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Our 30th Prime Minister

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Our Prime Minister is not someone I have ever met. At 52 he's much too young! The last PMs I knew moderately well were Paul Keating and John Howard. Morrison has been PM since August 2018, though it seems that he has been there much longer. Perhaps that's because he's been around for some time. He was the state director of the Liberal Party in New South Wales twenty years ago. He made his way into the Parliament as the MP for Cook in NSW in 2007, and served as shadow minister shortly afterwards in a variety of portfolios. In 2013, after the election of the Coalition, he had a significant role in the design and implementation of the 'border protection' strategy, before becoming Minister for Social Services. When Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister Morrison replaced Joe Hockey as Treasurer.

So he was a senior Minister, with a strong record as a policy and practical leader over a wide range of portfolios, when Prime Minister Turnbull survived a challenge to his leadership from Peter Dutton but not a subsequent spill motion, which saw Morrison elected as a compromise candidate. If my memory still functions, his election as Liberal leader was something of a shock. He was not regarded as a 'true' leader, and it was expected that his reign would be a short one, ending in a Labor victory in the coming elections in 2019.

In fact, to some surprise, especially on the left, the Coalition actually increased its share of the vote in those elections, and it continues in power. And we have become very used to PM Scomo, partly because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has had him on television almost every day. He speaks well on television, and he has a pleasant smile. His background is not, so far as I can discern, out of the ministerial training ground, like so many others who worked for a minister, learned the tricks of the trade, and rose upwards that way. No, he worked in the tourism field, both in New Zealand and in Australia. And he did so, in senior roles, as a young man. So he caught the eyes and attention of those senior to him.


What sort of Prime Minister has he turned out to be? He has the good fortune to have benefited from the pandemic, which has overshadowed the work of Anthony Albanese, the Leader of the Opposition. It has proved quite difficult for Mr Albanese to do other than endorse the Government's strategies while putting in the Labor reminder that the poor and underprivileged need special care. Mr Morrison has agreed and said that was just what his Government was doing. The Prime Minister has also been able to stand as the national leader, commenting on what his State and Territory colleagues have been doing, or not doing. That has given him a special status, which again does not benefit Mr Albanese. It is not surprising then that the Morrison Government has held a handy lead over Labor in the opinion polls. Much can happen before the next election, due in 2022, including the possibility of a half-Senate election. But at the moment the Prime Minister and his Coalition team look comfortably ahead.

He has no great support from the other side of politics, despite what has been said above. He does have something of a tendency to blast out in anger or frustration when things do not go the way he wants them to. One example is his strong demand for an apology from China over a series of cartoons and doctored photographs, whose message was Australian lack of compassion for the real victims of the Afghan conflict. The Prime Minister's language was strong. He said that the Chinese Government should be 'totally ashamed'. 'Australia is seeking an apology from the ministry of foreign affairs, from the Chinese government, for this outrageous post. We are also seeking its removal immediately and have contacted Twitter.'

The PM might have reflected that the Chinese cartoons were for Chinese viewing, and would not be seen in Australia at all. And there is a certain lack of dignity involved when a national leader slams a lowly cartoonist in another country. Not only that, Australia is having a hard time dealing with the Chinese Government in the area of exports and imports. It is hardly in our own interest for our leader to be making that area of Australian relations any worse than it currently is. Why did he lash out as he did?

Morrison is presently a member of the Pentecostal Church, though he grew up as a Presbyterian. His religious views are certainly important to him, and he is not one who shies away from them. From his perspective, the Australian armed forces are honourable. What other country has held an inquiry into the behaviour of its own troops? Has China done so? The Brereton inquiry has had its impact, yes, and there's a lot more to happen in consequence. In my view a more sober response would have been more sensible, if any response at all were needed.

And there is an odd disjuncture between his religious views and his actions as a Minister. His Robodebt endeavour has caused a great deal of angst among those who were afflicted by it, while there is a lack of compassion between what he says and how he says it, with respect to those Afghans killed in the war. We all have disjunctions like that, but in his case, as someone put it to me, he adheres much more closely to the Old Testament than he does to the Gospels. Of course, he's not alone in that either.

So there he is, our 30th Prime Minister, bowling along quite successfully, I think, after both a surprising promotion to the Liberal leadership and an even more surprising election victory two and a half years ago. There are those who will argue that his victory in the leadership ballot was not a wholly clean one, and that he had, to a degree, let Malcolm Turnbull down (as, it is also alleged, he let Tony Abbott down in an earlier leadership election). I wasn't there, and can't comment. He is certainly not the only party leader who got the guernsey after a bit of shady work on the part of his colleagues and perhaps himself, to the surprise and no doubt annoyance on the part of the man whom he replaced. In his memoir Turnbull notes that he and others saw Morrison as 'brittle emotionally and easily offended'. You might see that characterisation in his furious response to the Chinese cartoon and doctored photographs. I'm not sure, and of course you need to work closely to a person to be able to form that kind of judgement. Those who want 'Climate Action NOW!' don't like him, because he once brought a lump of coal into the House of Representatives, and shows no real interest in calling for zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, not that that tells us anything. None of us will be then.


Nonetheless, he is an interesting man, and one we have become rather used to because of his frequent appearances on television. There are a couple of years to sit out before we will be able see what the electorate thinks about him and his leadership of the nation. We will have to wait and see, unless there is a surprising turn of events.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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