Sometimes a political phenomenon can be both easily observable and yet overlooked.
I remember noticing this in 2008 as Hillary Rodham Clinton sought the Democratic nomination against Barack Obama.
It occurred to me that her elevation (and she was the favoured candidate) would probably result in the leadership of the mightiest democracy in history being handed back and forth between just two families for near enough to three decades.
This alone might have been enough reason not to do it - and perhaps it was a factor for some Democrats.
It is reasonable to argue that Ms Clinton would have won in 2008 and that she would have secured the two terms served by President Obama to 2016. That would have made 28 years of Bushes and Clintons.
And don't forget, Bush senior had been VP since 1980 under Ronald Reagan - and of course HRC had been First Lady during her husband's two terms.
This obsession with "in-ness" - the feeling that the only people fit to lead have to be long-term machine insiders - contrasts starkly with what has happened since.
Perhaps causally so, in that it may help explain the attraction of a true outsider in the form of Donald Trump in 2016.
Still, one can marvel at the things American voters will suspend (colossal personal faults and even their own racism) just to avoid putting a qualified woman in the White House.
While the gender issue was central, it is also likely many American voters flocked to Trump precisely because he was not experienced.
This is a not uncommon paradox of populism - the angry resort to what, to institutional mainstreamers, feels like dangerous amateurism and flaky incompetence.
The amazing thing about this is that it is still true of a president seeking his second term.
Trump's signature failure is his belligerent refusal to learn, to grow into the job, to become encultured by the panoramic responsibilities of national leadership, and its venerable mediating institutions.
Which brings me to an Australian factoid that is both easily observed and yet still remarkable when you stop to think about it.
It, too, tells us something about decay and dysfunction in our democratic machinery.
And it's this: Scott Morrison is the first new Australian prime minister since the 1990s to be allowed to grow into the job. The first to be given the room to fail, in order that he might succeed.
Morrison has inherited a party stripped of its two biggest problem personalities and the teams they represented.
This is no trick statistic either.
Morrison is our sixth prime minister as we begin the third decade of the new millennium (the seventh if you count Rudd twice), and yet you have to go back to John Howard for the last time someone won an election and then made it through a full term to contest a second one.
And bear in mind, Morrison hasn't even done it yet. Like Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, and Turnbull, Morrison so far has been elected by the people once (2019). However, it is fair to say that he will not face a challenge before the next election and at this stage, seems well placed to contest it.
John Howard's first term, from March 1996 to October 1998, was marked by a series of scandals, resignations, and unpopular policy decisions (including the GST) - and yet his party stuck with him and, as we know, so did just enough Australians in the end (even though Kim Beazley's opposition won the popular vote).
This, as an aside, confirmed another strong tendency in Australian federal elections, which is that first-term governments are both vulnerable and safe at the same time. That is, they are routinely almost tossed out yet, not quite.
While the circumstances always differ, a common theme is that they are weighed down by the mistakes that inevitably come with inexperience, and yet are usually able to overcome these negatives with the cumulative positives that come with incumbency: the ability to control the timing of the election, the allocation of spending to sway key groups and marginal seats, the louder megaphone of government and the implied prestige and accumulating expertise that comes with being the established government.
In short, if you're a first-term opposition, the best chance you might have of recovering the treasury benches is at the new government's first return to the people.
Despite the 2007 Rudd-slide - and for reasons we all know about - Abbott came perilously close to in 2010 and, thanks to Labor's internecine warfare, Labor blew itself out of contention in the 2013 race.
Abbott romped home, and yet it turned out that Bill Shorten would have his best chance of becoming PM at the very next election in 2016.
Again after just one, albeit calamitous, Coalition term.
Turnbull's near-death experience in 2016 was arguably his own version of this tendency, when he waited far too long to seek the voters' imprimatur after toppling the quixotic Abbott.
This error of waiting gave him time to begin really disappointing voters, who'd initially been delighted with his ascension to the top job.
It even gave him time to pack in some notable failures, like an ill-fated tax reform kerfuffle that inflated hopes in business quarters and then went nowhere.
The Coalition's dismal 2016 result sealed Turnbull's fate, even though it took his internal enemies another two years to finally kill him off.
Scotty from marketing
All of which brings us to "Scotty from marketing", as his critics like to call him.
The Liberals went to Morrison, largely because of two things he was not: Turnbull and Abbott.
Peter Dutton, they reasoned, was an Abbott derivative, a hardliner who could not appeal to a broad electorate.
For his part, Turnbull argues they rolled him as leader singularly because he would win in 2019, or at least could.
This is a reasonable, if self-serving, deduction, if only because from the moment Morrison took over there was a widespread acceptance among Liberals that the coming election was already a write-off.
The clear expectation was that the transaction cost of dumping Turnbull, and the low likeability of the man who replaced him, meant 2019 was beyond their reach.
Think about that: they dumped a broadly popular PM they were unsure would lose, in favour of his untried, untested, and unpopular treasurer, who they felt certain could not win.
Such was their determination to be rid of him that they were prepared to pay the cost at the ballot box.
And, of course, they were actually wrong. "Scomo" did in fact win in 2019 - in a come-from-behind, lone-hand, triumph of ordinary suburban virtue.
Well, that's the folklore anyway.
Success has many fathers, but in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 upset win, it served the Liberals to name Scott Morrison as victory's lone parent, its paterfamilias.
Morrison had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat per force of nothing more than his own hard work, unshakeable self-belief, deeply held religious faith, and a preternatural sense of national destiny.
Happily, a new book, Morrison's Miracle, is on hand to skewer such simplicities.
Setting the scene, its editors, Anika Gauja, Marian Sawer and Marian Simms, canvass Morrison's unique Pentecostalism, the background conditions of low trust in politicians and media, the corrosive impact of the "fake news" charge so ubiquitous now in our discourse, and the insidious influence of populist minor parties of the right.
Also noteworthy is Clive Palmer's extraordinary $80 million advertising blitz - and we read he's gearing up for a repeat performance in the forthcoming Queensland state election - plus the influence that parties of the right have begun to exercise via social media platforms such as Facebook.
The Liberal Party's social media strategy gained more than twice the number of views than Labor's in 2019, a reversal of the previous two election campaigns.
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Ultimately, the editors of Morrison's Miracle conclude, correctly in my view, that the election result was "over-determined" - in other words, any one of a number of causes might have been sufficient to account for it.
This of course is true, and it is always true.
Did Howard lose the election in 2007 over WorkChoices? Or was it the NBN? Or climate change? Or Kevin Rudd's bold plan to spend less as a self-proclaimed "fiscal conservative?"
For some individuals, it was all of these, and for others just one.
I remember somewhat cheekily branding Rudd as "future-boy" in that election's aftermath, as I sought to explain the trick Rudd had pulled off which, to my mind, involved him presenting himself as a kind of "Howard for the future" - as if the real one was already confined to the past.
Nothing more dramatic than trading in your Kingswood for a Commodore with Bluetooth connectivity.
In Morrison's Miracle, Carol Johnson, under whom I was lucky enough to study, frames the 2019 election as one of competing left-wing and right-wing populisms.
On the left, Labor sought to mobilise against a "them", the "big end of town", presented as a predatory enemy of the ordinary people.
On the right, the Coalition also owns the "ordinary" by seeking to mobilise the people against big government, which is coming for your savings, your earnings, your homes.
The Coalition turned its weakness into a strength and Labor's strengths - its sudden stability in sticking with Shorten, and its extensive policy agenda - into weakness. The perfect encapsulation of this was the slogan "The Bill you can't afford" - which wrapped anxiety about higher taxes with antipathy for a Labor leader seen as shifty and untrustworthy.
The cut-through of this slogan is also examined by Andrea Carson and Lawrie Zion when they look at the media as a frame of reference, noting that even if Labor was not as disadvantaged by negative coverage as it might claim, the very selection of stories and angles covered by newspapers more often aligned with the Coalition's strategic direction.
Nicholas Barry, in his chapter on the Liberal Party, concisely describes this achievement: "Despite the internal instability and policy stagnation of its second term in office, the Coalition was returned for a third term on the back of a highly negative small-target strategy that made Labor's tax policies and leadership the main focus," he writes.
I've previously called this "political jiu-jitsu" - using your stronger opponent's own momentum to put them on the canvass.
Interestingly, however, Shaun Ratcliffe, Jill Sheppard, and Juliet Pietsch test out the claims that the surprise result of the election was due to one or all of the narratives that became much discussed in the aftermath - namely that Morrison's suburban ordinariness gave him the edge over a Labor Party beholden to inner-city elites, that Labor dismissed older voters to attract the younger ones, or that the ethnic vote abandoned Labor over, inter alia, its past support for same-sex marriage.
They found scant evidence for these claims in the electoral data.
The never-ending miracle
Let me propose a few of my own brief observations about Morrison's win and his prospects.
First, one lesson of the 2019 election is that while asking voters to change the government is a big thing, asking them to change the country at the same time is even bigger - and that's what Labor tried to do.
If Gough Whitlam tried to do too much in office - as is the popular reduction - Shorten tried to do too much from the even weaker vantage of opposition. Labor had become so convinced of its success, it had begun spending political capital before it had amassed it.
Second, since winning an election everyone but Morrison and his god believed he would lose, the PM has pulled off another pretty neat trick: behaving as if the Coalition is in its first term in office.
Without ever saying so, Morrison would have voters believe that the ugly, rancorous, ego-driven period of competition between the two great lions of the Liberal Party - the aforementioned Abbott and Turnbull - was another time and, frankly, another party.
And, to be fair, in some ways it was another party. Whitlam used to say the advantage Bob Hawke had as PM was that he did not have to deal with Bob Hawke as ACTU leader.
Similarly, Morrison has inherited a party stripped of its two biggest problem personalities and the teams they represented. This has certainly made things a lot easier for Morrison than the circumstances experienced by either of those two gentlemen.
My final point dovetails with this idea that Morrison's government is a new government. It is that since COVID-19 upended everything in the political economy, Morrison has been dealing with a novel set of problems.
Not only has the meta-threat seen his own approval ratings soar ,along with high levels of trust in government generally, but it's probably true to say that Morrison has positioned himself as the expert in pandemic/economic-emergency governing.
As the national focal point for all the big decisions, it's simply a fact that as Prime Minister, he is also the prime custodian of the key information.
Second-guessing his prescriptions, which is the most the opposition can hope to do - is at best a marginal endeavour and at worst likely to be seen as needlessly partisan, negative, and unhelpful.
This is not to say he is faultless, nor even particularly outstanding. Rather, it is to observe the fact that his win appeared to have come from almost nowhere, and his agenda, likewise, has precipitated from a vacuum taking on the form of an urgent unifying mission of national protection.
In this sense, Morrison's miracle win has been followed up by Morrison's miracle prime ministership.
- Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU's Australian Studies Institute, and hosts the twice-weekly podcast, Democracy Sausage. The above is an edited extract from remarks he delivered at the launch of the new book Morrison's Miracle: the 2019 Australian Federal Election (ANU Press).