The PM’s pitch: You might not like me, but you need me

By Matthew Knott

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison visits Cazalys Palmerston Club on Anzac Day.Credit:James Brickwood

As he reclines in the private compartment of the Royal Australian Air Force VIP jet, Scott Morrison’s blue tie sits rolled up on the window beside him. The top two buttons of his white business shirt are undone. The 30th prime minister of Australia is pondering the possibility of imminent defeat.

Traversing almost the entire length of Australia’s east coast, the flight from Cairns to Hobart offers a rare opportunity for reflection amid the cacophony of the election campaign. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have been invited on board for a wide-ranging one-on-one interview that stretches to 50 minutes.

Some recent Australian prime ministers, I suggest, appear to have struggled with the sudden loss of influence that accompanies the end of their time in office.

Whisky tipple: Prime Minister Scott Morrison visits the Lark Distillery in Hobart with the local Liberal candidate Susie Bower. Credit:James Brickwood

“I have noticed that,” Morrison says, adding he has tried to avoid criticising his predecessors since becoming prime minister in 2018.

So how would he cope with being rejected by Australians after leading the country through three seismic, challenging years – the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Summer bushfires, this year’s floods, the rise of an increasingly belligerent China?

While Morrison is campaigning relentlessly to be re-elected, he says he would not be a bitter loser (or a “miserable ghost”, in the words of predecessor Malcolm Turnbull).

“Perhaps politicians when they move on miss the power,” Morrison says. “Well if that’s why you went into it, you might. But if you went into it and got satisfaction out of the job because of your ability to make a difference, do the things you wanted to do and give it your best, well … you’re in a situation where you’re probably not as prone to that.”

I was prepared for Morrison to bat the question away, to say he wasn’t countenancing defeat. Instead, he channels Rudyard Kipling’s poem If (“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same”). The line is engraved above the entrance to Wimbledon’s centre court, a reminder to players to keep perspective about winning and losing.

“I suppose it goes to how I was brought up,” Morrison continues. “I got into politics through the example of my late father, who was a local mayor.”

As well as a senior police officer, John Morrison was a longtime local councillor, serving one term as mayor of Waverley in Sydney’s eastern suburbs in the mid-1980s. As a young boy in Bronte, Scott fielded calls from constituents and helped his father make campaign posters. It’s clear he still idolises his dad, who passed away in 2020.

“He wasn’t there because he wanted to wear the robes and chains or host the mayoral ball and all that sort of rubbish. He hated all that stuff … he just liked working in his community, he loved where he lived and trying to get better outcomes. That’s what he ingrained in me.”

Morrison proved the polls and betting markets spectacularly wrong in 2019, achieving a victory he famously described as a “miracle” in his election-night speech. Once again, the polls show him consistently behind. The numbers have barely shifted during the first four weeks of the campaign. “It’s obvious, of course we’re the underdog,” he says of his contest with Anthony Albanese and Labor.

Having defied the odds once, Morrison is relying on the same team of trusted advisers as at the last election. Travelling by his side is principal private secretary Yaron Finkelstein, a former chief executive of Liberal-aligned polling firm Crosby Textor. So is WA Liberal frontbencher Ben Morton and communications director Andrew Carswell. Liberal Party federal director Andrew Hirst is overseeing the campaign from Brisbane, as he did in 2019.

The difference between then and now is that Morrison is no longer a novelty to voters. He has significant achievements to point to: Australia’s globally low number of coronavirus deaths. An unemployment rate of 4 per cent. The AUKUS security pact.

But he’s weighed down by missteps made along the way. His holiday to Hawaii during the bushfires (“I don’t hold a hose”). The slow rollout of mRNA vaccines (“it’s not a race”). After a rebellion from moderate MPs, he was unable to deliver on a promise to legislate protections for religious discrimination. “I was devastated,” Morrison says of the bill’s failure. “It was a great disappointment to me.”

Scott Morrison attends a campaign rally at the RFDS hangar at Launceston Airport, in the Tasmanian seat of Lyons.Credit:James Brickwood

His integrity has come under attack by those who should be close allies. In leaked private text messages, former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian called him a “horrible person”; Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce labelled him a “a hypocrite and a liar”.

“The country doesn’t like Morrison and as a result they don’t like the character of the government,” one Liberal MP says. “He’s encircled by Labor, the teal independents, the reactionary right.”

Even surrounded by true believers, Morrison acknowledges he is not beloved. “You may not like everything we’ve done, you may not like me that much, but that’s not the point,” he told a Liberal rally in Tasmania last Saturday. Or phrased another way: “When you go to the dentist, it doesn’t matter whether you like him or her. You want to know they’re good at their job.”

He insists he doesn’t take his negative approval ratings personally. “This has been the most gruelling set of circumstances our country has seen since the Second World War and the Great Depression. The country has done it tough and so as a result they’re going to have a lot of feelings about what they’ve been through over the past three years.”

At the height of the pandemic, incumbency was an enormous electoral advantage – just ask state premiers Mark McGowan and Annastacia Palaszczuk, who were returned with thumping majorities. History shows, however, that voter gratitude can quickly dissipate once a crisis has receded. To travel around Australia today is to see a country that has left the COVID-19 era behind remarkably quickly. The pervasive sense of fear is gone, along with widespread mask-wearing and QR check-ins.

“Am I happy people don’t know how bad things could have been? Yeah I am,” Morrison says. “I wanted to save them from that. We were looking into the abyss both from an economic and a health standpoint. We were seeing what was happening in Italy, the mass graves in New York, the tented morgues on the plains in the UK. This could all have happened in Australia.”

Scott Morrison pulls a beer and meets the patrons at the Cazalys Palmerston Club near Darwin on Anzac Day.Credit:James Brickwood

Morrison’s political hero Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th US president, famously said it was not the critic who counts but “the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood”. It’s a mentality Morrison wants Australians to take when they step into the voting booth in two weeks: “An incumbent has been doing things. An incumbent has been making decisions, and having to deal with the world and the domestic challenges. Oppositions don’t have to do any of that.”

With the Coalition in its 10th year in office, his job now is to convince voters he is a leader for the future, not a man of the past.

Cheers and jeers

It’s 11am on Anzac Day and the schooners are flowing freely at Cazalys Palmerston Club on the outskirts of Darwin. A troupe of kilt-wearing musicians are blasting bagpipes and pounding drums. Already bustling, the tavern is now jam-packed after the arrival of the 30-odd photographers, camera operators and reporters trailing the Morrison campaign.

A common complaint from the travelling media pack is that we are shuttled from one stage-managed photo opportunity to another, rarely given a chance to observe the prime minister in spontaneous encounters with voters. That’s not the case today.

Enjoying a drink together, Palmerston locals Bill Swan and Rick Halls look like old mates. It turns out they’ve only just met and have different political views.

Rick Halls and Bill Swan, from Palmerston in the NT, talk politics.Credit:James Brickwood

“ScoMo, he’s a lying prick,” says Swan, a retired timber industry and waterfront worker, as he nurses a beer. He thinks Morrison has failed to do enough on climate change and desperately wants to see him booted from office. “I hope he doesn’t come and try to shake my hand because I’ll deny him.”

Halls, who worked for almost four decades in the defence industry, is hardly effusive. Sipping on a shiraz, he says: “He’s a bit of a waffler, he’s not the best. I’d rather Howard ran another time.” But, convinced a Labor government would tank the economy, he’ll be voting for the Coalition.

Seated at an adjacent table, swing-voting stevedore Jonathan Merington offers a sentiment I hear about Morrison many times on the campaign trail: give the poor bloke a break. “It’s been difficult times, it can’t have been easy. He’s alright. Let’s stick with what we know.”

When Morrison enters the pub, sozzled punters start yelling out “do a shoey ScoMo” and “shout the bar”. Environments like this can be risky: last month a furious pensioner heckled Morrison during a visit to a pub in the Hunter. Today’s reception, to the relief of the prime minister’s advisers, is far more welcoming.

Centrelink recipient Sheridan Scott, 33, rushes up to Morrison and asks for a selfie. “I’m a little starstruck,” she says, adding she doesn’t take much interest in politics. “I like him, he’s a normal person.”

Liberal MP Warren Entsch says such a response is common in his marginal far north Queensland seat of Leichhardt. “He’s been up here three times in the past couple of months and been very well-received,” Entsch says. It’s why Labor and Liberal strategists think it’s possible not a single Queensland seat will change hands on election night.

Asked what people may misunderstand about Morrison, the free-speaking backbencher says the prime minister does not push his socially conservative views on others. Entsch was a leading advocate of same-sex marriage and Morrison an opponent. “He never judged me or held it against me,” he says.

For both the Coalition and Labor, the ultimate campaigning goal each day is to win the nightly television news battle. Footage of Morrison pouring beers and flipping the first round in two-up makes for classic TV fodder; it’s the same a few days later when he does a lap of a speedway near Devonport. Even so, there’s growing cynicism about the artificial nature of electioneering. “I know you enjoy campaigning, but do you ever get sick of those silly photo opportunities?” talkback host Neil Mitchell asked Morrison during an interview this week.

The Morrison campaign is disciplined and spritely, often squeezing in three events a day. These are typically paired with micro-targeted pork barrel promises that get little national attention but receive big coverage in the local media: $24 million to upgrade the Cairns maritime precinct, $4.5 million for a whisky distillery in the marginal Tasmanian electorate of Lyons.

“They want to create the image of energy, activity, momentum,” a Liberal MP says. “He thinks it makes it harder for people to talk about yesterday’s issues if he’s a busy bee today.”

“Energy, activity, momentum”: Visiting Latrobe Speedway in the marginal Tasmanian seat of Braddon.Credit:James Brickwood

The problem for Morrison is that real-world events keep puncturing the campaign bubble. In week two it’s the signing of the China-Solomon Islands security pact; week three, the higher than expected inflation number; week four, an interest rate hike.

There were also the inflammatory tweets by the Liberal candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves, in which she described transgender people as “surgically mutilated and sterilised”. Morrison stuck by the candidate, rejecting calls by prominent moderate Liberals to disendorse her. “Of course the things she said were insensitive and she has acknowledged that,” he says. “But are we really going to have a society where people who want to learn from their mistakes get relegated forever?”

He believes Australians are increasingly hesitant to speak their minds about controversial issues because they’re afraid of being judged and labelled. “People tend to just clam up, and I don’t think that’s a very healthy way … I think we could give people a bit more room, so people don’t have to feel always so anxious about everything.”

Morrison has made important policy announcements during the campaign, like cutting the price of subsidised medicines and expanding access to the seniors’ healthcare card. But some in his party despair at the absence of a long-term reform agenda. “People are asking what Albanese will do, but what will you get with Morrison?” one Liberal MP says.

“The government has a lack of policy ambition,” says another insider. “There’s more of a desire to be in government and be a manager than achieve anything in particular.”

Asked on the campaign trail what he wants to achieve over the next three years, Morrison runs through a lengthy list. “The investments we’re making in manufacturing. The investments we’re making in keeping taxes low. The investments we’re making in supporting apprenticeships and education and training, and reforming that … The investments we’re putting in our defence forces and setting out the upgrades of our major bases and major procurements.

“That’s my vision,” he says.

Having once waved a lump of coal in parliament, Morrison is proud of convincing the Coalition party room to support a 2050 net zero emissions target. “I said this is about the economic growth of our regions and our economy. I want us to be the lead energy exporter for the next generation of energy.”

But divisions remain: earlier in the week Queensland Nationals senator Matt Canavan declared the net zero goal “dead”.

The campaign stops during my week on the trail are overwhelmingly blokey and blue-collar. We visit so many factories and refineries I regret not bringing my own high-vis vest along. The focus is the regions and suburban areas. We don’t venture anywhere near inner-city seats such as North Sydney or Kooyong, where Liberal moderates are under siege from independents and Morrison is deeply unpopular.

Over recent decades, centre-left parties around the world, including the ALP, have struggled to hold on to their more socially conservative, working-class base while appealing to educated, progressive city voters. The same phenomenon appears to be happening to the Coalition this election, but in reverse. Is Morrison prepared to sacrifice previously safe Liberal seats in affluent electorates to pick up new ones in the suburbs and regions?

“I don’t see it as a trade-off at all,” he objects. “The need for a strong economy is as important in Bondi or Kirribilli as it is in Alice Springs or in Gladstone.”

He adds: “People in my own electorate understand that our national wealth isn’t all created in Sydney. I think there are some parts of our cities where they think that.”

In a speech to the chamber of commerce in Rockhampton, however, it’s clear which voters Morrison is courting. He says he has watched in alarm over recent decades as metropolises like New York and Washington pulled away from the American heartland not just economically but socially and culturally.

“Many rural people and European communities feel a similar disconnect in the wake of decades of industrialisation and a drift of people to the big cities. They feel looked down on, spoken down to. Their jobs and lifestyles derided or seen as somehow unsophisticated.”

Fears of polarisation: Speaking at the Rockhampton Leagues Club in the seat of Capricornia.Credit:James Brickwood

It’s a thought-provoking speech. A blatantly political one too. Morrison is trying to tap into a sense of grievance about snobby, inner-city greenies telling people in other parts of the country what they can say and do. If Labor is elected, he says he worries not just for the economic health of the regions but their way of life. “I fear for a growing polarisation between the regions and rural areas of our country and our cities.”

Morrison becomes especially animated when I ask about establishing a national integrity commission. Labor, the Greens and the teal independents are campaigning hard on the issue, convinced it’s a vote winner. “I understand the interest there is in this, I understand why people want it,” Morrison says. “But I also know that if you get it wrong it could cause a lot of damage. A lot of damage.”

He coins a striking new phrase to describe what would happen if public servants are given too much power to scrutinise government decision-making. “It wouldn’t be Australia anymore if that was the case, it would be some kind of public autocracy.”

Searching for rhythm

Whenever he gets spare time from campaigning, Morrison seeks out a local lap pool. Usually swimming around 1500 metres at a time, it’s a way to decompress, to savour a moment where no one can reach him.

“It’s a meditative space. You just have to focus on straightforward things: the lengthening of your stroke, your breathing. I don’t go very fast, but once I’m in my rhythm I can just go and go and go.”

He tries to be back in Sydney each Saturday night to cook a curry with wife Jenny and his daughters. Usually travelling again early the next morning, he will stream his local Pentecostal church’s Sunday service on his iPad while on the plane.

Offering Coalition MPs hope that they could squeak out another victory is the fact Morrison’s opponent has even lower approval ratings and has stumbled in the campaign’s glare.

“I admire and respect Anthony’s life and his beginnings,” Morrison says. “He’s risen to be leader of the Labor Party from a very humble background. His life is very different to mine; we’ve had very different journeys.”

That’s where the compliments end. “He defined his entire public life as fighting Tories. I’ve never thought about public life like that.”

Accusing Albanese of jettisoning his left-wing beliefs to win power, he says: “The reason I think that’s dangerous [is] because when you find yourself where I’ve been over the past three years, you can’t be confused about these things. You need to know who you are, what you’re about, how you govern and what drives you … You can’t pretend in that environment. You have to be who you are.”

As his advisers wind up the interview, I offer Morrison the floor. I’ve quizzed him on an array of topics. What else does he think readers really need to know about him?

He returns to emphasise a point he made earlier in our discussion: “I don’t believe government can solve all the problems, I never have.”

Morrison plays a game of pool at a retirement village in Mount Duneed in the seat of Corangamite. Credit:James Brickwood

During the pandemic Morrison often described himself as a pragmatist and a problem-solver. He spoke of leaving ideology at the door as his government pumped out unprecedented sums of money to keep households and businesses afloat. Now he’s emphasising the importance of limited government. After two years of being told what to do by politicians and bureaucrats, his intuition is that Australians want a little less state intervention in their lives.

“What’s the difference between us and Labor?” he asks. “I just don’t have the same faith and belief in government. I have a greater faith in Australians and their families and communities. As a Liberal, and a Liberal leader, that’s at the centre of my thinking.”

He knows defeat on May 21 is entirely possible, but so is another upset victory. He has recent history, and his faith, to draw upon: “My beliefs know that there is never any shortage of miracles.”

Cut through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

Most Viewed in Politics

Source: Read Full Article