Is our Prime Minister a changed man or just another politician who can quickly learn, adapt and pivot for personal and party advantage?
It’s a critical question in the week marking the anniversary of Scott Morrison’s self-styled miracle election victory, when he defied political pundits and journalistic commentators.
Morrison’s star is in the ascendant after leading a health and economic policy response to the twin sledgehammer hits Australia, and the rest of the world, suffered since the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, emerged from China’s Hubei province at the end of last year.
For many, Morrison can do no wrong.
He has played a deft series of hands – getting the health responses in place quickly enough and moving at a sensible and relatable pace to meet the immediate economic body blow that followed.
The establishment of the National Cabinet – a semi-formal sub-committee of the federal cabinet with the ad hoc membership of all state and territory leaders – has attracted almost universal praise.
Health Minister Greg Hunt went as far as calling it “one of the most amazing achievements of the Federation in Australia’s first 200 years”.
It’s extraordinary to think this has happened just weeks after what was the worst eight weeks of Morrison’s 12 years in Parliament.
It began with a seemingly secret Hawaiian holiday during the beginning of a black summer of savage bushfires – a trip which ended with a sulking, indignant return and some sour media performances, culminating in a visit to the New South Wales south coast, where people either refused to shake his hand or openly abused him.
Those cringing weeks were topped by the sports rorts scandal which sparked the exit of Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie and a brief leadership crisis when Barnaby Joyce challenged Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.
The road back to public forgiveness and the restoration of trust and approval looked impossible.
Three months later, Morrison has charted his way out.
He’s been praised as a changed man – those previously critical say he has been willing to disavow conservative ideology and orthodoxy, and one Canberra journalist made the extraordinary claim he had become a “humble” man.
The simple fact is politicians do not change fundamentally. No leader in modern memory ever has – some have altered behaviour after learning from mistakes or realising they couldn’t continue with certain habits.
Bob Hawke knew he had to drop his womanising and being a bad drunk if he was to become Labor leader and prevail as PM. The Liberal leader John Howard has been credited as having made every mistake in the modern political book – but he only ever made any of them once.
Neither Hawke nor Howard changed in any fundamental sense – they maintained their core beliefs and this consistency was part of their appeal and political success.
Other leaders in the modern era – from Gough Whitlam through to Malcolm Turnbull – maintained their central beliefs and behaviour.
They all made mistakes and some were agile enough to learn and adjust but they were the same person going out the leadership door as they were going in.
Morrison is no different – he’s the same person who first ran for parliament after what was a particularly nasty pre-selection battle for the seat of Cook.
The middle of an unprecedented global pandemic and the economic fallout we’re still in is no time to judge him.