For the prime minister, self-delusion now an ingrained tic

Dec 1, 2021
Prime Minister Scott Morrison
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Scott Morrison isn’t the only chronic liar in politics. He might not even be the worst. But he’s doing further damage by refusing to admit any error.

Labor spent a good deal of last week seeming to demonstrate that for Morrison, the lie is not the exception but the rule, a practice, presumably learnt from what he would call the Evil One, which is entirely ingrained in his character, particularly when in a campaigning mode with pretences both about where he is coming from and where his opponents are going. The examples Labor chose were well known ones — for example about the staff in Morrison’s office lying and misleading about Morrison’s whereabouts and presence in Hawaii during the 2019 bushfire crisis.

If Scott Morrison stumbled here — and he did, big time, simply because he has not “adjusted” his story to explain facts now generally known — one might have thought him on notice about the tactic, and re-briefing himself for the cases that the Opposition was certain to bowl up.

Perhaps he is so certain of, and so adamant about his own honesty that his staff were scared. Perhaps he had convinced himself, as he had with other parts of his explanations, that his explanations were credible, and had been accepted as such, at the time they had come to notice. In any event, his performance was cringeworthy. He tried to recover ground, or turn the tables, by purporting to see in the attack Labor’s general absence of policies, and its determination to go the low route by tiny semantic quibbles. One only had to see the agony and embarrassment on the faces of his ministers and colleagues that he was doing himself further political self-harm.

Morrison is by no means the only chronic liar in politics. He may not even be the worst. There are quite a number, and on the Labor side of politics as well. But what distinguishes his line of bullshit is the way his refusal to admit error, to look back, or to see matters as others see them, is that he insists on digging himself further in, even as he is doing himself further damage. Journalist Sean Kelly, in his book The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison does a masterly job of attempting to explain this from Morrison’s point of view.

Twenty years ago, John Howard began to acquire a serious reputation for misleading the public, not least by the exposure of his prevarications in the children overboard affair. His capacity to do it was much enhanced by the immunity of his private office from any external accountability, and by the way Howard so organised his office and style of management that it was almost always impossible to prove that he knew of anything, or had been (orally) briefed. By 2004, opinion polls indicated that the general attack on his credibility — even his honesty — was working. Put bluntly, many people did not believe a word he was saying.

It was thus quite a surprise when Howard announced the 2004 election that he declared that it was about “trust” — about whom the electorate trusted during the term ahead. Surely, some thought, this put his credibility, his honesty with the facts, and the record of his misleading the public right to the fore.

But while Labor continued to hammer Howard as an unreliable witness to anything, it did not seem to see the difference between “trust” and “truth-telling”. The public had decided that it did not much believe anything Howard said. (They did not much trust most Labor spokespeople either). But they felt that they “knew” Howard. He was a “known quantity” — both in his virtues and his deficits. By contrast the Howard attack on Mark Latham over “trust” was that Latham was an unknown quantity — even, on the basis of what was known, a somewhat broody, unsettled and erratic figure. People had no instinct for what he might do. They should not trust him to do the right thing.

The campaign worked, in the sense that Howard won the election with an increased majority.

With Morrison this time, Labor is trying not to make the same mistake. They are using evidence of misleading conduct, followed by general slipperiness with the facts and the truth, not only as evidence that he is a chronic liar, but as evidence that he cannot be trusted. That his instincts — and, often, his motives — are wrong. Many of his lies are not so much about objective facts — facts independent of Morrison’s existence — but about Morrison spin, explanation, or account of what has occurred. They go, in short, to his moral character, his personality, and a certain narcissistic desire to be at the centre of everything. When his lies unravel, he becomes agitated, not so much as a salesman ruefully recognising that his pitch did not work, but as someone forced to confront some blemish or imperfection.

A salesman with nothing much to sell but himself

Morrison’s weaknesses are by now ingrained, but Labor will ignore, at its peril, his opportunism, his willingness to seize on some sudden Labor stumble — or lie of its own. So far, however, he is searching for a theme. He still has time, unless Labor overwhelms his defences. It is not doing so yet.

The opportunity for Labor comes from continued working on the trust angle. This is because Morrison’s trust problem is a function of his studied refusal to have an agenda, a vision, a general strategy, or a comprehensive explanation of how things are happening and how events fit in with each other. It’s a hole Labor can fill.

Morrison has described his political approach as transactional. But he only rarely relates his style of government to broad philosophies of government, unless by reference to simplistic slogans. By contrast, Howard was an explainer, with a generally coherent program. He was agile enough to drop policies which became unpopular; he was often frank about that. But he would immediately attempt to create a fresh narrative that incorporated his new itinerary, still, he would insist, going in the same direction.

Morrison’s seeming incapacity to describe his favoured destination, his plans, or even his aims — other than in vague terms suggesting that all he wants is the restoration of things to the way they were, mean that persistence with many of his deceptions lacks any point. It bolsters his compulsive secrecy, general refusal to explain, or gives any account. It adds to the perception some have that he believes himself anointed rather than elected, responsible to his deity rather than voters at large. It also reinforces views that he is more about announcements than actual performance, and that his interventions in the body politic are generally late and in reaction to circumstances, rather than in taking charge of events.

Down the track, indeed, some will trace the Morrison malaise not to his general untrustworthiness but to his letting events take charge of him, rather than the other way around. Increasingly, the salesman has nothing much to sell but himself, and that, it is becoming evident, is nothing much at all.

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