In racing parlance, Scott Morrison is sitting one out and one back, very well placed politically for both the short and longer terms.
If Tony Abbott survives, Morrison’s social services portfolio gives him plenty of scope to demonstrate policy skills and be in the public eye.
If there’s a leadership change, Morrison could expect to be treasurer under Malcolm Turnbull; with Julie Bishop, his future would be less certain but his ability would ensure he was no worse off than now. A contest late in the piece might possibly even see him in the field.
One senior Liberal says: “He’s a ‘must-have’ in the inner group. He’s emerged as a big beast in the party.”
At 46, Morrison is a political generation younger than Abbott (57), Bishop (58) and Turnbull (60). He has time to wait. His prospect of eventually leading the Liberals must be rated as strong.
Morrison’s early months in the social services portfolio already have his colleagues talking, and not just about the startling change from the border policeman’s aggressive face to the smiling visage so obvious when he appeared at the National Press Club recently.
“I’m the same person I’ve always been,” Morrison says. “People are seeing different sides of me in this role that people who know me better would have known for a long period.
"Different portfolios shine a light on different parts of what you’re about, and obviously in immigration it required a very strong approach.” He’s proud of his record although he admits “being in the immigration portfolio is like walking on the edge of a razor blade the entire time, you make one little slip and there’s a fair bit of damage”.
His new job “requires dealing with a large number of stakeholders in particular and being across a broad range of policy areas”.
Close monitors of these things, his colleagues note the support Morrison is picking up within the party. His appeal to the backbench is as a pragmatist and a negotiator.
When he was immigration minister, the right in particular liked his toughness and his fix-it-at-all-costs approach. The hard line on boats appealed to the base.
In social services, backbenchers are looking to Morrison for something quite different. Desperate to protect their seats, they need the hard edges sanded off some proposed policies, notably the alteration to the indexation of pensions and the crackdown on younger people’s entitlement to the unemployment benefit.
These are barnacles left from the 2014 budget which have not become law but are doing damage electorally while not yielding savings. Morrison is clear that he’s up for refining them if he can achieve deals.
He recalls the “give and take” in his successful negotiation last year with crossbenchers over the restoration of temporary protection visas. But there’s a qualification – he’ll never take a measure “off the table” without something else being put in its place. He’s a trader.
On the change to pension indexation, he says: “I’m pragmatic about these things but at the same time I’m not going to concede the debate to doing nothing”. Queensland Liberal MP Andrew Laming, who regards Morrison as “arguably our best-performing minister in the last year”, is confident he will deliver a workable compromise.
Of the plan for the young to wait six months for the dole, Morrison says: “I’m aware of the concerns that crossbenchers and members have”; he’ll consider any better options.
Given his immediate history, it was tempting to think Morrison would bring a highly punitive approach to social services, a portfolio with huge outlays. But it seems he’s as much about spending as saving.
“I’m not sure where he is on economics,” a Liberal backbencher says. “I’m not sure whether he’s an economic rationalist.”
Morrison says he wants more “efficient” spending of the existing resources. His portfolio area is “$150 billion a year and it’s growing – the highest rate of growth of any of the areas of government outlays – and we have to get that increase under control … I don’t want to ask for a single extra dollar where I don’t feel we’re not spending every dollar we have currently well.”
One challenge is to “make room for a thumping big initiative which was supported from the last government” – the National Disability Insurance Scheme. “It’s only 40% funded out of the levy and we have to swallow this within the social services budget over the next ten years, and that’s going to be a big task.” Can it be swallowed? “Well, if we can be successful in prosecuting the saves through the budget that we have been seeking.”
Morrison is the “spending” minister on cabinet’s expenditure review committee (ERC). One source says he has not yet figured out how to juggle the two roles – being an ERC minister and a spending minister. He’s impatient, according to this source, getting frustrated with “process”. “He’s not very good at delayed gratification – [It’s] ‘I want this now’”.
Such traits have been a recurring theme in his career, most notably leading to a spectacular blow-up when he headed Tourism Australia, which ended badly for him.
Before the December reshuffle, his impatience to be moving onwards and upwards sparked friction with ministerial colleagues, including – but not confined to – Attorney-General George Brandis and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce – who felt he was after bits of their territory.
There was speculation of a new homeland security portfolio for him; when that was kiboshed, his eyes turned to defence.
Although social services might not have been his preferred choice, it’s a good showcase for Morrison’s talents.
Friends and enemies agree on a couple of points about Morrison – his vaulting ambition and his superior communications skills. He can sell a message, and he is usually pitching directly to the battlers.
This latter comes through clearly in his attitude to child care. Asked about the small projected increase in participation of mothers (some 16,400) envisaged by the Productivity Commission from its child care blueprint, Morrison says the important thing is where the increase comes. “For me, the participation goal is … quite targeted.”
While he wants to see people on family incomes of more than $160,000 make the decision to work, “I think the area where the most can be achieved with changes is the middle to lower incomes.
"Now those families don’t have the choice whether to go back to work or not … My focus is to try and make the equation better for those families.”
The child care area illustrates his attitude to spending, saving and seeking trade-offs.
For extra spending on child care, “my view is there has to be offsetting savings. My preference is that any change that we make that requires additional funding wouldn’t be done by a levy, but we’re in discussions with the opposition.” He refers to various unpassed savings in the Senate, particularly in the Family Tax Benefits. “If we can come to some accommodation on saves in this area, then that obviously gives me more room to move in terms of the improvements I can make on child care.”
He’s had “constructive meetings … held in good faith” with Labor spokeswoman Kate Ellis. “Whether it will come to something I don’t know. I don’t think the hard part of that discussion is actually working out how you can make the system better. Kate’s been a minister in this area as well, she knows the inadequacies of it hopefully at least as well as I do. The problem is how you fund it.”
Morrison’s broad policy priorities are getting young people into work, mothers back to work, and older people remaining at work – the latter “not out of any sort of national duty but just because it’s a really good idea for them and their families”.
He looks to a future, as superannuation kicks in more fully, where an increasing proportion of older people will be on a combination of super and a part pension.
Adequacy is one of the major issues for him in the discussion of retirement income. “When you’re looking at retirement incomes you can’t just talk about the pension.
"We have to be honest about the pension. It is not a lavish payment. Therefore, Australians have got to think widely about what their income support options are,” he says.
“I often use the story [that] when I left school Paul Keating said I had to provide for my own retirement. When my parents left school that’s not the message they got from the government.
"As a result, I think there’s a change in the contract between the government and Australians about their retirement incomes and obviously superannuation is plan A and the take up of that is not where you want it to be long term.
"You’ve got 80% or thereabouts of people who are over retirement age who are on a part or full pension. Now over time I think you’ll see the number on a part pension increase and a full pension decrease. One of the things that will change that will be people drawing on their own capital.”
Asked about Treasurer Joe Hockey’s idea that people should be able to dip into their super for housing or re-training, Morrison says: “You’ve got to look at it in the big picture. What are people going to have to spend on their retirement, and if you’re equipping them either to make themselves better able to support themselves through working or have lower costs because they’ve been able to look after their shelter costs earlier in life – well, that potentially has an upside.”
One of his worries is that people have become reform-shy, daunting when he has Patrick McClure’s just-released report recommending a major (though gradual) overhaul of welfare, to simplify payments and get people into work.
“You can start with some very small steps and I think that is what Patrick is recommending. You start small and you build it up over time. I think while there isn’t a big appetite for big change in the community or in politics, there is, I hope, an attitude for incremental change, which is what I’m arguing for.”
Morrison says the “binary assessment of policy at the moment is not conducive to getting a good outcome”. He wants to move past the stark “are you for it/are you against it”, “winners and losers” type of argument.
He professes a preference for non-combative politics, but notably it is on his terms.
As opposition immigration spokesman: “I was immensely combative in that space because I knew the government was getting it wrong and I was proved right when I had the opportunity for us to put in place our policies,” he says.
“Now in this space I would like – at least at first, if I can – to try to get people on the same page. If I am unsuccessful in that, well, that’s a shame, but I think the options before us in this space are far, far broader than what we had in the border protection debate. There was a genuine difference of view and when that happens, that’s what happens. Hopefully we won’t have as big a difference of view in this area.”