September 2019

Essays

Judith Brett

Howard’s Heir: On Scott Morrison and his suburban aspirations

Photograph by Stephen Dupont

How the PM’s ‘Quiet Australians’ echoes Howard’s battlers and Menzies’ ‘Forgotten People’

John Howard was the Liberal Party’s first suburban man. Now with Scott Morrison we have another. Howard etched the groove and Morrison has settled comfortably into it. He is, he tells us, just a normal guy, paying off an average-sized mortgage on a typical three-bedroom family home, with two young kids and a supportive loving wife, Jenny. They met when they were 12, married at 21, and still walk round holding hands. He was brought up by loving, community-minded parents, and he and Jenny are doing the same for their girls, just like millions of other families in Australia’s sprawling suburbs. And he loves his local footy team to boot. Nothing to see here.

Men who reach the top in politics are never just normal guys. They have above-average ambition for starters, thicker skins, and greater self-belief and will to power, as well as being much better paid than the average Joe. But compared with his immediate predecessors, Morrison does look normal. Tony Abbott was too weird and Malcolm Turnbull too rich to represent widely shared experiences. When Abbott told us how he and Margie would sit at the kitchen table to sort out the family budget, it just drew attention to how rarely we saw her, and we wondered how he fitted family life into his obsessive exercise regime. And we all knew there was no need to budget in the Turnbull household. Not only did Malcolm and Lucy have a harbourside mansion, but also an apartment in Manhattan where they went to re-centre themselves after he lost the leadership to Morrison last August. Retreat to his place down the coast would have kept him within representative range, but a bolthole in New York?

Howard, too, was more ordinary than his predecessors Andrew Peacock and Alexander Downer. Both were private-school educated, from upper-middle-class families, and had Liberal Party leadership in their genes. A relative of Peacock’s was Victoria’s premier, on and off, for five years, and a member of the state parliament for more than 40. Downer’s grandfather, John, was premier of South Australia, a founding Federation father and a senator in the first Commonwealth parliament. His father, also Alexander, was a member of Menzies’ cabinet and ended his political career as Australia’s high commissioner in London. Andrew and young Alex went into politics with high expectations of success, but both failed.

Howard’s family was Liberal, but not Liberal royalty. His father ran a service station and he went to Canterbury Boys’ High. Morrison’s father was a policeman and he went to Sydney Boys High. Both grew up in the Sydney suburbs, Howard in Earlwood and Morrison in Bronte, which, in the 1970s and ’80s, was not quite the super-rich neighbourhood it is today. Still, Morrison’s family was a notch above Howard’s and more actively involved in the local community. His father rose to be a police commander and was a member of the Waverley Council for 16 years, including a brief period as mayor.

Both Howard and Morrison clearly enjoy public life and seem never to tire of meeting and greeting. Bob Hawke had the same quality. It makes a politician very attractive. Bill Shorten tried, but he often looked as if he would rather be somewhere else. So did Turnbull. Extroverts have a natural advantage in political life, especially when they seem comfortable in their own skin, as Morrison does.

As party loyalty has declined, the popularity of the leader has become more important in determining electoral outcomes. Rusted-on supporters – those who vote Labor, Liberal or National in every election and in both houses – are now only 40 per cent of the electorate; in the late 1960s they were 70 per cent. Many people are not very interested in politics, but come election day they have to make a decision and some will base it on their judgement of the leader.

Liberal Party research since the election suggests that the Coalition victory swung on the votes of suburban working mums in the 35 to 54 age group with loose political alignments. In Victoria there was a massive 12-point shift in their votes since last year’s state election, which Labor won in a landslide.

Amanda Harrison, a teacher with two children aged 13 and 10, told The Australian’s Caroline Overington the day after the election that although she doesn’t always vote Liberal, “I looked at the Morrison family, and I thought: his family looks like us, a typical Australian family, wanting to get ahead … what’s been really interesting this last few days is how many other people there are, just like us. Waking up to look at the vote, I thought: oh, OK, we’re not wrong!”

Just like us. People hope that a political leader who shares their experience will be more likely to govern to advance their interests. This is why in the late 19th century working-class men switched their votes from middle-class friends of the workers to their peers, why farmers formed their own party in 1920, why feminists argue for more women in parliament, why there is a push for greater ethnic and racial diversity among parliamentary candidates. Our federal parliament is a long way from being a mirror of contemporary Australian society, but in positioning himself as a suburban family man, Morrison made himself recognisable to a huge swathe of loosely aligned voters. As well, Jenny, his wife, looked far more ordinary than the glamorous Chloe Shorten. Liberal strategists surmised that Jenny was a big factor in explaining Morrison’s success, with women seeing her as someone who would keep her husband in touch with the issues that matter to parents.

On election night, Morrison attributed victory to “the Quiet Australians”. Howard pitched his appeal, in his 1995 campaign document “The Australia I believe in”, to “the men and women of mainstream Australia whose political voice is too often muffled, or ignored”, battling to get ahead, or just to survive. Even further back are Robert Menzies’ “Forgotten People”, whose quiet, family-centred lives were being overlooked by a Labor government committed to postwar planning. At the time, Menzies’ 1942 radio broadcast did not have the political significance it has since acquired for the party he founded a few years later, and he never used the term “Forgotten People” again. In 1945, when he was working to form a new non-labour party, it was more important to set out its core beliefs in a philosophy and a party platform than to hone its rhetorical appeals. But now that the ideological identities of both major parties have blurred and voter alignment has loosened, constructing a distinctive rhetorical identity has become more urgent.

How similar are Morrison’s Quiet Australians to Howard’s battlers and Menzies’ Forgotten People? This question is about rhetoric as much as demography, about how Liberal leaders project their followers and the symbolic resources they draw on. Each is implicitly contrasted with noisy minorities who get all the attention. Quiet, ignored, forgotten: the message is the same. Also the same are their virtues as responsible people working hard to provide for their families, to “get ahead” and to secure their well-deserved retirement. A neat fit is posited between their economic virtues and aspirations and the Liberals’ promise of smaller government, lower taxes and careful economic management, which was on full display in the recent campaign. The re-elected Coalition, Morrison told jubilant Liberals on election night, would provide “A fair go for those who have a go”, for those who make a contribution and don’t just seek to take.

When pressed, Liberals accept the need for government-provided services, but they have always been more committed to equality of opportunity than equality of outcome. The praise for those who contribute implies the existence of others who are lazy takers. Menzies called them “leaners” in contrast to the “lifters” who keep society going. It is a core Liberal Party belief that individuals should be encouraged to look after themselves and then be rewarded for the effort.

It’s not just the self-congratulatory appeal of seeing oneself as a contributor that gives this pattern its power, but the anxieties it evokes: of the never-ending demands that the needy, with government as their agent, might make on the resources we’ve each marshalled to support ourselves and our families; Labor’s “tax-and-spend”, Bill Shorten’s hand in your pocket, taking.

During the election campaign, Morrison made no overt attacks on government-provided services. This would have opened him up to a Labor scare campaign, as well as reminding voters of Joe Hockey’s 2014 budget, which took an axe to government spending on health and pensions. Nor did Morrison indulge in demonising “dole bludgers” or asylum seekers. Instead, he projected a world of scarce resources, with individuals and families competing with each other to get ahead, and a modest tax refund to reward their effort. He made them anxious and uncertain about what life would be like under a Labor government.

Virtues come in sets. There are the virtues of being independent and looking after yourself; and there are the virtues of compassion and looking after others. We each strike a balance between the two, shuttling back and forth as we try not to be too hard and unforgiving yet also to protect ourselves from fraudsters who will play on our sympathy and get under our guard. Peter Dutton is the Coalition’s specialist in hard-heartedness, ever alert to the way asylum seekers might try to game the system: self-injuring to get medical evacuations, coming in the back door from New Zealand.

Morrison’s intransigence in the face of the pressure to increase the measly Newstart allowance, including from his own side, shows he is no softie either. Of course, the best way to get off Newstart is to get a job. But what if you can’t? Well, you’ll just have to wait until the government has achieved its promised surplus. Last month, Morrison attacked Labor’s proposal to increase Newstart as “unfunded empathy”, a clinical phrase that shows that when posited resources scarcity competes with compassion, scarcity wins. I say posited scarcity here, as the government has been able to find sufficient empathy to alter the deeming rate for pensioners.

Morrison’s Quiet Australians, Howard’s battlers and Menzies’ Forgotten People share a common heritage in the Liberal Party’s belief that individual effort is the basis of society rather than collective endeavour and institutions. But there are important differences. Howard and Menzies both worked their audience’s accumulated grievances harder than Morrison. In part this can be explained by the fact that both did so in opposition. Howard’s battlers in particular had a sharp sense of grievance built up after 13 years of Labor government, a recession and three years of instruction from prime minister Keating about how they needed to change.

In 1942, Menzies positioned his Forgotten People between the idle rich and the organised working class, and though he did not overtly demonise the latter, the speech did contain some pretty graphic negative images of the poor and uneducated in a society in which class was a major determinant of people’s life chances. By Howard’s time, class-based rhetoric had waned. After four decades of immigration, a sexual revolution, second-wave feminism, environmentalism and Indigenous Australians’ demands for justice and recognition, Australian politics was much more complex. Howard’s solution was to push all these new political demands aside and project an assimilationist nationalism, as in the slogan of his victorious 1996 election campaign, “For all of us”.

Howard’s take on the nation was clear in the policy document “Future Directions”, published in 1988 during his first, failed stint as party leader. Launched to a jingle with the repeated line “Son, you’re Australian, that’s enough for anyone to be”, it dismissed the relevance of identity politics – of political identifications smaller than the nation and larger than the family. It also worked hard to dismiss the growing demands of Indigenous Australians for recognition of their sovereignty and of the violence of their dispossession, asking how a nation could have a treaty with itself.

In 1988 Labor was still riding high on Bob Hawke’s popularity. “Future Directions” fell flat and Howard was replaced as leader by Andrew Peacock. When the party turned to Howard again in 1995, he set about turning the assimilationist nationalism of “Future Directions” into an election-winning strategy. In his “Headland” speeches, at Liberal Party conferences and as prime minister in Australia Day addresses – even in eulogies – Howard repeatedly extolled the virtues of the Australian character and way of life. Praising Australians’ practical mateship and open unpretentious character, he constructed a flexible vernacular nationalism of broad appeal. This was a major rhetorical triumph, giving the Liberal Party a language of social cohesion to mask its disruptive neoliberal economics. Compared with Howard’s elaborated view of the nation, Morrison’s nationalism seems more a matter of gesture than substance: “How good is Australia? How good are Australians?” Exactly what is it that is so good about us? Compared with Howard’s many speeches, Morrison hasn’t given us much detail.

On Indigenous Australians, though, Morrison’s thinking does seem very different from Howard’s. For a decade, from the mid 1980s until the defeat of the Keating government, some sort of reconciliation seemed possible between settler Australians and the descendants of those killed and dispossessed by the European invasion. Howard put paid to that. He refused to acknowledge the legality of prior ownership, the massacres and violence of the frontier, the truth of the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families. He dismantled Labor initiatives such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and stopped the reconciliation process in its tracks. Two decades later it is slowly beginning again, and Morrison looks much more sympathetic than Howard was.

Morrison gave his first speech as the member for Cook on February 14, 2008, the day after Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, which finally acknowledged the terrible suffering inflicted on Indigenous families by government policies of forced child removal. This suffering had been documented in “Bringing them Home”, the report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, which called for an official apology for these past government practices. The problem was that the report had been commissioned by Labor but delivered in 1997 when Howard was prime minister.

For more than 10 years, Howard had stubbornly refused to say sorry. Six Liberals left the chamber as his successor Rudd rose, and Peter Dutton abstained from the vote. The next day, Morrison made clear that he did not share the Howard era’s stance on Indigenous issues. He began by acknowledging the Gweagal clan of the Dharawal people of southern Sydney, proceeded to recognise the devastation of the Indigenous population by 200 years of shared ignorance and failed policies, and said he was pleased to join the parliamentary apology and hoped for true reconciliation. He did balance his recognition of the wrongs of Australia’s past with the need to celebrate our achievements, but the defensive denial of the Howard era was gone. Last year, in his speech at the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, Morrison spoke of the impact reading Kate Grenville’s The Secret River had had on him, how it had opened his eyes and changed his thinking.

Morrison has committed to some sort of recognition of Indigenous peoples in the Constitution, and he has appointed an Indigenous man, Ken Wyatt, as the minister for Indigenous affairs. But he has ruled out the Uluru statement’s call for a constitutionally enshrined First Nations’ voice to parliament. Turnbull’s ill-­considered and incorrect rejection of this as a third chamber of the parliament has stuck in the Coalition’s thinking. Despite the contrary opinions of prominent constitutional lawyers such as Anne Twomey, and retired High Court judges Robert French and Murray Gleeson, the issue now seems to be in the too-hard basket for Morrison, where, one suspects, many Coalition parliamentarians hope it will stay.

Unlike Howard, though, we know little about what Morrison thinks on a range of issues, and the few speeches he has made give few clues. Take his policy launch, made on Mother’s Day, the Sunday before the election. Full of first names, it was more like a speech at a family celebration than an address to the nation about the intentions of a government he hoped to lead. Of course this was his intention, to project the nation as a large family, all working together to get ahead, contributing, saving, loving and supporting each other. It all sounds very simple. Except that it isn’t. The nation is not a family, and the skills and experience one needs to run a suburban household or a regional small business are not sufficient to run the country. There are entrenched conflicts of interest to be managed, long chains of consequence from decisions, a complex international environment, institutions to be reformed, a faltering economy, a threatened planet.

Morrison’s exuberant suburban public persona, with his baseball cap and high fives, gives us few clues as to how he will manage the complex demands of office. He is good at messaging and at emoting, but is he good at thinking? We don’t really know. Does he have a policy agenda, reforms he entered politics to work for, like Howard did with tax and industrial relations reform? Probably not, and maybe it doesn’t matter. We have become so used to governments coming in promising to change things, that we have forgotten it wasn’t always like that.

Menzies never had much of a policy agenda. What he promised was that the Liberals would provide good government and would react to the crises that came their way with pragmatic common sense guided by their general philosophical preference for leaving solutions in the hands of individuals and private enterprise. The contrast was with the adventurous radicalism of the Labor Party and the penchant for top-down, government solutions. Instead of a detailed policy program, he offered himself, much as Morrison has done.

Menzies faced the dangers of the Cold War. Morrison must deal with an international order being destabilised by the rise of China as well as with the greatest danger humanity has ever faced: a climate heading fast for 3 degrees of warming or more. The Coalition government repeatedly promises that it will keep us safe. Terrorists are its favourite threats, justifying the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers as well as the ramping up of government security. Yet it is doing next to nothing about climate change. This is the looming crisis on Morrison’s watch and there is nothing yet to indicate that he realises how deadly serious it is.

One thing we do know about Morrison is that his faith is important to him, and, because there is so little else to go on, commentators have been looking there for the clues to his political beliefs. In these pages, James Boyce has wondered if Morrison believed in the Devil, and Erik Jensen called his recent Quarterly Essay on the election The Prosperity Gospel. In The Conversation, historian of religion Philip Almond argued that Morrison’s “have a go” philosophy sits squarely within Pentecostal prosperity theology, which is the view that belief in God leads to material wealth. But it also sits squarely within the traditions of the Liberal Party and its commitment to reward individual effort. To be sure, the party has deep roots in Protestant thinking, but we don’t need Pentecostalism to explain the emphasis Morrison gives to aspiration and material reward.

In a 2015 interview with Women’s Weekly, Morrison said that he was not particularly denominational but wanted to go to a local community church. He was brought up Presbyterian, then became Uniting, and he and Jenny are now members of the Pentecostal Horizon Church. Taking him at his word that he is non-denominational, which I take to mean non-doctrinal, perhaps he just wants to belong to a vibrant religious community.

The mainstream congregations – Uniting, Anglican, residual Presbyterian, Congregational and Baptist – are dying, along with their elderly members. If he and Jenny wanted to reproduce the social role the local church played in their youth, those institutions were not really an option. By contrast, the Horizon Church ministers to hundreds of families, with well-attended Sunday services and clubs and activities for all age ranges: midweek groups for young mums, Friday night youth clubs, social meals, study groups, camps and conferences. It is bigger and flashier than the local church that was the centre of my family’s suburban social world when I was growing up, and the music is different, but much looks familiar. Secularists often see only the beliefs in religious observance and miss the fellowship and social support churches can provide. Could it be that the heart of Morrison’s Christian faith is not dogma but the desire to be part of a community and the chance for an enthusiastic singalong? Perhaps, too, he values its detachment from politics. Morrison talks a lot about the “Canberra bubble”. We all need places to go to re-centre ourselves, perhaps politicians more than most.

I began with the similarity between Howard and Morrison as two suburban men. Let me end with a difference. Howard could be stubborn and defensive, but he never looked like a bully. Morrison sometimes does, with his chin thrust forward and mouth turned down, glowering. His election win has given him enormous authority and he has told backbenchers to desist from flying their pet policies in the media. Inevitably some won’t obey. Before the election, the ABC’s Leigh Sales asked him who would have the upper hand in any post-election conflict between Liberal Party moderates and conservatives. Morrison answered, “I will.” We’ll see.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting.

September 2019 edition cover

September 2019

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