With consumer confidence low and faith in politicians even lower, voters have cause to view incoming Treasurer Scott Morrison with some suspicion. Does he have the credentials to lead the nation to greater prosperity?
The first step in answering that question is to note that formal qualifications in economics don’t count for a lot in this respect.
As economist Saul Eslake points out, “the two best treasurers of recent years, Peter Costello and Paul Keating, had no formal qualifications in economics”, but one of the worst, Jim Cairns in the Whitlam government, had a PhD in the subject.
Eslake, along with several other economists and former politicians, identifies the core skills as being able to get across the detail of complex issues, to develop coherent policy and to communicate an equally coherent narrative to the voting public.
John Hewson, another economics PhD and former Liberal leader, told The New Daily: “When Andrew Peacock led the Liberal Party people argued that he could never be prime minister because he had no economic qualifications. Then they told me that I was unsuitable to be prime minister because I did!”
Hewson’s view of Morrison is optimistic. He is working with a prime minister who has a deep and abiding interest in economics. Perhaps just as importantly, Morrison will be part of a cabinet run by Arthur Sinodinos – legendary for running a tight ship during the Howard government years.
Sinodinos’s role, says Hewson, is to make sure the entire cabinet knows what the message is, so that PM, Treasurer, and senior ministers don’t end up contradicting themselves or each other.
Outgoing Treasurer Joe Hockey’s early attempts to master the portfolio were bumpy to say the least.
In late 2010, for instance, he found himself defending his ‘nine-point plan’ to increase bank reform, after his leader, Tony Abbott, failed to endorse the plan three times in one morning.
Speculation at the time was that Abbott did not understand the plan or could not agree on what was partly a populist attempt to out-do Labor bank-bashing following some surprise rate hikes from the big banks.
Tellingly, given what has just transpired in federal politics, it was Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop who stood up in shadow cabinet to protest that bank-bashing was not a good look for their party.
In those same weeks, Hockey copped plenty of flak for saying that the government should use “levers” to influence the rate setting of the Reserve Bank – loose comments he later stepped away from.
The independence of the Reserve Bank was a hard-won reform that began under Paul Keating, but it was not fully achieved until Peter Costello’s reign. Suggesting the achievement be undermined was a clear gaffe, but at least Hockey was in opposition at the time.
Morrison will not have that benefit. He will have to digest acres of briefing papers from Treasury and Finance on-the-fly, listen to a range of sometimes conflicting advice, and communicate his final decisions clearly to cabinet and the voting public.
That is exactly what Morrison is respected for in the social services portfolio that he held in the second incarnation of the Abbott ministry.
However, his record as immigration minister is quite different.
Whatever one’s view of his achievement of ‘stopping the boats’ – or as critics call it, pushing a refugee crisis back onto our neighbours – his aggressive style of communicating what he was doing angered his political foes and journalists alike.
Laurie Oakes, perhaps Australia’s most experienced political journalist, told the ABC at that time that the government must avoid the “goading and the arrogance of Scott Morrison, where he just pours mullock on journalists. By doing that you’re saying you don’t care if the voters are informed or not. You can’t have that; that’s disgusting.”
Morrison appeared to learn from those kinds of comments. In the equally complex social services portfolio, he avoided any such “disgusting” performances.
What we are left with, then, is a man who has demonstrated ability to get across the detail of a portfolio, a reasonable record negotiating with a hostile senate to pass legislation, and a man who has learned in his most recent portfolio how to force a smile and be polite to journalists.
Working closely with the economically literate Turnbull and Sinodinos makes Morrison one of the best positioned Treasurers for some time to make much needed reforms to set Australia up for post-mining-boom prosperity.
If he falters for moment, the people he put off-side during his immigration minister days will not be gentle.