Features Australia

Who the bloody hell are you?

The Prime Minister had an unorthodox rise to power

24 April 2021

9:00 AM

24 April 2021

9:00 AM

Of our ten most recent prime ministers, all but one had acute political interest in their youth. Gough Whitlam was devouring the politics of Rome before he was ten. Malcolm Fraser joined the Liberal party at 22 and was an MP at 24. Bob Hawke joined Labor at 18 and wrote his uni thesis on industrial relations. Paul Keating joined Young Labor the first day he could and was NSW Young Labor president aged 22 –  John Howard was the Young Liberal equivalent aged 23. Kevin Rudd joined Labor aged 15.  At 20, Julia Gillard was a campus president and joined Labor. Tony Abbott was also a campus president and a confidante of B.A. Santamaria. Malcolm Turnbull was an active student politician while working part-time as a political reporter.

The exception is Scott Morrison.  That’s far from an automatic criticism but Morrison’s predecessors demonstrated they had been mulling political ideas for decades before getting the top job. Most opposition leaders have published biographies, but we still lack one on Morrison.  The scraps we do have strongly hint that pre-politics Morrison was absent political interest.

When other PMs-to-be were studying the morning newspaper, arguing with their teachers and watching the evening news, Morrison was a child actor. He landed a few TV commercials so obviously had talent but while the acting career didn’t take off it may have given him a taste of the limelight. The other members of Club PM studied law, history, political science, philosophy, etc., but Morrison studied economic geography (huh?).   The UNSW campus in the 1990s was (as always) an ideological hotbed but Morrison completed his degree without leaving political fingerprints.

His first job was at the Property Council. From 1995 to 2000 he then held senior roles in tourism authorities. It was an impressive rise for a young man. More than once Jenny Morrison has said something like, ‘I didn’t know what Scott was going to do but knew it would be big – he’s been at top gear since we were teenagers.’ The tourism roles gave Morrison proximity to senior politicians. His work ethic was noted.

The NSW division of the Liberal party has been notorious for factional strife since Menzies. The day-to-day adjudicator is the poor old state director. Its a well-paid but thankless task. Their real job is to win state and federal elections but much of their day is consumed with unending and unfathomable factional flashpoints. The division burned through several state directors in the 1990s. Then someone came up with a novel idea, ‘why don’t we get an apolitical state director with zero factional baggage but proven management skill?’ Morrison got the gig.

The Liberal party is viewed as this awesome election-winning machine but once inside you quickly see its awesome dysfunction and how average many of its parliamentarians are. No one had a better view than the state director and at some point Morrison concludes, ‘I reckon I could be an MP.’

The plan was to run for Mitchell but then Bruce Baird retired in Cook. No need to rehash the details of that messiest of preselections other than to add that Sam Dastyari told FM radio in 2018 that allies of Morrison met with him seeking dirt on the initial preselection winner. Sam says he happily coughed something up and, coincidence or not, come the next election Morrison lands in Canberra. The alleged episode suggests Morrison had Keating-style political drive.

Following the loss of the 2007 election, Peter Costello announced he wasn’t running for leader. The first contest was between Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull. Nelson won 45-42. We can conclude newbie Morrison backed Turnbull because (a) they’d been mates since state director Morrison favoured Turnbull in his own messy preselection and (b) Nelson named a mammoth shadow ministry with over half the party room included but Morrison was excluded.

In 2008, Turnbull defeated Nelson 45-41. Morrison is promoted off the backbench but only for boring Housing and Local Government. It’s likely Morrison considered it a snub because the friendship with Malcolm would soon be shown to have its limits.

In 2009, Joe Hockey and Abbott challenged Turnbull. By this stage Morrison had five or so MPs loyal to him and the night before the vote Morrison apparently told Abbott, ‘My bloc’s voting for Malcolm unless I get immigration’. Abbott won by one vote and Morrison got the shadow immigration job just as illegal boat arrivals were ramping up. Tough-talking Morrison soon burst onto the nightly news.

Abbott defeated Rudd in 2013, Jim Molan promptly stopped the boats and Morrison basked in the glory. With immigration out of the news, Morrison started publicly speculating his next role would be an economic portfolio (the surest path to the Lodge is via Treasury). Around this time, as Treasurer Hockey was being crippled by Cabinet leaks, Morrison called into PM Abbott’s office saying, ‘Hockey’s got to go’. Abbott refused and soon after Morrison rekindled his relationship with Turnbull.

Turnbull challenged Abbott in 2015.  The Morrison bloc had grown to 15, of whom 14 voted for Turnbull. Morrison could say hand on heart he voted for Abbott but in the wash-up Morrison was promoted into Hockey’s old office. When Turnbull’s leadership imploded in 2018 a seemingly surprised Morrison emerged as PM, but it’s pretty obvious what happened  – the Morrison bloc presumably egged on Dutton in order to destabilise Turnbull.

This sketch of Morrison’s rise reveals that while he has no natural interest in political ideas he is awesome at the politics of politics. November 2021 is the 40th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s speech at the Menzies Lecture in Melbourne where she noted: ‘I count myself among those politicians who operate from conviction. Consensus is the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects. The process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”?’

During a televised leaders debate in the 2019 campaign, Morrison declared, ‘I’ll govern from where I always have – from the middle.’ Lacking any depth, Scott Morrison’s guiding principle is to be a little to the right of a very left Labor party and that’s delivering us two left-wing parties.

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