Scott Morrison is seldom called exceptional. Yet the current PM will stand out in history in any number of ways. None of them are attractive. All need not just analysis but persistent, tough-minded challenging if we are to be left with any semblance of public integrity.
Along with presiding over an openly craven government, Morrison has chosen an autocratic, near-Presidential style. This makes him almost uniquely responsible for what goes well or poorly. Yet he flies above ordinary accountability or is plain unavailable for it. That means there must always be someone else found to blame, some deficiency in the systems, a flawed Labor policy of a decade earlier, or an unfair misunderstanding on the part of the public as to what his real intentions were.
The Prime Minister’s need to evade responsibility looks much like a compulsion. “I don’t hold a hose mate,” in the face of the worst bushfires in this nation’s history was bad enough. As serious was his insistence that his then-Attorney-General, Christian Porter, was an innocent victim of media outrage, despite Morrison’s refusal to read any of the details handed to him by the alleged victim’s family and friends. Add to this a series of carefully curated reports, standing in for real action or change, and it’s no surprise the public is increasingly cynical or indifferent, whether around the multiple rorts for which his Government is responsible, Robodebt or land-and-water management scandals, or increasing sex and bullying outrages.
Then there are the many social justice concerns deemed “unworthy” even of a veneer of formal enquiry. These include the egregious treatment of asylum seekers and refugees; a refusal to address the consequences of entrenched poverty in Australia, including the food and housing insecurity suffered by more than a million citizens; gross inequities of access to health, disability, aged care and education services, particularly affecting First Nations. The Morrison Government’s failure to commit to supporting either the Uluru Voice from the Heart or a remotely adequate Federal ICAC speaks of chilling unconcern.
Where Morrison also stands out from the crowd is in how he shapes his public persona. He is reputed to have the largest media team ever supporting/crafting what he wants Australians to hear or see. His focus is on men, white men, “aspirational” men, and even more particularly on Daily Telegraph or Herald-Sun readers. Sydney’s 2GB is a comfortable medium for him. The 7.30 Report on the ABC is not. What Morrison can barely tolerate is any confrontation of his bargain basement narratives. Where those “explanations” become unhinged from factual evidence, he is expressly defensive.
Those of us brave enough to watch Question Time in Parliament House are forced to witness a level of unchecked aggression, contempt and verbal and physical rudeness from the PM – including repeatedly turning his back on Opposition speakers – that would surely not be accepted in any other workplace. Morrison’s replies to questions from the Opposition are at best hostile and self-serving. In replying to the Dorothy Dixers from his own side, his tone is less harsh and often laden with self-congratulation. But even there he continues to resort to bizarrely frequent calls to “Mr Speaker”, perhaps assuming this adds weight to his predictable comments and blame-shifting. Yet, as Morrison said on Fox News a year ago, “Blame doesn’t help anybody at this time and over-analysis of these things is not a productive exercise.” [Emphasis added].
Avoiding analysis – even from much of the more serious media – has served Morrison and his Government well. While he remains the preferred PM, this strategy, with its overtly anti-intellectual, anti-“elites” appeal to “quiet Australians”, has provided cover to multiple offences to common sense or decency. It fits the curry-making, Jen ‘n the girls “daggy Dad” provider/protector, “have another beer, mate”, “knocking off my mortgage”, “love my dog”, “building a chook house from Bunnings”, “off-to-church-on-Sunday” image that’s surely confected with an eye to a headline.
Morrison’s need for ceremony, for the assurance of his importance that a red carpet or kowtowing from the media and military gives him, or a VIP Jet (“Shark One”) upgraded at a cost of $250 million, would simply be pathetic, were they not – in the case of the plane – ridiculously costly. His noisy insistence that “I. Am. The. Prime. Minister” to former Liberal politician Julia Banks and many others, sits unconvincingly with the “man from the Shire” image he spends so much forethought and so much of our money cultivating.
There are two more areas of marked incongruity between the PM’s image and his actual conduct that surely raise questions about his depth of character and basic trustworthiness. We now know that in the face of an almost farcical failure to acquire adequate vaccinations against Covid, leaving Australia at the bottom of rankings of 25 somewhat equivalent nations, Morrison’s choice was to bring in the military. This was not to support the distribution of vaccines when they’re eventually available, as was done in the United States, but – in full uniform – to “war game” what’s now been designated a “battle”, rather than a public health crisis where failure abounds.
A democratically elected Prime Minister’s ceding of crisis responsibility to senior officers surely starves his office of whatever dignity or authority it had left. We also know that Morrison has form here. In the aggressive “Operation Sovereign Borders” – where Lt. General Angus Campbell was the frontman for then-PM, Tony Abbott – the Minister for Immigration was Scott Morrison, with little or no protest from then-Shadow Minister for Immigration, Richard Marles.
Morrison’s carefully choreographed move to put uniformed military ahead of actual health experts, or true local heroes like NSW Commissioner for Resilience and former NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, and/or Patricia Turner, CEO of NACCHO (National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation), says far more about this Prime Minister and his media support band than it does about getting on with the jabs-job.
Perhaps the most consequential area, though, of the Morrison mismatch between rhetoric and action relates to his widely proclaimed religious beliefs. Five years ago, Morrison asserted, “You get to judge my policies, but you don’t get to judge my faith.” While this was well before his “miracle” win in 2019, there’s ample evidence that the fundamentals of his unorthodox Christianity very directly inform his policies and biases. And increasingly so.
The PM’s loyalties to close associates like Stuart Robert who share his particular faith are well-established. Along with grubby personal expenses claims, Robert presided over the horrendous Robodebt scandals that cost the nation $1.2 billion and cost victims immeasurably, including, for some, a loss of life. The consequences for Robert? Precisely none.
Morrison’s version of Christianity reputedly rests on a conviction that he (and his) are among the “Elect” whose fate in the hereafter is ordained – and eternally positive. Better yet, their fate in this life is marked by “prosperity” as a sign of God’s favour. That this must affect Morrison’s conduct, including towards the least prosperous, seems inarguable. While ignoring the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40, “Whatever you do to these, the least [advantaged] of my brothers and sisters, you do to me,” Morrison apparently believes in an “inerrant” Bible where the stark inconsistencies must not be questioned.
What he practises in politics is also increasingly self-determined: his views, values, priorities must not be questioned. Where this leaves Australia in the second half of 2021 is unpredictable. What can be predicted, though, is that a religious and ideological stubbornness like Morrison’s serves few of us well. This moral vacuum can be analysed. And must be. Whether it can be successfully challenged, however, may determine our wellbeing through what remains of the pandemic. As well as long after.