News Politics Australian Politics Dennis Atkins: It’s wrong to call Scott Morrison a pragmatist. He’s a cynical consequentialist

Dennis Atkins: It’s wrong to call Scott Morrison a pragmatist. He’s a cynical consequentialist

Scott Morrison and Dennis Atkins
Morrison hopes to emulate Howard as one of our longest-serving PMs, writes Dennis Atkins. Photo: TND
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If Scott Morrison sticks around as prime minister until Christmas 2025 he will rate as Australia’s fourth-longest-serving holder of the office, behind Bob Menzies, John Howard and Bob Hawke.

Morrison will need to win two more elections to pass the current holder of the fourth spot, the late Malcolm Fraser, which means hitting this target will need one more hurdle to clear, whether he goes to the polls later this year or waits until the early months of 2022.

On the way to the Top Four, Morrison will pass more than a dozen prime ministers. He’s certain to jump Kevin Rudd in the first week of June and will overtake Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Turnbull if he’s still in office at Christmas this year.

Morrison not only kept looking like someone running to the polls as early as he can – which is October 9 if he avoids fully the football grand finals which run from early September to the first weekend in October – he tossed off any pretence of aiming for next year.

PM’s election pitch

The October 9 option is firming as a favourite as Liberals with working memories recalled this was the same day of the year John Howard bested Mark Latham in 2004. We know Morrison likes to dream he’s some kind of Howard redux (he’s not) and he was rekindling memories from that shape-shifting campaign 17 years ago by lining up with the Australian Workers Union at Brisbane’s Ampol refinery on Moreton Bay.

This stop was part of a full-speed campaign run through marginal seats in Queensland and Victoria, altered his “full term” language enough to afford wriggle room and released a re-election pitch Facebook ad under the three word slogan “Stronger. Safer. Together.”

It was quite a campaigning ride, with Morrison looking and sounding more like a state premier than a national leader. It was deliberate and calculated – after all, Morrison has watched leaders of smaller jurisdictions reap electoral rewards from a “give the public what they want” style of tending to health and economic self-interest without worrying over detail or follow up.

It’s why he’s embraced otherwise nonsense ideas like vaccination passports for interstate travel and played raw and crude politics with quarantine.

While you’re digesting this, don’t kid yourself prime ministers and premiers ignore their longevity in office and don’t mark the days when they will pass their predecessors.

Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk didn’t make a fuss at the end of April about the fact she had been in office longer than Labor legend Wayne Goss, but she was aware of it and noted it with friends.

An old John Howard anecdote reveals all when it comes to the obsession of leaders about their tenure and a determination to stick around.

In his second-last year as prime minister, Howard had commissioned an official walk around Lake Burley Griffin to commemorate Liberal lion Menzies, a decision marked by the unveiling of a plaque to signal the start of the route.

Howard wanted to nominate Menzies, who had served as PM for 18 years and 183 days, as the nation’s longest-serving PM “so far”. He was diplomatically talked out of that and instead the record says “to date”.

Liberals who worked closely with Howard still chuckle over this example of his enduring and rarely repressed ambition.

There’s no question that Morrison has that Christmas 2025 date circled in some private diary he keeps in his secret drawer. That’s the same drawer where he keeps all the polling which tracks what the public thinks of him – something he says he doesn’t think or care about.

Remember, he told Annabel Crabb “I’ve really learned not to care (what people think about me); and I really don’t (care) that much.”

That’s a mix of unscalable nonsense and equally gigantic self-belief. As one of Morrison’s Liberal colleagues told this column, the Prime Minister calculates everything, “whether it’s scratching his bum or building a half a billion dollar power station”.

This is a window into what kind of politician Morrison actually is. He basks in wearing the badge of being “non-ideological” which is true as far as it goes but, as with everything about this man, is not quite what it seems.

Morrison the cynical consequentialist

Morrison’s self-belief is so overwhelming it drowns ideology but his instinctive beliefs are socially and economically conservative. He has an escape hatch: he’ll jettison all or part of these beliefs if he calculates the consequences will cost him politically.

Some regard this attitude as making him a follower of British political philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham, the so-called “father of utilitarianism” who posited in the late 1700s a guiding principle based around “… the greatest happiness (being determined by) the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”.

Benthamites are regarded as consequentialists who weigh up to fine granular degrees what reactions follow actions – in politics it is to calculate the electoral reaction of doing one thing or another. This is the driving force.

In Morrison’s case, this frames his opportunism – he gauges opportunity and grabs it when it appears.

The other national leader who is labelled a Benthamite utilitarian is Britain’s Boris Johnson, someone also capable of stepping in every cow pat in the paddock but emerging with shiny shoes.

It is wrong to label Morrison a pragmatist. In fact, he uses pragmatism to give his consequentialism a cloak of respectability.

He is many things, as we learn week in, week out. Add this to what’s a mainly grim list: he’s the most cynical politician anyone has seen in the prime minister’s office.

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