As Scott Morrison leaves parliament, where does he rank among Australian prime ministers?

This week Scott Morrison, Australia’s 30th prime minister, will deliver his valedictory speech to the House of Representatives. As Morrison leaves parliament, it’s timely to ask where he is placed in the pantheon of Australia’s national leaders.


  • Paul Strangio

    Emeritus professor of politics, Monash University

Already there have been unflattering verdicts on Morrison’s prime-ministerial standing. For example, in her withering account of his leadership, veteran columnist and author Niki Savva writes that among detractors, “Morrison was regarded as the worst prime minister since Billy McMahon”. Moreover, according to Savva, following the August 2022 revelation of his commandeering of five ministries during the COVID pandemic, his reputation sunk still lower: “he was worse than McMahon. Worse even than Tony Abbott, who lasted a scant two years in the job”.

How can we rank prime ministerial performance?

How might we know how Morrison’s record stacks up against his prime-ministerial peers? One device for evaluating comparative leadership performance is expert rankings. Australia has had a slow take-up in this field, unlike the United States, where presidential rankings have a lineage stretching back three-quarters of a century and are a veritable scholarly cottage industry.

In recent years, there have been forays into this territory in Australia, with three prime-ministerial rankings conducted by newspapers and two initiated by Monash University in 2010 and 2020. (I was the organiser of both of these Monash rankings.)

These rankings have been largely consistent in their results. The experts, mostly political historians and political scientists, have judged the nation’s greatest prime minister to be its second world war leader, John Curtin. The other leaders in the top echelon are, in rough order, Bob Hawke, Ben Chifley, Alfred Deakin, Robert Menzies, Andrew Fisher, John Howard, Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam.

At the other end of the scale, Billy McMahon, who is chiefly remembered for being defeated by Labor’s Whitlam at the December 1972 election, thereby bringing to a close the Liberal Party’s postwar ascendancy, has been consistently rated Australia’s prime-ministerial dunce. Even his biographer, Patrick Mullins, acknowledges that McMahon has become “a by-word for failure, silliness, ridicule”.

However, in the most recent of the rankings, the Monash 2020 survey, McMahon had a close competitor for bottom place: Tony Abbott. Forty-four out of 66 respondents to that survey assessed Abbott’s prime ministership a failure. Other prime ministers to the rear of the field included Abbott’s contemporaries, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull.

Morrison was not included in the 2020 rankings because as the incumbent his prime ministership was incomplete, and so it was premature to evaluate his performance. Let us now, though, measure his record against the nine benchmarks that the experts were asked to consider in rating the nation’s leaders.

So how does Morrison shape up?

The first is “effectively managing cabinet”. To date, little has been disclosed about the integrity of cabinet processes under Morrison’s stewardship. Yet, whatever the merits of that management, his scandalous breach of the norms of cabinet government by secretly assuming several ministries will irretrievably stain his reputation in this regard.

Next is “maintaining support of Coalition/party”. That Morrison avoided being deposed by his party, which was the fate of his immediate predecessors (Rudd, Julia Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull), counts in his favour. As the ABC docuseries Nemesis shows, however, his prime ministership was marked by serious frictions both within the Liberal Party and between the Liberal and National coalition partners.

“Demonstrating personal integrity”. This was not one of Morrison’s strong suits. As Savva makes searingly evident, and Nemesis also highlights, Morrison earned a reputation for being economical with the truth (including hiding his acquisition of colleagues’ ministries), for evading accountability and shifting blame (“I don’t hold a hose, mate”), and for corrupted processes under his watch (an example being the shameless pork-barrelling of the community sport infrastructure program in the lead-up to the 2019 election).

“Leaving a significant policy legacy”. Here Morrison is partly damned by his own words. In office, he insisted he was not concerned about his legacy, equating the idea with a vanity project. Indeed, an obsession with the theatre of politics and a corresponding lack of substance caused his prime ministership to come to be seen as bereft of purpose.

On the other hand, management of the COVID pandemic, however mixed, accords a significance to his time in office. AUKUS stands as the other major legacy of Morrison’s prime ministership, entrenched as it has been by his successor, Anthony Albanese. The agreement promises to influence Australia’s defence capability until the middle of this century and beyond, although only time will tell whether it enhances the nation’s security or is a dangerous white elephant.

“Relationship with the electorate”. Morrison’s record here is mixed. In his favour, he won an election (something McMahon couldn’t claim). Yet, by the time of the 2022 election, according to the Australian Election Study, he was the least popular major party leader in the history of that survey, which dates back to the 1980s.

His public toxicity was a primary factor in the Coalition’s defeat, one of his Liberal colleagues comparing the depth of public sentiment against the prime minister in 2022 to “having a 10,000-tonne boulder attached to your leg”.

“Communication effectiveness”. Styling himself as a Cronulla Sharks-supporting “daggy dad” from the suburbs, at least initially Morrison’s communication mode seemed to be well received in the community. He was relentlessly on message during the 2019 election campaign.

But the shine rapidly wore off his persona following that victory, with growing doubts about his authenticity. Rather than persuade, his habit was to hector, and rather than empathise, he exuded smugness. A series of notorious tin-eared statements, which especially alienated women voters, came to define his image. By the end he was known as the “bulldozer-in-chief”.

“Nurturing national unity”. An innovation of Morrison’s at the beginning of the pandemic was the national cabinet. Bringing together the prime minister and premiers, it worked effectively for a time, only for partisan interests over lockdowns to strain relations between Canberra and the states.

Under pressure, Morrison also flirted with divisive culture-war politics, instances being his divisive Religious Discrimination Bill and his egregious handpicking of the anti-transgender Liberal candidate Katherine Deves to contest the 2022 election.

“Defending and promoting Australia’s interests abroad”. The AUKUS pact has vehement critics, led by Morrison’s prime-ministerial peers Keating and Turnbull, who argue it jeopardises national sovereignty.

There is no denying, however, that AUKUS was Morrison’s signature foreign policy enterprise. On the other hand, Australia’s reputation as a laggard on climate change under the Coalition hurt our international standing, not least among Pacific neighbours. The Morrison government’s belated commitment to a net zero carbon emissions by 2050 target was too little, too late. Bellicose rhetoric towards Beijing also led to a deterioration in relations with the nation’s major trading partner (as well as estranging Chinese-Australian voters).

“Being able to manage turbulent times”. Here, again, Morrison’s record is at best mixed. In his favour is decisive early actions to ameliorate the COVID pandemic, headed by the JobKeeper program. As the pandemic progressed, however, his government was too often flat-footed, demonstrated by its dilatory approach to procuring vaccines. His response to natural disasters, most notably the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, was another shortcoming, exemplified by his secret holiday to Hawaii in the midst of the crisis. Arguably, his prime ministership was doomed from that moment.

And the verdict?

Prime-ministerial reputations can take time to settle. The passing of years fleshes out historical knowledge as well as providing greater perspective on performance in office. For example, the fate of AUKUS will quite possibly affect Morrison’s standing well into the future.

Even allowing for this, it seems safe to forecast that Morrison will be rated among the least distinguished of Australian prime ministers. His government’s relatively successful early management of the COVID pandemic and the legacy of AUKUS might spare him from falling below McMahon and Abbott at the bottom of the prime-ministerial heap. But avoiding that ignominy will probably be a close-run thing.

The Conversation

In the past Paul Strangio received funding from the Australian Research Council.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.