JACK WATERFORD. PM is never assailed by doubt,or an urge to explain

Feb 4, 2020

From Scott Morrison, I would never buy a used car, or (probably) a political party. As a direct liar or dissembler, he, among politicians, is only of fair average quality.

But as a person who will not answer questions, particularly the one he was asked, who will hardly ever admit having made a mistake, almost impossible to fix on any point of fact or opinion, he is of world class as a prevaricator. He is almost as good in creating a misleading impression, in overstating the positives in his arguments while minimising the negatives, or in attempting to avoid some types of question altogether.

For journalists, his style is frustrating and infuriating, and, increasingly, Morrison looks as if he has it all over them . This is because he has no regard for the question, the questioner, or the resolution of any misunderstanding. He simply doesn’t play by accepted rules of accountability, whether to parliament or the media.

He is not a stupid man – the problem of one of his senior colleagues. Nor do I suspect him to be greatly given to self-deception, or some chronic Bjelke-Petersen-like  tendency to mangle words, sentences, meaning and messages. In the privacy of his office, he can ask and answer the tough questions, and equip himself properly for a debate. Some public servants who have briefed him over the years have talked of his listening respectfully, often with penetrating questions, and being quite prepared to listen to the argument against the proposition he is likely to bring forward. Some politicians do not want to hear contrary advice, thinking that they will somehow be later trapped into an admission that they heard it. The smart ones, including, it seems Morrison, want to hear the contrary arguments so that they can, as the engage with the public servants, test their own arguments as well as uncover the weaknesses of alternative ones. That habit also helps in arguing, behind closed doors, with colleagues as they argue about how the pie should be divided, how public resources should be rationed, or about how proposals fit into grander schemes and strategies.

But one rarely sees any of these skills in action when Scott Morrison is selling or defending the government in public. First, he is not usually behaving as if he were involved in a debate, which involves some idea of give and take, of continual reassessment of how the argument is going, and attempts to marshal the facts in a particular direction. He is not, generally, trying to persuade the opposition of anything – indeed if he wants anything of them, such as support for a measure, he generally seeks to achieve it with pre-emptive attacks on their patriotism or fiscal rectitude, then demanding they amend their ways by a craven surrender on previously announced principles. (The good thing about this, given this and the last opposition, is that this tactic often works.

Nor, usually, does he attempt to persuade the lobbies, ever at the ears of the politicians, particularly in Canberra. He may have engaged frankly with them in private, but, if he is addressing them (friend or foe) in public, he is announcing rather than treating, declaring rather than arguing, and focusing on overstatement and omission rather than frankness with people who often know the facts as well as he does, but have little incentive to call him out for “bullshit” – at least in public. Nor does one see admissions of mistakes, or lessons from the past of the present: Morrison, like some of our duller cricketers is very much into positive mental attitude, and is focused only on the future. Acknowledging error, with the rare and truculent exception of his Christmas holiday abroad, is bad for the PM, and, not infrequently, distracts one from a perfect performance next time at bat. Look at all the January ducks for example; he could hardly get a break.

One would not know from his National Press Club speech this week that the economy is struggling, with growth projections among the lowest for three decades. There was scarcely a reference to a negative signal  — even to the fact that the much trumpeted “achievement” of a budget surplus for the year ending June 30 will probably be in difficulty because of the impact of bushfire measures, drought initiatives, and, probably, action against the coronavirus. (Perversely, there is a chance that the injection into the economy of some of the emergency spending might do rather more to keep the economy going than the contraction in spending that a slight surplus implied. If extra belt tightening is required to fund new costs, it is amazing that it has not junked foolish and  expensive future promises, such as the $500 million decision to vandalise the Australian War Memorial so as to exhibit, memorialise and sanctify  weapons of war, many of which were never used for or against Australians.)

It goes without saying that during the focus on the positive in such a speech, all of the credit for any claimed achievements goes to himself or to his government. This is especially so when words have been carefully chosen in an effort to make a positive out of actions (or inactions) previously seen as negative. There is, for example, a public impression that the prime minister responded woodenly, ineptly and much too late to the growing catastrophe of the east coast bushfires, even though he had been on ample notice of the danger and they had been causing destruction even before he decided on a foreign holiday.  He is beyond any apologising for that. Now everything he has done is marvellous, and the word belated doesn’t enter into it. Now we have phrases such as “I took the initiative for the first time ever as a prime minister to change the defence force posture from “respond to request” to one of “move forward and integrate” and to issue a compulsory call out of our defence reservists”. No mention, perhaps because this might involve negative vibes, of failures to even notify state emergency bureaucrats, or of his immediate efforts to politicise his actions in a Liberal Party ad.

But the real master class came with refusal to deal with questions. Morrison is a master of ignoring questions altogether. He pioneered this, with the collaboration of General Angus Campbell with his self-serving pretence that giving details of “on-water matters”: would somehow aid the enemy. It did, by disarming the Australian population.

On Wednesday, he was dismissing questions about climate change, sports rorts, and his judgment, with phrases such as “I reject the premise of your question”. “I’ll put your editorial to one side and your commentary on it” – then answering instead not the question he was asked, but the one he would like to have been asked. On sports grants, we had casuistical distinction: “as the auditor general found, the rules were followed. Guidelines are separate issues.”

The standard texts on avoiding the inconvenient question includes questioning the question (asking for more explanation, or saying “you tell me”), or attacking the question (“That’s based on a faulty premise; that’s hypothetical and speculative; question involves statements or  facts taken out of context, the question is offensive”. Or attacking the questioner, including, if in parliament alleging something worse he or she has done. And providing an incomplete answer, in effect interrupting yourself to go on to make some other point. Or answering only half the question.

Scott Morrison, like Angus Taylor, is also greatly given to refusing to provide further information, saying that he had answered such questions before. One can also refuse on the ground that another person is conducting an inquiry, or saying that one that he cannot speak for someone else.

Some politicians bluster. Some circumvent – which is to say bypass the real issues. Other prevaricate – consciously mislead by mis-statement or conscious ambiguity. Some dissimulate and dissemble by using disguise or pretence to conceal facts or reasons. We see sophisms – false logic;  equivocation and tergiversation – riding in both directions at once, distractions, camouflage, exaggeration, understatement, and conscious misinterpretation of evidence. Such techniques of falsity are not beyond Morrison, but they are not fundamental to his modus operandi. Frankly, he does not see himself as accountable, least of all to rival politicians or the reptiles of the press. He advances his own idea of reality, and wants everyone to move on. As far as he is concerned, it is not open for debate, and he is not for turning. Move on, look forward. Never back. For the future, optimism as fact. For the rear vision, only happy snaps, preferably with family.

Under Morrison, parliament is ceasing to be a forum of debate. It has become instead an uninspiring theatre  of propaganda and abuse, at which ministers congratulate themselves on how successfully they failed to explain, gave out no relevant facts, and turned the question into a question about the opposition.

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