When the new Australian prime minister Scott Morrison delivered his maiden parliamentary speech in 2008, he penned the kind of muscular Christian screed that could easily have been written by Tony Blair at his most messianic, or a charity worker applying to head up Oxfam. Morrison paid homage to the first Australians in his constituency, the Gweagal people of the Dharawal nation, spoke of his admiration for Bishop Desmond Tutu and William Wilberforce, and even quoted the U2 frontman Bono. Then, he made an impassioned plea for increased aid to Africa.
In the decade since, a politician dubbed “ScoMo” has performed something of a “BoJo”, lurching from the centre to the right in preparation for a Liberal Party leadership bid, and using unease about immigration and Muslims to propel his candidacy.
On 24 August, the former Australian treasurer’s scheming came to fruition when he was sworn in as the country’s sixth prime minister in just 11 years. This followed the ruthless ousting of predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, a conservative centrist considered too mushy, metropolitan and enthusiastically multicultural for a Liberal Party that is increasingly illiberal.
For the Australian right, the 50-year-old Morrison has become a trusted fellow traveller: a social conservative who voted against equal marriage in last year’s referendum; a former immigration minister who managed to halt unauthorised asylum seeker vessels heading towards Australia’s shores after vowing to “Stop the Boats”. Few remember or recognise the Bono-quoting freshman.
It is a measure of how far Australian conservatism has moved towards the Trumpian fringes that Morrison was considered the mainstream candidate in the Liberal leadership contest. In the party “spill”, he vanquished the home affairs minister Peter Dutton, a humourless former policeman who has championed white farmers in South Africa, demonised Somalian gangs in Melbourne and revelled in criticism from human rights groups over asylum seekers held captive in offshore detention centres. Dutton wielded the knife against Turnbull. Yet in the cannibalistic bloodbath that followed, it was Morrison who staggered out of the party room alive.
The Sydneysider first achieved success, rather ironically, in the tourism industry. As the head of Tourism Australia, he oversaw the notorious “So, Where the Bloody Hell Are You?” campaign, which was initially banned in Britain. Not only did Morrison sign off on that regulation-violating profanity, he was happy for a bikini-clad model to utter it. Though this executive decision may have disconcerted worshippers at his Pentecostal mega-church in suburban Sydney, it appears to have been a morally uncomplicated move. Morrison has always done whatever it takes.
Former colleagues in the hospitality industry remember him as a bullying control freak. “It is impossible to talk about Scott Morrison without dropping the C-bomb,” one told me a few years ago, with the “C” not standing for Christian.
Morrison’s electoral career began in 2007 when he won the safe conservative seat of Cook, a Sydney constituency where the British explorer James Cook first came ashore in 1770, and where white thugs rioted in 2005 at the presence of Lebanese-Australians on their golden beaches.
In Canberra, Morrison became a headline act when the then Liberal opposition leader Tony Abbott awarded him the immigration portfolio. Following the deaths of 48 boat people off Christmas Island in 2010, Morrison denounced the Labor government for paying for a father to fly to Sydney to the attend the funeral of his drowned wife and two infant children. Labor accused him of stealing soundbites from Pauline Hanson’s far-right One Nation party. The former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser remarked: “I hope Scott Morrison is just a fringe element in the party”. Now, though, he is leader, and his stance on immigration largely explains why.
Australian politics is in crisis. Canberra has become the coup capital of the democratic world, and Morrison is likely to become yet another revolving-door prime minister. He is less popular with the public than the leader he deposed and a new opinion poll found support for the Liberals falling to its lowest level in a decade (33 per cent). The true victor from recent events is Labor Party leader Bill Shorten.
Fortunately for Australians, the country benefits still from the policy inheritance of the Hawke, Keating and Howard years, along with its vast mining resources. But while it will soon enter its 27th year without an economic recession, its political depression is as chronic as its drought. Scott Morrison is unlikely to halt the decline.
Nick Bryant, the BBC’s New York correspondent, is the author of “The Rise and Fall of Australia: How a Great Nation Lost its Way”
This article appears in the 29 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic