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One year into his prime ministership – and on the back of deploying Australian maritime forces to the Middle East – Scott Morrison is trying to create an impression of a fresh, new government. By Karen Middleton.

Scott Morrison navigates first year as PM

Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, prior to an address to the Institute of Public Administration Australia at Parliament House on Monday.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Scott Morrison has been prime minister for exactly a year.

On Wednesday, almost 12 months to the hour since his political lieutenants were deployed to execute the double double-cross that would carry him into office, Morrison took one of the gravest steps a prime minister can. He announced Australian Defence personnel will be sent into a potential conflict on the other side of the world, again.

To make that announcement just as one of the biggest news stories in the world was breaking – the Victorian Court of Appeal’s judgement on Cardinal George Pell – and to deny the new military commitment the unimpeded focus it deserved was more than a little strange. But Morrison is an unorthodox operator. He made his name, not without controversy, by doing things his own way.

Year one of the Morrison government has delivered a surprise election victory, income tax cuts, moves towards religious freedom legislation and the promise of a budget surplus, against the backdrop of a slowing economy and simmering tension with China.

There have been fanfares and then friction in the Pacific, a dressing-down of the public service and now a new military commitment in the Middle East. But in terms of Australia’s future and any sketch for the direction of the nation, the Morrison government remains something of a blank page.

This week, in a television interview aired ahead of the anniversary, Morrison gave the most substantial indication to date of how he sees his role and what he wants for Australia.

“Both today and 20 years from now, I want Australians to be in control of their future,” Morrison told Channel Seven’s David Koch. “Now, the way that occurs is they have a job, that they live in a country where they’re respected, that they have access to the services they need that only come from a strong economy, that they can feel safe and secure both with their kids online or in terms of the bigger threats that Australia faces … That’s what sovereignty is. Sovereignty means you’re in control and Australians and Australia needs to be in control of its future as much as is humanly possible. And that’s what all our policy settings are designed to achieve.”

Morrison models himself on the longest-serving prime minister of the modern era, John Howard. His sentiments echo Howard’s own from an interview with the ABC’s Four Corners just weeks before he won office in 1996 – that his vision was for an Australia that was “comfortable and relaxed”.

Morrison told Koch he believed the 2019 election was about government getting out of the way and letting Australians make their own choices.

“When they’re in control of their own lives, then there’s a big smile on my face,” Morrison said. “We’re an optimistic people. We’re not a defeatist people. We’re not a whingeing people. We actually just deal with problems as they come and always believe we can make it better.”

He brushed aside a question about the vision thing.

“I’m not into the vanities of politics,” he said. “The real challenge of government is doing it every day and doing it against a set of values and beliefs that you believe are absolutely critical to the country’s future.”

He said Australians just wanted government “to be stable”.

He is undoubtedly right about that. But the policy settings of which Morrison spoke are, at present, few and far between.

If the prime minister knows where he wants to take the nation in a more specific sense, so far he’s not sharing.

And on what he is doing already – and why – he is not saying much either. In making his defence announcement, Morrison engaged in a practice those in the newspaper business describe as burying the lede.

“Good morning everyone,” he began at his Wednesday morning news conference, flanked by Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and the chief of the defence force, General Angus Campbell. “Tomorrow I’ll be travelling to Hanoi as part of my government’s continued engagement with our neighbours, partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific. Vietnam is one of the region’s economic success stories over the last decade and it reflects the significant steps it has taken to liberalise its economy.”

The prime minister took several minutes outlining his forward travel and schedule at the G7 meeting in France before he got to the point.

“One of the issues we’ll obviously be discussing is why I’m joined by the minister for defence and the CDF today,” he continued, explaining the government had become concerned about shipping “incidents” in the Strait of Hormuz and “destabilising behaviour” that could threaten the security of global sea lanes and Australia’s national interest as an oil customer. He avoided saying explicitly what he was talking about: Iran’s recent interference with commercial oil tankers.

Australia would, he told the nation, be joining the United States-led International Maritime Security Construct in the Middle East, described as an “enhancement” of its existing maritime patrolling commitments in the region. It would be “part of an international mission” that was “separate from any other matters in the region”.

Those statements are only partly true. The international mission involves just four participants thus far – the US, Britain, Bahrain and now Australia – and is actually intrinsically, if not officially, linked to those “other matters”. That is, US tensions with Iran.

Again, Morrison’s move here is reminiscent of Howard, who agreed in 2003 to join his British counterpart, Tony Blair, in backing then US president George W. Bush’s push into Iraq, citing Saddam Hussein’s ultimately non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

This week’s commitment, also made under significant pressure from the US and Britain, was described as “modest, meaningful and time-limited”.

Australian prime ministers regularly say that. But it rarely stays that way.

In part, the rationale for sending forces to the Strait of Hormuz is to avoid being asked to do something more, elsewhere – say, in the South China Sea.

The hope is that agreeing to this request will head off a trickier one. But history shows that when things go bad, the US always asks for more. That will hardly be less likely under Donald Trump.

 

In one respect, Scott Morrison has already succeeded where recent predecessors who seized the Australian prime ministership failed. Since the May election, he has created the impression of a Coalition government at its beginning, not one entering its seventh year in office.

That impression will be crucial to his chances of winning again.

Both Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull barely scraped back in at the elections that followed their elevation. Their governments were plagued by destabilisation and unmet expectations.

Kevin Rudd’s colleagues denied him a second term before voters had a chance to consider it, then returned him to office three years later in time to stack the furniture and turn off the lights.

On the numbers, Morrison’s election victory was hardly overwhelming either. But unlike these others, he exceeded expectations. His has been likened more to Paul Keating’s 1993 win. But after unexpectedly seeing off the Liberals’ John Hewson, Keating was spectacularly dispatched three years later in favour of John Howard, who would keep Labor out of power for four terms.

Thrilled though Morrison and his colleagues are to have emulated Keating’s impossible victory, they will be keen to avoid the rest of his trajectory.

These other leaders’ wins did not start the clocks again for their parties. They carried each one to defeat next time round. Morrison needs to break that pattern. Creating an impression of freshness is the first step.

Thus far, he has singled out several issues as priorities – most prominently the scourge of suicide, problems with the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the challenge to improve recycling.

But other bigger-picture issues risk dominating the rest of his government’s term. How will he navigate the volatility between the US and China? What of pressure from the global economy and climate change? There is the question of race relations and the status of Indigenous people. The future of retirement incomes. Stagnant wages and rising household cost pressures.

Many ordinary people feel they are going backwards in Australia. What is he going to do about that?

If Morrison wants to win the Coalition a fourth consecutive term, sooner or later he will have to show he has a plan to deliver the Australia he says he wants, explaining clearly not only where we are headed but also how we will get there.

Whatever tests he faces as he enters his second year, the challenge of re-election will hover above everything.

This week’s Newspoll, published on Monday, had both the Coalition’s vote and Morrison’s approval rating slipping slightly. Unlike Rudd, Gillard and Turnbull, though, Morrison does not face a post-election insurrection. How he manages issues such as religious freedom and the outspokenness of some of his conservative backbenchers will determine whether things stay that way.

Believing Australians don’t want to see the prime minister in their lounge rooms every night, he has succeeded thus far in dialling down the political volume, something that should help the quest for stability.

On those days in which the house of representatives has convened since he took office a year ago – just 43 in 365 – he has regularly handballed questions from the opposition to his ministers.

He can argue it gives them more autonomy. But when the prime minister is asked a question, the prime minister is expected to answer it. And ministers won’t appreciate being constantly called on to deal with the detritus.

It’s appropriate that it was Morrison who made the announcement about the new Middle East deployment of maritime forces, even if it took a few minutes to get to the point and a great deal of rhetorical effort to avoid saying what is actually going on.

The whole deployment is a reminder that as he approaches the middle of his term, there are rough seas ahead.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "Navigating leadership". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.