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Morrison’s gift for razing expectations

So the response was a shrug when Morrison and Victorian premier Daniel Andrews confirmed a 52 per cent increase in the cost of upgrading the Monash Freeway to Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. What was supposed to cost $711 million will now cost $1.1 billion.

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“These dollars do move around,” Morrison told Neil Mitchell on 3AW last week. Mitchell was incredulous. “It’s a huge blowout,” he said. Morrison spoke as if taxpayers should welcome the new cost and be grateful when the bulldozers arrived.

Nobody has come up with a better explanation in the days since for this slug on taxpayers. Morrison talked vaguely of cost of materials and transport. At a brief doorstop, the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said the government was “very conscious” of the higher costs. Not, apparently, conscious enough to prevent them.

Australians in other cities know the problem. The Sydney light rail project is $1 billion above cost and well behind schedule. The disruption to George Street is a daily reminder that Australia seems to have lost the ability to build things on time and on budget.

A spike in costs at one project may seem like a small matter when the government pledges $100 billion on infrastructure over a decade. The Monash Freeway problem is a rounding error for economists and may be forgotten by motorists if it cuts travel times.

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Even so, the collective shrug says everything about the state of play in federal politics. The Morrison government looks new but the Coalition is in its third term in power – and it is still searching for answers about what it should do with the next three years.

What is the point of the Morrison government? What does it want to achieve now it has passed on its $158 billion income tax cut? The answers will take time, if they ever come, and they will certainly be subject to events – not least the stuttering of the global economy.

The Liberals and Nationals once promised to have an answer to big questions about infrastructure and cost pressures. Five years ago, then treasurer Joe Hockey commissioned a Productivity Commission review into construction costs after the assistant infrastructure minister, Jamie Briggs, warned they were too high. But that was two prime ministers ago.

The commission made cogent findings about the cost of land and labour but there was no sign of a long-term fix during a period of constant Liberal turmoil. There has been plenty of argument, including about real problems with the peak construction union and characters such as John Setka, but fewer solutions. Now politicians wipe their hands as if it is out of their control.

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Or consider skills. Australia is losing apprentices at the very time it is crying out for more tradies to get things done, whether it is work on a suburban house or a skyscraper. Yet there is no solution in sight.

“We all know that the current system is not working,” said one authority this week. Who was that authority? Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

That’s right. After six years of Coalition government, and several overhauls of vocational education in federal budgets, the Prime Minister says the system needs a fix.

“The point is getting someone trained with a skill that someone else needs, and that’s the clarity I want to bring to what we plan to do in skills,” Morrison told the Master Builders Association on Tuesday.

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“I’d be happy to invest more in skills but I’m not going to invest in dud projects that aren’t working. I’m not going to pour more money into a bottomless pit.”

Perhaps Morrison will craft a new and compelling policy. All he offered this week was a complaint and vague talk of future action. And he has been a cabinet minister for six years.

The problem is that funding for vocational education and training has suffered for years, according to annual warnings from the Mitchell Institute.

In an earlier world, an admission like Morrison’s would have been big news. The media watched John Howard very closely because the slightest change in his language was usually a signal of intent.

Morrison is the most secure Prime Minister since Howard, thanks to his authority from the election and the 66 per cent threshold for a Liberal Party leadership spill, but he is yet to prove that his assurances hold the same power as those of his predecessor.

Morrison has no reason to raise expectations and court disappointment, but this phase of his government is only a passing moment. He can wave away a cost blowout or complain about training, but at some point he has to have a better answer.

Six years after the Coalition took power, that is the least voters can expect.

David Crowe is chief political correspondent.

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