Every day over the past parliamentary fortnight, Labor asked the new PM Scott Morrison to explain why Malcolm Turnbull is no longer prime minister. The Opposition knows full well this is a question Mr Morrison cannot truthfully answer.
Imagine the political fallout if the PM did tell the truth, explaining, “Mr Turnbull’s prime ministership was brought down by Tony Abbott’s supporters, who exploited Peter Dutton’s vanity as well as the anxiety of Queensland Liberals spooked by the rout in the Longman by-election.” Such a revelation would certainly make for an interesting meeting next time the Liberal party room was convened.
However Scott Morrison is indirectly answering a related question – why he is the new PM and not Peter Dutton – by demonstrating he’s an upgrade on Malcolm Turnbull. Mr Morrison’s behaviour, language and policy decisions are all essentially a reflection on what Mr Turnbull was not able to become, explain or deliver.
Mr Harbourside Mansion is gone, replaced with ScoMo the Sharks fan and defender of strawberries. The new PM’s style is more relaxed than his predecessor’s (although still too shouty during Question Time), and he’s adopted more everyday language, although dumbing down dispatchable electricity to ‘fair dinkum electricity’ is taking a step too far.
Yet these are all essentially cosmetic changes. The most significant way that PM Morrison differs from (and has ‘improved on’) his predecessor is in the policy decisions he’s made over the past four weeks.
Not only did Mr Morrison reaffirm the death of the National Energy Guarantee, he also disavowed its whole reason for being (that is, the integration of energy and climate action policies) by dividing the energy and environment portfolio into two separate ministries. This is apparently to ensure that energy policy never again has to be concerned with inconvenient emissions reduction goals.
The PM wasted no time genuflecting to the dwindling and ageing demographic that is the Liberal Party ‘base’, scrapping plans to raise the retirement age to 70 and announcing a royal commission into the aged care sector. He also kowtowed to another potentially troublesome cohort of Liberal voters, throwing billions of dollars in hush money to the Catholic and independent school sectors.
There’s also been more money for drought-stricken farmers to appease supporters of the Coalition’s junior partner, the Nationals, and the announcement of a Canberra gabfest to coordinate a solution for the crisis that has been building in some parts of the nation for up to seven years. (In case you were wondering, no, that solution will not include emissions reductions).
The PM also found time to throw red meat to the conservative Australians concerned about ‘gender whisperers’ in our schools and the pervasive influence of gay marriage on our ‘rights’. ScoMo referred several times during this first month as PM to his commitment to ‘legislate religious freedom’, whatever that means, in response to the recommendations of the Ruddock review.
However the PM is less motivated to let voters see those recommendations, at least until the draft legislation is available. This is expected to conveniently be after the Wentworth by-election. We can only assume this is because Liberal election strategists are concerned that progressive Liberal voters (apparently they still exist) might be unhappy with the proposed legislation and lodge a protest vote with a non-Liberal candidate instead.
Based on these decisions, the clear message being sent by Scott Morrison is that he is the prime minister because he’s a more approachable, more understandable, more conservative version of Malcolm Turnbull. Looking at it another way, the new PM is also the more approachable, more understandable, less reactionary version of Peter Dutton.
It’s another matter altogether whether the voters who’ve deserted the Government for other parties and independents will agree and accept this explanation. If they do, they might just be prepared to return to the fold at the next federal election.