Dennis Atkins: Scott Morrison is mastering John Howard’s ‘mean and tricky’ playbook

The Prime Minister will need to do more than just copy John Howard's strategy.

The Prime Minister will need to do more than just copy John Howard's strategy. Photo: AAP

John Howard gave the front page of the NT News what looked like a casual glance.

He noted the main story about teenagers going on a small crime spree, questioning why there weren’t more recreational options among the young.

Howard was prime minister on a visit to Darwin and your correspondent was along for the ride, getting some face time for an interview.

After running through the vital Queensland issues, we discussed youth crime, and Howard, suitably appalled at the reported behaviour, questioned why there weren’t more recreational and creative opportunities for young people.

The story was sure to get a good run in the NT News (owned by News Corp, as is the paper I was writing for) and you can be sure Howard knew that.

As we left the room he said I should make sure I file the youth crime yarn because he’d have something to say about it the next day.

Anyone who’s studied Howard knows he has always been relentless when it comes to striving to get his messages out.

The youth crime story was perfect for his way of doing business.

It’s a practical response, carries no cost for the Commonwealth and reinforced Howard’s values.

Former Prime Minister John Howard

Scott Morrison has never sought to disguise his adoption of Howard as a role model. They share conservative social values and have a pragmatic approach to economic policy.

It’s hardly surprising the current PM would take a cue from Howard on law and order. He has taken a hard line against people attending mass protests like the Black Lives Matter gatherings we saw last weekend.

Morrison doesn’t want people to attend and, if they do, he anticipates they’ll be charged and fined.

In political terms, this is a straight out pitch for the centre-ground – it’s where Australian elections are won and lost and Morrison has this patch of political earth in his sights.

Of course, to open up the centre as your field of battle you need to show some flexibility and a willingness to shake off rigidities.

This was on display when the PM took a question in Parliament about recovering welfare overpayments, the so-called robodebt scandal.

Just days before, Attorney-General Christian Porter declined an offer to apologise for the all too obvious shortcomings of the old scheme and the anguish that resulted.

By the end of the week, Morrison didn’t share his Attorney-General’s reticence and reluctance, taking the issue on.

”I would apologise for any hurt or harm in the way that the Government has dealt with that issue and to anyone else who has found themselves in those situations,” Morrison said.

john howard

Mr Howard’s actions revealed his character, Mr Morrison said.

It’s easy to parse Morrison’s words and conclude it’s a non-apology apology. However, the PM wasn’t chasing a grammatical gold star.

Rather he was aiming to shine a light on his own agility.

Morrison wants to be judged for getting the politics right and any additional effort to follow up.

There’s plenty of evidence that Morrison has not changed – he remains the same marketing guy who loves a slogan.

He’s just as stubborn as he was before he being shamed into slinking back from his Hawaiian holiday. What’s different now is he can hide it.

Morrison’s has learned the key lesson he needed to heed from his summer holiday bushfire disaster – look like you’re listening and listen like you’re looking.

It’s always worth recalling that one of Howard’s great wake-up calls (he gathered plenty of them during his long career) came after the former long-serving prime minister was called ”mean and tricky” by the former Liberal federal president in 2001.

Howard went in to win the next two elections.

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