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Hugh Riminton: What Morrison Must Do If He Wants To Become One Of The Greats

The federal election left many Australians despairing at the quality of national leadership.

Scott Morrison got his miracle but even those who voted for him are far from convinced he’s on a par with a Hawke or Howard.

Or even a Rudd.

At least he has a chance to give it a go.

Great political leadership in Australia has always done two things: reflect the population, and change the country.

Greatness requires both.

Labor’s high tide in the 1980s was founded in the population’s belief that Bob Hawke was there for them. His love of a drink and a punt went in his favour; his wandering eye was forgiven as long as Hazel could look the other way; his long years at the ACTU arguing for better pay had established him as the worker’s friend.

Photo: AAP

Hawke used those benefits to drive huge reforms. He both reflected Australians and changed them.

Paul Keating changed Australians, but never really reflected them. His famous taste for expensive, tailor-made Italian suits was considered foppish at the time, as was his clock collection and his references to opera singers and architecture.

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It made him a hero to the fast-rising inner-city elites who loved his rapier-style, but he ceased reflecting the outer suburban ordinariness that politics and his own brilliance had allowed him to escape.

How will Scott Morrison be remembered? Photo: AAP

He would have lost his first election as leader, in 1993, had it not been for the hapless Hewson’s ambitious plan for a GST. Bear in mind, Dr Hewson was a former Ferrari-driving investment banker. He was ill-placed to exploit the image of Keating as a crazy-eyed elitist operating from an ivory bunker.

Apply the 'reflect and change' test further back and it still holds.

Labor’s war-time PM John Curtin, the alcoholic former union official with the common touch and uncommon intellect, both reflected and changed the nation. So did Menzies with his deft appeal to the forgotten Australians. Menzies might have ended his political life as a cartoonish figure, a pompous blimp festooned with imperial ribbons -- but he had been born in fly-blown, dirt-street Jeparit in the Mallee. He was a scholarship boy. He knew where aspirations came from.

Gough Whitlam undoubtedly changed Australia, enough to be a pivotal figure despite his chaotic reign. He reflected parts of the country that had been locked out: the young, the university sector, rising multicultural Australia. But the swing against him in 1975 set a record never toppled, for all the outrage over the Dismissal.

Gough Whitlam undoubtedly changed Australia, despite his chaotic reign. Photo: Getty

Arguably, Malcolm Fraser neither changed nor reflected Australia, battening down for policy stasis after the Shakespearean dramas of 1975.

John Howard was Whitlam’s opposite. The son of a solidly Methodist war veteran, Howard had earned holiday money pumping gas at his father’s petrol station. Like Margaret Thatcher, he was born into business but at the small end of town. His reforms in his early years were real, particularly the GST.

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Events drove his other legacies: gun reform after the Port Arthur massacre; playing midwife to Timor-Leste; using the Tampa stand-off to block our borders to sea-borne refugees; responding to terrorist atrocities in the US and Bali to launch us into war-zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. Never hugely loved while in office, he nevertheless reflected the Australian centre and changed us.

Over the past decade, what have we had?

Former PMs Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Paul Keating each left their own mark on the country. Photo: AAP

For a while, Australians felt Kevin Rudd represented what was best about us. But it was a short while.

Julia Gillard uniquely reflected 51 percent of the population and did her best in minority government to change the rest of us. But she never escaped the taint of bringing down her predecessor and her key reform, pricing carbon, didn’t outlast her prime ministership.

Having campaigned against Labor’s “broken promise” on a carbon price, Tony Abbott failed to keep his core promise: that his word could be believed. His first budget contained so many broken promises he never recovered.  His key initiatives were significant and lasting, however:  destroying the price on carbon and stopping the boats.

Malcolm Turnbull was hampered by his wealth.  When Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin dismissed him as “Mr Harbourside Mansion”, the arrow stuck.  Turnbull’s Point Piper exceptionalism meant he could never easily reflect Australians.

His ambitions for Australia, especially on climate policy, were thwarted by the dues he owed to the party’s right and to the Nationals.

Turnbull was "thwarted" by some inside his own party. Photo: AAP

His biggest legacy, marriage equality, was used against him by those Conservatives. On energy policy, he was defeated from within. On company tax reform he fell in the Senate.

Given all that, can Scott Morrison one day be counted among the greats?

He has some advantages.

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The son of a Sydney copper, he looks like a suburban dad and seems authentic in that role. His religiosity, pilloried by some, will do him more good than harm -- so long as he doesn’t overplay it.

Where will Morrison stack up against the likes of John Howard? Photo: AAP

Being religiously observant is probably an asset in Australian political life. Being seen as driven by religion is not.

Morrison’s very ordinariness -- like Howard’s -- is a plus. But great prime ministers are never simply ordinary.

We face challenges that will require footwork and courage, not least as the planet warms and China spreads its wings. Australia will need to embrace change to stay in the game.

Reflect. And change.

Morrison has gone some way with the first part. The second part will make his prime ministership interesting. We have yet to see him begin.