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Who is Scott Morrison?

Oct 7, 2019 • 15m24s

Scott Morrison shares a rhetorical lineage with Robert Menzies and a suburban one with John Howard. But what worked then might not work now.

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Who is Scott Morrison?

94 • Oct 7, 2019

Who is Scott Morrison?

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, This is 7am.
Scott Morrison shares a rhetorical lineage with Robert Menzies and a suburban one with John Howard. Like Menzies, he has no clear policy agenda. But, as Judith Brett points out, what worked in the post-war boom might not work now.

[Theme ends]

ELIZABETH:

So Judith, when Scott Morrison took over the leadership, I think there was this tendency not to take him terribly seriously. Sort of a narrative that he was an accidental Prime Minister, that he was keeping the seat warm before an electoral defeat predicted by all the published polls. But the more we see them, the more that Morrison reminds me and many others of the most professional politician of our generation - John Howard.

JUDITH:

Yes and no, I think is the answer to that. He’s got some obvious similarities in the way he presents himself as an ordinary suburban bloke, which is something famously that John Howard did to differentiate himself from Paul Keating who was much more cultured and collected French clocks and listened to classical music and you know, wasn't suburban at all.

Archival tape -- John Howard:

“And Australian Prime Ministers, if they're sensible, keep their feet on the ground and don't get too carried away with those things…. We just live a family existence in the burbs and there's nothing wrong with that, I mean it’s the best...”

JUDITH:

So there's that. And Morrison with his baseball cap is a sort of later version of the suburban bloke from Howard. Howard didn't wear baseball caps but he did wear those parachute silk tracksuits. [Laughs]

Archival tape -- Unidentified male reporter:

“And Australia's most famous cricket tragic Prime Minister Howard couldn't resist the temptation to roll the arm over while he's in Pakistan...”

Archival tape -- Unidentified male reporter:

“A group enthusiastic locals just couldn't resist the opportunity to test out Scomo’s sculling abilities… [singing: here’s to Scomo he’s true blue, he’s a piss pot through and through...]”

JUDITH:

So you know in terms of the type of man they present themselves as if with a family, married to childhood sweethearts, only one wife...

ELIZABETH:

Judith Brett is a professor of politics at La Trobe University. She’s the author of several books, including The Enigmatic Mr Deakin.

JUDITH:

And Morrison, he grew up in the suburbs, he likes sport, he doesn't show any interest in the high arts.

Archival tape -- Unidentified male:

“Well that’s enough from you. Let's bring in the number one ticket holder. The Prime Minister is here… He’s got the sports microphone…”

JUDITH:

And his father became a mayor and was on the local council so there's a notion of sort of community service there, in his background. But that doesn't mean he's ordinary. Because nobody who really achieves high office is ever your ordinary suburban Joe, you know, and that's a performance that he does. But in terms even of his hard work and commitment, he's not ordinary. And in his ambition.

ELIZABETH:

Hmm. So what about his approach to politics Morrison’s that is, how does his approach to politics fit in with what we know of Howard's approach now?

JUDITH:

Well I think Morrison's skill is marketing. I mean we saw the way in the way he marketed himself. We know that he can emote. He can work the room. He can make people feel engaged, make people feel he’s interested in them. What we don't know is whether he can think. We knew a lot more about what Howard believed and what his policy convictions were when he became Prime Minister than we know about Scott Morrison.

Howard had in a way prepared himself for the prime ministership when he was leader of the opposition had to distance it that by preparing documents - the first was Future Directions - which set out his understanding of what made the Australian nation, his particular take on multiculturalism, his take on Indigenous affairs and then once he became opposition leader again, before the ‘96 election he made a series of headland speeches in which he set out his beliefs. He was committed to tax reform, to bringing in indirect taxation and he was committed to industrial relations reform. That is was what he was in politics about. Now there's nothing comparable in Scott Morrison's recent background. There's no particular speeches, you don't see him seriously setting out what he thinks about the Australian nation, about multiculturalism, and nor do you have a sense of what his core policy commitments are.

ELIZABETH:

Which actually was on display at his campaign launch on Mother's Day of this year.

JUDITH:

Yeah.

ELIZABETH:

This kind of presentation on certain points and then a notable silence on a number of other points.

JUDITH:

Well the policy launch was odd because it didn't sound like a policy launch at all that seemed more like a sort of family celebration because everybody was given their first names. There was Josh and… you know I can't remember the names of all the others…

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Christopher has just started work up in Gladstone at Pearsell’s Engineering where his father has been an employee for many years, and Gav is just completing his apprenticeship as a fitter and turner…”

JUDITH:

But it was all you know and how good is he? And how good is that? And there was all of this sort of rallying.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“How good’s mum? How good’s Jenny?”

JUDITH:

But when he got to the actual policy announcements they were all fairly small beer stuff you know, a grant here and there. There was nothing that gave you a sense of a sort of an overall framework that they would use, apart from returning the budget to surplus.

ELIZABETH:

And what of Morrison's nationalism, how does that relate to Howard's nationalism?

JUDITH:

Well it just seems to me to be a much thinner nationalism. You know what do we hear Morrison say, we hear him say how good is Australia.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“How good is Australia? And how good are Australians?”

JUDITH:

Okay. Agree on that. And that's it. Whereas Howard had a view of the values that were core to Australia's success as a society and Australian identity. He talked a lot about practical mateship and our informality of manners.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

[MUSIC PLAYS]

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ELIZABETH:

Judith we're talking about the sort of politician that Scott Morrison is and I'm interested in where his rhetoric sits within the history of the Liberal Party, going back to Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People. Tell me about that speech...

JUDITH:

So it was a radio broadcast. Menzies had been Prime Minister at the beginning of the war. He'd lost the prime ministership. He was sitting on the backbench and he'd committed to doing a series of broadcasts in which essentially he was, at a personal level, trying to work out what his core values were, why he would stay in politics and he made this speech to the forgotten people, which was very much a pitch to the home-centred middle class of that period.

They were positioned below the idle rich, nobody ever wants to be identified with the idle rich, and in contrast to the organised working class... at that stage the working class is very unionised. Menzies was not hostile to trade unions but he said, “Look, the workers have got their political organisations and that's looking after their interests. But there's a large number of unorganised people working in small business or in small farms or whatever, who don't have political representation”, because at that point when he makes that speech there was no viable major non-Labor Party. And Menzies was on the way to forming the Liberal Party of Australia but he wasn't there yet. I mean he doesn't use the term again but the Liberal Party now sees it as a sort of foundational document.

ELIZABETH:

And how similar are Menzies “Forgotten People” and the group that Morrison calls the “Quiet Australians”?

JUDITH:

Morrison on election night said he thanked the quiet Australians and there seemed to then be a link between the quiet Australians at a rhetorical level, Howard's battlers who Howard also thanked and Menzies appeal to the forgotten people. And in all of those cases what you've got is the positioning of a bunch of people who government is ignoring in some way.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“To start a family. To buy a home. To work hard and provide the best you can for your kids to save for your retirement and to ensure that when you're in your retirement that you can enjoy it because you've worked hard for it. These are the quiet Australians who have won a great victory tonight…”

JUDITH:

I think there is a link, not so much just in the term of the quiet Australians but in the emphasis. Like in his other slogan, you know, ‘we give a go to those who have a go’, the way in which the Liberal Party's philosophy has always emphasised reward for effort. But the noisy minorities that Morrison is evoking are the people who are actually probably more interested in politics who take up various causes, who are upset about climate change, who are agitated about Australia's treatment of refugees, who are actually politically engaged. And it's like he's saying, there's all you quiet Australians who actually are not that interested in politics and I'll look after you and the noisy minorities the people who are... Menzies wasn't quite as disrespectful of people who were interested in politics as I think Morrison is.

ELIZABETH:

So Judith reading your piece I was interested to see Menzies using the rhetoric of lifters and leaners and that language has shifted so little in the time between Menzies and Morrison.

JUDITH:

There's this underlying tension about self-reliance and dependence. The self-reliant are always very pleased with themselves, but they are also always rather worried about recognising how much need there is in society. And it seems to me that there's a sort of complex psychological dynamic that underpins this tension between leaners and lifters, which is that if you're not careful, you're little hoard, you know that you stored up for yourself and your family will just disappear because of all the need that's out there in society. And you can see that in the way the rhetoric around asylum seekers, that somehow the slightest little chink of compassion is going to open this sort of floodgates of ‘the people smugglers will be back and it'll just be unstoppable’. And I think that that dynamic underpins some of the sort of anxiety that the Liberal Party can play on with this talk of leaners and lifters.

ELIZABETH:

Back to Morrison - do you think it's too early to say what kind of a Prime Minister he will be?

JUDITH:

Yes I do, I do. I think we have to...he has to bring down a budget, but we have to see whether there's some policies that come through, what he brings to the next election.

We don't know what his core policy is so now that being said, maybe it doesn't matter. If we go back to Robert Menzies, Menzies never had policy commitments, things that he was wanting to reform. He saw himself as managing the business of government well, according to sort of core commitments to the individual and to private enterprise, and to dealing with the crisis that arose with sort of common sense.

Menzies always said you know, well he's quoted as saying this might be apocryphal, “My policy is to have no policies.” That is to go with an open mind to things, to be in government, to make sure that labor doesn't get onto the Treasury benches because there's always this fear that Labor will spend and be irresponsible and doesn't understand the economy. Now that was a long time ago now. There's also from 1955 onwards, a post-war boom: unemployment levels of one per cent. Housing is cheap and affordable for people. People are feeling that they're more prosperous, there's full employment and they're getting cars, you know, he doesn't have to do anything. Yes, he manages this economy, but basically it's all going pretty well and he can preside over it. Whereas things are not going pretty well now.

[MUSIC STARTS]

JUDITH:

We've got an unemployment level that's at around five per cent and seems to be stuck. We've got unaffordable housing for a generation which is long term a real problem because of the pressures it's going to put on the aged care system. We've got environmental crises left right and centre, you know, problems over water, and we've got the challenge of climate change and we've got an unstable external environment. I mean at the moment it's sort of just holding together but it's not clear where things are going and so I don't think he's going to be able to get away with just sort of saying, “How good is Australia?”

ELIZABETH:

Judith Brett thank you for being here.

JUDITH:

Thank you for having me.

[MUSIC ENDS]

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

In Hong Kong, tension continues to rise, as special powers were enacted to ban protestors from wearing masks. The AFP reports that some in the protest movement were seen smashing the windows of Chinese-owned businesses. Reports also said one protester was shot by police at the weekend.

And in Iran, two Australian travel bloggers have been released from prison after being arrested in July for flying a drone close to a military installation. At the same time, an Iranian doctoral research student has been released from prison in Brisbane and will not be extradited to the US, where he was wanted for breaking sanctions. The attorney-general, Christian Porter, refused to say if this was a prisoner swap.

This is 7am, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, see you Tuesday.

Scott Morrison shares a rhetorical lineage with Robert Menzies and a suburban one with John Howard. Like Menzies, he has no clear policy agenda. But, as Judith Brett points out - what worked in the post-war boom might not work now.

Guest: Author and emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University Judith Brett.

Background reading:

John Howard’s heir in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of envelopeaudio.com.au text: Envelope Audio).

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94: Who is Scott Morrison?