The comparison is important because the question that has always hovered over the Morrison government is whether it is some new beast, or just a superficial reincarnation of the Turnbull and Abbott governments. Because the three prime ministers are such different men, it can seem like we are talking about three very different eras. But we’re not.
There has never been a great deal of policy ambition. On the occasions big ideas have surfaced they have been squashed quickly by cowardice. Leaders have been hemmed in by threats, implied and explicit, to their leadership, especially on issues of religion and climate change. Scandal has been a consistent thread. Right now it feels like one government, rather than three, and unless something shifts soon I suspect the perspective of history will be stronger still on this point.
Another comparison sometimes made, usually by people hopeful for Morrison, is with the awful start John Howard made before recovering. It’s a good point, but 14 months in Howard started signalling interest in a GST. In some ways that hurt him at the next election, but it also gave his government direction it had lacked. It showed ambition, too. We have now had 18 months of the Morrison government. Optimists might say only the months since the election count. In that case, he still has a carefree period of dilly-dallying ahead.
Unless, of course, other crises hit him first, destroying his chance of establishing direction and momentum. The government has two vulnerabilities it should guard against.
The first is a tendency to laziness. On Thursday, a senate inquiry heard from the audit office that more than 40 per cent of projects under the notorious sports grants scheme were ineligible for funding, flatly contradicting the defence the Prime Minister had been using, that they were all eligible.
This was news everywhere, but what is really remarkable is that this fact was also there in the original report. I found it myself on Friday, by hitting ctrl + F and typing in “eligible”. Did nobody do this, or – better yet – read the full thing before sending the Prime Minister into Parliament with the line? It is only three months since Morrison had to write to the Speaker after misleading Parliament while attempting to defend Angus Taylor. This is sloppy stuff.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese had already been telling voters Morrison was “loose with the truth”. It was careless to play into the Opposition Leader’s hands. A politically attuned government would be paying attention to what else Albanese thinks it has a problem with.
Speaking of which, the opposition devoted quite a bit of time last week to asking about people falling through the cracks in the bushfire recovery phase. As I’ve written before, I think anger at Morrison’s summer missteps will probably pass. But if the government looks mean, or incompetent, or tricky, as people are trying to get back on their feet, then suddenly all the strands will come together.
At the same point in his leadership, Turnbull was in trouble. He managed to hang on for 16 more months. The election was nine months after that. In other words, Morrison has oodles of time. But he’s also had a lot of time till now, with not much sign of having used it. Remember all those “deep dives” on policy we kept hearing about?
Of course, anything might happen. Perhaps we are about to see a policy cornucopia, presented to the nation with courage and competence. But that seems unlikely because, so far, this government – the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government – has been remarkably consistent, and not in a good way.
Sean Kelly is a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is currently working from London.
Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard