Inside Story

The Morrison playbook

The prime minister’s style has proved effective so far, but does it contain the seeds of its own failure?

Rodney Tiffen 4 October 2019 2579 words

Unsubtle but effective? Prime minister Scott Morrison. Dan Himbrechts/AAP Image

More than a year into his prime ministership, and three months after his election triumph, Scott Morrison’s political style is becoming clearer. Barring a major economic shock or a military showdown, we now know quite a bit about the political mood he wants to create over the remainder of this term of government.

All prime ministers need to engage in agenda management and spin control, both to govern effectively and to maintain the political advantage. Increasingly though, politicking has been taking priority over governing, and Morrison’s prime ministership promises to be the apotheosis of this trend. Here are four strategies from the Morrison playbook.

Provoking fruitful confrontations

When Labor was fumbling for new directions after its election loss, talk turned to whether Anthony Albanese would try to narrow the differences between the opposition and the government. But any attempt to lower the partisan temperature was bound to fail for the simple reason that the government has a clear interest in magnifying differences rather than conceding similarities. Even if Labor agreed with all the Coalition’s policies except one, the prime minister would cast that remaining point of difference as “a test for Labor,” if not the makings of a national cataclysm.

We usually think of oppositions seeking to embarrass governments, but governments pursue oppositions with just as much zeal, keen to demonstrate to the public that they are irredeemably unelectable. All the evidence suggests that the search for opportunities like these will be a prominent feature of the Morrison government.

Secondary players have already become targets. Last month, Morrison launched an attack on GetUp!, accusing it of bullying Coalition candidates, lacking accountability and promoting the cause of Labor and the Greens. If the activist group wanted to be involved in politics, he said, it should set itself up as a political party. In fact, GetUp! is already registered as a “political campaigner” under the Electoral Act, and is subject to extensive regulation. The Australian Electoral Commission has inquired into its role and status on three occasions — most recently earlier this year — and in each case concluded the group was not associated with a political party. But no inquiry is likely to stop the Coalition seeking to portray GetUp! and its criticism of the government as illegitimate.

Unions — as always — are another target. After the election the government introduced the Ensuring Integrity Bill, designed — according to the Australian’s Ewin Hannan — “to give the Coalition more power to deregister unions, disqualify union officials, torpedo union mergers and reduce the multi-million-dollar revenue streams flowing to unions.” In a speech in Perth, Morrison made clear whom the real target was: “Labor can talk about banning John Setka from the ALP, which they still haven’t done. Australians know there’s plenty more union thugs where John Setka came from.” The government will be looking for opportunities not only to discredit unions but also to generate conflict with them, partly to keep Labor off balance and partly to keep the political contest on the government’s preferred terrain.

Morrison and his colleagues will also maintain the heat on national security — defined to include the threat from asylum seekers — which it calculates will create divisions within Labor and appeal to a sympathetic public constituency. Within weeks of the election, the Australian Federal Police took draconian steps to identify public servants who had leaked to the media, its raids clearly designed to draw lines, have a chilling effect on whistleblowers, and cast political dissent as treacherous.

Paradoxically, the government has an interest in cultivating and heightening conflict in order to portray itself as the custodian of national security. Like his political mentor, John Howard, Morrison uses terms like national interest or bipartisanship less out of a concern for security or harmony and more with the aim of wedging Labor.

Creating narrative-reinforcing diversions

Spin doctors know that if you allow a political vacuum to develop, your opponents will fill it. In this era of continuous campaigning and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, no government can dominate media coverage solely with its own decisions and actions; increasingly they use gestures to fill the void. A government like this one, with a very thin policy agenda of its own, will have an even greater need to create diversions.

In August energy minister Angus Taylor announced a parliamentary inquiry into nuclear energy, which several backbench MPs had recently been promoting. Not only is there very little prospect of a nuclear power industry emerging in Australia, we also already have plenty of information about its prospects and worldwide decline. Less than a year ago the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator concluded that nuclear power will be more expensive than all other forms of power generation for decades to come. According to economist John Quiggin, nuclear power would only become economic if a very substantial carbon price were introduced; even then, any nuclear power station would be at least two decades off.

Over the past six years Coalition governments have managed neither to contain electricity costs nor to cut emissions. Nuclear power is not a short- or even medium-term solution to either problem, but it performs the politically useful function of confusing the debate about renewables while painting a picture — plausible to some voters — of a forward-looking government.

The government’s proposed compulsory drug testing and cashless credit cards for welfare recipients are two other examples of diversions used to distract attention from more intractable problems. Newstart recipients who refuse a drug test will have their payments cancelled, and those who test positive will have to complete unspecified “treatment activities.” Drug abusers are a small fraction of the unemployed in general and of Newstart recipients in particular; these measures won’t significantly reduce either group, but they will reinforce narratives about undeserving welfare recipients and a tough government determined to cut down on waste.

Substituting truisms for evidence

Scott Morrison’s ability to project energy and optimism is probably one of the main reasons he won the election. He will continue to seek out opportunities to be cheerleader-in-chief, but inevitably he will also need to defuse difficult moments.

Morrison is a great deflector. He dismisses unwelcome lines of questioning by saying they reflect the arcane interests of people inside the Canberra bubble, that he is concentrating on matters much more important to the Australian people, or — less successfully — that he doesn’t respond to gossip. Interviewers find him hard to pin down. Turnbull engaged with questions, even if on his own terms; Abbott’s evasions were obvious and clumsy; Morrison is more agile.

Morrison is also an Abbott-style simplifier, but more adept at reframing questions to avoid being weighed down by unwelcome facts. “We all know the current system is not working,” he recently remarked about skills training. “The point is getting someone trained with a skill that someone else needs, and that’s the clarity I want to bring to what we plan to do in skills. I’d be happy to invest in skills but I’m not going to invest in dud projects that aren’t working. I’m not going to pour more money into a bottomless pit.”

Evident here is Morrison’s gift for talking about a problem as if it has just arisen. He doesn’t acknowledge what his government has or hasn’t done over the past six years, and he pays no attention to the very considerable policy work and expertise that exists inside and outside government. Rather than look at the evidence, he uses clichés that could apply to almost any government spending at any time.

Discussing the drug testing of Newstart recipients, he does not allow the uncertain evidence of its effectiveness to muddy the narrative. When critics of the scheme focused on its punitiveness and its stigmatising of Newstart recipients, Morrison deftly turned their point on its head: “I am really puzzled by the level of opposition to the government trying to tackle a problem of drug addiction for people who are not in work.”

The shift from considering evidence to reciting truisms is also found in his response to Greta Thunberg’s speech on climate change at the United Nations. Morrison didn’t attempt to argue about the science on global warming. Rather he seized on a study showing many children were anxious about climate change. “You know, I want children growing up in Australia to feel positive about their future,” he said. “And I think it’s important that we give them that confidence, that they will not only have a wonderful country and pristine environment to live in, but they’ll also have an economy that they can live in as well. So I think we’ve got to caution against raising the anxieties of children in our country.” Again he prefers noble sentiments, impossible to disagree with, over any consideration of evidence.

Asserting absolutist common sense

Just as he doesn’t like to get bogged down in detail, Scott Morrison is averse to weighing options. He prefers to talk as if no reasonable person could contemplate anything but the course he has embarked on — as if his side is all pro and the alternative is all con, and the choice is between common sense and absurdity. This absolutist rhetoric projects certainty and decisiveness, and aims to close down debate.

He criticises Labor for wanting to increase the Newstart allowance, for instance, denouncing its “unfunded compassion,” without acknowledging that government spending is always a matter of balancing priorities. Whenever questions about welfare or inequality arise, Morrison’s first instinct is to invoke a rhetoric of opportunity and reward: those who have a go will get a go; the best welfare is a job. This fundamentally rosy view — uncomplicated, reassuring, glossing over injustices — avoids confronting messy everyday realities.

Absolutism of this kind is most dramatically on display in the government’s attitude towards asylum seekers. It wants to reverse the medivac legislation, which the crossbench and Labor forced on to the government before the election, even though no adverse effects have become apparent.

Even when their views are clearly at odds with majority opinion, ministers are determined to maintain the hardest of lines. Morrison justified the decision to expel a Tamil family from Biloela, even though the local community wanted them to stay, by saying that the government must pursue the national interest rather than be guided by public sentiment. On other occasions, though, he appears to believe that public sentiment — the views of “quiet Australians” — is a great repository of wisdom.

Getting through the moment

Will the four-pronged playbook keep working?

So far, it has been remarkably effective. But there are no magic formulas in politics, and every approach has its risks. Spin is a self-diminishing resource; today’s success invites tomorrow’s cynicism. Morrison’s concentration is on the quick fix, on getting issues off the public agenda rather than considering substantive solutions. In awkward interviews, he is intent on getting through the moment, hoping that any contrary versions will only catch up later, if at all.

Last month, agriculture minister David Littleproud told parliament that Barnaby Joyce didn’t produce any reports during his period as special drought envoy. An indignant Joyce responded that he had sent many text messages directly to the prime minister. When Scott Morrison was quizzed about this on his return from America, he initially responded to a journalist’s question with: “Well, you said text message, not me, I said he wrote to us, he presented reports.” When told that it was Joyce who had referred to text messages, he immediately pivoted: “Well he did. And Barnaby is a master of all forms of communication. He spoke to me on the phone, he spoke to me in my office, he presented to cabinet, he wrote me letters about this issue, which is what I asked him to do, so it was a pretty comprehensive set of advice that we received it, and I was happy to receive it and it has informed much of what we have done.”

Few people would have felt reassured about the quantity and quality of Joyce’s work after this rhapsodic praise, but Morrison had got through an awkward moment with an upbeat message, and avoided any damaging admissions that might provide future targets.

During the election campaign, the government kept environment minister Melissa Price away from the media, afraid of what mistakes she might make. It was clear that she wouldn’t continue in that position after the election. When confronted, though, Morrison blithely asserted she would stay on as environment minister in the event of an election victory — and got through that moment. After the election, he said she had asked for a new challenge and was moved to the defence industry portfolio. In the after-glow of victory, he got through that moment too.

Much clumsier was his categorical denial that he had used the epithet “Shanghai Sam” to attack Sam Dastyari. Past TV news footage was immediately used to show otherwise. Then he made the excuse that he had misheard the question, which also stretched credibility. In itself, this trivial incident probably did him little damage. But his willingness to say whatever is necessary to get through an awkward moment is fraught with longer-term dangers.

In what may be an interesting indicator of what is to come, Labor has already changed tack on how to handle this tendency. Albanese initially banned his caucus from using the word “liar” when referring to Morrison and his government, but he himself recently charged the prime minister with being “loose with the truth.”

Further and more difficult tests of Morrison’s capacity to determine the agenda and control the spin almost certainly lie ahead. To mollify extremists within its ranks and cater to external constituencies, the government is likely to continue the culture wars.

On the basis of his religious beliefs, Morrison has adopted extremely conservative stances on a range of social issues, including marriage equality, and has chosen not to send his daughters to a public school because of the attitudes they might encounter there. These views are clearly very different from those of most Australians — and the Liberals are convinced that any attacks on his religion would backfire on Labor — but they might nevertheless lead him to act in politically damaging ways. The newly announced parliamentary review of the Family Court, for example, which will be chaired by conservative backbencher Kevin Andrews and One Nation’s Pauline Hanson, is almost certain to arouse passions that could deepen party divisions and highlight the conservatism of its key figures.

Of course, all governments risk fatal damage either from a major scandal or from an embarrassing policy imbroglio. Whether any scandals will gain traction is hard to predict, but it is already clear that global warming is going to be an area of continuing contention for this government. Climate change deniers, still prominent among its members and supporters, got through the election period with some simple but essentially dishonest claims about Australia’s Paris commitments, even though national emissions have not fallen. The knots in which the government ties itself in order to justify its inaction are likely to get ever tighter, and strong, well-informed external critics won’t disappear.

Labor underestimated Morrison’s marketing prowess before the election, and the media have often failed to hold him to account. His playbook may not be subtle, but so far it has been effective. •