Scott Morrison is Australia’s our first full-term PM since John Howard

“I think the period of instability was exceptional and not likely to be repeated,” predicts Tiffen, professor emeritus in government and international relations at Sydney University. In the century to 2010, three Australian prime ministers were deposed by their own parties. From 2010 to 2018, the two parties combined deposed six prime ministers, including Kevin Rudd twice.

Prime Minister Scott Morison with his predecessor John Howard at a Liberal Party rally in 2019.

Prime Minister Scott Morison with his predecessor John Howard at a Liberal Party rally in 2019.Credit:Brook Mitchell

Australia became an international laughing stock for the crazed pace of prime ministericide, taking the title from Italy for the world’s fastest-spinning leader’s chair.

Unchecked, the life cycle of an Australian prime minister seemed destined to compete with that of the blowfly for brevity.

How did it happen that Morrison has not only survived longer than any of his four immediate predecessors, but also now enjoys the distinction of being the sixth longest-serving prime minister since World War Two? Of postwar prime ministers, only Bob Menzies, Bob Hawke, John Howard, Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating enjoyed longer rule than Morrison’s three years, five months and 26 days, measured to Saturday. Of the 30 prime ministers since federation, Morrison now ranks 13th for longevity in the post.

Both major parties have enacted rules to make it harder for leaders to be challenged during their terms. That is a recognition by the parties that they were self-harming in their orgiastic self-indulgence. Recognition that they needed to restrain themselves.

Loading

But while the rules are a recognition, they’re not necessarily a prohibition. The rules themselves can be changed by a party room vote. In the case of Labor, a simple majority of the party room can vote to change the rule. The rule that Morrison wrote for the Liberals sets a higher bar at two-thirds. That’d be difficult to clear, but not inconceivable if the two major factions could strike a deal. If an aspirant had the numbers, the rules would merely make a challenge a two-step process, requiring not much more than an extra hour.

Tiffen points out that Labor’s previous leader, Bill Shorten, was allowed two full terms unmolested. Anthony Albanese challenged him as the rules allowed, after an election loss. “Even at the state level it’s been a bit quieter,” limited to the dumping of opposition leaders who contested elections and lost.

“On the whole, winning elections gives the winner authority,” observes Tiffen. “What was unusual was the series of rebellions against successful leaders.”

Two other factors help explain Morrison’s hold on the leadership. One is the restraint shown by Frydenberg and Dutton. They have not destabilized their leader. They are content to compete for the post-Morrison leadership. The other is Morrison’s management of his party.

The standout achievement of internal management was to update the Coalition’s climate policy without being destroyed in the process. Climate and energy policy proved to be party-room poison for Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott.

Loading

When Morrison took the prime ministry, he inherited Abbott’s emissions targets – cutting Australian carbon emissions by 26 to 28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. This was roughly consistent with the US target under Barack Obama.

But the world had moved on and Morrison wanted to adjust Australia’s policy. He needed to make the government’s climate policy more presentable to an electorate increasingly impatient for action, especially in the Liberals’ affluent Sydney and Melbourne seats with highly climate-conscious constituents. The Liberals had lost Abbott’s seat, the once-safe Warringah, and Morrison did not want to lose any more.

Yet he needed to hold the climate denialists, led by Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, but also some other Nationals and carbon fundamentalists in the Liberals. Any change, no matter how minor, was fraught. Morrison did not touch the 26-28 per cent pledge, but he moved incrementally and carefully over the course of a year to add a commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

The antediluvians fumed and muttered dire threats. But Morrison managed to change the policy and survive. For a bloke who’d held a lump of coal aloft in the House and goaded Labor with “it’s coal, do not be afraid”, leading a highly volatile carbon-conflicted Coalition, it was a real achievement. It has helped nudge Australia’s decade-long climate wars closer to an end.

Loading

Of course, the policy change was wholly inadequate, both for the planetary need and the political. The Biden White House privately was furious, and remains so, at Morrison’s failure to move closer to the new US target of a 50 per cent cut by 2030. A senior official told me “we were looking to a close ally for support at Glasgow on a key policy and Morrison gave us just f — ing bullshit ”.

Likewise, the climate-concerned Liberal constituencies in seats like Josh Frydenberg’s Kooyong, Katie Allen’s Higgins, Dave Sharma’s Wentworth and Trent Zimmerman’s North Sydney are so frustrated that they are, like the earth itself, starting to overheat.

The NSW byelection in the seat formerly held by Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian held a direct portent for these federal Liberals. The swing against the Liberals in once-safe Willoughby last weekend is not yet finalized but looks to be 18 per cent or more.

When Malcolm Turnbull sought to make modest change to the government’s climate or energy policies, his party revolted and his leadership was terminated. No matter how inadequate Morrison’s change, he nonetheless managed to nudge the Coalition a little closer to sanity and hold his Coalition together. And keep his job.

Malcolm Turnbull and his then Treasurer Scott Morrison in 2018 when Morrison declared

Malcolm Turnbull and his then Treasurer Scott Morrison in 2018 when Morrison declared “this is my leader and I’m ambitious for him”.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Morrison’s command of his party’s loyalty has been fractured frequently. Last week it was the uprising by five Liberal MPs who crossed the floor to vote for stronger anti-discrimination protections for transgender students. This week it was the three Liberal MPs who spoke out to demand that Morrison commit to negotiating a bill for a workable anti-corruption body.

So the discipline has not been iron, more rubber, but however much it has stretched it has held. There has been no splinter party, the Coalition is intact, and Morrison will go to the election unchallenged.

Of course, there has been a price to pay for Morrison’s grip on his party. Apart from the inadequacy of the government’s climate policy. One heavy price of his survival is that he has sacrificed accountability and probity.

Loading

He has been determined to avoid sending failed ministers to the backbench. He wants no disgruntled ex-ministers fomenting unrest. The consequence is that there is too much failure.

Shockingly, Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck remains unabashed and in his post despite the two-year-long debacle of avoidable deaths in aged care homes.

Christian Porter chose to leave his post as attorney-general but still enjoys the benefit of a fund with up to $ 1 million in it from donors he says are anonymous. He calls it a blind trust, and that term might be technically correct, but it’s not what a blind trust is typically used for. That’s usually a vehicle for putting your own money out of your direct control to avoid conflicts of interest. What he has is more like a slush fund, even if the purposes it serves is legal.

So it’s been ugly, but it’s been effective. Congratulations, Prime Minister.

The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.

Leave a Comment