Tuesday Dec 05, 2023

The moments that might have cost Scott Morrison the prime ministership

The Tragic Case of Nikki Catsouras’s Death


Scott Morrison loomed large in an account of Labor’s election triumph from its National Secretary, which outlined some key moments that may have cemented voters’ perceptions of the former PM – and a Coalition defeat.

Paul Erickson said a positive appeal to a “better future” ultimately helped Labor prevail.

The ALP National Secretary said on Wednesday that the party platform was deeper than a Coalition pitch whose standout policy, allowing superannuation drawdowns for housing purposes, was released six days before the election.

Attacking Mr Morrison’s competence and character was key to selling Labor’s own platform to undecided voters who, after the pandemic, showed a “deep sense of fatigue, anxiety, and aversion to risk”.

paul Erickson
ALP National Secretary Paul Erickson. Photo: ALP

“This was the second objective of our campaign – to ensure for anyone still sitting on the fence the spectre that haunted them into the polling booth was three more years of Scott Morrison,” he said.

Mr Erickson said Mr Morrison was already associated with negative character traits that the party played upon during the campaign, such as avoiding taking blame for mistakes and deep partisanship.

Mr Erikson’s account of the election result touches on the issues where the Coalition’s pre-election blunders had them enter the campaign already gravely wounded.


A voter backlash against a government seen as having failed to act on shocking allegations of sexual misconduct hurt Mr Morrison’s standing with women voters.

The National Secretary noted that a number of incidents or issues fed into this perception of Mr Morrison, including policies such as ending universal childcare.

But Mr Erickson said party research showed Mr Morrison’s perceived inability to understand women was one of voters’ most enduring assessments of his character.

Response to Brittany Higgins’ allegations

Mr Morrison’s response to allegations by a former Liberal staffer’s allegation that she was raped in the Ministerial Wing of Parliament stuck with women voters all the way until polling day, Mr Erickson said.

The former prime minister invoked his own experience as a father to explain why he was taking Ms Higgins’ allegations with due seriousness, which led critics to ask if he had just admitted to not being concerned on a human level.

“Jenny and I spoke last night, and she said to me, ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’,” Mr Morrison said of the issue.

“Jenny has a way of clarifying things. Always has. And so, as I’ve reflected on that overnight and listened to Brittany and what she had to say.”

Hailing a ‘triumph’

One month later protesters massed to condemn Parliament’s workplace culture and call for action.

Mr Morrison acknowledged the demonstrators while speaking in Parliament and offered an observation that was criticised as glib and which left some women stunned.

“Not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets, but not here in this country,” Mr Morrison told Parliament.

“This is a triumph of democracy when we see these things take place.”

The China scare

Coalition rhetoric on China before the election reached such a peak that it drew a veiled rebuke from senior members of the national security establishment.

But it was during the campaign that Mr Morrison really went hardest. During the first leaders’ debate with Anthony Albanese, Mr Morrison asked in response to a question about his government’s presence in the Pacific: “Why are you always taking China’s side?” His successor suggested it was time to prepare for war.

Mr Erickson said their campaign sensed opportunity during the debate and all the moments leading up to it.

“Within a week, Labor released our detailed plan to restore Australia’s place as the partner of choice for countries in the Pacific,” he said.

“The contrast couldn’t have been clearer.”

Foreign Minister Penny Wong was quick to establish ties in the Pacific region, making her first official trip to Fiji.

The ALP boss said the rhetoric had an indisputable effect on Australian voters with Chinese heritage. Labor captured seats with large numbers of Chinese Australian voters such as Melbourne’s Chisholm and Bennelong in Sydney’s north.

Taking on premiers

COVID-19 presented a unique set of political circumstances leading up to the election, one of which was giving state premiers a pronounced position in public debate due to their central role in the pandemic response.

Mr Morrison apparently failed to read the room, Mr Erickson said, and was punished for picking fights with two state governments on COVID border closures that Labor says voters found “mindlessly partisan”.

In March 2020, Mr Morrison decided to join mining tycoon Clive Palmer’s suit against the WA government’s decision to close off its interstate border. It would haunt him for the rest of his days as Prime Minister and feature heavily in analysis of the Coalition’s election wipeout in what was once its base.

“I do fear an all-or-nothing approach on the case is not the best way forward because I think the constitutional position is fairly clear,” he said of Mr Palmer’s case, which he said got the constitutional law right.

Months later he was at it again, making indirect but clear criticism of Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk over an interstate closure just before a state election – an intervention many thought more appropriate for a sitting PM.

“They are not something I suppose to boast of, they are things that are necessary, but are regrettably necessary in many occasions,” Mr Morrison said.

Mr Erickson said the comments, combined with what he described as a cynical strategy of seeking credit for pandemic successes while ensuring only premiers delivered bad news, proved “galling” for voters.

“At the heart of this behaviour were two impulses that the Liberals seemed incapable of controlling – hubris and mindless partisanship,” he said.

Only failure personified

These are only some of the issues Mr Erickson suggests may have been decisive.

His is a nuanced account of campaigning which shows how one side’s political victory is indivisible from another’s missteps. Ultimately he rejects any analysis which rests on a single person or issue; the Coalition’s failings were personified by Mr Morrison but they were collective and institutional. He nominated his own list of eight reasons why the Coalition lost:

  1. A pathological refusal to take responsibility for anything which comes from their small government mindset
  2. Incompetent management of the federal government’s responsibilities during the pandemic
  3. Cabinet-wide partisan attacks on state and territory governments throughout COVID which particularly alienated voters in Victoria and Western Australia
  4. Incompetent budget management
  5. An incompetent and incoherent response to the cost-of-living crisis
  6. Incoherent engagement with our allies in our region
  7. A lack of awareness or interest in women’s experiences across the economy and society
  8. A decades-long failure to take climate change seriously.


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