Scott Morrison is no progressive and he’s going to change the country

Sean Kelly

Updated July 8, 2019

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I have twice recently committed the sin of political optimism. The first was when I thought Tony Abbott would grow into the role of prime minister. The second was when I made the same mistake about Malcolm Turnbull.

So, I’m fallible, no surprises there. The broader lesson is this: the prime ministership doesn’t miraculously change those who hold it. It’s a job, and like any job you can get better at the nuts and bolts. But you come out the same person you went in. Abbott, for example, stayed a daffily old-fashioned boofhead.

The Prime Minister is a more formidable politician than either of his immediate Coalition predecessors.
The Prime Minister is a more formidable politician than either of his immediate Coalition predecessors.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

Turnbull, too, remained himself. His woeful political instincts stayed woeful. He waffled luxuriantly. The most important element of continuity – overlooked amidst the disappointment – was that he ended up being what both his fans and enemies expected: a Labor prime minister with some Liberal leanings. His largest legacy might be embedding Labor policies, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski school reforms. He acted on childcare and renewables. He tried to do something on climate. The marriage plebiscite was awful, but the result – marriage equality – was undeniably progressive. He played an historically important role, if not for the reasons his colleagues hoped.

There are two sharp lessons for Labor here. The first is that the Scott Morrison we see now is not going anywhere. He is not daffy. His instincts are sharp. He can call black white and get away with it. He is a more formidable prospect than either Abbott or Turnbull.

I don’t mean at the next election. I mean right now. Because the second point is that Morrison, unlike Turnbull, is not some sneaky progressive. This, in combination with his political skills, should worry Labor deeply.

There is a building narrative, encouraged by Morrison himself, that our prime minister is not ideological. It’s true that he is able to jump back and forth between positions with alacrity, and argue opposite sides with equal strength. But to say that someone is willing to depart from their beliefs when it is convenient to do so is not the same as saying that person has no beliefs. This is a crucial distinction.

John Howard – Morrison’s hero and mentor – is the exemplar. He was perfectly cynical when necessary. He was also an ideological warrior. The same can be said of Paul Keating. Those men were feared by their opponents not just because they won elections, but because of what they did between elections. They changed the country.

Most Labor MPs are understandably shattered right now, still shocked they could be beaten by a rabble. There is no sense the party has yet woken to the real threat posed by the invigorated Liberal team. If that confusion was not clear before last week, the absurd debate around the government’s tax cuts crystallised it.

What seemed to be occupying many Labor MPs was the politics of the decision. Would it prove the party backed aspiration or hated it? What would it say to the party’s base? What were the implications for the next election?

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. We have all just lived through a term in which one former prime minister constantly sniped at another prime minister, who was then torn down by a third prime minister, and yet still that bloke (the third one) went on to win the election – and Labor is worrying about the political ramifications of a decision immediately after an election about tax cuts that won’t kick in until after the next election. Got that?

Has it not occurred to anyone that Bill Shorten lost not just because he got the politics wrong, but because he was so obviously thinking, all the time, about the politics of everything he did and said? The debate last week suggests the habit might have spread.

Bill Shorten seemed so obvisouly focused on the politics of every decision.
Bill Shorten seemed so obvisouly focused on the politics of every decision.CREDIT:AAP

I’m not expecting anybody to get the violins out, but this is a tough time to be a political practitioner. The rules are changing quickly – though it’s not clear which rules, and how they’re changing. After the last campaign, it’s fair to ask: is disunity no longer death? Is it now acceptable to fatten a pig on market day?

There are more practical questions, too, especially about technology. This is the uncertain atmosphere in which Labor is about to conduct what, it is promised, will be a comprehensive campaign review, without a blame game. Both elements are welcome. A third element is essential: the review should be publicly released. To keep it restricted to a few key people makes change less likely, and the guarding of self-interest a certainty. And if the political side of the operation is working better, then MPs might feel more confident voting for the right reasons, knowing their decisions will be sold effectively.

That shift needs to start sooner, not later. Morrison will work quickly. He has already delivered a radical tax plan, and promised action on industrial relations. Labor can play dead, of course, taking the political punt that the government’s plans will backfire. But in the meantime, the country will have changed. It’s not a bet you’d want to get wrong.

Sean Kelly is a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Sean Kelly
Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.