It’s usually only after a monumental failure that a politician sets out to recreate him or herself, yet the new social services minister Scott Morrison is looking to change things up despite achieving what is considered by many Australians to be a political success.
As Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Morrison did what the pundits said was unachievable – he stopped the arrival of ramshackle boats bearing asylum seekers to Australian shores. Using boat turnarounds and tow-backs, along with a harsh offshore detention regime, Morrison now lays claim to having saved the lives of those who would have otherwise risked the journey to escape persecution or poverty at home.
Of course that measure of success does not take into account the mental and physiological cost borne by the asylum seekers, including children, who have endured lengthy periods in detention and risked exposure to physical and psychological abuse.
Yet according to one of Australia’s more reputable opinion polls, the Essential Poll, 35 per cent of voters surveyed in January this year thought the Government has taken the right approach with asylum seekers, while another 23 per cent thought the approach was too soft. Only 26 per cent believed Australia’s asylum seeker regime was too tough.
So it would appear that at least in the court of public opinion, Morrison has been judged a winner.
The minister certainly seemed to think so towards the end of last year when he began agitating for an expansion of responsibilities, perhaps with a new homeland security department. But the Prime Minister had other plans for the ambitious Morrison, landing him with the troublesome social security portfolio instead.
It would be an understatement to say this appointment was met with consternation in some parts of the community. Those with concerns about the humanitarian implications of Morrison’s asylum seeker regime were considerably anxious about the approach the minister might take with the welfare system. An early comment about being a “strong welfare cop on the beat” and cracking down on welfare rorters didn’t particularly help.
But since then, the minister has very deliberately sought to project a warmer, softer persona. Photos on Morrison’s Facebook page show the minister, who is also responsible for childcare policy, reading to adorable kiddies, down the beach with his local community, visiting Legacy and Rotary stalls and generally being out and about on Australia Day.
His YouTube channel features a growing selection of chatty media interviews along with a special video message recognising the 2015 Chinese New Year. And after a 16-month break from Twitter, Morrison is cautiously making progress on the social media platform, although he’s a long way behind canny practitioners such as Malcolm Turnbull and the queen of emjois, Julie Bishop.
Of course left-leaning participants on social media are having a field day with Morrison’s attempts to recreate himself, likening the man to the Cuddly Softener bear or Scott toilet tissue. One cartoonist has even portrayed him in drag as the fake grandmotherly figure Mrs Doubtfire.
Nevertheless Morrison has made an effort to match words and deeds to his new persona, claiming in an assured speech to the National Press Club last week that his plans to reform the welfare system would leave no-one worse off and would be incremental rather than involving any dramatic change.
He noted his priorities were to get young people into work, provide flexible and affordable childcare for mothers who wanted to work, and give senior citizens ways to remain productive members of the economy.
Not one mention was made of dole bludgers or rorters, with Morrison choosing instead to emphasise that every welfare dollar comes from the taxpayers’ pockets, and that each one should be spent wisely. Perhaps as a sign of goodwill on that note, Morrison had already scrapped his predecessor Kevin Andrew’s expensive but pointless voucher scheme for pre-marriage counselling (due to lack of interest).
If this new, improved version of Scott Morrison came as a surprise to political observers, so was his call on the Labor Opposition to take a kinder, gentler approach to negotiation in parliament. In his National Press Club address, Morrison expressed concern that the public would never again accept major policy reforms if they were constantly prodded by warring parties to judge matters according to the immediate impact on their self interests.
If one can look past the audacious hypocrisy of the man who was part of the most destructively negative oppositions known in modern Australian political history, and who perfected the art of whipping up public self interest to support his policy objectives, Morrison actually has a point. Whether the Labor Opposition is prepared to concede this, is a different matter altogether.
There’s no denying Scott Morrison is an ambitious man, and it’s no accident that his name is mentioned regularly in current discussions of Liberal leadership, even if he is mostly dismissed at this point as being a longer term prospect.
While Tony Abbott is encumbered with a political hard-man persona that he appears unable to shake, Scott Morrison appears determined not to make the same mistake. At 46 years of age, Morrison has more than enough time to wait out the next Liberal leader, or perhaps even the one after that, while building his kinder, gentler credentials in social security, or economic clout in the treasury portfolio if the change is made soon from PM Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull.
Yet at the end of the day, it will be Morrison’s authenticity that matters most. Will voters buy the minister’s transformation as a reversion to his ‘true’ self? Or will they always see the public face of Operation Sovereign Borders lurking just beneath the minister’s happy, shiny surface?