The Accidental Prime Minister
By Annika Smethurst | Hachette | $39.99 | 352 pages
Is Scott Morrison a Steven Bradbury or a John Gorton? The political journalist and author Annika Smethurst can’t seem to make up her mind.
John Gorton was famously plucked from the Senate to lead the Liberal Party when Harold Holt disappeared into the surf off Cheviot Beach. Country Party leader “Black Jack” McEwen had threat-ened to rend the Coalition in two if the job of prime minister went to his enemy Billy McMahon.
With his meat axe poised menacingly, McEwen ensured that Gorton — a classic compromise candidate — would win. Not surprisingly, the political historian Norman Abjorensen dubbed Gorton the “accidental prime minister.” In honour of this other famous compromise candidate, Annika Smethurst has called her newly published biography of Scott Morrison The Accidental Prime Minister.
But it’s not obvious to me that our current prime minister’s rise to the top job was a fluke — and strangely, given the title of her book, nor is it to Smethurst, who also employs another famous Australian career as a metaphor to explain Morrison’s rise.
Steven Bradbury is the speed skater who glided into Australian sporting history in 2002 when he came from last place to win Olympic gold after everyone else in the race famously hit the ice on the final turn. What’s often forgotten is that Bradbury’s unexpected moment of glory was based on years of hard graft, self-belief and shrewdness. By the time he got to Salt Lake City, the veteran skater was already a four-time Olympian and a bronze medallist.
As Smethurst writes, “Of course, Bradbury’s win in Salt Lake City wasn’t all circumstantial. Like Morrison he had earned a place among the final contenders and then positioned himself perfectly for when his competitors tumbled.”
Which is true. In politics, where many may plan but few succeed, the rise and rise of Scott Morrison has the look and smell of a long-term campaign — not some happy accident. Unlike Gorton, he wasn’t thrust into the Lodge as an instrument of another man’s revenge. Maybe Smethurst just couldn’t bring herself to call the book Doing a Bradbury: The Life and Times of Scott Morrison.
Young Scott was introduced to politics early on by his policeman father John Morrison, who was an independent alderman on Waverley Council. But Morrison wasn’t the kid who joins a political party as a teenager and then later gets involved in the vacuities of student politics at university.
He was a boofy young bloke from Sydney’s eastern suburbs who enjoyed rowing, rugby and performing in amateur stage musicals. Beside his parents, the biggest influence on young Scott wasn’t the Liberal Party — which he didn’t join until 1995, when he was twenty-seven — it was his religion.
Raised as a Presbyterian, Morrison joined the Christian Brethren church out of love: it was the place of worship favoured by Jenny Warren, his wife-to-be. The couple married young, and for a time they dreamed of travelling the world, studying the Bible, and saving souls as missionaries, until Morrison’s father put an end to the plan. “Dad wasn’t very keen on the idea,” Morrison later recalled. “He wanted me to go and get a job and look after my family.” Theology’s loss was the Liberal Party’s gain. Morrison and his family went on to worship at a Pentecostal church called Horizons in his southern Sydney electorate of Cook.
Smethurst takes the reader through Morrison’s pre-politics career and finds some enduring themes. “His male peers speak of a hardworking, down-to-earth man who is driven by outcomes,” she concludes after talking to many people who know Morrison. “But there are many people who loathe Morrison, and they are overwhelmingly women. Few feel confident speaking publicly, fearing blowback as Morrison is considered to have a glass jaw.” Smethurst doesn’t speculate about what lies behind this problem with women.
The Accidental Prime Minister is particularly good on these less well-known episodes in Scott Morrison’s life before politics. The other main theme Smethurst identifies from that period is the future PM’s ability to survive controversy.
As she details, when a job with New Zealand’s Office of Tourism ended in tears, he still managed to score a gig as the NSW Liberal Party’s state director. A few years later he was sacked from Tourism Australia by tourism minister, and fellow Liberal, Fran Bailey after a volcanic personality clash. Sometime after the sacking an obviously still bitter Bailey told the Financial Review, “All I’ll say is sometimes things work out in an organisation, and sometimes they don’t. In this case Scott Morrison didn’t work out.”
What did work out for Morrison was his bid to gain preselection for Cook, previously held by his mentor and friend Bruce Baird.
Despite support from Baird and prime minister John Howard, Morrison initially lost to a conservative Lebanese Christian from the party’s right named Michael Towke. But a campaign orchestrated via the media attacked Towke’s credibility as a candidate.
The ferocity of the attack led the Liberal Party to call for a second ballot, which Morrison ultimately won. Towke later sued the Daily Telegraph for defamation, and eventually reached an out-of-court settlement. But Morrison never looked back, and entered federal parliament at the 2007 election.
A bit over a decade later, on 24 August 2018, after proving himself in several roles, including treasurer, he came through the middle, like a political Steven Bradbury, and beat the more fancied Peter Dutton in a Liberal Party leadership ballot to become Australia’s thirtieth prime minister.
Annika Smethurst has had a stellar career in journalism. Besides winning two Walkley awards, she became a folk hero to the profession in June 2019 when the Australian Federal Police raided her home, looking for evidence to identify the whistle-blower who leaked information to her about government plans to spy on us. The Accidental Prime Minister is her first major book, with much new material on the PM’s rise.
But Smethurst hasn’t been served particularly well by her publishers; on many pages a sharp editorial pencil would have done a world of good. Publishing her book in hardback, with eight pages of well-chosen and interesting photos, but failing to ensure a good final edit seems like a false economy to me. The Accidental Prime Minister looks like a book designed for the Christmas market but rushed out earlier than planned to take account of a possible early election.
Smethurst finished the book while working full-time as the state political editor at the Age, so it’s understandable, but nevertheless frustrating, that the story is also incomplete. There is no mention, for example, of Morrison’s much-criticised quarantine policy. Phil Gaetjens, head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the man who always seems to be investigating something very slowly for Morrison, doesn’t rate a mention. Nor does the Ruby Princess fiasco. The book also barely mentions the tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas by the pandemic who the PM promised would be home by now.
Towards the end of her book, Smethurst quotes a “former long-serving Liberal minister” who tells her that public opinion is like wet cement. “When it sets there is nothing you can do to shift it. With Scott… I think the cement is still wet.” Smethurst agrees with this assessment and wisely warns the PM’s critics that being underestimated is Morrison’s political superpower.
Things haven’t improved for Morrison since The Accidental Prime Minister went off to the printer. Veteran press gallery reporter Dennis Atkins recently quoted a national pollster who does qualitative research with Australian voters: “They no longer give Morrison the benefit of the doubt and think he’s on the make all the time. They regard his motivations as self-interest and see him as a marketing guy who only ever wants to sell you something. For an increasing number of Australians, he’s worn out his welcome.”
If the cement of public opinion does finally set between now and the next election, could Morrison find himself under the slab? •