This interview was conducted on 3rd November, 2023 and at the time of publication Mr Morrison has since announced his retirement from politics.
Sitting down with the former Australian Prime Minister on a typically rainy St Andrews afternoon late last semester was a tremendous privilege, which brought with it a vibrant and wide-ranging conversation. From the impact of Morrison’s childhood and personal faith, his government’s COVID-19 response, foreign policy, and what the future holds for the Western world, throughout our discussion I sought to gain an understanding of what drove Morrison’s worldview and policy perspective.
We began with a point of familiarity, our shared experiences growing up in Sydney’s east, something exerting profound impacts upon the future of Morrison’s political career. With his father, the late John Morrison, serving as mayor of the local Waverley Council for 16 years, politics was inextricable from childhood and family life. “Helping him campaign was hanging out with my dad” Morrison quipped. However, he was quick to note that this political involvement “was not partisan” and its austere focus on “roads, tolls, and rubbish”, imparted a conception of politics as “civic duty”. Arguably the most notable aspect of the former Prime Minister’s public image has been his religiosity through an involvement with the Pentecostal Horizon Church, something again inseparable from the influence of the elder Morrison. “He was often attacked for his faith as have I been” Morrison noted, commenting on the continued importance of a lesson he learned in this political childhood “to never hide [religion], but never push it”. Ultimately for Morrison faith “is what motivates service to others” and has and continues to be “an enormous source of strength and consolation”.
Navigating the tension between hiding and pushing religion is something which undoubtedly underlined Morrison's tumultuous final months as Prime Minister, embodied in the widespread political conflict that ensued with the announcement of the 2022 Religious Discrimination Bill. I know for myself working on the campaign of then-Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, though himself publicly rejecting the government’s bill and crossing the House floor in an act of defiance alongside four other Liberal members, the reaction at the polls three months later to Morrison’s support for the bill was damning. Whilst now a backbencher, Morrison speaks of facing “attacks” for his faith as motivating his caution at the future of political campaigns in the light of generative A.I. technologies. “We have to be careful with technology, that it doesn’t undermine our democracy” with Morrison pronouncing an inherent incompatibility of the technology with democratic principles “you can’t talk about free speech and A.I.”.
Calling out Big Tech
The pressures exerted by such technologies are not limited to the political sphere or even generative A.I., but rather the quasi-hegemonic power to which Silicon Valley has arisen which represents a fundamental structural challenge to the legislative ecosystem. “Our regulatory systems weren’t built for [the] digital world, our tax system wasn’t built for it”, Morrison stated, arguing that the Western political world is now “playing catch up” in a rapidly outpaced game. Reflecting upon his dealings with “the Wild West of big tech” as Treasurer from 2015 to 2018, Morrison sees a real issue with the culture and outlook at the heart of these corporate goliaths which are “starting to lose connections with ethics and principles and values”. Holding to account the likes of Meta, X, or Alphabet Inc. in a rapidly changing legislative environment necessitates states forge “better partnerships” with industry.
Speaking from his experiences engaged with negotiations with Amazon as Treasurer in 2017, Morrison was clear that this cooperation will not come easy, calling for a degree of political gumption. With Australian companies facing increased pressures from foreign competitors, a new tax policy was unveiled in 2017 which would add a ten percent GST (Goods and Services Tax) to the value of all overseas-purchased goods. Amazon being the American industry giant that they are, did not take kindly to the imposition of what certainly appeared as a protectionist tax policy. “Amazon threatened me and said we’re going to turn Amazon off in Australia, and they did”, pausing for suspense he continued, “and three months later they came back”. It’s clear both from our discussion and his tenure as Prime Minister, that Scott Morrison is a politician not scared of a fight. If we cease to have political leaders willing to confront the corporate world to iterate a cooperative solution, Morrison believes that it will be up to bureaucracy, which will inevitably produce “less effective regulations, both on revenue raising and on its impact on the efficacy of operations”.
“There’s no room for ideology in a crisis”
Reining in the mounting influence of Big Tech proved ultimately a relatively small issue for Morrison to tackle whilst in office, dwarfed by the myriad complexities of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly its most profound impact upon the country, the Morrison government’s economic response spearheaded by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s unprecedented market intervention through “JobKeeper”, has kept the country thriving. Recently lauded in an inquiry undertaken by the current Labor government, Frydenberg’s plan was responsible for saving up to 800,000 jobs and bringing the nation’s unemployment rate to its lowest point in half a century. In comparison with the United States which saw an unemployment level not felt since the Great Depression, and the U.K. which saw 925,000 employees taken off payrolls, this result is something that should be praised, partisan opinions aside. For a party which often prides itself on small government and limited market intervention, was the success of JobKeeper a vindication of Keynesianism?
Morrison staunchly retorted “no, it was a vindication of the right thing at the right time”. Defining the policy in his own terms, Morrison argued that his response was suitable to a time of desperation, “JobKeeper was social security, we were looking at unemployment going to 15%”. To any observer, a nationwide fiscal policy whereby the government intervenes with the objective of keeping the unemployment rate as low as possible, injecting $290 billion to artificially keep the economy afloat is textbook Keynesian economic thinking. The hard-line stance Morrison kept to, that his government’s economic management was not Keynesian whilst stating that “we effectively nationalised the private payrolls of almost every company in the country” perhaps speaks to a broader desire to remain independent of ideological labels, and a testament to the bogeyman position which Keynes continues to possess. Labels aside, Morrison’s experience governing during the pandemic made him well-placed to identify the necessary elements for governments to effectively manage crises.
Recounting the discussions with senior party members at the emergence of the pandemic, Morrison shared the insight given by former Prime Minister John Howard: “there’s no room for ideology in a crisis”. What facilitated Australia’s approach, being quick to shut its international borders, roll out vaccines, and limit domestic movement, from the rest of the West was its non-partisan policy-making. Alongside this, it was ensuring “a single source of information” through methodically-held daily press conferences on infection numbers and changes to stay-at-home orders, which proved crucial in minimising the potential spread of medical misinformation and “ensured that there was an objective set of information that was available constantly”. The final key to Australia’s pandemic successes lay within its constitutional foundation: the federal system. Providing a legally-entrenched “hierarchy of decision making”, policymakers were better placed to delegate the tasks necessary to steer through a society-wide catastrophe. The outcome of federalism was not without its difficulties, and Morrison was eager to point to the deferral of authority by state and territory leaders to medical experts as a case in point. Recalling a particularly tense encounter with Queensland Premier Anastasia Palaszuk over internal border closures, Morrison said:
“I had quite a row with Anastasia Palaszuk over a young woman who wanted to go to her father’s funeral in QLD and she wouldn’t let her in, I rang and her and she said ‘the Chief Medical Officer said I shouldn’t do it’, and [that was it]”
This over-reliance on unelected technocrats is clearly one of Morrison’s regrets about the way in which the political structure, more broadly, dealt with the personal implications of the pandemic. In a time of crisis weak leadership had a crutch to lean on, and as well as often producing ludicrous policy outcomes, it “put an unfair burden on the advisors”. As Morrison made clear, political leadership is distinct from a pure implementation of technical evidence, it is about a nuanced combination of the economic, political, medical, and social for the best holistic result.
Perhaps the most intriguing insight into Morrison’s worldview came when our conversation entered the realm of foreign policy. That is, the way in which he compartmentalises history centred around oscillating trends of conflict and cooperation. Reflecting upon his entrance to parliament as the Member for Cook after a tumultuous pre-selection process in 2008, Morrison subjects the period from 2007 to 2012 to the “post-Cold War globalisation” label. “By 2012 we had entered the post-globalisation strategic competition era, largely driven by where China had got to”, Morrison continued. This struggle against the rise in China’s geopolitical influence is understood by Morrison to be the motivating force behind our neat dovetailing into the current age marked by “bifurcated supply chains” where “economics is now geopolitics”. It is clear from his description of political history alone that the former Prime Minister conceives of economics and financial power as the significant drivers of international relations.
With “economics as geopolitics”, I turned to the more recent policy solutions offered under the Biden administration’s 2022 omnibus bill: the Inflation Reduction Act. After noting that “for a whole host of reasons, security being one of them, [America] is trying, rightly, to re-establish that [industrial] capability”, Morrison added that “when you have more than ninety percent of rare earths processing capacities in China that’s a big problem”. Whilst seeing a real “argument for the state to guide the rebuilding of supply chains”, the concern for Morrison is when politics enters the picture and how far the “lever” of intervention is pushed. This receptive position for what is quite wide-scale economic intervention highlights an interesting resurgence of deep-pocketed conservatism across the Western world, embodied no less by AUKUS ally Boris Johnson’s ‘One Nation’ government.
Plagued by increasingly dysfunctional domestic politics, economic woes have been just one in a number of threats to American hegemony in recent years. Over the past 12 months, the country has narrowly averted a debt crisis and experienced its second-longest period without a Speaker of the House, an unbroken 21-day streak topped only by the 55 days of 1962. For all the academic talk of a declining hegemon, do these issues really herald a decline in U.S. power and confidence in them as a global partner? “People are always writing the US off and they always get it wrong,” Morrison said, “and the reason why they always get it wrong, is they always discount the US’ system to right itself [...] remember when January 6th happened and people said that’s the end of democracy in America”. His ridicule at such a stance is testament to Morrison’s confidence that U.S. power is in no way flailing and its global hegemony is well intact.
An optimism for politics to self-correct was also clear in his view of global conflict. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government began ramping up its military manoeuvres in response to the barbarous attacks of Hamas upon Israeli civilians on October 7th, many, including the country’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, have questioned the nature of such intervention and its impact on Israel’s international legitimacy and support. These reputational considerations for the Western order’s legitimacy have also been wrapped-up in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, with continued support for Ukraine raised to a point of intense contention in the battle to win the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination. For Morrison however, legitimacy is not decided by public opinion; “it’s based on the law and not on Twitter, not on how people are feeling”. Nor is it in the hands of the developing world:
“take Ukraine, do you think they really care what’s happening? Which Africans are sitting down to dinner tonight discussing what’s happening in the Ukraine?”, Morrison continued “they just want to get paid”.
That non-great powers play any role at all in the formulation of international order is itself rebuked by Morrison, “you’re also assuming that these countries that sit in the middle play some role”. The primacy he affords economics in his foreign policy outlook is even more interesting when considering his earlier portrayal of the Chinese geopolitical threat. Whilst China may control the bulk of global rare earths production, the reserves of Vietnam, Brazil, and India collectively strip China of pole position. Gaining the support of these states must feature in how Western policymakers approach the administration of the liberal international order, and a parochial focus on China may end in disaster. For Morrison however, these undecided states will naturally discover the benefits of democratic capitalism as did India: “back in the 50s and 60s they adopted a Soviet economic model and it didn’t work out well, now they’ve embraced more of a capitalist model, but at least it was their decision”. This appears to be the essence of the ‘Morrisonian’ foreign policy outlook; it is one of optimism in the triumph of democracy and open markets, and one which rejects the coercive foreign policy that has, for time immemorial, defined how Western leaders approach the developing world.
As my time with the former Prime Minister drew to a close, I saw an opportunity for retrospection and anticipation. Looking back at your time in office, is there anything you wish you’d done differently? “No, not in those terms” Morrison retorted, reiterating that as Prime Minister he faced an unprecedented compounding of threats, from Covid-19 to the bushfires, “half the time I was fighting Covid, and that worked”. Looking forward then, I asked for a particular takeaway - what the three greatest challenges for Western civilisation are in the coming decades. The first issue is preserving domestic society “we must get things right at home first”, Morrison added, “they must be safe, they must be prosperous, and they must be free”. Burdened by what might seem an insurmountable mound of domestic problems, Morrison views the second issue as being to reinvigorate a sense of pride, to foster “a renewed appreciation of the foundations of Western democracy”. Finally, and echoing his earlier comments, “the rapid change of information technology” provides both challenges but also solutions. And as he notes, “Western societies are incredibly innovative, we’ve dealt with most things and we’ll deal with that too”.