Commentary | 20 May 2019

Conservatives overseas will look at the ScoMo lesson

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review

The Coalition’s election victory has already taken its place alongside recent unexpected international votes, including the election of President Trump and the referendum on Brexit.

The polls were wrong and the lessons from recent history did not apply. The pundits presumed that if you had cycled through three prime ministers in six years, you had lost the mandate of heaven. That was the case for Labor in 2013; it seemed it would be the case for the Coalition in 2019.

But there is another, older, law of Australian politics. It is very hard for oppositions to win government – especially Labor oppositions. Labor has never won government from opposition with an unpopular leader and an ambitious policy agenda. This time, they also faced a savvy operator in Scott Morrison.

Morrison’s re-election gives him a chance to reset his foreign policy. In a sense, his international role begins properly this week. In his first nine months in the job, he was distracted, inevitably, by the task of rescuing his party’s fortunes.

Now Morrison has his own mandate and, with it, immense personal authority over the Coalition. Morrison’s electoral achievement may be larger than any of John Howard’s.

In his victory speech, Morrison spoke of miracles: truly, he has brought his party back from the dead.

Morrison’s fighting victory will earn him the respect of international leaders, who are all politicians themselves. Conservative leaders in particular will look to him for clues, as they looked to Howard two decades ago.

Morrison’s foreign policy will probably be similar to his domestic policy in style: confident, straightforward, a bit daggy, and overwhelmingly pragmatic.

His victory gives him an ideal platform upon which to build a personal relationship with the US president.

Donald Trump loves a winner. He also likes people who like him. The American press has cast Morrison in the Trump mould, which is not really correct, but which will flatter and please the President.

An early decision for the Prime Minister will be what to do with the Washington embassy, in light of ambassador Joe Hockey’s announcement that he won’t seek an extension of his term at the end of this year.

There is already speculation that Morrison may send Tony Abbott to Washington next year. It is unusual, but not unprecedented, for former prime ministers to accept diplomatic appointments: Stanley Melbourne Bruce served in London, for example, and Gough Whitlam served in Paris.

The problem is that the United States has its own election next year. The skills required to manage Australia’s relationship with the Trump administration are very different from the skills that would be required to manage relations with a Democratic administration. Abbott would find Trump’s Washington congenial, and Trump may well be re-elected in 2020. But what if a left-wing Democrat were to win the White House? These days, as Saturday shows, we need to plan for unexpected results.

Morrison may instead decide to persuade Hockey to extend his embassy until the US election. That would buy the PM time to choose the most suitable envoy.

Managing China will be trickier for Morrison, and for Australia, than managing the United States. We don’t yet know Morrison’s mind on the People’s Republic. He inherited a hawkish China policy from Malcolm Turnbull but somehow that suit doesn’t seem to fit him.

Morrison says Australia doesn’t have to choose between its American friend and its Chinese customer. Hawks believe Australia has already chosen.

Beijing will certainly be disappointed with the result, though. They would have hoped for a reset of Australia’s China policy under a Labor government, and perhaps even a do-over on issues such as Australian participation in the Belt and Road Initiative or our 5G ban on Huawei.

One issue on which Morrison may surprise is climate and energy policy. A generation ago, Australia would have led the world in devising a market-based solution to the problem of reducing our share of global carbon emissions. Indeed in 2007 John Howard promised an emissions trading system. Since then, a string of prime ministers and opposition leaders have been broken on the climate wheel.

But now, as the effects of global warming become impossible to deny, there is a sense that the climate wars are receding. The political imperative for strong action will become irresistible. Just as Nixon decided to go to China in pursuit of America’s long-term interests, perhaps Morrison, with his new authority and his personal history as a coal-fancier, will decide to change course on climate policy.

In recent years, the world has been mystified by Australia’s brutal political scene. If Bill Shorten had won this election, he would have been our sixth prime minister in six years.

Instead, Australians decided that five is enough. One important result of Saturday’s election is that Australia’s period of political churn seems to be over.