ALLAN PATIENCE. Scott Morrison – a politician out of his depth?

Dec 7, 2018

Can Scott Morrison inspire the nation to reach for a better future for our children and grandchildren? Does he have a vision for the country? Or is he floundering as he tries to ride two tigers simultaneously – his right foot on the back of the alt-right tiger with Tony Abbott’s rictal grimace spread across its face; his left foot on the back of a tiger of panicking moderates? If the tigers head off in opposite directions, Morrison will fall flat on his face. 

There have been some truly awful political buffoons leading this country in the past. The corpulent NSW free trader and fourth Prime Minister George Reid and the gargoilish seventh Prime Minister Billy Hughes are stand out examples – the latter especially during his lamentable contributions at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. Certainly Billy McMahon, the twentieth Prime Minister, belongs in this category – witness his notoriously funny rant against Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam’s visit to China in 1971 (which nonetheless proved to be a watershed moment in Australian foreign policy). 

This would be all very entertaining but for the fact that, in their time as the country’s leaders, these buffoons brought Australian democracy into ridicule, nationally and internationally. Moreover, consider the terrible price American democracy is currently paying, nationally and internationally, for the buffoon that is currently its President. 

For good or ill, leaders of a nation carry a heavy responsibility to represent their fellow citizens with dignity, ethical integrity, and high intelligence. They need to be – and to be seen and believed to be – authentic persons who in are politics not for themselves, not for narrow partisan purposes, not for the perks of high office, but that they are in politics to work for the well-being all of all their fellow citizens. They need to combine ethical integrity and evidence of a statesman-like ability to rise above the hurly burly and mindless viciousness of everyday politics. For a great leader, politics must be a sacred vocation, not a business. She or he must be able to speak with moral authority, not in slogans, advertising jingles, or by tweeting tweets. If they fail in all this, they fail their country and themselves. 

Standout leaders in recent years have been few and far between. Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961, had many of the hallmarks of a great world leader. On not a few occasions Angela Merkel has shown statesmanlike qualities that place her above all her contemporary counterparts around the world – although her time may now be ending. Many expected it of Barak Obama – but many were disappointed. The late Nelson Mandela, though humanly flawed in many ways, was a great leader of his country and a light to the world.

Will Scott Morrison, the thirtieth Prime Minister, be able to offer Australia auspicious leadership and take his Coalition to electoral victory, presumably in May 2019? Or will he be consigned to the buffoons’ gallery in Australia’s political history? The evidence is mounting that he may be heading for political ignominy. If so, how much damage is this inflicting on Australian democracy, nationally and internationally?

Morrison has not settled well into the Prime Ministership. He gives the impression of being a very square peg in a round hole. Perhaps this is unsurprising. His time as Minister for Immigration in the Abbott Government was marked by a ruthlessness towards asylum seekers that profoundly contradicted his claim to be a particular kind of Christian (although his apparent theology and religious style need deeper, more informed critical scrutiny: there are wiser souls who would seriously question whether he is a Christian at all). 

Morrison’s crudely pragmatic statements in defence of the Abbott government’s asylum seeker policies were invariably expressed truculently, accompanied by the cruelly triumphalist declaration: “We will stop the boats!” He asserted that sometimes governments have to do bad things to the few in order to guarantee the security of the many. This is an ethically repugnant form of the-ends-justifies-the-means argument. It assumes an either/or (binary) orthodoxy that is ignorant of via media argumentation in moral philosophy. His pronouncements were invariably under-mined by the smug grin he manages to stamp on his face when claiming the high ground from a low moral base. He presents as someone hamming it up. He looks like a fake.

As Treasurer in the Turnbull government, Morrison proved to be a card-carrying neoliberal – if of a rather clumsy order. He was one of the strongest opponents of a Royal Commission into the banks, referring to calls for such a Commission as “populist whinging.” We should expect some hand-wringing mea culpas once the Commission’s report is handed down next year. He took a lump of coal into the House of Representatives extolling the virtues of the coal industry while defending coal-powered electricity generation and attacking subsidies for renewable energy production.

Given his claims to be a particular kind of Christian Morrison’s neoliberalism calls out for closer scrutiny. Indeed, the so-called Christianity that many fundamentalists identify with is evidence of a grotesque misunderstanding of Max Weber’s protestant ethic and spirit of capitalism argument. The so-called fundamentalist Christian version of this misunderstood doctrine is that people become rich because they find favour in the sight God; the poor deserve their miserable lot because they lack the incentive and energy to get rich. (Remember Joe Hockey’s “lifters and leaners” slogan?) This is counterfeit Christianity at its most hypocritical and self-defeating capitalism at its worst.

But it is since he became Prime Minister that Morrison’s buffoonery has really come to the fore. The baseball caps and cheesy matiness were so confected, so contrived, as to be comical. There are moments when he looks like a mini-Trump. The flakiness of it all became embarrassingly evident when it was revealed that he flew (presumably at tax payers’ expense) between his appearances (baseball cap askew) allegedly on the “Scomo bus” in Queensland. His policy back flips and confusion – for example, climate change, the NEG, moving the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, attacking school kids for protesting against his government’s inaction on climate change, “saving” the endorsement of Craig Kelly – are compounding a view that Scott Morrison is a politician way out of his depth. On the world stage his training wheels are spinning backwards, not forwards, as world leaders raise their eyebrows at the appearance of yet another Australian leader.

But the Prime Minister is not alone in his buffoonery. He has many soul mates in the Coalition who share his bumbling, stumbling style. They are falling over each as they routinely fail to govern the country wisely and well. Australia is being demeaned by this buffoon of a Prime Minister and by this self-destructing Coalition government – nationally and internationally. Bring on the election.

Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based political scientist.

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