Inside Story

Scott’s changing spots

The new PM will need to change tack for the third time in his political career

Peter Brent 24 August 2018 598 words

New PM Scott Morrison arrives for the fateful Liberal party-room meeting at Parliament House today. Sam Mooy/AAP Image

Scott Morrison entered parliament at the 2007 election, a former Liberal NSW branch director and one-time managing director of Tourism Australia. At the time he was suspected of being a bit of a bleeding heart, in a happy-clappy kind of way. In his maiden speech he called for more spending on foreign aid.

All that changed in 2009, when new opposition leader Tony Abbott made him shadow immigration minister, a position he embraced, rhetorical bells, whistles and all, with great enthusiasm. Soon he was calling for lower immigration, railing against boats, complaining about refugees not working. A Tough Guy. Highly disciplined and not averse to harsh language, he shot to the top ranks of Liberal leaders in waiting.

When it was leaked in 2011 that he had “urged the shadow cabinet to capitalise on the electorate’s growing concerns about ‘Muslim immigration,’ ‘Muslims in Australia’ and the ‘inability’ of Muslim migrants to integrate,” cynics suggested the leaker was none other than the shadow minister himself.

And then, in office from September 2013, after “stopping the boats” and maintaining the ferocious language, he became a fully fledged conservative rock star. It was reminiscent of Philip Ruddock receiving that standing ovation at the 2001 Liberal election launch after Tampa and “children overboard” — only more so.

His complicity in the 2015 Turnbull coup blotted his copybook with the conservatives, most spectacularly and publicly with Sydney radio boofhead Ray Hadley. Peter Dutton, his successor in immigration and then home affairs, proved even more partial to inflammatory language, taking a special interest in Africans, both here and abroad, and quickly took over his spot.

In today’s party-room vote, Morrison the loyal treasurer snuck through the middle as the candidate tolerable to, or at least preferable for, both the pro- and anti-Turnbull camps.

He has proved himself adept at manipulating party-room sentiment, but his efforts at wooing the electorate have not so far been spectacularly successful. All those hokey family-car-trip analogies, chortling about the footy. Like Dutton, he has languished on around 5 per cent as preferred Liberal leader.

But Morrison has changed his spots before, and can do it again.

In 2015 he reportedly contemplated throwing his hat into the ring, but declined to after consulting Peter Costello. Peter Dutton supporters insist there is more to their man than meets the eye, but that applies as much to Morrison. Anyone who believes it only occurred to him to run for the leadership on Wednesday or Thursday this week needs to have a rethink.

The fury from conservative media at their candidate Dutton’s defeat today will be something to behold, but because an election is just around the corner Morrison is safe until then. As ABC commentator Patricia Karvelas has noted, he can say his hands are clean and that he didn’t bring down the prime minister, that was others’ doing.

With low wage growth, a stubborn budget deficit and a difficult Senate, this will be a hard time to govern, and a hard time to win re-election. Still, you wouldn’t know it from the recent coverage (and the bizarre fuss made about a small swing in the Longman by-election), but the government has been competitive in the polls over recent months, right up until this week.

And Morrison faces Bill Shorten, who is looking shopworn.

He will doubtless downplay his time in Treasury and emphasise his record in Immigration. How far to the right he will go on climate change and immigration is hard to say.

We’ll no doubt soon meet the wife and kids. Football and road trips will be mentioned.

Bring on the honeymoon. ●