Culture wars and conservatism dominate our political cycle

While yesterday in federal politics was dominated by Labor’s rush to kill off the indefinite detention issue that Peter Dutton has seized on with relish — so much so that he wildly overplayed his hand on Wednesday — there was a more telling moment in the infrastructure portfolio.

What was once touted as a major Coalition strength, its $120 billion infrastructure investment program, was revealed as little short of shambolic, with cost overruns and pressures running into the tens of billions of dollars, the result not merely of inflation and labour shortages — not the then-government’s fault — but of rotten project selection, pork-barrelling and a failure to align projects with national priorities.

As a result, Infrastructure Minister Catherine King announced a slate of projects that needed more funding, offset by scores that would be axed. The easy option would have been to delay the cancelled projects instead, promising funding for later in the decade or the 2030s. Instead, the government decided to axe them and to put a number of large projects effectively on notice pending better planning and costing.

That induced angry attacks on federal Labor from King’s state Labor counterparts, who presumably expect the Commonwealth to fund ever-inflating budgets of major projects — inflation not helped by state governments’ failures to sequence projects properly. As that response suggests, there’s rarely much political reward for governing well.

The government has been doing a lot of cleaning up of inherited messes. One is the direct result of Peter Dutton’s incompetence when at Home Affairs: the loss of control of border security in relation to tens of thousands of fake asylum seekers arriving by air and gaming a broken visa system and the AAT, and the High Court’s decision reinstating the citizenship of terrorist Abdul Nacer Benbrika, declaring 2015 citizenship law reforms unconstitutional — as was pointed out by a wide variety of observers at the time. They’re just the latest additions to a long list of examples of incompetence from the Coalition while in government.

That serial incompetence reflects both the personal foibles of the leaders involved — Tony Abbott’s complete inability to lead; Scott Morrison’s obsession with marketing ahead of substance — as well as a broader hostility to the idea of active, effective government and of proper institutional governing processes, which led to a withering of capacity to govern and the steady destruction of public sector governing institutions.

Under Morrison, incompetence reached its peak because by that stage the Liberal Party had become a protection racket for its corporate donors, trading policy for donations, with no distinction observed between corporate and political interests.

Exactly the same decline into clientelism marked the Tories under Boris Johnson and the Trump administration; the latter resolved into a complete union of governmental administration and the personal interests of Trump and his friends and allies.

All three were thus characterised by quite profound incompetence — and understandably: if you think government purely exists to serve you and your friends, inevitably your capacity to govern well in the national interest withers and dies.

One of the reasons Peter Dutton has seized on the overturning of indefinite immigration detention so eagerly is to divert attention from his own spectacular incompetence in relation to border protection; as Home Affairs minister, he oversaw the greatest failure in border security since the Gillard government was overwhelmed with maritime arrivals. At the heart of Dutton’s unsubtle messaging is the claim that Labor can’t be trusted on borders, when the record shows that Dutton himself was the greatest recent threat to border security.

But this contradiction can — at least Dutton hopes — be obliterated in a culture war over what he hopes voters will see as a more nebulous threat of killer migrants, violent anti-Semites and upstart Indigenous people demanding more than is their due — in short, threatening non-white people. And if the right is now inept at actual governing, it is very good at culture warring, at least when figures like Dutton don’t go too far and start saying the quiet bit out loud, as he did on Wednesday.

Labor’s whole approach to government has been to make a virtue of its competence, to ostentatiously do things properly (until this week, when it decided to cobble together whatever it could to address the indefinite detention issue) and to hope voters reward a return to effective, active governing of a kind they haven’t seen for a long time. It is offering a small-c conservative vision of managerial competence, in the face of emotive scare campaigns that are likely to be far more engaging with at least some sections of the electorate.

If Dutton and his colleagues were restored to government at the next election, there’s no evidence they would govern with any more competence than Morrison. But voters might find that less interesting than the various straw men the right wants them to be fearful of.

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