Graham Richardson was watching television in his Dover Heights home in Sydney when Julia Gillard made her dash to Government House to call the 2010 election. Perched beside the Labor warhorse sat an unlikely companion: Scott Morrison.
“We were drinking cognac that cost about $1000 or $2000 a bottle,” Richardson recalls. “We never set out to be friends – it just happened.”
Two things were clear to Richardson that Saturday afternoon: Gillard would struggle to win the election, and the Liberal MP in his loungeroom would eventually make his own trip to Yarralumla as prime minister.
“You just knew that would happen because he’s bright and he has warmth in him. He relates to people and that’s what makes him so very dangerous for Labor.”
In the nine months since taking over from Malcolm Turnbull, Morrison has pieced together a fractured government and won a supposedly unwinnable election.
He emerges a Liberal Party hero, a figure of power inside the Coalition unmatched since John Howard. The authority he wields over the cabinet and backbench – combined with Labor going backwards in seats it must win to form government – means both sides of politics are now wondering whether the Morrison era could run for two full terms.
“There’s no doubt about that,” Richardson says. “The next election is no cakewalk for Labor. Just because we didn’t win this one doesn’t mean we will win the next. There’s something about this fella Morrison that the mob like and if they like you, as they do Scott, then you’re very hard to shift.”
Morrison may have fought hard to win on May 18 but he starts the new term with crucial advantages. He will command a party room that for the first time in 15 years is not hostage to the destructive rivalry of Turnbull and Tony Abbott. And new party rules should shield him from any leadership challenge.
He will also enjoy the personal loyalty of about 26 fresh Coalition faces who swept into Parliament by winning seats or replacing retiring MPs – roughly a quarter of the party room. Political historians credit the influx of new MPs after the 1996 election for the stability and longevity of Howard’s reign.
“I think he’ll be far more confident within his own party, given the election victory is very much his own,” says 2GB talkback host Ray Hadley, with whom Morrison has had a sometimes turbulent relationship.
Morrison also has the bonus of a broken and dejected Labor. The party’s new leadership team will have to spend at least two years rebuilding and rebranding. Factional tensions are high and the remarkable unity Bill Shorten brought to the ranks over the past six years is not guaranteed to last.
Saturday’s ugly result – particularly in Queensland – means the opposition will face a tough task at the 2022 election. Once safe suburban seats held by Labor are now vulnerable to Morrison’s appeal to middle Australia. And some Coalition seats that Labor thought it would win in 2019 now boast double-digit margins thanks to One Nation and Clive Palmer preferences. The razor-thin margin of 0.6 per cent the north Queensland electorate of Capricornia is now more like 11.7. The margin in Bonner in suburban Brisbane has doubled to about 6.8. And Petrie in northern Brisbane has lifted from 1.6 to more than 8. All three seats went to Labor when Kevin Rudd won in 2007.
“I’ve got no reason to think he couldn’t win the next election, he could win the next two, but he could also lose as well and I don’t think that’s lost on me and certainly not lost on the PM,” says member for Petrie Luke Howarth. “We are going to need to do a good job in government.”
Hadley is more bullish: “Given the way the opposition has handled the loss and the rather comical way the new leader has been appointed I think Morrison will be a two-term PM if he chooses that path.”
Wise heads in both major parties caution the political and economic environment can change quickly. They argue Labor could easily sweep to power the next poll, citing two pieces of political history: Paul Keating winning the “unwinnable” election of 1993 only to lose three years later; and just three governments since WW II have managed to pull off four consecutive victories.
“This is like a fresh start though,” Howarth says. “It’s almost like we are going into a first term now, that’s the way I look at it.”
The Prime Minister wants to lower the temperature on politics and not have politics in people’s faces
When Morrison returns to Parliament in July he’ll find himself in uncharted territory. For the first time as leader he won’t be fighting for his political life. So what sort of Prime Minister will an unencumbered Morrison be?
Members of his inner circle say Morrison has “firm ideas” on what he wants to achieve for the next three years but will not be a one-man band on policy. Legislating income tax cuts, fixing the National Disability Insurance Scheme, talking about housing affordability and doing more to combat youth suicide will be first-order issues for the leader and his cabinet.
Poor performers in Morrison’s ministry will be dumped this weekend and rising stars promoted into junior ministries. The PM will be surrounded by a core group of around five key staff, as well as political allies including Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.
But some MPs are nervous about whether the presidential, autocratic style Morrison that was effectively deployed in the election campaign will creep into the cabinet room.
“He won’t be doing a Kevin Rudd,” Richardson says. “He will govern somewhat tamely. He won’t be a big reformer but he will mind the till well.
“He’s got huge power now. Nobody in the Liberal Party will say boo to him. He’s the boss after this and he can do whatever he likes. But if you know the bloke you know he’s not a great mover. He’s a cautious man and he will move cautiously.
“He will go quietly over the next three years and just get through what he thinks he can. It’s not everyone’s style of government but I think these days it’s a winning style of politics.”
Morrison admires the style of former New Zealand prime minister John Key, who introduced a series of economic reforms but never frightened the horses. “It was a comfortable journey to change,” observes one member of Morrison’s team.
Howarth gently suggests the backbench will want to be consulted on major policy regardless of the PM’s enhanced authority. “He inherited a pretty tough position last year and he just said ‘right, I’m getting on with this and I’ve got to make some decisions’.
“I didn’t agree with every decision he made but he asked for us to trust him. I hope he’s still consultative, but he’s in a position now to rightly ask for our trust.”
Senior members of Morrison’s campaign team warn against over-stating the ramifications of the election’s presidential nature. They point to research showing it was a “strategic imperative” to set up a presidential contest because Shorten’s personal approval ratings were so weak. But Labor MPs are hopeful Morrison’s occasional public brittleness – which largely disappeared during the campaign – will reappear once he returns to Parliament.
In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age ahead of the election, Morrison made it clear he thinks cabinets “are not coffee clubs”.
Asked to describe Morrison’s likely leadership style, a senior staffer offered just one word: “Pragmatist.”
They may need to add another: peacemaker. Potential turbulence lies ahead given the diverse message voters delivered at the ballot box. Big swings against Labor in Queensland will embolden already fractious conservative MPs in that state to pursue more support for coal and less for climate change action. But Liberals in inner-city Sydney and Melbourne experienced a fall in support driven by environmental concerns, laying the ground for fresh party room friction over climate change and emissions reduction.
An exchange in a mid-campaign interview with 7.30’s Leigh Sales offered an early glimpse into Morrison’s possible approach to the Coalition’s trickiest policy problem. “Who will have the upper hand in driving Liberal Party policy if you’re re-elected?” Sales asked. “The climate-change sceptics who killed the National Energy Guarantee, voted against same-sex marriage and orchestrated Malcolm Turnbull’s downfall, or the mainstream of the party?”
Morrison simply replied: “I will.”
Australia’s record-run of uninterrupted growth is also at risk, posing the single biggest threat for the government. For a Prime Minister who went to the polls pledging to be the superior economic manager, a spiralling economy would derail the Coalition’s policy agenda and dint his credibility with voters. Even a mild downturn exacerbated by tensions between the United States and China could easily erode the $7 billion budget surplus forecast for next financial year and the $11 billion projected the year after.
Beyond presenting himself as a safe pair of hands, Morrison relentlessly marketed himself during the campaign as an everyday family man. But strategists say that will be less of a focus now voters have a good sense of who he is. And they add he’s determined to get federal politics out of the headlines.
“The Prime Minister wants to lower the temperature on politics and not have politics in people’s faces,” says Arthur Sinodinos, a NSW senator and former chief of staff to Howard. “And consistent with what he has been saying, he knows people just want to get on with their lives and realise their aspirations rather than having politics as a continual sort of soap opera.
“Scott Morrison has the capacity to be the great unifier. I think he will seek to listen, he’s not going to be caught inside the beltway, he’s going to get out there and engage with the electorate as our best prime ministers have always done.”
Jarrad Cirkel, a mullet-wearing tradesman from Launceston who shot to fame last week after meeting Morrison and then appearing in a Liberal Party ad, has some advice for Australia’s 30th Prime Minister. “Until my very average head appeared in every paper across the country, I considered myself one of the so-called silent majority,” the builder says. “But my advice would be forget about the opinion polls and continue to get out amongst the everyday people and listen to their concerns.”
Lucy Wicks, a backbench MP and close friend of Morrison for nearly 20 years, says voters have let out a “sigh of relief” that the election is over and the country could have three years of uninterrupted governing for the first time since the 2004 election.
“One of the great things about this election win is that yes, in many ways, Australia has chosen their prime minister. They’ve chosen Scott Morrison. The election was framed in that way and it probably needed to be because at the end of the day, people for several years now have been saying we want to elect our prime minister. Now Scott can just get on with it.”
Bevan Shields is the Federal Editor and Canberra Bureau Chief for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.