Scott Morrison’s personality and style has infected the whole government — the sclerosis and the lack of flexibility on general positions is now built-in.
Next Thursday, possibly Friday if debate over religious freedom drags on in the Senate, is probably the last opportunity the federal Liberal Party has to rid itself of a leader in Scott Morrison, increasingly looking like a liability without a road to victory that he is capable of describing. After that, parliament rises for Christmas, then the January holidays, and even if extraordinary measures were taken to reconvene parliament, there would simply not be time enough for a new regime to prepare itself for election.
It’s not going to happen of course, especially if the so-called incumbency rule, by which a popularly elected prime minister cannot be deposed other than by a two-thirds caucus vote, is treated as the formal requirement. There are party constitutionalists doubtful whether the parliamentary party can bind future meetings of the party, and who observe that a prime minister determined to carry on after losing a majority in caucus would be in an impossible position out in the electorate.
Be that as it may, there are no obvious challengers on the horizon, even if a significant number of members, possibly a majority, have little faith in the capacity of Morrison to pull off another election win, with or without the direct intervention of God. Their problem is the fear that any replacement, perhaps Peter Dutton or Josh Frydenberg, would be unlikely to be able to retrieve the party’s position, and might well make it worse. Particularly if the deposed Morrison rump — bound to insist even after any sort of defeat both that they had a winning strategy, and were robbed — were in full-scale revolt, leaking and undermining, and doing their best, in tried and true modern Liberal fashion, to fail to turn the other cheek.
It’s not simply a matter of now being too late for anything in the nature of a revolt. The party, as much as Morrison himself, committed itself to the sorts of strategies it is now following, even if some now regret it. The personality and style of Morrison has infected the whole government — including most ministers. The sclerosis and the lack of flexibility on general positions is now built-in. Morrison and a number of other ministers are more than ruthless enough to be able to ditch whole areas of policy or practice, and without regard to anything they have said or done in the past about the folly of going by the new path. They have been trashing a perfectly serviceable brand for far too long to be able to simply deploy it again.
Morrison, who pitched himself as a salesman, and who seems to be able to convince himself of anything, can’t seem to sell a thing anymore. His retainers may have little choice but to nod wisely at whatever he says, but they are finding it increasingly difficult to display conviction, faith, or personal endorsement of what’s on offer.
They retreat to their constituencies gloomy of the government’s chances of galvanising the community, or half of it, around any campaign idea. It may be that Morrison has, with some policies, or recent policy shifts, neutralised some issues which might have actively gone against the government. Let’s imagine, for example, that he has done this in vital constituencies with his efforts to establish freedom of religion in legislation — perhaps whether or not he can get the support of parliament and the measures put into law. But his proposals were in any event watered down, and if they received some endorsement from some religious lobbies, they created no great enthusiasm. They may well have mobilised some fresh enemies, particularly among those who — though not hostile to religion — simply do not understand what the threat to it was, where it was coming from, and how freedom of thought is likely to be enhanced by the proposed measures.
It has, after all, been the Liberal Party which has long counselled suspicion of entrenched rights, or of legislative efforts to put a hand on the scales when it has come time to balance different rights. It has, after all, been the party which has characterised Labor enthusiasm for the declaration, definition and weaponising of new rights and duties as proof of its addiction to coercion, controls, legislative solutions and intrinsic bossiness.
The skirmishes of the past few weeks are not the campaign proper, nor do they necessarily point at the issues around which the electorate will divide. Morrison is rehearsing a few approaches, and a few areas in which, he or his strategists believe, ground could be gained. But he is carefully watching the media, and the public response, and one can be sure that he will drop ideas that do not seem to take. A good example might be with his new-found fondness for electric cars, his initiatives to establish charging points, and his insistence that technological developments in only the past two years had completely transformed the economic equations about the use of the car and the truck. It didn’t work. Partly because Morrison is incapable of taking a backward step, or of ever admitting that he was once wrong.
Instead, in the usual Morrison style he begins by denying that he ever said anything negative about electric vehicles at all, then, when confronted with clear records showing that he had, he attempts to redefine what he said, to change the emphasis, and to insist that circumstances had radically changed. A bigger man presiding over a U-turn — a John Howard perhaps — might say, “I used to think that. But I have had a closer look at it and changed my mind.” And he might even win some professional admiration, either for his willingness to cut and run, or flexibility, or even ruthlessness once it was clear circumstances had changed. He often did, if never with the style or panache of Peter Beattie, then premier of Queensland.
Not Morrison. By now, as ever, he has convinced himself that there is no contradiction whatever with anything he has said before, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is calumniating, petty, nit-picking, and seeking to disguise her own moral infirmities. This capacity to examine his own conscience and to acquit himself of misleading conduct because he believed in all of his statements at the time he made them might, in his own mind, persuade him of the purity of his intentions. That does not stop its being a self-delusion, and its exposition a deceit. Here in this vale of tears, It would be called perjury in a court of law, at the very least for not being “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”; as well as for being calculated to deceive.