ScoMo: The Most Successful Accidental Prime Minister

Scott Morrison’s miraculous election victory on Saturday has led Liberal Party figures and media commentators to proclaim he has now been upgraded to Liberal Party royalty.

With the new leadership rules meaning that it now takes two-thirds of the Liberal partyroom to remove an elected Liberal Prime Minister, plus the fact that Morrison has now increased the Coalition’s two-party-preferred vote and it is on track to have a net gain of one seat, his authority in the partyroom will now be unparalleled.

But it is worth reflecting that Scott Morrison was initially the accidental Prime Minister. The conservatives in the Liberal Party who never liked Malcolm Turnbull and were looking for any excuse to remove him, drafted Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton as their preferred replacement.

When Malcolm Turnbull called a leadership spill on Tuesday 21 August 2018, Peter Dutton stood and got 35 votes to Turnbull’s 48. Turnbull was then seen as a dead man walking and media speculation began about when the second strike would occur.

On the Thursday, Dutton announced he was challenging again and demanded Turnbull call another partyroom meeting. Given that it is up to the leader’s discretion when a partyroom meeting is to be called, Turnbull demanded 43 signatures, a majority of Liberal MPs, to hold another spill.

This was seen as a delaying tactic by Turnbull which allowed his preferred successor, his Treasurer Scott Morrison, to get the numbers, so when the 43 signatures arrived, Morrison was able to defeat Dutton 45 votes to 40, despite playing no part in the coup to oust Turnbull.

New Liberal Deputy Josh Frydenberg was also not part of the coup but was elected deputy on the first ballot. The new Liberal leadership team now had the momentous the task of healing the divisions in the Liberal Party between the moderates and conservatives who had been at war since Tony Abbott first rolled Malcolm Turnbull as leader in 2009.

Things did not begin well with Malcolm Turnbull resigning as the Member for Wentworth and the by-election won by independent Kerryn Phelps. That, along with Julia Banks defecting to the crossbench, meant the Coalition lost its majority in the House of Representatives.

The Morrison Government in minority saw the Medevac asylum seeker bill pass the parliament, which was seen as a major blow to its policy agenda and ability to govern.

The polls still had Scott Morrison ahead as preferred Prime Minister, but the Coalition was always behind in the two-party-preferred vote – the highest they ever got was 49-51. Morrison had told his partyroom, “if we get to 48-52, let me do the rest.”

Morrison had a good led into the election with the federal budget delivered Josh Frydenberg projecting the first budget surplus in a decade. The Morrison Government had ditched the National Energy Guarantee and approved the Adani coal mine, allowing it to attack Labor for the cost of its climate policies and the jobs that would go with it.

Bill Shorten had a shocker of a start to the campaign where he not only failed to explain his policies but misled a voter when he asked how his taxes would be affected. Labor’s comrades in Queensland then decided to sack that worker for daring to ask Shorten a tough question.

Add to this the Liberal Party campaign headquarters actually grew a spine in 2019 and attacked Labor’s promised tax increases aggressively, a sharp contrast with the bland 2016 jobs and growth slogan. Andrew Hirst, the Liberal campaign director, also used social media effectively to attack Bill Shorten’s unsuitability for the position of Prime Minister, reinforcing in voters their own uneasiness about Shorten’s character.

Scott Morrison was able to survive all of the candidate scandals that came his way, but this was a problem that Labor and Greens faced as well. He didn’t slip up in any of the debates, the ‘space invader’ moment turned out to be a big nothing burger. He came across as authentic, relatable and competent to the voters.

With a campaign message of economy stability, fiscal certainty and not proposing a radical increase in the size of government, Scott Morrison defied all the polls on Saturday to win the election and receive a mandate in his own right.

Not a bad feat for someone who came unexpectedly to the Prime Ministership less than a year before. The meme world has dubbed him PM Steven Bradbury, but this analogy undermines his own political skills as Scott Morrison has seized his political opportunity and achieved what not many people thought was politically possible.

The revolving door of Prime Ministers based on now-revealed inaccurate polls is in the past. Scott Morrison is the new master politician of the next generation in parliament. With the dysfunction and lack of direction the Labor party is now in, he could be Prime Minister for many years to come.

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