The French playwright Jean Giradoux once said something to this effect: “If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.”
The insight immediately went viral – well, as far as it could in 1935. It was picked up by comedians, actors and marketeers, which was why it inevitably came to our current prime minister’s attention.
However, even ProMo ScoMo apparently realised that in the circumstances, sincerity was an impossible dream – in the wake of recent events it would never pass the pub test. So instead, Scott Morrison and his army of spin doctors settled, as always, for the second best option: authenticity.
By this they mean that if the punters see enough of their prime minister going to the footy on Saturday and church on Sunday, drinking beer in public more often than is strictly necessary and parroting Alan Jones by using the homely colloquialism fair dinkum for despatchable (which isn’t a real word anyway) when he actually means coal-fired, they will think he’s just one of them, but more successful.
This may or may not be a winning strategy; there is considerable evidence that the electorate like to see their leaders as rather more able than their own fallible efforts. But in any case, more than a few voters might see that there is more to political authenticity than simply making chit chat in a hard hat on television.
The word authentic actually means reliable, trustworthy, entitled to acceptance and belief; and Morrison’s relentless attempts at ordinariness invite the belief that he is indeed pretty run of the mill. But authenticity requires rather more substance than that, and there is no sign that Morrison is prepared to address the need to include it in his policy prescriptions.
His embarrassment at having to admit that yes, he did ask Malcolm Turnbull to talk to Joko Widodo in Bali about moving the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem – it wasn’t, as he had previously agreed with Jones, an act of deliberate sabotage – was one problem last week, and the one that swamped much of the rest of the political news.
But there were others, notably the Forrest Gumpish rejection by the previous education minister, Simon Birmingham, of peer-approved research grants because he thought the names would sound funny to the readers of the Murdoch press.
I have no idea whether the projects would have produced worthwhile results or not – but nor does Birmingham, who showed no sign of reading beyond the title pages. The whole point of research is not to know in advance, but to find out – and waffle about whether it is in the national interest, by which the government means its own short term interest, is not only premature but absurd.
The expert examiners who approved it obviously thought it showed promise, but of course Birmingham, the new minister Dan Tehan and presumably Morrison knew better: roll on the culture wars. This is not authenticity but the rankest populism, naked demagoguery of which Jones would be proud.
Which leads to the conclusion that what Morrison really means by authenticity is a cynical dumbing down of complex issues in the hope that the public will not analyse them too closely. And obviously climate change is the prime example. Morrison says he accepts that it is real – up to a point. But the point is a firm full stop when it comes to doing anything about it.
Morrison has so far resisted the demands of the “stop the world we want to get off” brigade of denialists in his party room and beyond, who want Australia to walk away from the Paris accord, and presumably abrogate or ignore any international agreements and treaties that the knuckledraggers do not like. But he has studiously refused to acknowledge the concern of the scientists, who insist that action is urgent and drastic if the planet is to remain in anything like the condition we would prefer.
Morrison replies that Australia is doing its part, to the extent that we will meet our Paris targets for reducing emissions in a canter. Virtually no-one else shares his optimism — once again the scientists are saying that not only is Australia lagging severely on its current commitments, but they need to be ramped up in the near future. It needs hardly be said that the prospect of that happening under Morrison’s regime is remote to the point of non-existence.
But his stubbornness is truly authentic: he knows that what people really want is lower electricity prices, and if they say that climate change is their priority, they are either misguided or lying. Marketing is the art of convincing people that what they really need is whatever you are providing.
Which is how Morrison is dealing with the children on Nauru issue. He has let is be known that he is, bit by bit, getting most of them to the mainland, which is receiving wary applause; but he won’t say what happens next – are they to have a swift medical check and be sent back? If not, what happens to their parents? What, if any, are their rights?
And given that Peter Dutton is utterly intransigent about conceding them anything, what, if any, is the long term solution?
A leader who was truly reliable, trustworthy and entitled to acceptance and belief would at least attempt to answer those questions. Morrison’s response is along the lines of “don’t you worry about that,” echoing another shonky leader who liked to think that he was authentic.
This will not be enough in the days that follow. First we have the Victorian election, in which the only New South Welshman the locals ever liked, Turnbull, has been punted with one they loathe, Morrison. Watch outr Prime Minister authentically avoiding the garden state for the next three weeks.
But then there will be the New South Wales poll, which he cannot ignore – the problem is that likely his state colleagues, Turnbull and Abbott, won’t either. And if that will not produce sufficient angst, it will lead swiftly towards the big one around May. How much authenticity can we bear?
Perhaps ProMo ScoMo might gain encouragement from another saying of Jean Giradoux: only the mediocre are always at their best. At least that sounds as if he has a chance.