MUNGO MacCALLUM. Scott Morrison, the opportunist.

May 20, 2019

History, declared Henry Ford, is bunk. And last Saturday, the Australian electorate agreed.

Rather than punishing the coalition punishment for nearly six years of civil war, policy inertia, dysfunction and backstabbing, the voters rewarded them. 

Scott Morrison, the opportunist who manoeuvred around the chaos until the chance came for the personal advantage he had always coveted, was rechristened as the great healer – the new Messiah. And his gospel became not hope and optimism, but fear and timidity.

Billy McMahon’s reply to Gough Whitlam’s “It’s Time.” was “Not Yet.”. In 1972 it was comprehensibly ridiculed. In 2019, it has become a triumphant mantra. Indeed, the times have changed.

The obvious winners are Morrison himself, who, like the man from Snowy River, alone and unassisted brought them back, and the hyperpartisans of the Murdoch media, who were shameless and relentless in their pursuit Bill Shorten.

And the obvious losers are Shorten, Labor and the opinion pollsters, who, if they have any decency, would retire to their libraries with loaded revolvers and prepare for a dignified end.

But perhaps the biggest loser is serious political debate. It is now clear that positive policies, developed and argued over many months – in some cases years – are simply not acceptable: too complex, too risky. The road to success is negativity, personal abuse and scare, whether or not it has any resemblance to truth.

If you like, you can blame Paul Keating as the great exemplar; he was the man who won the 1993 unlosable election by destroying John Hewson’s Fightback package. From there John Howard gave us children overboard, Tony Abbott the carbon tax and the invasion of the people smugglers, and Bill Shorten brought us up to date with Mediscare.

But this year ScoMo raised the stakes and lowered the level: his anti-campaign was not just about the terrible perils of Shorten’s policies, but overwhelmingly about the man himself – it was personal. And it worked: the lingering doubts about Shorten, the fear even among Labor supporters that he was carrying too much baggage and was too unpopular to be electable, came to fruition.

After three years in which the polls told us that a Labor victory was inevitable, the one that mattered went sour. Labor needed a mere net four seats to gain government; in the end they may have managed just one, while the coalition may win eight.

Labor did not win a single state and was wiped out in Queensland – it was almost a relief that the party already had so few seats to lose in the sunshine state and only dropped two. Two more in Tasmania ensured Morrison’s election, almost certainly in majority government.

It was, the ostentatious Episcopalian averred, a miracle, and his zealous co-religionists who had already hailed his leadership as an act of divine will, will no doubt agree that the Almighty has now intervened to officially anoint their chosen one.

Although He has also cast out the Mad Monk – Tony Abbott has finally left the parliament, if not the building. This is of course a bonus for Morrison – the perennial trouble maker, the great wrecker, is out, along with Malcolm Turnbull. Morrison still has to deal with Barnaby Joyce, but the Beetrooter’s plans for insurrection will have to be shelved – his boring leader, Michael McCormack, has held all the Nationals seats and increased their vote.

Morrison has plenty of clear air to revel in his unlikely supremacy. The question, of course, is what will he do with it. His policy agenda has been kept deliberately threadbare, in order not to distract from the central message – kill Bill, it’s him or me.

In winning he will be unassailable, but still vacuous: apart from the big tax reforms, most of which are still effectively on the never never, he won’t have a lot to talk about. This will not prevent him from making a lot of noise – nothing could do that. But it will mean that when he does get around to trying a modicum of legislation, he will have to move cautiously.

He can hardly claim a mandate for things he has not claimed and although the new senate will be a bit easier to manage than the old one, it will be no pushover. But the biggest problem could well be the one Tony Abbott ran into in the 2014 budget – big unscripted commitments, broken promises.

If Morrison foreshadowed any agenda at all, it was one of steady as she goes – not a time for change, no surprises, no risks. But even inside the ScoMo bubble, politics does not work like that. There are already challenges that have to be faced – despite all the sloganeering the economy is not strong and may not even deliver the mush vaunted surplus Morrison has already celebrated as done and dusted.

Action on climate change can be delayed indefinitely – that, after all, has been coalition policy for yonks; why break the habit of a lifetime? But wage stagnation is an urgent problem – if Morrison has any ideas apart from the long discredited trickle down theory, it will have to be addressed, and that will be contentious.

But the honeymoon will be an extended one, because the opposition will be shell-shocked for many weeks. First it will have to find a new leader, which will probably trigger a brawl in itself. The two most obvious contenders, Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek, are both from the left and will be factional rivals, and even if they can reach an accommodation the dominant right factions may jack up.

Their leading man would have been Chris Bowen, but as the architect of Labor’s failed reform plan, he is badly tarnished. Both Richard Marles and Jim Chalmers have been favourably mentioned in dispatches, but are virtually unknown to the general public – selling either would be a big ask.

And then there will be big policy issues to resolve – climate change may still be a plus for progressives, but it is clear Adani is poison: it was obviously a key to the Queensland debacle, infecting not only the seats in the north and west, but leeching into the outer suburbs of Brisbane Labor had hoped to win.

The paradigm has flipped: the last few years saw the constant brawling between the conservatives and moderates within the Liberal Party, now Labor is facing its own showdown between the progressives and the traditionalists. It will not be easy to resolve.

The world has not ended, and is not about to: life and politics will go on and in spite of ScoMo there will be changes. But for the moment, the slate has been wiped: history is bunk. So on to the future. And as Henry Ford also said, you can have any colour you want – as long as it is black..

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