It is premature to be discussing the legacy of the Morrison government. While it is well behind in the polls, there is still an election to be fought. Most commentators are understandably wary of prediction, not only because many got it wrong last time round, but because we are living in uncertain times.
But there is another reason to be wary of pronouncing on legacies. What is seen to matter changes with the passage of time. The failures can shrink in collective memory over the years, while achievements that seemed modest during government loom larger as circumstances change.
When Robert Menzies retired in January 1966, everyone seemed to be able to agree it was an end of an era, but they struggled to discern a likely legacy. The Australian, then in its infancy, asked: “Has anything happened to Australia in the last 16 years of which we can say: ‘This was Menzies’?”. It offered education as one possibility, but was not otherwise able to find much:
There was his Midas touch, his fantastic run of success since 1949, his unerring political touch, his judgement of the right moment, his talent for survival, his overpowering domination of politics.
Menzies’ greatest achievement seemed to lie in his political nous rather than his policy achievement.
The reputations of other governments have moved this way and that. The Whitlam government’s reputation was mediocre in the late 1970s and 1980s; its failures in economic management seemed a permanent black mark against it. By the time Whitlam died in 2014, the legacy seemed exceptional – from health and education through Aboriginal and women’s rights, environment and heritage, family law, consumer affairs and much else – partly because the achievements of recent times were so meagre.
The Hawke and Keating legacy looked better by the early 2000s, as Australia enjoyed some of the dividends of their reforms, than it had in the era of corporate collapse and recession of the early 1990s.
Gun laws loom much larger today as a Howard legacy than they did in 2007, in the wake of continuing carnage in the United States.
Much of Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir was given over to setting out a prime ministerial legacy. He even invited readers to include marriage equality: an issue on which others had worked for a generation to reshape public opinion in the face of political class obstruction.
What of Morrison? He went to the 2019 election promising little. Unsurprisingly, when returned to office, the parliament was not flooded with initiatives. There were tax breaks. This is a legacy of sorts: a more regressive income tax and budget deficits further into the future than anyone can see.
On the handful of other matters the government did promise to attend to, we are still waiting. It has failed to establish an anti-corruption commission, with its draft legislation being treated with justified contempt by anyone interested in improving government integrity.
It has also failed to deliver on religious freedom. This failure was Turnbull’s legacy, too, for he granted the defeated side in the same-sex marriage postal survey of 2017 a sop in the form of an inquiry which led, after years of toing and froing, to the recent humiliation of the Morrison government by members of his own backbench.
Something like this should have been predictable from the outset. The existing exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act, which are in large part the result of church lobbying in 1983 and 1984, are wide. If Christian conservatives were more pragmatic and less inclined to culture wars, they would have left them alone.
Of course, the Morrison government was quickly overtaken by what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events”. There were the Black Summer bushfires. They have formed a difficult legacy for Morrison.
If we work backwards from Scott and Jenny Morrison’s recent appearance on 60 Minutes, it seems likely the Liberal Party’s research is revealing Morrison’s leadership failure and trip to Hawaii remain imprinted on the public imagination.
Then there is COVID-19. Morrison will claim a legacy in which fewer Australians died than in most other places and the government’s support managed to prevent economic catastrophe. The government’s opponents will point to failures in the vaccine procurement and rollout, in aged-care policy and in supplying testing kits.
Labor will also point to the precarious state of an economy in which inflation and debt are rising, and to the need for stronger action on climate change and renewable energy than Morrison has so far been willing to take.
The government will place foreign relations and defence in the foreground. The Australian’s Paul Kelly recently produced a Lowy Institute Paper, Morrison’s Mission, in which he manages to discern so much coherence in the government’s foreign policy, with its growing belligerence toward China and cloying relationship to the United States, that it deserves to be called “The Morrison Doctrine”.
His colleague Greg Sheridan is more insistent on the government’s failure to attend to Australia’s defence capabilities in a world unlikely to wait around for Australia to acquire a nuclear submarine fleet several decades into the future.
National security is predictably alluring for Morrison. It plays to a traditional Coalition strength. It has formed the basis for some outrageous attacks on Labor and its leader, Anthony Albanese, as Chinese Communist Party favourites.
It appeals to the grandiosity from which almost no prime minister is immune and which Morrison has in spades. And it is consistent with his reduction of politics to a form of public relations, one less preoccupied with implementation and achievement than the theatre of the announcement. Even Kelly, broadly favourable to Morrison’s foreign policy direction, says that he “constantly oversells his initiatives”.
But Morrison will be long out of politics before anyone is called to serious account for the decisions being made today.
There is danger in this for Morrison’s government. Few today recall Australia’s security agreement with Indonesia as a Keating legacy. Abrogated by Indonesia during the later Timor crisis, at the time of its signing a few months before the 1996 election it fed into an image of Keating as too concerned with “the big picture” at the expense of the everyday concerns of mainstream Australians. This became an idea that John Howard deployed with devastating effect.
Morrison may well find that voters who – to take just another example of failure – are unimpressed with their leaders’ response when their homes are inundated by flood waters have a strictly limited interest in any boats other than those being sent to help them.