Political parties have a habit of morphing into the exact opposite of what they start off as.
This phenomenon dates back to 18th-century England, where the dominant Whig party, originally seen as wannabe regicides, finished up as devoted adherents of the House of Hanover.
Something similar has happened in Australia. The Australian Labor Party, at the time of its formation in the 1890s, was very much a US-style populist outfit. Sinister forces, early labour-movement mythology held, were bent on impoverishing and putting down ordinary decent Australian families. Avaricious banks, greedy landowners, hard-working foreigners and academic know-alls (notably economists) were variously targeted.
But the usual historic shift has occurred. The Labor Party has long ceased to be an old-time populist party. It has evolved into something altogether different. Its ranks now comprise tertiary-educated political staffers and policy types.
The populist impulse, though, is not dead. Far from it. Spurned by progressives, it now energises Labor's current federal nemesis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison. His rise and rise, when seen against this historic backdrop, is not so accidental after all.
Political journalist Annika Smethurst, in her newly minted biography of Morrison - the first-ever such biography, in point of fact - focuses on the eerie populist moment that we are in. She charts how Morrison, aided by a close circle of allies and supporters - including those in the media - has hitched himself to larger social dynamics in order to propel his individual career progression ever upwards.
Smethurst's account is based on library research and confidential interviews, including with unnamed political insiders, conducted between September 2020 and April this year.
Morrison's self-appointed task, as documented by Smethurst's seven months of research, involves him tapping into the hopes and aspirations of swinging voters in suburban seats, whose material comfort and sense of identity is not reliant on their having a university education or being protected by a trade union. They are aspirational but fear social change. Detached from Laborism, and yet having no traditional links with the Liberal Party, these are the quiet Australians whom Morrison, ever in campaigning mode, is constantly targeting.
This suburban focus is truly blinkered. Regional Australia, as Smethurst points out, is ever a blindspot for Morrison. The far wider world beyond Australia's shores is even more alien for him. It must be warded off. Morrison's instinctive and deepest desire whenever a perceived threat to Australia's viability arises is to aggressively seal off the nation from the rest of the world. This mindset underpinned his hardline approach to asylum seekers as Immigration Minister after 2013.
Morrison's handling of the coronavirus crisis in 2020 became surer once he let his isolationist tendencies kick in again. Border closures, economic stimulus and policies to drive down case numbers earned praise. [Smethurst does note that the delayed vaccine rollout in 2021 clouded the early success.]
Smethurst considers that Morrison's willingness to ingratiate himself with friendly media is on the high scale compared with other federal politicians. He has a habit of trying out policy proposals in the first instance with sympathetic journalists and radio hosts. His populist pitch is also only made after expert polling and research is conducted.
Smethurst is required to consider the practical implications of Morrison's strong evangelical bent. An easy answer is impossible given Morrison's chronic lack of transparency. But Smethurst does conclude that to date the question of same-sex marriage has been the sole policy matter on which Morrison has ever displayed a strong ideological view. An awareness of God's presence is strong in him, but Smethurst seems to indicate that this feeling manifests itself principally as an "incredible self-belief". He Is very focused, often to the exclusion of others.
His intense pragmatism makes Morrison a master of sub-factional intrigue. The two major internal blocs in both the ALP and the Liberals retain some faint connection to past or present ideological currents in the broader community, but sub-factions - defined as agile groups that separate themselves from the big factional blocs and seek preferment by doing deals alternatively with each - are a different entity altogether. Their purpose is to be transactional; they enter into one expendable deal after another.
A purely pragmatic arrangement with right-wing elements secured Morrison's victory in 2007's disputed Cook preselection. Once in Canberra, he joined a sub-faction which at first oxymoronically dubbed itself as "conservative progressives".
Close co-religionists such as Alex Hawke or Stuart Robert form the core of the Morrisonian sub-faction, but the ethos remains firmly transactional. Cold calculation culminated in the week of August 20-24, 2018, when firstly Malcolm Turnbull and then Peter Dutton bombed out in party-room leadership votes - making Morrison the last man standing. He became leader of the parliamentary party and therefore the nation.
Morrison's ascension marked the end of a long destabilising period dominated by conflict between Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. Morrison went into the 2019 election in a miraculous position. Undistracted by disloyal elements in his own ranks, he was free to concentrate his campaigning skills, with deadly effect, on a hapless Bill Shorten.
The populist turn under Morrison leaves the Liberals potentially vulnerable in one key respect: there is now greater potential for quality independent candidates to get up in regional or well-heeled Coalition seats.
But Morrison workshops everything. He has factored in such a possibility. A fascinating titbit in the biography is Smethurst's revelation that in the lead-up to the 2019 election, Morrison's people were toying with the suggestion of offering independent candidate Rob Oakeshott the post of Speaker were he elected (he wasn't).
Smethurst's penultimate chapter deals with the matter of Morrison's often vexed interaction with female colleagues, which dates back to the 1990s when Liberal minister Fran Bailey supported his early exit from Tourism Australia. The consensus among female colleagues interviewed by Smethurst is that they "felt excluded, overlooked and even ignored while Morrison was in the room". He always seems to prefer to work with other blokes.
Smethurst is never in awe of her subject. She highlights his practice of, when cornered, attempting to spread blame and responsibility - and seeking to downplay certain events' significance, including his own role in them. There is a constant need to divert and deflect.
These days the populist playbook is always ready at hand. One of Smethurst's confidential interviewees sums up the worrying implications of Morrison's eagerness to offer up easy solutions to complex issues in this way: "History shows that these so-called solutions have disastrous consequences, but they might be popular on the front page of newspapers for a minute."
Such, in short, is the suburban family man who on September 16 suddenly announced a seriously major national security initiative. The biographical portrait presented by Smethurst is very timely in this context. Its cumulative effect is hardly designed to induce confidence. We are left wondering if a steady and truly assured pilot is steering the local ship of state, as Australia confronts an instantly far more fraught world.