Scott Morrison appears untouchable in Canberra’s power corridors. He’s won an election against all odds, has a two-thirds party room vote to firewall his leadership, and he dominates polls and the parliament.
In just about any other world that would be the end of the matter, but this is politics — and conversations in this sphere are driven by ambition, scheming and an endless game of “what if?”. That’s why some in Liberal Party ranks have already been asking the question “who’s next?”. It’s a game that’s presenting intriguing outcomes.
After the election, everyone assumed the new order was Morrison first, daylight second and the prime minister’s deputy Josh Frydenberg third. The member for Kooyong, as hard work and ambitious as they come, just had to sit and wait. Now, he better sharpen up as he’s got a competitor hot on his heels. Western Australian Liberal Christian Porter is the guy turning most heads in Canberra for a variety of reasons.
Porter is one of the most senior ministers — carrying responsibilities for the law as attorney-general and taking on unions in his industrial relations portfolio — and he’s in the leadership group as leader of the government in the House of Representatives. This broad range of responsibilities allows him to shine and that’s just what he’s been doing.
Porter is Western Australian Liberal Party royalty in every sense of the word. His father, Charles or simply “Chilla”, ran the division for almost two decades from the high rolling 1970s, and his handsome, whipsmart son was regarded as a potential leader from his time as a high-profile Perth lawyer 25 years ago.
The younger Porter went straight into Colin Barnett’s cabinet after his election to the state parliament in 2008 where he stayed for just four years, handling the demanding roles of attorney-general and treasurer. After his election to the federal seat of Pearce in the big Liberal win of 2013, Porter cooled his heels until Malcolm Turnbull gave him an arm chair ride into Cabinet handling social security.
Now back in his comport zone of chief law officer, Porter is showing he relishes his workload, and provides the star quality otherwise missing from Morrison’s team. On the legislative front, Porter has worked his way around the religious freedom laws, something with more tripwires than anything we’ve seen since the 18C free speech battle his predecessor George Brandis found too hard five years ago. Porter has also crafted new industrial laws — the Ensuring Integrity Act — which form both a bludgeon to use against the unions, and a neat wedge to isolate the Labor opposition. He still has to navigate a legislative victory on this front, but he’s hopeful. In parliament, Porter has been quick on his feet, going from defence to attack with agility and intellect. He does this while deploying the rarest of political skills in the modern era: genuine humour.
Where Porter’s ability is best seen is in his role as the government’s chief parliamentary tactician, the leader of the house. His score against his Labor counterpart, Tony Burke, is entirely lopsided, as his mastery of standing orders demonstrated during this week’s intense battle over Victorian Liberal backbencher Gladys Liu’s interviewing skills, political doings and fundraising.
Even in this matter, Porter showed he was able to go on the attack without stepping in the bear traps all over the place. When Porter had to shut down a Labor move to debate the Liu matter, he used Liberal Party history for protection and ammunition.
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“Earlier this week we had a condolence [motion] for the last living member of the Menzies Government (Jim Forbes), who helped unravel the White Australia Policy, and all these years later this is where we are,” Porter said.
“The fundamental proposition that [Labor] are putting is that a Chinese Australian, with a wonderful heritage, who overcame domestic violence, who came to this country, who came to this country and has natural associations with Chinese organisations, by virtue of those associations is not a fit and proper person to be here.”
Porter’s colleagues are watching him closely and like what they see. “Christian is everything we look for in a future leader while Josh (Frydenberg), while hardworking, is seen as too close to the boss [Morrison],” said one Liberal MP.
“Josh is looking like a mini-me while Christian is very much his own man.”
Dennis Atkins is a freelance writer based in Brisbane where he was a national political editor during the Howard Government. He is filling in for part of the time while Bernard Keane is enjoying a break.