Opinion

David Marr
Scott Morrison and the ‘strongman’ capitulations

Tony Abbott’s face as he emerged from the party room is the image I can’t get out of my head from the chaos of the past weeks. Defeat had done its work. He was pared back to the bone. His skin looked a mess and his eyes barely focused as he mouthed platitudes about saving the government he’d done his best to wreck.

As he loped away down the corridor I remembered an old, mad teacher who hung around my school with not much to do and no other life to go to. He was a pathetic and rather frightening creature, a man stuck in the past whom no one was brave enough to put out the door.

The Liberals have shown no more courage now than my school did back then. This could go on for years.

Never underestimate the magical thinking of Abbott and his allies in the Liberal rump. What are opinion polls to men and women who hope to take us back to the past, the Australia where everything worked – and might work again? Who cares that Essential and Ipsos and Newspoll have the government in the gutter?

The mission is going to take a long view and strength. The great claim of the Liberals who tore down Malcolm Turnbull is to be strong. They don’t shilly-shally like him. They don’t capitulate. Sure, the light of intelligence might not shine in Peter Dutton’s eyes. But look at that jaw.

In the days since the turmoil they’ve all been flexing their muscles. Abbott, Dutton and our new prime minister have all been boasting the determination they’ve shown stopping the boats. In their book, it’s the key to office.

Morrison in his victory speech invoked the great fair go, obeying the rules and deciding our own future, “We all want to be able to make our own choices in life. Whether it is about who comes to our country, as John Howard famously said, or what school you want your kids to go to…”

Out in the bush this week, Morrison told The Courier-Mail he’s going to beat the drought the way he beat the boats. I can’t wait for more news conferences like the ones he held in the old days. Generals will line the walls again but this time Morrison will be talking on paddock matters.

How embarrassing that a boatload of Vietnamese ran aground in the mouth of the Daintree River in the midst of all this posturing down south. Dutton blamed the navy and Border Force: “Clearly there’s been a failing when surveillance has not worked as it should.”

That’s obvious. But how come that boat set out for Australia? Isn’t the point of imprisoning a couple of thousand men, women and children out in the islands to deter any more making such journeys? How come that expensive brutality hasn’t, in the end, done its work?

There will be no change of heart here from Morrison. But a curious pattern has emerged from the shambles of the leadership challenge. The strongmen of the cabal that pulled Turnbull down want the party to cave on at least three issues where the old prime minister had shown modest courage: global warming, Catholic schools and Pauline Hanson.

The rhetoric of the plotters was all about strength and determination, but by now it’s becoming clear the real point of getting rid of Turnbull was to wave white flags.

Coal has had this cabal by the balls for a decade. Their weakness in the face of the miners has been pitiful. Compelling Turnbull to abandon his latest effort to deal with emissions was not enough. He was getting nowhere but he had to go because there was no trusting he wouldn’t somewhere down the track once again irritate the coal industry.

He had to go to cave in to the Catholic Church. Turnbull had shown real courage trying to end the sweet deals enjoyed by the Catholic school system. With the prestige of that church in this country at a historic low, this reform should not have been impossible to achieve. But the new prime minister has run up the white flag.

He told the press this week that Catholic school funding was one of several key issues he wanted to resolve quickly. A new education minister, Dan Tehan, is on the job. Morrison announced: “I hope to get a resolution before too long.”

A third capitulation is in the works, one that might tear the Coalition apart. Something has to be done about Pauline Hanson. “We are bleeding to the right,” declared Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. “There are a lot of people out there who are very, very concerned. Who are good Liberal voters, who want to stay with the government and vote Liberal, but they are very concerned.”

Crucial to the move against Turnbull was the Coalition disaster in Longman. Though Hanson was cruising the Irish Sea on the QEII, her vote in the seat almost doubled to 16 per cent. Most of those votes came from the Coalition. Anything like those numbers repeated at a general election would wipe out the government.

Coal and Catholics are nothing to the dangers posed by Hanson. Turnbull’s record with One Nation has been neither entirely squalid nor particularly impressive. Dog-whistling in Longman about African gangs and talk of cutting immigration numbers failed to hold the line.

So the cabal decided Turnbull had to go. Once the elite merchant banker with suspect leftie values was out of the way, the Coalition could shift into Hanson territory and shut down One Nation. Another white flag…

How Morrison will respond to these pressures is not yet clear. He must be aware of the dangers. Hanson has a lot to say on many subjects but in truth she runs a one-issue party: immigration. Shifting right to pick up her votes would mark a radical change for the Coalition, one it might not be able to survive.

Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University, who conducts the annual Scanlon Foundation surveys of attitudes to immigration, has broken down for me the latest figures to show attitudes according to voting intention.

These figures, which have not been published before, reveal a vast gap between Coalition and One Nation voters, between the mainstream and the distant right where Hanson is harvesting support. Here are four key findings.

On migrant numbers: 37 per cent of all Australians and 40 per cent of Coalition voters believe we take too many. The One Nation figure is 86 per cent.

On multiculturalism: only 13 per cent of all Australians and 14 per cent of Coalition voters doubt that multiculturalism has been good for Australia. The One Nation figure is 49 per cent.

On selecting migrants: 21 per cent of all Australians and 24 per cent of Coalition voters believe migrants should be rejected on the basis of religion. The One Nation figure is 60 per cent.

On attitudes to Muslims: 25 per cent of Australians generally and 32 per cent of Coalition voters admit to negative or very negative attitudes to Muslims. The One Nation figure is 63 per cent.

Political leaders of real strength would stop appeasing the woman and start contesting the myths she puts about. But that’s never been the Coalition way. Still, it is far from clear how the Liberals and Nationals – essentially middle-of-the-road parties – could move far enough into that toxic territory to blunt Hanson’s appeal.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbott has no plans to retire. “I regard myself as a young man,” he told Radio 2GB. He’s always had mentors – Catholic warrior B. A. Santamaria, broadcaster Alan Jones, former prime minister John Howard – and there’s a model to guide his tracks as he gazes into the future: Billy Hughes.

The Little Digger hung around parliament forever, a bitter figure causing trouble, shifting alliances, never losing hope that he might one day be prime minister again. He nearly made it back in 1939. But for a handful of votes he might have held a unique record: prime minister of the nation in both World War I and World War II.

He set a gold standard for Australian ex-prime ministers: an endless afterlife in a safe seat until death released him from his political toils at the age of 90. Who would not wish for Abbott a life as long: with us, hopeful and restless, until about 2047.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2018 as "Surrender is the right". Subscribe here.

David Marr
is a reporter, commentator and biographer.