John Hyde, the one-time Liberal Party member for Moore in Perth, once told a story about the decline of morale among his colleagues during Malcolm Fraser’s third term as prime minister.
As the 1983 election drew near, Fraser asked his colleagues for new ideas that the Coalition could take to the electorate. As Hyde reported, his fellow Perth backbencher, Ross McLean, called out: “Hey, prime minister — why not try good government for a change?”
The point was a good one. The essential task for leaders is to govern well. From a political perspective, it is also to win the next election. Coalition leaders consciously believe that it is important for the future of the nation that the government they head remains in office. Labor leaders have an identical view, from a different perspective.
As is well known, in May 2019 Scott Morrison led the Coalition to what was to many a surprise victory. He called it a miracle. Few political commentators thought such an outcome was possible.
Most Australian election results are close and much of the current polling reflects this. Even so, the Coalition has a significant lead in the primary vote, the most important indication of the nation’s political mood. And the Prime Minister’s approval rating remains high.
If Labor is to win at the next election, it will need to take Morrison seriously. On the available evidence, he is a consummate politician. Entering the House of Representatives after Labor’s 2007 victory, Morrison was a minister by September 2013 and prime minister by August 2018.
Currently, on the left, and even within the social democratic Labor Party, there remains a tendency to sneer at and dismiss Morrison as something of a lightweight.
This week Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate, Kristina Keneally, issued this tweet: “#ScottyFromMarketing Always there for the photo opp, never there for the follow through.”
The dismissive term “Scotty from Marketing” was invented by the comedy team at the “virtual” Betoota Advocate newspaper in 2018. It is, or was, a great stand-up comedy line. But no more than that, which is why it has not been taken up in the general community. The fact is that insincere “Scotty from Marketing” types — if they exist in real life — don’t make it to the prime ministerial Lodge.
During his recent address to the Sydney Institute, prominent Labor politician Joel Fitzgibbon expressed concern that some of his colleagues failed to appreciate the abilities of some men and women on the Coalition frontbench. It’s always an error to underestimate your opposition.
Early last year, left-wing commentator Mike Carlton tweeted that of all the prime ministers since Robert Menzies, “None was as shallow, as hollow, so utterly devoid of the qualities of leadership as #ScottyFromMarketing”. It was this kind of thinking that contributed to the loss by green-left advocates in the May 2019 election. If Morrison lacked the qualities of leadership, he would not be a leader.
In recent times a few vocal right-of-centre critics of Morrison have emerged. They don’t run the “Scotty from Marketing” line — by the way, what’s wrong with marketing? But they do present the Prime Minister as indecisive at best and incompetent at worst on a range of matters extending from handling COVID-19 to energy policy and an alleged failure to undertake economic reform.
Many critics fail to understand the limitations on democratic leaders. They exercise authority, not absolute power, and have to bring individuals along with them — political supporters and opponents alike. In Morrison’s case, this includes the Liberal and joint Coalition partyrooms, the Senate and, at times, the states and territories.
A prime minister’s lot is not an easy one. There’s not much point in right-of-centre critics railing against the Coalition on industrial relations reform if it cannot get this through the Senate. Or on border closures — since these are controlled by state and territory governments that also have responsibility for policing and health departments.
Some of the right-of-centre critics of Morrison have never worked in government and/or opposition. If they have, they seem to have forgotten about the limitations placed on our leaders, however ostensibly strong and popular.
These days both left and right groups within the Liberal Party look fondly on the prime ministership (the second time around) of Menzies, who led Australia from December 1949 to January 1966. The left forgets that Menzies attempted to ban the Communist Party, committed military forces to the Korean and Vietnam wars, and in 1965 introduced conscription for overseas service. The right ignores the fact Menzies was content to preside over a highly protected local industry and a highly regulated industrial relations system.
In his 1970 book The Defence of Australia, the anti-communist operative BA Santamaria was highly critical of Menzies’ alleged complacency concerning Australian defences in the 1950s and 60s. Within a few years, they were criticising the policies of others together over a whiskey or two. Nowadays Menzies and Santamaria are heroes of the centre-right.
Morrison is known to admire three former right-of-centre prime ministers: Joseph Lyons, who led the United Australia Party (the Liberal Party’s predecessor) in the 30s to three victories before dying in office; Menzies, who in his second term led the Coalition to seven elections before retiring; and John Howard, who won four elections before losing to Kevin Rudd in 2007. This trio won 12 elections out of 13 while governing well. They’re pretty good role models.
Sure, Morrison is a pragmatic politician — as were Lyons, Menzies and Howard. But he is also a thoughtful and committed one. Agree or disagree with Morrison, the beliefs that he laid down in his initial years in politics reveal a thoughtful and committed politician. They include his first parliamentary speech in February 2008 and his address to the Sydney Institute in December 2010.
Right now, the immediate task of the Morrison government is to govern well in leading Australia out of the economic consequence of the pandemic and to oversee the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.
If he succeeds, Morrison would have met McLean’s demand of four decades ago.