Menu Close

Grattan on Friday: A Biden presidency would put pressure on Scott Morrison over climate change

Joe Hockey, former Australian ambassador to the United States who’s now in business there, came under sharp attack for some ill-informed comments about the high Democrat vote in Washington, DC.

Despite this faux pas, Hockey’s description of the American system as a dog’s breakfast – with states, counties and even some cities having responsibility for running presidential elections – is actually not far off the mark.

“In Australia you have the Australian Electoral Commission, thank god,” Hockey said.

Indeed, let’s give thanks not just for the AEC, but also for a few other features of our system, not least compulsory voting.

On a pure view of people’s rights in a democracy, they shouldn’t be forced to vote. But for the overall health of the polity, compulsory voting is a boon, on two levels.

It prevents attempts to game or defraud the system by using tactics that are dubious, or worse, to get out the vote or to discourage participation.

Compulsory voting also works to contain the extremes in the political debate, because contests are won or lost in the centre (broadly defined).

All the legal action we’re hearing about in the US is not the way of things in Australia. Challenges are rare, although there is one big recent exception.

The dual citizenship crisis embroiling a swathe of federal parliamentarians hugely disrupted the last parliament; even so, this was handled in an orderly manner via the High Court and byelections.

A strong political system has a calming effect.

Even allowing that Donald Trump is a one-off phenomenon, can anyone imagine an Australian leader giving the sort of speech he did in the early hours after election day?

In Australia, people were tut-tutting when Malcolm Turnbull was a touch graceless on election night in 2016.

Which goes, in part, to political culture. Australia is a more bound-together society than the US, economically and socially.

But we should beware. As in other countries, there’s been an increasing loss of trust in political institutions (although trust here has been boosted, at least temporarily, during COVID).

To keep our democracy in good shape, we must nurture and increase trust, ensure the economy works for the population generally, and maintain a strong social safety net. There is a significant relationship between economic security and a well-functioning political system.

We also need to do what’s possible to keep the political debate civil. Social media and polarisation in the mainstream media have already coarsened the conversation. That hasn’t undermined our democracy yet, but there are risks.

Without being complacent – and recognising there are many faults in government and elsewhere that should be vigorously called out – this is a week in which to celebrate what we have in this country.

After conquering the second wave of COVID, we’re in an enviable position on the virus – nearly at elimination, although that isn’t government policy. Looking at the deterioration in Britain and Europe, and the American situation, the contrast is dramatic.

The big challenge for Australia is, and will remain, the path out of recession. Many people will have a rotten Christmas, unemployed or with their businesses having failed or collapsing.

But we are continuing to see an official commitment to do what can be done to get the economy moving.

In the package it unveiled this week, the Reserve Bank pulled out all stops available to it to stimulate the economy, although its firepower is limited. It’s taking this action even as it revises its forecasts on growth and unemployment to be more optimistic.

Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe said on Tuesday: “Unemployment is a major economic and social problem that damages the fabric of our society. So, it is important that it is addressed.

Read more: 5 ways the Reserve Bank is going to bat for Australia like never before

"The Board recognises that, in the context of the pandemic, the responsibility for job creation falls mainly on the shoulders of business and government. But the Reserve Bank can, and will, make a contribution too.”

In the months ahead, the pressure will be on the Morrison government to ensure Australians are, in economic terms, best protected in these bad times.

One very significant decision the government will have to soon make is the longer-term level of JobSeeker, currently bolstered by the Coronavirus Supplement.

The government also must assess whether more stimulus is needed to get those unemployment numbers down as far and fast as possible.

How the Australian economy fares will depend on the responses of business and consumers, which goes to confidence, as well on the performance of the world economy, which is highly uncertain, affected by the course of the virus and countries’ economic decisions.

As the count stands, a Biden presidency is the most probable outcome in the US but it would be one constrained by a likely Republican Senate, making it harder for Biden to deliver the level of stimulus he has promised.

From Australia’s standpoint, what Joe Biden did on China would be vitally important. He might seek to dial down tensions somewhat – although it would be a matter of degree – and that would have implications for Australia’s policy.

A Biden presidency would put Australia on the spot over climate change. This is expected increasingly to become a major issue for the Morrison government internationally in 2021.

Already British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pointedly stressed to Morrison, in a recent telephone conversation, “that we need bold action to address climate change”.

Johnson noted “the UK’s experience demonstrates that driving economic growth and reducing emissions can go hand-in-hand”, according to the official Downing Street read-out of the call.

“Looking ahead to the Climate Ambition Summit on 12 December and COP26 in Glasgow next year, [Johnson] emphasised the importance of setting ambitious targets to cut emissions and reach Net Zero.”

The read-out from Morrison’s office omitted the zero target reference.

Morrison developed a functional relationship with Donald Trump and was feted at the White House by a president who didn’t have many friends among international leaders.

Assuming things go Biden’s way, Morrison would pivot to what would be a more conventional presidency, although one that would bring its own challenges for him, especially on climate policy.

If he were wise, Morrison would make a beeline for a Biden White House as quickly as he could get a time slot in early 2021.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 174,800 academics and researchers from 4,812 institutions.

Register now