Inside Story

Have the times suited them?

How different a prime minister is Scott Morrison from John Howard, who won office a quarter-century ago?

Carol Johnson 2 March 2021 1108 words

Different times: Scott Morrison (centre) speaks to John Howard at the opening of the forty-sixth parliament on 2 July 2019. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

It’s exactly twenty-five years since the Howard government won office in March 1996. John Howard went on to become Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister and an almost unrivalled Liberal icon before his government was defeated in 2007. Looking back in 2021, it’s hard to resist comparing him with his eventual successor, Scott Morrison.

Morrison is sometimes depicted as a more transactional, flexible and opportunistic leader, reflecting his background in marketing, whereas Howard was generally seen as remarkably consistent in his views. Yet many of Morrison’s and Howard’s positions are surprisingly similar. As immigration minister, Morrison built on Howard’s resistance to asylum seekers arriving by boat. Howard had his “mainstream” Australians (often code for Anglo-Celts in traditional gender relationships); Morrison has his “quiet Australians,” the people who are not “shouty voices on the fringes telling us what we’re supposed to be angry and outraged about” but get on with working hard to support their families. Both Howard and Morrison attempted to appeal to a wide range of Australians, including traditional Labor voters.

The pair also share socially conservative beliefs. They both opposed marriage equality, with Morrison being one of the few parliamentarians who absented themselves from parliament when the legislation was passed following the postal vote survey. Howard’s Methodist background may seem more conventional than Morrison’s Pentecostal one, but both have been influenced by American conservative religious values rather than forms of Christianity that place more emphasis on “social justice” concerns.

But Morrison’s religious views often reflect more recent debates than those prevalent during the Howard era. Morrison has railed against “gender whisperers” seeking to raise transgender issues in schools. He has denounced gender-inclusive notices on toilet doors in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as “ridiculous” “political correctness.” The Morrison government might have been more supportive of facilitating equality for women than the Howard government but, like Howard, Morrison dismisses feminist critiques of government economic policy as divisive.

Morrison’s attitudes also reflect the apparent influence of the “prosperity gospel,” an American version of Christianity that sees wealth as a God-given reward and poverty as a penalty for the less deserving. Under Morrison, Howard’s mutual obligation requirements for unemployment benefit recipients have been reinforced by a “fair go for those who have a go” mantra. Morrison’s relatively early winding back of more generous Covid-19 related JobKeeper and JobSeeker benefits, along with the small size of the permanent increase to JobSeeker and its strict job search requirements, suggests that he retains his previous views.

Morrison’s attitude to welfare payments gel with his general economic views. Prior to the pandemic, his economic policy reflected a neoliberal, free market approach that was similar to John Howard’s. Both men see tax cuts for business as a way of stimulating economic growth, although Morrison advocates even greater challenges to Australia’s progressive income tax system (which requires those on higher incomes to pay a higher percentage of tax).

Nonetheless, there are significant differences between Morrison and Howard’s views as prime ministers, as well as between the challenges they face.

Clearly Covid-19 has contributed to major, though possibly temporary, shifts in Liberal Party economic orthodoxy. The role of government has grown, and so have budget deficits. But it is a sign of Howard’s stature within the party that Morrison consulted him about going massively into debt to tackle the economic impact of the pandemic. Both he and treasurer Josh Frydenberg were reassured by Howard’s agreement that “no ideological constraints” should be applied at such an unprecedented and dangerous time.

Some social attitudes have also changed since Howard’s day. Howard famously refused to apologise to the stolen generations of Indigenous children, for example, whereas Morrison recently gave an ungrudging apology that built on Kevin Rudd’s apology of thirteen years ago. But it remains to be seen how far the Morrison government will go towards reconciliation, with a clearer government position on Indigenous Voice proposals expected towards the middle of 2021, after the current consultation process.

It is often forgotten that differences also exist in relation to climate change. Despite his reservations about the arguments, Howard went to the 2007 election pledging to introduce an emissions trading scheme and thereby a price on carbon. By contrast, the Morrison government has been happy to suggest that Labor’s relatively modest climate change policies will destroy the economy and cost working-class jobs.

Howard and Morrison also face a very different era in international relations. Howard repeatedly argued that Australia could retain a predominantly Anglo-Celtic identity and values while maintaining good relations with its Asian trading partners. He also suggested that Australia would play a major role in facilitating good relations between China and the United States. A combination of Western-centrism and economic reductionism led to the widespread assumption that the West would remain economically dominant and that China would increasingly liberalise as its economy developed.

Instead we face major challenges to Western economies from Asian competition and an increasingly authoritarian and assertive China under president Xi Jinping. US tensions with China continue to rise. Australia–China trade, security and diplomatic relations are at a many-decades low, with major implications for the Australian economy.

The pandemic has also revealed serious problems in international supply chains and Australia’s manufacturing capacity, especially an overreliance on Chinese manufacturing and a lack of government support for Australian industry. Morrison has acknowledged a “sovereign capability” crisis and pledged to tackle it. But it isn’t clear how well his government will be able to do this, particularly given the Liberal Party’s traditional reservations regarding government intervention in the economy. Pro-business industrial relations reform is part of the package but Morrison is being more cautious than Howard was when he introduced his electorally costly WorkChoices legislation.

Even if managing the pandemic goes smoothly and vaccinations help bring Covid-19 under control, Morrison faces major challenges. Many workers and businesses will continue to feel the impact of the pandemic and will oppose moves to reduce government support in order to rein in government debt. Rebuilding a strong Australian economy will not be as simple as sometimes suggested. By contrast, the Howard government had the benefit of a major mining boom and a massive increase in government revenues.

So, despite some key similarities, Scott Morrison faces very different circumstances from those John Howard faced. Howard famously asserted that “the times will suit me,” and in many ways they did. Morrison is riding high in the polls and, despite the various scandals, is still the favourite to win the next election. But there’s no guarantee the times will continue to suit him. •