Opinion: Time for a real war cabinet — and one based on capability, not ideology

By Scott Hamilton & Stuart Kells

March 23, 2020


The emergency is here. Australia’s confirmed COVID-19 cases now exceed 1,000. We are tracking closer to Italy, the UK and the US rather than to Singapore and Japan. Every day is critical when it comes to fighting this viral war.

Worldwide, the number of confirmed cases has passed 300,000 and the death toll has reached 13000. In Iran, one person dies every 10 minutes. In Italy, medical staff are deciding who might live and who must die. The UK has closed its schools, pubs and restaurants.

The health crisis has turned into a financial and economic one. Qantas — Australia’s signature airline, a crucial employer and ordinarily a blue-chip business — has been forced to stand down 20,000 employees. A new national economic stimulus package is being drafted — and the ink is not yet dry on the previous effort.

There is broad agreement that Australia needs to swallow some Keynesianiasm, even some socialism. Apart from big spending by governments, there is talk of rent holidays, debt relief for landlords and mortgagees, universal wages, superannuation release, and ‘quantitative easing’ (aka printing money, which makes every dollar less valuable, and therefore functions as a proportional tax on wealth).

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has formed a ‘national cabinet’ that includes our state and territory leaders. The cabinet consists of five Labor people and four Liberals. Morrison has tried out some bipartisanship and it actually suits him. Since forming the national cabinet, he has spoken highly of the premiers and chief ministers, and he has consistently lifted his own performance. He is making some good decisions and fewer public missteps.

Happily, the bipartisanship is contagious. Anthony Albanese, Leader of the Opposition, has called for national unity. Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, Kristina Kennelly, has tweeted good wishes to her counterpart, Peter Dutton, Minister for Home Affairs, who contracted the virus earlier this month. Malcolm Turnbull tweeted a compliment to Julia Gillard about her invaluable work at Beyond Blue.

Australia’s swing towards bipartisanship, and making the best use of our national leadership resources, is to be applauded. But much more must be done. A proper bipartisan ‘war cabinet’ today — like the one we had in World War II — would include members of the federal opposition such as Anthony Albanese, Kristina Keneally and Deputy Leader and Shadow Minister for Defence Richard Marles.

‘Any proper National Cabinet should include the Leader of the Opposition,’ Cheryl Kernot said yesterday. ‘His voice represents almost half of Australians. And including a cross bencher like Helen Haines, who has an impressive background in public health (including epidemiology), would be a great model of inclusivity & expertise. Australians pay attention when people speak from a position of real expertise.’ Jim Chalmers, Deputy Leader of the Opposition, has also called for Albanese to be on the national cabinet.

While it might be a bridge too far to reach out to Malcolm and Kevin, surely there is also a place in our national effort for leading political figures from the recent past, such as Julia Gillard and Mike Baird, who also have a lot to give.

‘The role of leadership in a democracy,’ Jay Weatherill said, ‘is to speak into existence a public that can act in its own interests. What is needed is a clear, consistent, unifying message which describes the task but creates hope for the future.’ The coronavirus crisis, we are told, must have an end date. From a moment in the foreseeable future, we will look back and take stock of how Australia met the emergency, just as we look back now at how we weathered previous storms.

As the ABC’s Stan Correy has pointed out, Australia’s World War II reconstruction effort was planned, well before the end of the war, by the best and brightest thinkers of that time. Those thinkers came from both sides of politics. For decades afterward, Australia lived on the benefits of that planning. Think of our monetary policy, welfare system, even government agencies such as ASIO.

In the post-war era, both Labor and the Conservatives believed in the role of public investment and the public service. The Liberals supported private enterprise, but they didn’t downplay the role of government. Labor’s success came from a belief in a compact between labour and capital to create a fair and prosperous society.

We are again in an era in which we must put the national interest first and draw fulsomely from the bipartisan peace-pipe. Every day and every hour, Australia’s leaders are making life and death decisions. In making those calls, they are shaping our future politics and our future society. In support of those decisions, it’s time for a genuine national cabinet — one based on capability not ideology.

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