If you asked a roomful of Poms to list Winston Churchill’s greatest achievements, few would put ‘introducing the minimum wage’ at the top of it. And if you asked a roomful of Australians the same question about Harold Holt, I doubt many would cite the central role he had in the dismantling of the White Australia policy. Indeed, most would struggle to get beyond the event which earned him the distinction of being the only prime minister anywhere to have a swimming pool named after him.
Politicians, as Peter van Onselen observed in a recent Weekend Australian article, are rarely remembered for more than one thing. But while most don’t make their legacy a priority until retirement looms, I doubt whether many make any major policy decision, from day one, without wondering how it will inform their epitaph. And more often than not, the really career-defining decisions are not articulations of long-held principles, or the keeping of manifesto promises, but unrehearsed responses to the kind of unforeseeable challenges Harold MacMillan referred to as ‘events, dear boy, events’.
The events which have asked the most searching questions of Scott Morrison’s leadership are, of course, the bushfires and Covid-19. And his responses to them have produced dramatically different results. When the Messiah-from-the-Shire morphed into Our-Guy-in-Hawaii, a second landslide victory seemed unlikely. Today, however, with Australia’s infection and mortality rates the envy of the world, his poll lead seems unassailable. But in politics even huge events have use-by dates: six months after saving Britain from Hitler, Churchill lost a general election (although he did retain his own seat). By July, Covid will also be history for most Australians, thanks to the vaccines we’re all about to get. So even if Mr Morrison called an election as early as October, he’d need another string to his bow to be confident of winning it.
But perhaps by then he will have consolidated his reputation for being a stand-up guy. I don’t mean the kind of stand-up guy who can be relied on to take a bullet for you in an American cop show. Or the kind of stand-up guy you might pay to see at the Melbourne Comedy Festival when it eventually resumes. I mean the kind of stand-up guy who stands up to things. The way Mr Morrison has already stood up to China and Facebook. To capitalise on the popularity this has gained him, to be remembered as a real David, he should now turn his attention to some more Goliaths. Like the bullies of the international Climate Alarm, Critical Race and Free Speech lobbies.
At time of writing, the Duke of Edinburgh is said to be looking forward to leaving hospital, so speculation about his legacy might sound, as the great Arthur Daley would have put it, a bit previous. Like most Speccie readers I hope the man who is worshipped as a god on one Pacific island and called Man-Belong-Mrs-Queen on another, can soldier on to 9 June, when he will become Britain’s second most popular centenarian of recent times – the Number One spot having been secured by the late fund-raising hero Captain Tom Moore, who also happens to be the oldest man ever to be knighted. Apart from being the last person to be given an Australian knighthood, I’m not sure if the Duke of Edinburgh holds any record, but if he does it would surely be in the field of blood sports. In the UK alone he is recorded as having shot over 30,000 rabbit, hare, deer, snipe, woodcock, partridge, pheasant and grouse.
And while the numbers of the tiger and other big game he is thought to have blown away in India and Africa are less reliable, we do know that he and Prince Charles once killed 50 wild boar in a single day in Germany. What makes the Duke’s tally all the more impressive is that much of it was chalked up while he was President of the Worldwide Fund for Nature. Perhaps an episode will be dedicated to this interesting fact in the forthcoming season of The Crown. Let’s hope His Royal Highness lives long enough to find out who’ll play him.
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