Five things ScoMo should do with his prime ministership

I’ve been privileged to know and work with many political leaders in Australia and overseas. Now we have a new national leader, we all wonder how he’ll shape up.

Scott Morrison does have experience. He knows the Liberal Party – its moods, its character and its peccadillos – and he knows it well. That’s a huge advantage. He’s also been a minister in portfolios that have given him a broad overview of the work of government. Coming into office having thought about and dealt with everything from Indigenous affairs and health to tax policy and global security can be daunting; ScoMo’s had experience in all those areas especially during his period as Treasurer.

All that is a good start.

The great leaders I have known have been very different but the best have a few common characteristics. First, they have beliefs and the determination to be true to them. Of course prime ministers and presidents have to be nimble-footed in a fast-changing political environment – but they must be anchored to their core principles.

One of the failings of modern politicians is their obsession with market research. Everything is polled to within an inch of its life; it’s focus group tested over and over again. A leader needs to lead public opinion; to inspire the public by presenting them with new ideas and exciting them by showing them new directions.

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I thought Malcolm Turnbull should have persisted with the tax reforms he wanted before he became prime minister. By abandoning them he made the public doubt his convictions. It made him look uncertain.

Role of strength

Great leaders are strong. They are comfortable with their beliefs and the decisions they make. Margaret Thatcher only read the newspapers once a week; she didn’t fret about a critical column here or a bit of abuse there. Weak leaders worry about those things.

There was a very anti-Liberal journalist in Canberra some years ago called Alan Ramsey. He hated the Howard government with a passion bordering on obsession. After one of his election victories, John Howard turned to me and said: “One of the things that makes me really happy about our election win is that it’s made Alan Ramsey so sad!”

Howard knew that in a pluralist society all sorts of views would be expressed about him. A strong leader doesn’t let that get under his or her skin. There’s no point in always trying to achieve consensus. As Thatcher once said, if the Twelve Apostles had believed in consensus, Christianity would never have happened.

Above all else, great leaders are wise. No matter how much evidence they try to assemble before making a decision, good judgement remains axiomatic. It’s one thing to be strong but being strong and wrong is just foolishness; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is strong … but wrong. Harry Truman was strong and right. Understanding human behaviour and predicting it is as valuable as analysing data.

Finally, great leaders inspire. They capture the emotions of the public through their words as well as their deeds. To capture the emotions of a public, you have to understand them. Australians are quietly deeply patriotic. They love their country. They want their leader to be more than a manager. They want someone who just occasionally makes them shed a tear or feel proud or even be inspired.

So will Morrison be a great leader? No one knows. I’ll give myself one piece of credit. I was interviewed for a profile on ScoMo about six years ago and said that one day he could be the leader of the Liberal Party. So I’ve always thought well of him. But he has a huge task.

He does have one advantage: contrary to the views of some commentators, his colleagues won’t be undermining him over the next nine months. To do so would be electoral suicide.

Points of focus

And here are six things Morrison should focus on.

Number one is energy. He shouldn’t withdraw from the Paris Agreement – that’s bad diplomacy and probably bad domestic politics. And scrapping the GST on power bills is bad policy. The GST needs to be simple and neutral. Already there are too many exemptions. Some variation of the NEG is probably the best solution. After all, the NEG was a pretty reasonable policy.

The second barnacle is Catholic education. State Aid – a Menzies initiative – has been a Liberal-owned policy. There are many reasons why it’s a good policy but it also has the advantage of being good politics for the Liberals. It’s one of the reasons over the years Catholic voters have drifted towards the Liberals. The Catholic schools system is huge. Getting the Catholic education system offside is a monumental blunder, as Turnbull discovered in the Longman byelection.

The third barnacle is company tax. The tax cuts for big business have been abandoned, which is bad news for our national interest. There are, though, other ways of stimulating corporate investment and ensuring we have an internationally competitive tax structure. Changing depreciation provisions, stimulating further investment in infrastructure and so on are all options.

Fourth, for the base: more tax cuts! Liberals believe in the individual, not the collective. They want the industrious, the creators, the risk takers to be able to keep at least a decent chunk of their earnings. Labor wants to tear down the successful: the Liberals should be arguing the virtues of success and once more appealing to those who aspire to a better life.

Fifth, the new leadership team probably don’t need reminding but government is as much about values as it is simple economics. Since the Liberals believe in the individual and the equal value of all individuals they should repudiate the new-left fashion of identity politics and affirmative action. The Liberals should claim the ground of Martin Luther King who famously said people should be judged by the contents of their character not the colour of their skin; to which we might add gender and sexual preferences. ScoMo’s Christian convictions might help him here.

Alexander Downer is a former Australian foreign minister and High Commissioner to the UK.  He is a columnist for The Australian Financial Review.

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