Politics

Unfinished business: eight things on Scott Morrison’s to-do list as election nears | Scott Morrison

It’s been a huge political year, dominated again by the Covid-19 pandemic, and a federal election is just around the corner. Scott Morrison will want to go into that contest trumpeting the government’s achievements. But substantial items remain on the prime minister’s to-do list. Here is a selection of unfinished business.

Aged care has more funding but deep problems remain

It feels like a lifetime ago but a $17.7bn aged care package was the centrepiece of the May budget. That package was the government’s response to the damning findings of the aged care royal commission. Morrison and the health minister, Greg Hunt, adopted a great many, but not all, of the recommendations from the inquiry. One of the central measures was an extra $7.5bn allocated for home care, including $6.5bn to clear the waiting list of an estimated 80,000 people over the next two years, and about $800m to support 1.6 million informal carers, including respite services for 8,400 Australians.

The government promised to allocate 40,000 additional home care packages in 2021-22 and the same in 2022-23. In early December the aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, released new quarterly data tracking progress. By the end of September, 10,000 additional places had been released. But as of 30 September, 74,143 people were still waiting for their home care package at their approved level. If you want to fix aged care, you need a workforce strategy. The Grattan Institute noted in December the government had “no clear plan to meet future workforce requirements” and “home care staff are underpaid for what they do”. In a report titled Unfinished Business: Practical Policies For Better Care At Home, the thinktank said 58,000 more carers would be needed just to meet the planned increase in home care places. “To attract and retain home care workers, they should get better pay and conditions,” the report said. The aged care royal commission recommended low wages be increased. The government “noted” that recommendation rather than supporting it.

Respect@Work response lacks the central recommendation

Back in June 2018, the then minister for women, Kelly O’Dwyer, convinced her cabinet colleagues to fund a new national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces by the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins. In March 2020, Jenkins handed down 55 recommendations, including a proposal for employers to face an obligation to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation. When the government responded formally to the recommendations in April, it balked at the central proposal, saying it would assess whether the proposed positive duty may “create further complexity, uncertainty or duplication in the overarching legal framework”.

In July Jenkins chided the government again on the positive duty, reminding it the problem in workplaces was much larger than “a few bad blokes”. But the central recommendation was omitted from the legislative reform package passed by parliament in late August. The government said it would continue to mull over the proposition. Equivocation about the key recommendation happened in the middle of the furore over the former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ allegation of sexual assault, the historic rape allegation against frontbencher Christian Porter, which he stridently denies, staff members sharing lewd pictures in Parliament House, and complaints about the online behaviour (not sexual) of Liberal National MP Andrew Laming towards two female constituents. The legislation omitting the positive duty was also passed immediately before the government’s National Summit on Women’s Safety – prompting the Australian of the Year, sexual assault survivor Grace Tame, to blast the government’s “clear pattern of denial, minimisation, ultimately dismissal of women’s issues”.

Related: what will become of the Jenkins review?

Higgins’ allegation of sexual assault triggered a reckoning inside federal politics. Jenkins was asked by the government to review parliament’s toxic workplace culture, and her insights about the prevalence of sexual harassment and bullying were bracing to say the least. Jenkins recommended a number of structural and cultural changes, including more normalised human resources processes for parliamentary staff. The report landed on 30 November. The finance minister, Simon Birmingham, says the first two recommendations will be implemented early next year, with changes to the workplace framework legislated before the election. We’ll see if that happens. That would be progress, but it would leave the bulk of the systemic changes to be implemented post-election.

Voice to parliament remains voiceless

The Indigenous affairs minister, Ken Wyatt, signalled repeatedly during this term that he wanted to legislate a national voice to parliament. But the process has moved slowly. The government has also balked at enshrining the voice in the constitution, first proposed in the Uluru statement from the heart in 2017. The Uluru statement recommended a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament, a Makarrata or truth-telling commission and an eventual treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Just before Christmas Wyatt took the first steps towards a legislated option. Cabinet approved the establishment of 35 regional and local representative groups. Morrison said in August: “Some might want this process to be faster. I want it to be right.”

The heroes of net zero?

After a climate policy pivot spanning the best part of 12 months, and a torturous five-minutes-to-midnight negotiation with the Nationals, Morrison managed to land a new commitment to achieving net zero by 2050. But the policy underpinning the putative transition was entirely underwhelming. The prime minister also did not manage to persuade colleagues to increase the ambition of Australia’s current 2030 target. The Nationals vetoed that. Morrison will hope the government’s 2050 commitment is sufficient to shore up Liberals under electoral pressure from climate-focused independents in the coming election, but not ambitious enough to cause the Coalition political trouble in regional Queensland. In any case, the story is not over. Morrison will continue to face pressure to do more. Some Liberals are already pushing for a more ambitious target for 2035. Australia also agreed at the end of the Cop26 in Glasgow to re-examine our 2030 target by the end of next year.

Scott Morrison and French president Emmanuel Macron
Scott Morrison and French president Emmanuel Macron. Can relations with France be repaired after the government’s Aukus submarine deal with US and UK? Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

Aukus: will this ever happen and will the French forgive Australia?

We all saw the big announcement – Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and “that fella from down under” unveiling a trilateral security partnership called Aukus. Eight planned nuclear submarines, the first of them unlikely to be in the water until about 2040, and 18 months before we determine precisely how to proceed. Aukus at the substantive level is a plan for a plan. Cost? Unknown, although the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says it could be as high as $171bn. When he signed up for Aukus, Morrison cancelled a $90bn contract with the French-owned Naval Group. Emmanuel Macron retaliated with a mic drop moment on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in November, branding Australia’s prime minister a liar. The former prime minister Paul Keating, concerned about a loss of strategic autonomy, delivered his verdict at the National Press Club. “Eight submarines against China when we get the submarines in 20 years’ time – it’ll be like throwing a handful of toothpicks at the mountain.”

Integrity commission: will legislation ever be introduced?

It’s long forgotten now, but on 13 December 2018, Morrison said he would proceed with two reforms – a religious discrimination bill (more of that shortly) and a federal integrity commission. The government had begun work to convert the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity into an anti-corruption body before Malcolm Turnbull lost the leadership. Morrison (who had once dismissed a federal body as a “fringe issue”) said in December 2018 the proposed commonwealth integrity commission would have a public sector division and a law enforcement division. He said his federal model would “avoid the serious failings of state-based integrity bodies that on too many occasions have proved to be kangaroo courts falling victim to poor process and being little more than a forum for self-serving mud slinging and the pursuit of personal, corporate and political vendettas”.

Experts promptly deemed the proposal deeply suboptimal. The ensuing consultation process was then dragged out for years. The government had a draft of its preferred legislation ready in January 2020, but Porter, the attorney general at the time, didn’t want to flag it “during the holiday period”. He warned the “consultation process will be extensive and will take as long as necessary to ensure the model we deliver has the powers and resources it needs to be effective, while also avoiding the pitfalls that have been seen with similar state-based bodies”. The final legislation threatened to surface in the final two parliamentary sitting weeks of 2021, but it didn’t land in the parliament. Morrison attempted to blame Labor. But his problem was internal. One of his backbenchers crossed the floor in an effort to trigger debate on a stronger model being championed by independent MP Helen Haines.

Religious discrimination: introduced but passage is uncertain

On that same day in December 2018, Morrison told reporters he was “looking to legislate before the election” a religious discrimination bill. But the proposal would be slow going because of different objectives within the government. Some wanted a law to protect “religious freedom” – giving Australians a positive right to express religious opinions. Morrison had once declared there was “no more fundamental liberty” than freedom of religion. But others had significant reservations. Porter produced a hybrid – an anti-discrimination bill with more assertive religious freedom elements. By July 2019, Morrison told the opening session of the Hillsong annual conference that the religious freedom debate was too rights oriented, and it was “not the laws that make freedom of religion work, it’s the culture that accepts it”.

Roll forward to the final parliamentary sitting fortnight of 2021, and the same internal divisions that had made the proposal so difficult to land continued to fester. In an effort to get the bill to parliament, the current attorney general, Michaelia Cash, agreed to drop the divisive “Folau clause”, which would have protected employers from claims of indirect discrimination if they sanctioned employees for misconduct for expressing religious beliefs. But the internal wrangling continues, with the fate of the legislation uncertain. Just before Christmas, Cash appeared to renege on a deal with Liberal moderates on the package. Moderates want immediate changes to protect gay students from discrimination in religious schools.

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