A wily old ex-polly, a social-media friend, recently opined that Scott Morrison, like John Winston Howard before him, “gets” that Australians like boring government, and therein lies his electoral success. Chris Kenny in The Australian has used “masterclass” to describe what he sees as Morrison’s deft political touch before, during and since the May election.
On the eve of what will no doubt be hailed as a triumphant visit to the United States, including a rarely granted State dinner at the White House, Morrison might be seen as taking all before him. His recent appearances at Cronulla Sharks matches and barracker’s defence of his team against the National Rugby League’s apparent designs on ditching a Sydney team in order to accommodate Channel Nine – which now seems to run the game – only add to the aura of a people’s prime minister.
Yet for uneasy conservatives he remains an enigma. Tony Abbott, who has no reason to be an admirer after Morrison’s lip service to loyalty during the Turnbull coup, conceded on election night that ScoMo deserves to be admitted to the “pantheon” of great Liberal leaders for pulling off the unwinnable election and saving the nation from the egregious Bill Shorten. And in view of the early trajectory of Shorten’s successor, the impossibly awful Anthony Albanese, for whom “deft” will never appear nearby in print, it is more than likely that Morrison might pull off another famous Liberal Party victory in a little under three years’ time.
I said enigma. For some, Morrison is clearly a conservative. Think evangelical Christianity and his opposition to same sex marriage. Think also stopping the boats. Think transgendered bathrooms at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
For others (me included), Morrison is not a conservative, merely a pragmatist — a centrist with occasional conservative moods. He is also a man of considerable, well, to be impolite, rat cunning. There is no doubt he is “Teflon Man”, nothing bad seems to stick. David Crowe’s recently published book on the rise of Morrison, Venom: Vendettas, Betrayals and the Price of Power, showed just how cunning Morrison can be. Voting for one leader while getting all your mates to vote for another, just so that you can maintain a veneer of loyalty, then pulling the same bluff with another leader three years later, that takes some cunning.
To those conservatives outside the Liberal Party, without the outsized loyalty to that once (moderately) great party as displayed perennially by Howard and, perhaps more shakily, by Abbott post the Berejiklian abortion fiasco, Morrison is a do-nothing, waste of political space, not remotely inclined to address the deepest fears and policy desires of those now famous “silent Australians” who voted for the man. But, more than this, Morrison raised hopes only to disappoint. He is a conservative pretender who will stand idly by while the long ideological march continues apace. He will offer crumbs, not red meat. He will maintain stony silence on cultural issues that demand a voice. The sort of voice that, say, Alan Jones provides.
Might not a Christian prime minister have perhaps sent a message of support to the thousands of pro-life activists in Hyde Park Sydney this most recent Sunday? The protesters were addressed by a number of independently minded politicians of principle, like Damian Tudehope (a NSW Government Minister), Kevin Conolly (a NSW Liberal backbencher) and (yes, of all people) Barnaby Joyce, registering their extreme anger at what Tony Abbott accurately described as “ infanticide on demand”.
This is Gladys’s gift to the unborn of New South Wales. John Howard’s mate, Gladys. ScoMo’s mate, Gladys. Going against the majority of her own parliamentarians, in a curtsy to rainbow warrior Alex Greenwich. For ScoMo would have ruffled the moderate feathers of NSW Liberal Party mates by taking a stand on a matter that is, or should be, absolute, core right-of-centre business. The sort of mates who (inevitably) attended the recent gay wedding of Special Minister of State Don Harwin’s former chief-of-staff on the red carpet of the Capitol Theatre. The mates who form one side of what a Daily Telegraph journalist recently described as “the beginning of a civil war in the NSW Liberal Party”, a war likely to last for years, if not decades.
So goes the story:
There’s a photo being secretly gossiped about by NSW conservatives which they’ve dubbed the “red wedding”.
They claim that this photo captures in history a political alliance that is enraging them and documents a pact between the left of the Liberal party, NSW Nationals veering from their socially conservative roots, and the ALP to drive far-left social reforms and push conservative voices into the minority.
The photo is a group shot of wedding guests at the August celebration of the marriage of Don Harwin’s former chief-of-staff Brian Lindsay and his partner Simon Moore.
In attendance was Premier Gladys Berejiklian and a who’s who of NSW moderates: Don Harwin, Matt Kean, Gareth Ward, Marise Payne, Stuart Ayres, Felicity Wilson, Trent Zimmerman and Melanie Gibbons.
Labor upper house member Penny Sharpe was there, as was Nationals MP Ben Franklin, who emceed the party.
The usual suspects, then. An amalgam of pro-choice, carbon-emissions averse, renewables-spruiking, rainbow-woke Abbott-haters who have no place in a political party for whom conservatives might be reasonably expected to vote.
So no, no message of support from Morrison over the issue that is right at the heart of this very uncivil, civil war in the Premier State.
A Christian prime minister, let alone a supporter of free speech, might have avoided throwing Israel Folau under the bus in the continuing legal war with the woke scolds of Corporate Australia.
A conservative at heart might have put a few conservatives on his front bench, in positions of real power, and not retained such rainbow warriors as Marise Payne and Simon Birmingham in positions of ministerial importance way above their capacity to deliver anything beyond facile press releases and, in the case of Payne, a cuddle with Jacinda Adern.
A conservative might have actually told the said Jacindarella to put a sock in it when hectoring Australia about our right to produce energy, and on so much more besides.
A conservative might have been a little more circumspect in his ringing endorsement of the Chinese regime’s useful idiot, Gladys the Second. Of course, as Andrew Bolt has pointed out, if Liu goes, so does Morrison’s majority.
Above all, a conservative might have supported a conservative in the recent Liberal Party Senate pre-selection contest in Victoria, when Sarah Henderson, a closet greenie, windfarm cheer-squadding, gay-marriage and abortion-supporting electoral failure, was cheered by ScoMo across the finish line. It is not rocket science to suggest that this was because said closet greenie was, yes, a female! (Picture the headline, ScoMo – “Senate now has half its members women”. History books and all that.)
Notwithstanding the truly bizarre factional workings – if “working” is the right word – of the Victorian Branch of the Liberal Party, one might have expected a conservative prime minister to tack right. Sarah Henderson is not even a centrist, but clearly a true leftist believer with political friends in all sorts of high places in Victoria. Henderson’s re-elevation, and, more importantly, the high level support she received, is simply mind boggling in the light of the civil war in New South Wales noted above. Well, it is mind boggling from a true-believing conservative perspective. Contemplating the alternate view of Morrison – the Teflon man, the fixer, the Scarlet Pimpernel of Australian politics, the silent operator who rarely steps out of the ideological shadows and does so only when it is very, very safe to do so – there is no surprise at all in his recent manoeuvres.
So Teflon Man is off to Washington. Morrison and Trump indeed make for a strange contrast.
While the US visit will no doubt provide lots of pleasant optics and reinforce our most important alliance, those of us who doubt Morrison’s credentials as a conservative will not be cheered by his undoubted and much acknowledged capacity to avoid the sticking of mud to his visage, as he continues to side step through the more difficult issues of politics, governance and culture without apparent gains of consequence to the body politic or to true conservative believers.
Yes, the comparison with John Howard is clear, and instructive. Howard, remember, was never a climate sceptic (in government). He promoted Malcolm Turnbull to senior ministerial office, and (sadly) helped persuade him to stay in politics when we were very nearly rid of him. He was an immensely clever politician, strategically choosing issues on which to make stands while forever maintaining the common touch, applying pub tests to issues with aplomb. There is a difference though. Howard did make stands, and on difficult issues, too – on Iraq, on gun reform, on Kyoto, on “sorry”, on budget cuts of consequence, and, to his final great cost, on industrial relations. He managed to steer a clever political course and to achieve political longevity. Hence his place in the Liberal pantheon and a reasonable claim to being Australia’s greatest prime minister.
And yes, it is way too early to pronounce on Morrison’s career and on his political legacy and stature. But the signs are not good, at many levels and on many issues. And remember too, that even a mere decade on from Howard’s departure from the scene, the stakes are now so much higher for those who adhere to traditional virtue and traditionally accepted values.
As Douglas Murray suggests, we live in times mad post-modernist crowds who assault reason and displace core values. For Murray, we live, indeed, in a fundamentally and mind numbingly new and unfamiliar world:
As anyone who has lived under totalitarianism can attest, there is something demeaning and eventually soul-destroying about being expected to go along with claims you do not believe to be true and yet cannot hold to be true. That distraction — or crowd madness — is something we are in the middle of and something we need to try to find our way out from. If we fail then the direction of travel is already clear. We face not just a future of ever-greater atomisation, rage and violence, but a future in which the possibility of a backlash against all rights advances — including the good ones — grows more likely.
Assaults on “club sensible” and on the values which conservatives hold dear are now much broader and deeper, more consequential and more telling. The commanding heights of the culture are, in many ways, lost. The ground ceded to the progressive left has been massive, and it continues. Pushing back with consequence now requires much more than mere rat cunning and ephemeral electoral success.
In other words, the kind of leader now needed is a Howard Plus, even a Thatcher Plus. That is, a super-strategist possessed of soaring ambition, iron will, clear thinking, rhetorical gifts, steely determination, spine and moral compass. Not just electoral smarts, ersatz chuminess and factional cleverness.
Granted – a Trump-like disruptor can work well politically in a republic, but this model is far harder to put in play in a Westminster democracy; harder still under a preferential voting system. But given the size of the task, and the breadth and depth of powers ranged against a true conservative revival, very few on the Right would feel comfort when contemplating a lengthy Morrison premiership. Those chanting in Hyde Park on an issue as critical as the lives of the helpless unborn would especially not feel much comfort, when it is ScoMo’s own “moderate” mates in New South Wales who are leading the assault and wielding the instruments of death.
So. Morrison might well go down in the annals of the Liberal Party as a successful prime minister, one indeed capable of providing “master classes” in politics. But, on the evidence to date, and remembering just how much political capital the man has currently, he is never likely to be regarded as a prime minister of consequence or of standing as a conservative hero.
Rat cunning just won’t cut it.