Hewson's View | What should the priorities be for an election year?

Despite claims to the contrary, John Hewson believes Australians will go to the polls in 2021. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Despite claims to the contrary, John Hewson believes Australians will go to the polls in 2021. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

In all probability, and despite what Morrison has been saying, 2021 will be a federal election year, perhaps as early as September.

Recent polls and comments suggest that, to use one of his favourite expressions, Morrison is presently expected to be re-elected "in a canter".

With this tailwind, and in the spirit of not wasting a crisis, Morrison is in a unique position to redefine our national interest, and to lead us in a transition to an even better and fairer Australia.

However, I fear Morrison would consider that to do this would be to take "unnecessary risks". His conservatism would dictate that he should just do enough, that is as little as he can get away with, to get us through what will still be a very difficult exit from the income support and other assistance he delivered to "cushion" us from the recession he initiated in response to COVID.

Sure, you will hear much about stability and not rocking boats, with a further splattering of the big headline announcements and reassuring spin and hubris. But, the opportunity will be squandered, as did his mentor Howard in squandering the resources booms in the early naughties.

What should Morrison do?

More accurately, where should he start, what should be the priorities, given the policy drift of the last several decades, and now the imperatives for much-needed reform in most areas of public policy?

An overarching priority must be the proper recognition of the First Australians, in the Constitution, in the parliament and its processes, and in the elimination of disadvantage. 250 years is far too long to have let this issue drift. The Uluru Statement is the place to start.

Our nation will never be confident in itself, nor will our standing be fully accepted internationally, until we can demonstrate that we understand and are at peace with our history, accepting all responsibilities.

Second is the need for the government to lead an effective and fair transition to a low carbon society by mid-century. Time is of the essence here.

The broad community, business, and households are ready and globally we are already designated a "laggard", as others are accelerating their responses. It is not to be feared but to be managed.

We have the natural assets, the technologies, the requisite ingenuity and imagination. Managed transition strategies in the key sectors of power, transport, agriculture, buildings and industrial processes will deliver hundreds of thousands of jobs, and billions of dollars of investment and growth.

This is an opportunity for us to be a global leader, and should be the desired sustainable recovery from the toughest economic and social circumstances since the Great Depression.

Third, is an education and research revolution - Rudd promised but never delivered.

The need is for an integrated strategy, properly funded, from early childhood (including universal childcare), through schools to universities, linking with vocational training, the full range of research activities and institutions, and the development of technologies and their commercialisation.

We have often pretended to be a "clever country" and, indeed, have led the world in many medical and scientific developments. Yet, we have never done it properly to our full potential, or to our maximum national benefit.

Countries such as Singapore and even China can teach us much about how to make education the centerpiece of national development and identity.

Fourth, we need to refine and develop our concept of being a "service sector economy", to understand the global trends and opportunities, and look to reform imperatives in health and particularly aged care, in tourism, retail and education, in financial services including as a potential regional, if not global, financial centre, and to significantly improve our consumer and competition policies.

Finally, broad-based tax and transfer reform. Our tax system is complex, inefficient, unfair, in parts unsustainable, and a serious brake on productivity and worker participation.

We pride ourselves on the effectiveness of our welfare system, but overall government policies have seriously compounded inequality.

Yes, I can hear it now - people are sick of change, there is "reform fatigue", and so on.

I totally disagree. The pandemic has been a dress rehearsal of how fast and decisively people can change when they accept a common challenge, with the appropriate political and institutional leadership. People have changed the way they live, work, travel, save, spend, and entertain more and quicker than many would have thought possible.

Good government is about seizing such a moment and to do so with integrity and accountability.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.