JACK WATERFORD. Are management and trustworthiness Morrison’s strong points? (Canberra Times 13.4.2019)

Apr 16, 2019

We do not get much sense of Morrison himself from what he has said or done, or what he has told us of why he is there. The ambition has been obvious, but for what and why? Nor is his history as an economic manager, Treasurer, or promoter of Australian growth so compelling that it makes his claim to greater competence (than Labor) or to having better small government principles a compelling one.

When John Howard said that the issue of the 2004 election was trust, he was being audacious. He was inverting one of his biggest problems, the fact that during the previous three years, a good many Australians had learnt not to believe a word he said.

It had started with lies over the children overboard affair in 2001. After that, he had seemed to have made mendacity the hallmark of his government. So why was he talking about trust, as if “cred” were not one of his biggest problems?

In 2004, Howard won the election with an enhanced majority, and effective control of the Senate. Now Scott Morrison, who was there as a party organisational official in 2004, wants to borrow from the same script and the same tactic.

 “And so the choice that is going to be made by Australians on the 18th of May is like it always is at every election, and that is, who do you trust to deliver that strong economy which your essential services rely on?“, he said when announcing the election date on Thursday.

Who do you trust to deliver the strong economy and the Budget management that these services can be funded, that the business that you work for will be there in three years, in five years, in 10 years? ”

John Howard had put it thus: “This election, ladies and gentlemen, will be about trust. Who do you trust to keep the economy strong, and protect family living standards? Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?”

That’s the way Howard initially phrased it. But he was not talking about whether people should believe what he said. Nor was he really talking about whether one could believe the statements of the Labor leader, Mark Latham.

He was not even necessarily talking about the capacity or competence of Labor to match his government’s management on the economy – although that was a theme he was hammering in other ways.

He was, rather, pitching at public doubts or uncertainty about the character and personality of Latham. Latham had been leader for less than a year, and, while he had made some advances in the parliament, was still not widely, or positively, known in the electorate.

Some of the things he said or did betrayed a temper under tight control, an underlying aggression towards others, whether of his own party, the opposition, or even people in the community such as taxi-drivers and former wives. He had a disconcerting chip on the shoulder.

Howard was asking whether this was the sort of person who ought to be leading Australia.

Did Australians have a feel for – an instinct about – how this bloke would act in a crisis?

If anything, the fear that many have about Shorten is that he may prove to be a Howard sort of leader: cautious, boring, fairly unadventurous, and almost incapable of inspiring.

We are six weeks out from an election and we don’t know what this man stands for,” he said. “We have no idea what he stands for.”

We had, by contrast, come to have a feel for Howard. He had been around forever. We mostly thought we had his measure. Or at least, we knew roughly his core ideas and moral base, and both the rational and emotional processes he would bring to his decision making.

We thought we “knew” him and knew “where he was coming from”. That did not necessarily mean that we liked him, let alone that we agreed with him, or that we believed him when he was in obvious prevarication mode. He was a politician, after all.

Yet for all of his flexibility, agility and innovation in making policy U-turns, or in reversing decisions he found he could not sell, there was a certain consistency and predictability in the man.

He might not have been inspirational – at times, indeed, he could seem boring and pedestrian – but he was a safe pair of hands in his party’s interest, and was too experienced and clever to lurch into serious misjudgment of the temper of the electorate.

Howard was asking the electorate to “trust their instinct” that he would not shock or surprise them. He was inviting it to wonder if Latham, on what we knew about him, had a similar calmness, predictability and a safe temperament. Was he the sort of leader to whom we would naturally turn in a crisis?

The electorate, wisely as we can all now see from how Latham later exploded, judged that it would prefer the devil they knew to one they didn’t.

The polls, and focus groups, suggested that the Howard government was regarded as a set of rascals, with some of its ministers not to be believed on statements of fact.

Howard, himself, had created a great fortress of deniability. Many in the electorate also sensed that the government, once full of ideological zeal and enthusiasm, had pretty much run out of ideas, and was just floating along.

From days when it had seemed frugal and prudent with public cash, closely focused on steering the economy, it had become lazy as revenue surged from the mining boom.

But alas for Morrison, Shorten is a very unconvincing Latham.

He has his weaknesses, including some public doubts about his character, but the coalition has failed to sell him as a rabid revolutionary, an essentially unknown quantity, or as a person with no discernible feel for leadership, for managing the economy or for responding to unpredictable events.

If anything, the fear that many have about Shorten is that he may prove to be a Howard sort of leader: cautious, boring, fairly unadventurous, and almost incapable of inspiring.

Few of his critics in the Labor Party, or among former Labor supporters now with the Greens, fear his radical instincts, but instead fear that he will lack the courage to do anything that affects settled and institutional interests. They do not worry that he will be hostage to the trade union movement, but that he will carry on with the trend of Labor industrial policies since Bob Hawke, through Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard of seeing the trade union movement of decreasing significance in public life.

They do not fear he will become a redistributor of wealth, or a man addicted to significantly higher taxes and public expenditure, so much as a middle-of-the-road economic manager anxious to avoid conflict with big business, big banks and the lobbies. The Right may pretend he will be a wolf; many on the other side expect he will be a lamb.

Yet even as opinion polls reveal continuing doubts about Shorten’s character, and a failure by some voters to warm to him, it has become obvious that he has earned their respect. It seems also obvious that he has retained the support and confidence of his party, including the support of an array of politicians, such as Anthony Albanese, who would stand for the leadership if there were a vacancy. The discipline and unity of Labor stands in sharp contrast to the perennial squabbling of the Liberals.

It is easy enough to enumerate Shorten’s faults, or reasons why some who want him as prime minister do not want him as their best friend. They have seen his treachery in action – first against Kevin Rudd and later against Gillard, and the slur persists that he often put his own personal interests ahead of his union members when he was a trade union leader.

Though he can give a rousing speech to workers from the back of a truck, and is often a surprisingly good off-the-cuff speaker, he is neither charismatic nor compelling, nor regarded as particularly wise or steeped in experience of human life.

Indeed, Shorten may well be seen as a more steady, stable and predictable person than any of the coalition leaders, given both the personality and ideological edge to six years of government disunity, as well as the seeming incapacity of whoever has been leader to describe any sort of vision other than keeping the economy humming along, with some hope of tax cuts in the sweet bye and bye.

If that is so, it may be that it is Morrison who is the unknown quality. If he has been around for a while, it has not necessarily been in ways that have made voters feel that they know him or trust him. As governments have fallen more and more into the hands of spinners and marketers, ministers have come to seem more artificial and inauthentic, addicted to following a script and usually terrified of demonstrating any human side.

Morrison, himself a former marketer, if not a particularly successful one, has always had problems seeming sincere or authentic, and many of his recent reinventions of himself, whether as the embarrassing uncle, the apparently plain-speaking man in an American baseball cap at the barby, the car rally or the footie game, are simply embarrassing, even among those of the demographics he is aping. He seems to have little feel for younger voters, including those who think that action on climate change is an urgent imperative.

Morrison pretends to be the real thing, but in perhaps the most important issue facing Australia – climate change – he can only speak evasion and weasel words. What does this tell us of his character and moral base? The quality and calibre of many politicians can often be judged by how they have behaved at some important crossroads or crisis of their lives. From such turning points, observers can often gauge a moral base, humanity, common sense and resilience – the skin a politician inhabits, the story or narrative about themselves that they project.

We do not get much sense of Morrison himself from what he has said or done, or what he has told us of why he is there. The ambition has been obvious, but for what and why? Nor is his history as an economic manager, Treasurer, or promoter of Australian growth so compelling that it makes his claim to greater competence (than Labor) or to having better small government principles a compelling one.

The coalition has been so debilitated by three leadership changes, as well as infighting over issues such as energy, tax reform, bank and financial systems probity, as well as by nagging doubts about probity that it is difficult to say that the coalition front bench is more competent, or even more experienced, than the opposition one.

That’s quite apart from an array of irregular decisions – doling out money to a miner’s club to save the barrier reef, or Aboriginal trust money to a fishermen’s club to oppose a native title claim, vast grants to monuments, circuses and re-enactments, boondoggling, pork-barrelling and other forms of chicanery in marginal electorates as well as frankly improper abuse of incumbency.

Who should you trust? Not many politicians, absent a fair dinkum corruption commission, greater transparency and enhanced accountability arrangements.

Whether for being better economic managers, more accurate purveyors of truth, or honest stewardship of public funds, it is not obvious that Morrison, or the coalition, has it all over the Labor party.

It is entitled to campaign on any issue that suits them – including their theory about better economic strategies. But they don’t start with more obviously good character to look after Australia’s future.

  • Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.

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