Opinion/Comment, Politics

Taking jelly politics to new low

We are currently witnessing what happens when you put someone from a marketing background in the Prime Minister’s chair: flip flopping with next to no core values guiding policy decision making.

By Peter van Onselen

Australians have become used to their political leaders lacking spine and bending to a populist will, or sometimes the demands of the so-called “party base”. But marketing types can take such jelly backed politicking to a new low.

Scott Morrison (pictured) is Australia’s first PM to come from a marketing background. From the Property Council to the Liberal Party directorship in NSW to Tourism Australia, Morrison’s career highlights see him spinning rather than developing policy ideas.

I don’t think any federal opposition leader comes from such a background either.

Just look at how our marketing PM has approached the job now that competing interests sit in front of him as he braces for the Wentworth by-election: a harder line on Israel by moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem (Wentworth has the highest concentration of Jewish voters of any electorate). A softer line on asylum seekers, moving them from Nauru to New Zealand (Wentworth is a urbane electorate, sympathetic to asylum seeker issues). A harder line on race, backing Pauline Hanson’s motion that it’s OK to be white, followed by the realisation that it won’t play out well in moderate minds, hence a backflip the following day. (Yes I know it was an administrative error, apparently.)

This highlights the difficulty of competing forces within the right: reactionaries who expect their leader to chase after Hanson voters verses moderates who believe politics is won from the centre.

We have already seen backflips on education, the GST, climate change and even religious freedom which most thought might be the one topic this PM held firm views on.

All of the above highlights what happens when a government is in terminal decline. Morrison might understand day by day marketing, but political leadership must be deeper and must be guided by convictions.

Morrison has a long history of flip flopping before he became known as the hardline immigration minister who wasn’t for turning (a good marketing ploy at the time). He used to attend both the left and right factional dinners in NSW, in a bid to hedge his bets.

Malcolm Turnbull was accused of bending to the will of others and not following his convictions as closely as he probably should have. But at least he had convictions. There are genuine question marks over whether Morrison has what it takes to lead, and lead with ideas, as opposed to spin a story and flip a position seemingly as circumstances dictate.

Morrison the marketing man knows he’ll find it hard to spin his way out of a poor result in Wentworth. Hence the marketing driven panic. But in a bid to win that battle he is damaging his chances of winning the wider war.

In the aftermath of the Wentworth by-election our new PM may just be exposed as a leader prepared to do whatever it takes, lacking conviction, driven by spin not substance.

Peter van Onselen is a professor at The University of Western Australia and Griffith University ans is a biographer of John Howard.


First published by The Australian – Tuesday 16 October 2018.

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