Scott Morrison is stuck in the permanent present – and Australia’s getting nowhere

It is worth remembering that Peter Dutton was almost prime minister of Australia. Yes, the man who joked about sea levels rising and “Cape York time” while standing underneath a live boom microphone was within a whisker of being the 30th prime minister. It is worth remembering such things because in our current political climate we too often live in the permanent present – barely looking ahead, and quickly forgetting the past.

The permanent present has long been an issue in politics and yet, as often happens, the problem has grown under a new leadership. Does Scott Morrison’s government look to the future? It can barely be bothered to look beyond the next half-hour.

Remember this prime minister’s first real act in the job was to respond to the issue of needles in strawberries by introducing a new offence and increasing the punishment in existing laws from 10 to 15 years in jail. This was despite the main problem not being people actually putting needles in strawberries but those hoaxing.

The sensible approach would have been to tell people to keep buying strawberries (and do a photo-op eating them) and then to stop talking about it, as that was what was fuelling the copycats and the hoaxers. Instead, all due to a short-term need to look in-charge, we have new laws on the books for ever that we didn’t need and that won’t even affect those who actually did put needles in the strawberries in the first place!

This week the prime minister’s inability to look beyond the immediate was on display again. In an interview with Alan Jones, in response to a typical Jones bluster about Malcolm Turnbull, Morrison claimed that Turnbull was not in Indonesia this week to talk about trade or the Israel embassy: “the issues of trade and other things of course were not really part of the brief”.

And sure, that got a nice response from Jones, but was Morrison so focussed on the present that he thought that would be the end of it?

It didn’t take long before Turnbull took to Twitter to explain “a few facts”, namely that Morrison had actually asked him to “discuss trade and the embassy issue”.

And that’s the problem with short-termism. It might get you through that hour but little further, and it often reveals you either lack understanding of what you are doing or are flat-out wrong.

Take Dan Tehan, the minister for education, who in response to a story that the previous education minster Simon Birmingham had rejected 11 ARC grant applications, announced that future ARC grants would need to pass a “national interest test”. It was great short-termism – deal with a story by going on the front foot and doubling down (heck, that culture war ain’t going to fight itself). And like all good short-termism it revealed the incompetence underlying the policy, as researchers around the nation quickly pointed outthere is already a “national benefit” requirement for ARC grants.

So Tehan’s solution to a non-problem was to announce the introduction of something that already exists. Top-notch governing.

Then there was our nearly-PM, Peter Dutton, who revealed just how at-sea the government is over dealing with asylum seekers on Nauru, in the midst of a short-term worry about numbers in the parliament.

The election of Kerryn Phelps has meant the government is going to be under severe pressure to hold sway in the House of Representatives and will likely to be forced to do a deal on children in detention. And so, to head off that issue, the government announced via the media it would bring the kids to Australia by the end of the year.

Now this in itself is to be welcomed, but as Katharine Murphy has noted, there are more than a few issues still to be resolved, especially as the government continues to fight the ability of courts to order sick children be brought to Australia for care.

But the short-termism behind the decision and the overall policy was also revealed when Dutton gave two interviews.

Firstly, on 2GB with Ray Hadley he argued that transferring asylum seekers to New Zealand would be “a green light to people smugglers”, which makes one wonder, if that is so, why Scott Morrison was raising it as an issue just two weeks ago. Worse, however, was within the next minute he boasted that 439 of a possible 1,250 asylum seekers had already been transferred to the US.

So going to New Zealand is an incentive but the US is not? I know Donald Trump is awful but that does seem a bit of a stretch.

Then Dutton went on Sky News, where he not only kept up the logic that a deal with the US was fine but one with New Zealand was not, he suggested as well that the children would be brought to Australia but that they and their families would not be able to settle here.

So they’re here, but not for good, but they will also all be off Nauru by the end of the year, but they’re not here for good, so then they will go … err, where exactly? Dutton wants them to go back home but that has not occurred yet so why would it now? They can’t go to New Zealand, so where then? Back to Nauru? But they will all be off Nauru by the end of the year …

Short-term answers are, as always, good for providing more questions.

And then Dutton revealed his complete short-termism by trying to get through the interview by arguing he was not bringing the children to Australia because of medical reasons but because of the cost.

But the cost has always been a major issue. It has always been more expensive to detain asylum seekers offshore – just over $1bn a year, according to the Parliamentary Library. Dutton, laughably, seemed not to realise his reasoning undermined the entirety of the policy. Either it is cost-effective or it is not. If it isn’t now, why was it before? Or is Dutton admitting the government has been wasting money, all in the name of trying to wedge the opposition and please talkback hosts?

Under this current government the past and its poor decisions are forgotten, but unfortunately they live on – whether it be in law changes, research funding guidelines, climate change inaction, or the lives of asylum seekers.

Short-term solutions rarely actually help the government with its problems but they almost always do lasting damage.