Even in the political after-life, Morrison departs from the norm

The leadership instability of recent years in both major parties has generated a relatively high number of ex-PMs.

By Joshua Black

In the past fortnight, former prime minister Scott Morrison has reemerged as a subject of public discussion. First, there was rumour about his interest in securing work with the Australian Rugby League Commission, which he promptly dismissed as “pub talk”.

Second, Morrison made his debut on the international lecture circuit with an address to the Asian Leadership Conference in Seoul. He seized that opportunity to criticise China and defend his own government’s pandemic legacy, suggesting “history would treat his government more kindly” than contemporaries have done.

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Then the former prime minister went to Perth to deliver a sermon at the Victory Life Centre, the Pentecostal Church led by conservative former tennis star Margaret Court. In his 50-minute address, he stressed that Australians should put their trust in God rather than in governments or the United Nations. He also warned that prevailing feelings of anxiety – about the ongoing pandemic, the climate crisis or the cost of living – were part of “Satan’s plan”.

With that performance, Morrison has signalled that he will likely depart from the established conventions of post-prime ministerial life in Australia.The leadership instability of recent years in both major parties has generated a relatively high number of ex-PMs. Their behaviour, and the reactions they receive, tell us much about our political culture.

Australia has never had more than eight former prime ministers alive at one time, and in the mid-20th century, three of them died in office. Today there are seven of them still with us, all of whom have seen their reputations rise and fall.

Australia’s most successful former leaders have been those who deliberately try to embody generosity, magnanimity and a degree of bipartisanship. The first former prime minister, Edmund Barton, set that standard in 1903 when he resigned from the top job to continue his public service on the newly created High Court. His biographer Geoffrey Bolton suggested Barton enjoyed his transformation in public opinion from “Tosspot Toby” to that of a “well-regarded elder statesman”.

Several of Australia’s postwar leaders have emulated that model. Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser left the bitter politics of the dismissal behind them and dedicated themselves to humanitarian causes. Whitlam was Australia’s ambassador to UNESCO in Brussels, while Fraser campaigned against apartheid in South Africa before joining humanitarian group CARE Australia. Both were highly critical of their successors.

Kevin Rudd has spent the past decade immersing himself in the challenge of US-China bilateral relations, and campaigning against the impact of News Corp on Australian politics. In 2016, he unsuccessfully sought Australia’s nomination for the post of secretary-general of the United Nations.

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In the recent past, Julia Gillard has similarly committed herself to causes such as the promotion of girls’ education in Africa, chairing mental health support service Beyond Blue, and helming the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London. Her erstwhile critics at The Australian newspaper admitted that this was no “miserable ghost”.

Conservatives have enjoyed their political afterlives too, albeit often in distinctly partisan ways. Earlier prime ministers such as George Reid and Stanley Melbourne Bruce were sent to London as Australia’s High Commissioner, working the British establishment. The aged Robert Menzies used his 12 years of retirement to write reminiscences, defend the British Empire from its inexorable decline, and enjoy the cricket. John Howard has studiously emulated Menzies (to the point of writing a book about him), although he remains a vigorous partisan campaigner during elections.

Even a highly unpopular leader can be rehabilitated in public opinion. Paul Keating’s “big picture” vision for Australia, which voters rejected heavily in 1996, looked more attractive after a decade of cultural division under the Howard government. By the same token, despite having lost his own seat in the landslide of 2007, Howard seemed a “byword for stability” during the leadership turmoil of the 2010s, and there was much nostalgia about him.

Under Gillard, Labor sank to new lows in the polls, but in the years since her removal in June 2013 her reputation recovered significantly, judged by some scholars to be the best prime minister post-Howard.

The public have had a little less tolerance for leaders who seem to be chasing money. John Gorton “raised a few eyebrows” with his whiskey advertisements, although Whitlam managed to get away with advertising spaghetti sauce because of his self-deprecating performance.

The popular Bob Hawke faced a fierce backlash in the 1990s following his explosive memoirs, his very public business investments, and his attempts to make money from short media appearances. It took time, some rewriting of history, and footage of beer consumption at the footy, to rekindle his love affair with the public.

Since Hawke, Australian politicians have followed their British and US counterparts by publishing memoirs in great volumes, but the lucrative international lecture circuit has been slightly less open to them.

It has been even more unseemly to be seen to act out of vengeance or bitterness. In the 1920s and 1930s, former prime minister Billy Hughes stayed in parliament and often caused significant headaches for his fellow non-Labor MPs, even voting to turf them out of office in 1929. Some felt him a “great statesman and patriot”, others a “renegade”.

Billy McMahon remained in parliament for ten years after his defeat in 1972, apparently with no aspiration to leadership. In the more recent past, Rudd and Tony Abbott both stayed in parliament after initially losing the confidence of their parties, yearning to retake the highest office.

Malcolm Turnbull left parliament immediately on being removed in August 2018, and as Aaron Patrick has recently argued, he was outwardly bitter at his removal and passionately critical of his successor at every turn. Bitterness is a public emotion that alienates former leaders from their supporters.

The job of a former prime minister is awkward, defined by the past rather than the future, and by the absence of formal power. It is a role without a script. The awkwardness is embodied in Shaun Micallef’s The Ex-PM, an ABC satire about a former prime minister who hires a writer to draft his memoirs, but finds he has no real story to tell.

But former leaders still have a meaningful role to play if they wish. They enjoy private offices, staff, and travel privileges subsidised by the public. They retain their extensive high-level contacts and enjoy an enormous public platform from which to speak. Parting shots at colleagues and embittered book tours reflect a fractious political culture, but can be forgiven if the offender makes peace, finds a new calling, or develops a stately persona above the partisan din. In time, if they appear magnanimous, generous and “above” daily politics, they can become a reassuring and encouraging presence within their partisan community.

By urging his audience not to trust in the institution of government itself, and by taking his Pentecostal rhetoric to such heights, Morrison is parting with former prime ministerial convention. The congregation may have approved, but his fellow Liberal MPs appeared less enthused.

Such indulgences are unlikely to re-cultivate the respect of the electorate.

Joshua Black, PhD Candidate, School of History, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.