November 2018


Looking for Scott Morrison

By Sean Kelly
Image of Scott Morrison

© Dave Swift Photography / Newspix

The rise, duck and weave of Australia’s no-fault prime minister

Almost 20 years ago, a profile of Scott Morrison, tourism official, described him like this: “Hunkered behind his desk with a coffee mug clutched in two hands, he looks like almost any other bureaucrat confronted by a reporter armed with a tape recorder and a notebook – nervous. A former front-row forward, he is solidly built, has short brown hair, wears metal-frame glasses and looks young. How young, he will not say, owning only to being ‘in my 30s’.”

Morrison was 30, and his discretion was not limited to matters of age. Three years earlier, working in tourism but not yet for government, he had been equally cagey when asked about the just-televised closing ceremony for the Atlanta Games and its allusions to the next Olympic host city, Sydney. He praised the depiction of the Opera House. Then: “Asked about the giant kangaroos on bicycles, Mr Morrison paused before responding. ‘Kangaroos, they are always popular,’ he finally said.”

A few years later, he had moved closer to the centre of power, as NSW Liberal Party state director. During the 2003 state election, it fell to Lisa Carty, of the Illawarra Mercury, to inform him that a poster, intended to promote the Liberal candidate for Keira, had the “i” and the “e” in the wrong places. Morrison “greeted the news with stunned silence”, wrote Carty. “After several seconds, when prompted to speak, he said: ‘I am not about to say anything. I am not saying anything on the record.’ Clearly, he was not speaking off the record either, because he lapsed into another silence.” Finally, Morrison told Carty he’d call her back.

During the same campaign, The Australian reported that he had “displayed an almost paranoid concern about answering even basic questions”.

Later, as immigration minister under Tony Abbott, this tendency would be seen as a tactic to preserve secrecy around a controversial area of government policy. But the habit has been there all along – in government, it simply persisted.

Morrison scrapped the practice of his department announcing the arrival of each boat carrying asylum seekers. He replaced it with a weekly briefing. Then he scrapped the weekly briefing in favour of a weekly press release, depriving journalists of the chance to ask questions. But even when he had been in the habit of appearing, his refusal to answer questions about what he dubbed “on-water matters” had been notorious. Absurdist exchanges became expected:

JOURNALIST: But in terms of making a judgement, if those asylum seekers do come to Australia doesn’t that mean your “turn back the boats” policy is kind of …

MORRISON: Well, you’ve made a whole bunch of presumptions there which I’m not about to speculate on.

JOURNALIST: Well, maybe you can clear them up for us?

MORRISON: Well, you’re the one making the presumptions, not me.

The Nine Network’s political editor at the time, Laurie Oakes, described this “disgusting” attitude as Morrison giving journalists “the finger”, and said, “By doing that, you’re saying that you don’t care if the voters are informed or not.”

But “don’t care” implies indifference.

We may live in secular times, but there is a remnant of anointment in the ascension of prime ministers, the erasure of the past and the chance to start anew. Before, you were mortal; now, you are divine. What you did before hardly matters in these new, immortal days. Abbott had been in politics for 20 years and still there came the hope that he might be reborn as a statesmanlike prime minister, possessed of graces never previously glimpsed.

This is more true for Scott Morrison than for any recent leader. John Howard had also been in parliament two decades by the time he became prime minister. Kevin Rudd had been there only one, but had – like both Abbott and Howard – been Opposition leader, the second-most scrutinised job in the land. Julia Gillard, as deputy prime minister, had attained a seniority denied to every woman before her.

But it is not only in comparison that Morrison is unknown. In August, the day after he became prime minister, the Sunday Mail approached voters in Brisbane’s most marginal seat. Just four had heard of him. In September, Morrison, cameras trailing, stopped to shake the hand of a Geelong supporter outside the MCG. The man was confused: “What’s your name then?”

By the time our nation acquired this anonymous prime minister, he had been treasurer for three years. Most of us are unknown by omission: why would anybody outside our circles of friends, family and colleagues bother to find out who we are? Scott Morrison’s mystery is the result of assiduous work, achieved across a lifetime. If we do not know who Morrison is, it is not because he hasn’t been asked. It is because he has worked hard not to tell us.

Of course, the determination to avoid leaving traces is a trace itself. It tells observers that you are self-conscious, ambitious and careful. It suggests you are more aware than most about the stories that might be constructed around your public utterances, both now and in the future – and of the power those stories might have. It betrays an interest in doing what you can to control those constructions.

This is not an unusual instinct in a politician – but not all of them possess it so early or display it so consistently. The examples from before Morrison became immigration minister are minor, and could be easily overlooked – except that they remain, now, as early hints of the remarkably weightless career our prime minister has had.

If you have to leave traces – and no politician can avoid it, not altogether, not in these over-documented days – there is another option. You can sweep them away, then pretend they were never there.

Journalist Jane Cadzow once asked Morrison, then shadow minister for immigration, about accusations of scaremongering, following comments he had made about asylum seekers sick with typhoid and other communicable diseases. His answer was definitive: “I simply said that people turned up who had these conditions … I made no statement about the broader impact or risk.” But, as Cadzow pointed out, that was incorrect: he had explicitly warned of the risk of “an outbreak on Christmas Island or the transfer of these diseases to the mainland”.

In 2014, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young wrote to Morrison, by now the minister, with allegations that underage asylum seekers on Nauru had been forced to have sex in front of a guard, and that women were being told to strip in exchange for showers of longer than two minutes. A few days later he announced an independent inquiry, with a twist: the review would also look into accusations that the allegations had been concocted. Ten staff from Save the Children, he said, would be removed from Nauru. They were “employed to do a job, not to be political activists”, said Morrison in a written statement, repeated almost verbatim at his press conference. “Making false claims, and worse allegedly coaching self-harm and using children in protests is unacceptable.”

The later backdown by the department was comprehensive. As a result of the review process, compensation was paid. The staff should not have been removed. The department conceded that there had been “no reason to cause doubt to be cast” on Save the Children’s reputation.

When Morrison, by then treasurer, was asked about this damning reversal by the host of ABC’s Insiders, Barrie Cassidy, he was as definitive as he had been about typhoid: “I drew no conclusions on the material that had been presented to me at the time.”

Cassidy, in response, was just as clear: “Well, yes, you did.” Morrison said, “No, I didn’t, Barrie.” He told Cassidy to go back and check the transcript. Cassidy: “I have.” Morrison’s final line of defence was this: “I did the job that I had to do in that situation, just as I am doing the job now as treasurer …”

At first glance, this seems a bland statement of the sort to which we have become used to hearing from politicians. In fact, the rhetorical strategy is remarkable. As cleanly as with an axe, it cleaves the man from the job. We knew what the minister had done, but, we were told, that had nothing to do with the man who bore that title at the time.

Morrison has other techniques to remove himself from the frame. In December 2010, 48 asylum seekers died when their boat smashed into the rocks near Christmas Island. Two months later, on the day of the funerals, Morrison criticised the Gillard government for spending money flying survivors to Sydney, where their relatives were to be buried.

Morrison was attacked from all sides. He was quickly forced to admit that he had got it wrong – though he limited his regrets to the timing, which had been “insensitive”. He also said that he “didn’t seek to say that people should not be able to attend a funeral for their families”, though he clearly had.

Finally, six months later, he alighted on another explanation. The most important fact was that he had been channelling the sentiments of others, particularly two pensioners who had approached him in Cronulla Mall, the weekend before the funerals, to express their frustration that the government was spending money on asylum seekers, and not on them.

Emotions – other people’s – are central to grasping the way that Scott Morrison understands his job. He recently conceded he had been wrong to refuse a royal commission into banks. As with his comments on funerals, the problem was not one of substance, but of sensitivity. “Where I failed was to properly understand the real pain people had been feeling … What I didn’t do – and this is where I do regret – is that Australians needed to work through the deep hurt they’ve had on this.” On funerals, he erred in too eagerly expressing others’ sentiments. On banking, he erred in not expressing those sentiments eagerly enough.

Scott Morrison, in his own telling, is so often a mere observer. When reckless and false accusations have been made, it turns out Morrison has only presented the facts as presented to him; when offensive comments have been made, he has been only the dutiful messenger of the sentiments of others; in the rare cases he has made mistakes, they have been minor errors of timing. Events occur, but Morrison’s involvement is passive, tangential, almost accidental. He may be the minister, but he is not an instigator, only a vessel through which others’ bidding is done.

If you are Scott Morrison, it is even possible to become prime minister without any agency on your part.

Scott Morrison was not involved, he says, in taking down Tony Abbott in 2015. He voted for Abbott in the ballot; he even showed his ballot paper to others. But Abbott’s supporters accused Morrison of deliberately failing to direct his supporters to vote for Abbott. Morrison absolved himself: “They’re their own people and they make their own decisions.”

Turnbull won the vote, and made Morrison his treasurer. The new treasurer insisted the only person who had offered him the job before the ballot was Abbott, in a last-ditch act to save himself. But two months later Peter Hartcher reported in Fairfax papers that Turnbull had also offered Morrison the job, on the phone, months beforehand. Morrison confirmed the phone call, but denied that any offer had been made.

Scott Morrison was also not involved, he says, in taking down Malcolm Turnbull this year. On the day that he took over as prime minister, there were two ballots. The first was on whether to spill the Liberal leadership and open it to challengers. The vote succeeded, with 45 voting to spill and 40 voting against, and Turnbull stood down. The second vote was between Morrison, Peter Dutton – who had pushed for the spill – and Julie Bishop. In the final count, with Bishop eliminated early, Morrison won with 45 votes, with 40 for Dutton.

The question some are asking revolves around the two vote counts. If only 40 people were in Dutton’s corner, why did 45 people vote to spill the leadership?

The argument is that Morrison’s supporters must have voted with Dutton’s supporters to remove Turnbull, knowing they could then switch sides and combine with moderates to win the next vote for Morrison. One Morrison supporter tells me that’s exactly what happened, but sees no conspiracy: some MPs were done with Turnbull, but preferred Morrison over Dutton. I ask a conservative MP how long they believe Morrison himself had been involved in plans to unseat Turnbull. “Scott Morrison was involved for a long period of time.” The MP describes the moment that the vote numbers were read out in the party room. “The look on Malcolm Turnbull’s face said it all: ‘I’ve been played.’” But others insist Morrison was loyal. Craig Laundy, one of Turnbull’s strongest supporters, who is also close to Morrison, told me Morrison was “fighting the fight to make sure that Malcolm stayed right up until the fight was lost”. Morrison declined the opportunity to talk to The Monthly for this article.

Scott Morrison says he was also not involved in the efforts that led to his eventual preselection for the seat of Cook in 2007. The ballot originally went against him. Michael Towke received 82 votes. Morrison received a paltry 8. Almost immediately, stories began to appear in the press denigrating Towke, alleging he had lied on his nomination forms and paid membership fees in order to stack branches with supporters. Soon, Towke was disendorsed. A second preselection was held – an exceedingly rare event. Towke’s numbers went to Morrison, who this time emerged as the winner.

Former Labor senator Sam Dastyari says Liberal figures approached the NSW ALP at the time, looking for dirt on Towke. Dastyari says he helped provide material, which the Liberal figures then “weaponised”. He tells me, “They had to make it such a problem for Howard that Howard intervene[d]”. Dastyari is clear that the assistance was sought in order to get Morrison preselected.

Later, Towke began defamation proceedings against News Limited. The matter was settled out of court for $50,000 plus costs. One senior Liberal with connections to the area tells me there are some local party members who still vote informally at elections, because they cannot bring themselves to vote for Morrison. But nobody can produce evidence of his direct knowledge or involvement.

In the three most significant political moments of his life – Towke’s removal, Abbott’s removal and Turnbull’s removal – Scott Morrison says his involvement has been zero. Those who have claimed otherwise – and in each case there are those who claim otherwise – must be mistaken.

Scott Morrison looks a little like a friendly ogre. Like that young, nervous tourism official, he remains solidly built, but now his hair has thinned. Once brown, it is grey, and white. But he does not look old. He looks cheerfully indestructible.

He delivered his first speech as prime minister in Albury, from handwritten notes, with a handheld microphone. It was described by several journalists as preacher-like, in an allusion to his evangelical faith. To me, there is something of the kindergarten teacher in Morrison’s manner. He is constantly gesturing. “I’ve come to talk to you today about what’s in here” (points to his heart). “I don’t think that, for someone to get ahead in life, you’ve got to pull others down” (arm held straight out, palm angled down and slightly cupped, then swept downwards). “I believe that we should be trying to lift everybody up at once” (bends his knees a little and then raises his hand, palm up). One of his favourite Question Time routines is asking his MPs to put their hands up, like schoolchildren. Most do. Some seem too embarrassed.

It is there in his language. In that first speech he delivered the singsong “Who loves Australia? Everyone. We all love Australia. Of course we do. But do we love all Australians? That’s a different question, isn’t it? Do we love all Australians? We’ve got to.” He talked about non-Labor MPs being “in the grumps and the mopes” after an election loss in 1943. Proposing a day for Indigenous Australians, he said it was “not a day for being down in the mouth”. Australia Day should still be celebrated on January 26, while recognising “a few scars from some mistakes and things that you could have done better”. As a description of massacres it has been bettered.

This desire to wish away pain can be seen in Morrison’s apparent belief that it is possible to govern without creating conflict. “Why do you have to tax people more to tax others less? That’s not how you bring Australians together.” Asked about Labor’s plan for companies to publish the pay gap between men and women, Morrison said he would take a closer look, but “I want policies that bring Australians together, I don’t want to create tensions and anger and anxiety in the workplace.” He has in the past described the devastation of Indigenous people by colonisation – and yet, in defence of keeping Australia Day on January 26, he said, “We don’t have to have a fight about it, you can bring people together.” Like much of Morrison’s career, the move depends on erasure. We can all be winners, if we just agree not to talk about the losers.

Much fuss was created by the recent revelation that a metallic trophy is kept on display in the new prime minister’s office. It is in the shape of a boat and engraved with the words “I stopped these”. Morrison forcefully makes the case that his policies have saved lives. He is reported to have wept at news of the Christmas Island tragedy, and is proud of his success in preventing more deaths. But he is not blind to the consequences of his decisions: he has spoken of the “moral burdens” that attain to every option – including, presumably, the abuse of children and the suicides of long-term detainees. If he were oblivious, that would be of concern. But in its own way it is Morrison’s awareness that makes the trophy more disturbing. He possesses the ability to see the complexity – and then forget about it. This is why the trophy struck so many as graceless: it sliced away the sorrows of those our country had imprisoned, so that only one man’s sharp and glittering achievement remained.

One MP told me the party room had recently become a football change room, full of nicknames: “Lammo”, “Stevie”, “Stuey”. That reminded me of two other, separate comments. The first was from Morrison, who, in his own telling, recently said to the coach of the Cronulla Sharks, “Mate, I think I’ll take you down to Canberra and let you give the boys a bit of a rev-up …” The other was from someone in the NGO sector, who described to me their impression that Morrison lacked a sense of the seriousness of his actions, the feeling they got that “behind the scenes it’s all a game – we’re all just in a game”. There was an implied invitation to those who interacted with Morrison to join him in that approach, with no sense they might feel differently. This was the analogy the person used, taking care to make sure I did not think it was literal: “You know the old locker-room mentality where you’re all meant to be [in] on the misogynistic joke and you stand there going, ‘Well, fuck, I’m not like that’? … It’s like that.”

Both Turnbull and Gillard were forced to defend the idea they could understand the ordinary Australian – Turnbull because of his wealth, Gillard because she had no children. Both pointed out that no citizen could claim to have experienced the lives of every other citizen.

It is hard to imagine Morrison being asked the same question, so fully does he embody a traditional idea of what it is to be Australian. The Daily Telegraph described him as the “epitome of middle-Australia”. Bruce Baird, his second boss in tourism and his predecessor in the seat of Cook, describes to me Morrison’s ascent as an “Everyman-makes-it-to-PM type of deal”.

Family is important to him. He was brought up in Bronte, in a Presbyterian household, with his father, a police officer who also served as the mayor of Waverley, his mother, who worked in administration, his brother, and his great-aunt. His wife, Jenny, is several times described to me as “lovely”. He has two daughters, for whom he is immensely grateful, having spent more than a decade trying to conceive through IVF.

Both Jenny and Scott have spoken movingly about this. Jenny said it was “a really gruelling, awful time … Scott was always super busy so I think he filled his life with a lot of business because he really didn’t want to think about that at all.” Morrison has described the calls informing him another round had been unsuccessful: “the floor falls away”. Eventually, their “two beautiful, miracle children” were conceived naturally.

He is attached to his local area, Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, and, according to a 2016 Good Weekend article, has done a good job of keeping weekends for shopping, cooking, church, netball, football and family. He has been given, and accepted, tickets to see Keith Urban, Taylor Swift and Tina Arena. Someone who has known Morrison since his early career says, “That is Scott. He’s suburban. He’s proudly suburban … Aggressively suburban.”

He is passionate about the Cronulla Sharks. He watches most games, many of them at Shark Park, and is, the team’s chairman recently told The Sydney Morning Herald, focused and concentrated when he does. Recently, The Footy Show showed footage of the new PM easily sinking a field goal at his favourite ground.

None of these facts is in any doubt. Nor are we ever left in any doubt about them. Two years ago he talked about his attachment to the Shire: “Bronte wouldn’t feel like home to me today.” That may be true, but he was not talking about a distant memory: he and Jenny bought a bungalow in Bronte in 1995, and sold it in 2009.

In the hours before the Sharks were eliminated in this year’s NRL finals, Morrison tweeted a short video of 20 times he had professed his support for the team. He sometimes ends press appearances with “Go Sharks!” But the Sharks and the sport they play are also recent passions. Earlier he was a rugby union fan. He once described New Zealand as a “bit of a nirvana – in Sydney, rugby usually takes second place to the league”.

Morrison is open about these belated embraces. “I’ve been a fan for 10 years since I moved down here.” What stands out is not any attempt at trickery, but the slightly overeager need to convince others, the strained emphasis on these recently adopted traits as emblematic of his character. It is as though, with an election in sight, having done his best over a career to keep the outline of Scott Morrison free from clutter, the task of filling it in with clear, broad brushstrokes has now become urgent.

There is no doubt Morrison would be aware of this. He has spent much of his career in tourism, a job based around marketing. Before politics, he was best known for an ad campaign: “Where the bloody hell are you?” starring Lara Bingle. When Morrison was asked last month about plans to advertise a horse race on the sails of the Sydney Opera House, he said he didn’t see what the problem was: it was the biggest billboard in town. He is a performer from way back: as a child he appeared in television commercials and acted in a production of Oliver! with his father. One person who has known Morrison since the early days of his career says he is a “quintessential lobbyist, now lobbying on a wider stage … A professional campaigner, now campaigning for himself.”

The performance may be conscious, but that doesn’t mean it is confected. The same person concedes that when Morrison adopts a stance “he makes himself genuinely believe it … Because he can seemingly convince himself of things aggressively.”

If accurate, this might make sense of Morrison’s blunt assertions that he has not said things he has said and that he has played no role at all in events in which others believe he was central.

The prime minister is “not superstitious, but the fact that [my daughter] was born on the seventh of the seventh, 2007, I believe was not an accident. [I believe] that was a message to me about who’s in charge.”

The prime minister is clear that “the Bible is not a policy handbook”. But in his maiden speech to parliament he said that while his faith was personal “the implications are social”. He praised William Wilberforce and Desmond Tutu for “following the convictions of their faith”.

This refusal to pick a side and stick with it, and the insistence that it is possible to firmly believe two contradictory things at once, is everywhere in Morrison’s career. A few weeks ago he spoke proudly of his father’s success in opposing high-rises in Bronte. His first job was for the Property Council of Australia, which lobbies for developers. After a year working for one tourism organisation that was in fierce contest with another, he approached the head of the competition and asked for a job. Having spent a few years promoting Australian tourism, he moved to New Zealand to lure tourists there.

Bruce Baird was there on the famous night when Morrison appeared in the middle of a dinner for moderate Liberals. George Brandis was speaking. “George pointedly said, ‘So which dinner have you just come from?’ And everyone laughed, and most people guessed.” According to Liberal Party legend, Morrison had come straight from the conservatives’ dinner. One person who has known him for a long time, not an MP, says of the story that it’s “very Scott”.

I ask Baird about suggestions Morrison is a chameleon. “I’ve met chameleons, and he’s not one of those.” He also tells me that Morrison’s refusal to align himself with a faction is “obviously working for him quite well”.

This, surely, is the lesson of Morrison’s career. By avoiding taking a side, by insisting that option is open to others, too, by determinedly avoiding the sense you are responsible and the risk of fallout that accrues when you are, you can come out on top. And perhaps Morrison is just putting into practice the lessons from prime ministers who have come before him: don’t declare an issue “the great moral challenge of our generation”, don’t rule out a tax, don’t promise you won’t lead a party that isn’t as committed to something as you are. Instead, come up the middle, and tread lightly as you do.

He has spoken regularly about his Christianity, but when Jane Cadzow asked how this fit with his treatment of asylum seekers he told her, “How I reconcile that with my faith is, frankly, a matter for me.” What do we know of his political priorities? He says he is a “pragmatic” politician. His page on the Liberal Party website boasts he is “a proven fixer for difficult policy problems”, as pragmatic a conception of politics as can be imagined. Talking about racial division in 2014, he said, “I know that Australia, as an idea – as an ideology even – and as an experience, will overwhelm these divisions.” Australia as an ideology. As though the battle over that ideology is not what politics is so often about.

Is this, then, what Australians have always wanted? We are suspicious of all kinds of fundamentalists. We would not want a prime minister to act on all of their religious beliefs. Ideology makes us uneasy. But at the same time we expect our leaders to have convictions, and to carry them through. Give us a leader with firm beliefs, we cry. Only temper them a little, so as not to upset us. Which leads us to Scott Morrison: a prime minister who assures us he has beliefs, but who cannot be held to them, because he has not told us what they are. A conviction politician, conveniently free – at least publicly – from upsetting convictions.

In place of firm positions, Morrison offers us “authenticity”. A few weeks ago, the new prime minister told the parliament he needed to “demonstrate to Australians my authenticity”. His colleagues believe he is succeeding. Asked if the reasons for changing from Turnbull to Morrison were becoming clearer with time, frontbencher Alan Tudge told Sky News, “I just think that Scott is a very authentic individual.”

This is an odd, free-floating authenticity we are being asked to sign up to. What is Morrison authentic about? Which of his beliefs, precisely – given we have heard about so few – can we count on? Religion, certainly – and almost everybody I speak to stresses the sincerity of his faith – but he insists this does not determine his politics. So … the Shire and the Sharks?

And suddenly the belabouring of these two elements of his life comes into sharper focus. Leadership, as Morrison presents it to us, is not about belief but about sensibility. We don’t have to know what Morrison believes, because we know (because we have been told, again and again) who he is: a man who likes his footy and his suburb.

It is possible this will be enough. The MP Craig Laundy tells me Morrison is extremely comfortable in a public bar – and, as a former publican, Laundy says he would know. “If the people of Western Sydney in that public bar think you’re a fake, they’re going to work you out in 30 seconds.”

Still, this emphasis on the person, separate from belief – as though such a separation were possible – leaves an important question unanswered: what is the hill that Scott Morrison would die on?

His maiden speech – like most maiden speeches – contained few specific commitments. One stood out for the strong rhetoric the new MP used to make his case. Saying that overseas aid must be increased, he quoted Bono, lead singer of U2, on Africa: “when the history books are written, our age will be remembered for … what we did – or did not do to put the fire out …” In Morrison’s first budget, foreign aid was cut by $200 million. Morrison said it was Labor’s fault for blowing the surplus.

A later backdown attracted more attention. In 2017 he announced the Medicare levy would be increased to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Explaining the rise on the day after the budget, he warned his audience he might become emotional: “Forgive me as I try to get through this.” He went on to talk about Jenny’s brother, Gary, who suffers from multiple sclerosis: “I’m not saying no to Gary and the 500,000 Australians counting on this.”

A year later – after Labor had blocked efforts to impose the levy on people earning less than $87,000 – Morrison changed his mind. Now, he said, the strong economy meant the levy hike was no longer needed. His brother-in-law was happy about the change, he said. “I spoke to him last night and he is very pleased – Gary did not want to see people pay more taxes either.”

Of course, beliefs creep out.

Former High Court justice Michael Kirby recently wondered aloud whether Morrison’s injunction to “love all Australians” included LGBTIQ people. Asked about the discredited practice of “gay conversion therapy”, the prime minister said simply that it wasn’t an issue for him. But when a story appeared in The Daily Telegraph on teachers being trained to spot students who may be transgender, he decided that was an issue for him, tweeting about it, apparently seeking to provoke a national debate. Asked by Alan Jones whether a program teaching teens about different sexualities made his “skin curl”, he said, “It does, Alan,” before saying that was one of the reasons he sent his kids to an independent religious school.

Many politicians profess their belief in “the fair go”. Morrison has added a caveat: “A fair go for those who have a go.” Making the case for a tax cut, he told Neil Mitchell that small-business owners “deserve to get a go because they’re having a go”. This split between the deserving and the undeserving pops up regularly. In 2016 he divided the world into “the taxed and the taxed-nots”. This year he defended his decision to leave the Newstart Allowance where it was: “My priority is to give tax relief to people who are working and paying taxes.”

Accusations of a willingness to use race have dogged Morrison, but it is not at all clear-cut. He strongly denied, as did others, a report that he had urged fellow members of shadow cabinet to “appeal to deep voter concerns about Muslim immigration and ‘inability’ to integrate”. He has denied accounts of Irfan Yusuf, a Liberal candidate in 2001, who told me that Morrison had said, “We both hate Pauline Hanson … the best way to destroy someone like Pauline Hanson is to express policies that make us look like her.” He has denied any knowledge of race being used against his opponent in Cook, Michael Towke. Morrison’s friend Jamal Rifi, a Lebanese-born Australian doctor and community leader who has publicly disagreed with him at times, told Fairfax he believes “there is no racist bone in that man”. Morrison has trekked the Kokoda Track with Labor frontbencher Jason Clare and children of different religions as a “healing exercise”. At the height of the Adam Goodes racist booing controversy, Morrison backed the Indigenous AFL player, tweeting: “To paraphrase a great rugby phrase ‘go you Goodes thing’ and to quote Warren Mundine ‘stop the boos’.”

Scott Morrison has always been ambitious. His habit has been to take a new job and then quickly push for more territory. In his first term in parliament he told Liberal leader Brendan Nelson he wanted a frontbench job. “He’s always been a man in a hurry is my opinion of him, and he doesn’t really care who gets in his way,” says someone who knew him in his tourism days. These land-grabs sometimes end badly. Within a year of having arrived in New Zealand, Morrison had urged the tourism minister to take steps towards sacking members of his advisory board. Soon, the members were gone. Not long after that, so was the tourism minister. A few years on, in Australia, the karmic balance was restored when the board of Tourism Australia agreed to sack Morrison, after he clashed with the tourism minister, Fran Bailey.

Now that Morrison has all the territory he could want, does any of this matter? It is put to me that he might struggle to bring out the best in his team. Certainly Morrison is aware he can be headstrong: “I would say I am pretty determined if there is something I believe we need to do … One of the things I really hate is being proven right later.”

He has time on his side, in the opposite of the usual sense. Proximity to the election will focus minds. He is smart and capable. That is something on which most people agree, even those who are otherwise critical. It is clear that some find him pushy, even belligerent, but the word “personable” also keeps coming up. When I put these descriptions to a Morrison supporter, he says both are true. Uniting a divided party will be crucial. Liberal senator Eric Abetz, a conservative who backed Dutton for prime minister, described Morrison to me as “a genuine team leader who wants to embrace everyone in the parliamentary party”, who makes himself available to be seen and who “responds to text messages very quickly”.

However talented Morrison may be, a central question remains: can he – can anyone – sustain the even-handed, all-winners-no-losers approach all the way to the election?

So far, that appears to be his aim. The announcements he has made – mostly small-bore and practical – match exactly his presentation as a “fixer” with no clear ideology. He announced drought-relief measures, and increased penalties to ward off those tempted to put needles in strawberries. He has promoted announcements that often would be left to ministers: money for MRI scanners, the approval of a new medicine. His famous pragmatism has been on display. When a report into religious freedom leaked, Morrison failed to rule out new laws cementing the right of religious schools to expel gay kids. Under pressure, he then said he personally hated the idea that kids could be expelled under existing laws. Finally he said he’d stop any new laws, and change the existing laws as well.

The strategy might succeed. But what works on the way to becoming prime minister does not always help in doing the job itself.

The great risk for Morrison is that his frictionless approach is impossible for a prime minister to sustain. A minister may be able to find ways of avoiding responsibility, for a time. Soon, the nation’s attention moves on. But a prime minister cannot blame others for long. Nor can he please everybody, all of the time. Positions must be taken, sides chosen. Reversals can be personally damaging in a way they rarely are for those further down the pecking order. Statements are forensically checked. To take just one example: in a party that has recently torn itself apart on climate change, is it good enough for Morrison to simply declare, “I’m not a climate warrior one way or the other”? Morrison’s particular talent for avoiding traces might have helped him reach the prime ministership. It might not help him keep it.

In a few months, Scott Morrison will face an election. There is some chance he will win. If he loses, though, nobody will see it as his fault. He was handed a difficult job, apparently against his will, at almost the last minute. He has, in other words, managed to take the role at perhaps the only time that the fortunes of the party cannot be pinned on the person leading it. To become prime minister is a rare achievement – but to gain the prime ministership, and then lose it, with scarce involvement of your own? Impressive indeed – and very Scott.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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