If Scott Morrison is serious about presenting himself as an Australian everyman pursuing a values agenda that brings the country together he should consider doing the following (that is, assuming he can avoid an early election that would surely spell Armageddon politically for the conservatives forces. Loss of Wentworth may well hasten this prospect).
1. He should declare a truce in the debilitating culture wars that have undermined confidence in the political process and deflected attention from bread-and-butter issues affecting families.
2. He should resist the tribalisation of politics in which forces of left and right squeeze what might be described as the sensible centre. This wedge of disenfranchised voters in the middle has had a gutful of politics as usual.
3. He should avoid the temptation to pander to a mythical base on issues like climate in the hope he can shore up sufficient support to compensate for a failure to occupy the middle ground on these sorts of issues.
4. He should be wary of advice the road to electoral success runs from the centre-right, trending further right. Whatever else the same sex marriage vote demonstrated it showed a country that voted 62-38 per cent in favour is more progressive than agents provocateurs on the right would have you believe.
5. He needs to be very careful before embarking on religious discrimination legislation lest such legislation causes more problems than it solves.
Let’s start with the culture wars issue in which one side of politics has weaponised phrases like political correctness, identity politics, and virtue signalling to assail its opponents.
While there is no doubt opposing warring tribes take refuge in predictably cloistered positions, it is not clear one side is more at fault than the other.
Politicisation of the political correctness phrase has rendered it hackneyed and meaningless.
Morrison would be advised to avoid it, along with its companions, identity politics and virtue signalling.
In parliament last week Morrison pledged not to “pit one Australian against another’’. He undertook to “work for the unity of all Australians’’.
Let’s hold him to account when he says, as he did in a Fairfax Media interview: “If people expect me to be a culture warrior in the job, that’s not my job.’’
If we take him at his word Morrison would make a virtue of eschewing the tribalisation of Australian politics. Running to a mythical base will exacerbate the problem.
Morrison might be tempted to follow John Howard’s example in which Howard made effective use of culture war issues to prolong his tenure; but there are significant differences between that era and now.
Not least of these differences is the rise of social media and the amplification of a media echo chamber in which voices from the right exert enormous pressures on the political process.
Malcolm Turnbull sought to ignore these mouthpieces while yielding ground to their agents in the parliamentary Liberal Party. In the end, he was eaten alive politically.
In Morrison’s case, he would be much mistaken to believe his own success will depend on his ability to pander to a cat’s chorus outside the parliamentary process.
On the evidence, it’s not clear whether he has the ability to rise above pressures like those of a caterwauling campaign in the early days of his prime ministership to disavow Australia’s commitment to the Paris agreement on climate.
This brings us to the vexed issue of religious freedom. In his Fairfax interview Morrison pledged to take a "proactive approach to ensuring people’s religious freedoms are protected".
At risk of appearing naive, I wasn’t aware “people’s religious freedoms’’ were threatened since these freedoms are protected explicitly by Section 116 of the Constitution guaranteeing the “free exercise of religion”; nor could it be argued people are particularly exercised about this issue in any case.
A Pew Research Centre survey found Australians rank in the lowest quartile, just 18 per cent, among those who say they pray every day, behind Canada on 25 per cent and in front of Britain's 6 per cent. The European average is 22 per cent.
About half of all Australians declare they are Christian, according to the latest census, but among 18-34 year-olds it is closer to 20 per cent. The point is, this is not a matter about which the community more generally is agitating.
If Morrison wanted to do something really useful he would initiate a debate about an absence of constitutional support for free speech. Lack of a First Amendment right is a lacuna in the eye of the Australian Constitution.
Finally, and apart from declaring a truce in the culture wars, Morrison should learn to shout less. Might we suggest he take advantage of his folksy image – if genuine – to actually speak to Australians conversationally.
He could even consider the odd fireside chat in which he lays out challenges and remedies and resists the temptation to insult people’s intelligence. There’s a novel idea for an Australian political leader.