It’s just over 100 days since the Coalition’s crushing victory over Labor at the federal election in May. Speaking on the occasion of Scott Morrison’s first anniversary as Prime Minister last Saturday, John Howard told The Australian’s Simon Benson that the parliamentary Liberal Party “is in better shape than it has been since 2007”.
That’s true. It’s also correct to say that, at the leadership level, the Liberal Party is more united than it has been at any time since the days of prime minister Robert Menzies and his deputy Harold Holt more than a half-century ago.
Certainly the relationship between Morrison and his deputy, Josh Frydenberg, is remarkably close. This is something rare on either side of mainstream politics, since promotion is invariably gained by beating your colleagues to attain high office.
Holt was never a threat to Menzies and became prime minister after the latter’s retirement. Both Holt and his successor Coalition prime ministers faced internal tension and sometimes challenges.
Remember John Gorton v Bill McMahon, Malcolm Fraser v Andrew Peacock, John Howard v Peter Costello, Tony Abbott v Malcolm Turnbull, and then Turnbull v Abbott? Turnbull’s exit from the Lodge on August 24 last year was unusual. Without consulting any of his leadership group, except perhaps Julie Bishop and then only fleetingly, Turnbull called a spill. When Peter Dutton decided to contest the vacant position, winning 35 out of a possible 83 votes, Turnbull’s position was terminal.
In the period between Tuesday, August 21, and Friday, August 24, the Liberal Party was in real crisis mode. The matter had to be resolved that week, otherwise the party might have found itself facing a genuinely unwinnable election before the end of last year because of internal divisions.
In the event, Turnbull lost a second spill on the Friday and Morrison prevailed over Dutton in the subsequent leadership ballot. The key figure in resolving the deadlock was Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. He supported Turnbull in the first spill but not in the second. Cormann backed Dutton but readily accepted the decision on leadership made by a majority of his colleagues in the partyroom.
There has been much criticism of Cormann’s actions at the time of the leadership change, particularly among members of the Canberra press gallery, quite a few of whom were Turnbull supporters. But there is a strong case that Cormann saved the Liberal Party, in the short term at least.
As the government leader in the Senate, Cormann did not have a conflict of interest with respect to the leadership. Whoever prevailed would come from the House of Representatives — not the Senate. His only interest was to remain a minister in the government and ensure that Labor remained in opposition.
When Cormann decided that Turnbull’s self-inflicted political wounds made it impossible for him to hang on as prime minister, he brought two Senate ministerial colleagues with him — Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash.
The Coalition’s win in May endorsed Cormann’s political judgment. Since Abbott’s victory over Kevin Rudd in 2013, Cormann had been running a consistent line proclaiming the Coalition’s economic agenda and accusing Labor of big-spending, high-taxing socialism. This can be traced in six keynote speeches delivered to the Sydney Institute between 2014 and this week.
It was Cormann who maintained the Coalition’s economic line following Turnbull’s successful challenge against Abbott in September 2015. And it was Cormann who did the same as Turnbull’s leadership fell apart following his near loss in 2016.
After the leadership changed, Morrison and Frydenberg (as Treasurer), with a little help from backbencher Tim Wilson, joined Cormann in making the economic case against Labor. Morrison proved to be a first-rate communicator and an extremely hard worker on the campaign.
In his speech to the Sydney Institute last Tuesday, Cormann argued that at the federal election this year “Australians voted for policies supporting opportunity and aspiration and they voted against the economy-harming, opportunity-lowering politics of envy and division”.
He praised the record of the Labor governments led by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and blamed Wayne Swan, who became treasurer in 2007, for moving Labor’s economic policy to the left.
Many commentators, especially on the ABC and in Nine newspapers, misunderstood the Coalition’s tactics in the lead-up to the election.
After becoming Prime Minister a year ago, Morrison targeted some seats that Turnbull had lost in 2016 — in northern Tasmania, parts of NSW and parts of southern and northern Queensland. The aim was to hold as many seats as possible in the remaining states, and to win back seats held by independents in Melbourne (Chisholm) and Sydney (Wentworth).
There were two prongs to this tactic: appeal to aspirational Australians along with social conservatives. The Coalition succeeded on both counts.
In 2004, after Howard’s fourth victory, Bill Shorten was interviewed on the ABC television Insiders program. At the time he was secretary of the Australian Workers Union.
In this interview, Shorten spoke about the need for Labor to advocate an agenda beyond “progressive left-wing views”. And he argued that Labor should “send a clear message to people who live in the outer suburbs and provincial cities, that if you have a dream to have an intact marriage, to go to church on Sunday, to have a mortgage, to want to send your kids to a private school — then the Labor Party of the inner city does not look at your disdainfully”.
Shorten understood the problem Labor faced before the 2004 election.
However, when opposition leader on the eve of the election this year, he lost contact with aspirational and socially conservative Australians in suburbs and towns.
After the election, Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen expressed concern at the flight of believers away from Labor to the Coalition.
Cormann’s economic and social conservatism was mocked by some commentators. However, his approach to the Liberal leadership contest a year ago was correct. And most Australians supported Morrison and his colleagues at the subsequent election.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au.