaccines to Omicron, and issues of government probity amid a blizzard of pork-barrelling.
The Australian Republican Movement is working hard to make us care again about our constitutional arrangements – with mixed success – the treatment of First Nations people is an ongoing blight as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy approaches its 50th year of protest, and we are about to have yet another frustrating debate about the place of Australia Day on the national calendar. We don’t hear much about these things from Mr Morrison and that is deeply disappointing.
Part of the problem is that Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese seems no more interested in a vision. As he told reporter Rob Harris, he wants Labor to be the party of aspiration, and “to create more people into the middle class”. Having learnt the apparent lessons of the defeat of Bill Shorten and the big policy target he presented, Mr Albanese’s campaign has been low-key, at best. Since we’re reaching for historical analogies, it bears strong resemblance to the two run by his Labor predecessor Kim Beazley against Mr Howard. In 1998 and 2001 Mr Beazley struggled to define himself or his vision and ran a “small target” campaign against an at-times very unpopular prime minister, relying on him to lose. Twice Mr Beazley lost.
But even if Mr Morrison is to be judged by the standards he sets for himself as being “very mission, task-focused”, he may find himself struggling against perceptions that on vaccination and quarantine his management has been poor, and his focus on pragmatism has encouraged an “anything it takes” approach to pork-barrelling and probity – hence his defence of former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian.
The Age would want to see more from both sides of politics: ideas, a future focus and yes, even vision. A strong energy and climate change policy, a federal anti-corruption commission and an Indigenous Voice to Parliament for starters. With the current crop of politicians on offer, that does not seem very likely.
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