It is the fate of the modern political leader that they die by their own hand. At least according to the obituarists and the historians.
I do not mean that they literally commit suicide. What I mean is that their political success, and their political failure, will be attributed to personal characteristics, and their fate as almost inevitable. Initially their strengths will help them rise high; more likely than that they will ultimately bring them down. Similarly their flaws of character may help brake or delay their ascent; later they may accelerate the fall. That is not mere hubris or pride.
I do not know whether prime minister Scott Morrison will be run over by a bus, be deposed by his colleagues, fail at the next election or survive, for the short term at least, by another miracle. But the smell of political death is about him, and it is not because of bad luck, circumstance or treachery. What will destroy him, I expect, are things already done, character traits already on display, idiosyncrasies that might once have seemed almost attractive but which now repel. The values he once proclaimed — not least of active Christian temperament — are ones he appears to have repudiated.
When he goes, no one will be surprised or taken aback. Except, perhaps in a manner like the speed of the fall of Kabul, by how quick the end was. (Kabul, like Saigon, was always going to fall to the Taliban. But we, like the Americans and the British, did not expect that the Afghan regime would collapse immediately after the props were taken away). Some will lament the wasted time and the missed opportunities, but almost all will agree that he was the architect of his own ruin.
Morrison has compromised most of his potential rivals and senior associates. There are few cleanskins of officer class in his government, even in the political generation below him. Perhaps it is the fear of the abyss that makes for loyalty beyond personal or party long-term interest.
No person reaches the highest executive office without great skills and abilities, great ego and genuine desire to make some sort of difference and to leave some sort of legacy. Morrison has been there long enough to have left a mark, and to be remembered in the history books. But for what lasting achievements? He steered Australia with skill through the beginning of the pandemic and the economic crisis it produced.
But he squandered most of the goodwill that should have created. He seemed to want only to restore the economy to “what it was” rather than “what it could be”.
As with the bushfires, climate change and responses to violence against women, he has had a cack ear for the public mood. He has always seemed to be responding to things he has caused to go wrong. Policies have constantly changed. Politics have always been placed ahead of principle, good practice and, particularly, good policy.
As things have gone wrong he has refused to accept responsibility, has tried to blame everyone else. His fixes are for the short-term only. Except for reluctance to do anything about climate change — that signature hurdle he always props at — he has never shown himself held back by ideology or any need for consistency. But his “flexibility” is increasingly too late, too ineffective and too unconvincing. Even his own constituencies joke about his meaningless announcements, his distractions and his deceits.
Potential obituary writers — including those who still support him — know all they need to know to create a narrative of a leader who couldn’t lead, a man who could not mobilise the community around ideas or ideals, or unite Australians about a future they would want to be part of. They have left open, for later, a few paragraphs on the final humiliations — for the country as much as the man. They have yet to pen the objective, but bitter devastating judgment about the place he deserves in history.
There will be no statues in the manner of Curtin, or Chifley or Menzies, or soon, no doubt, of Hawke and Keating and Howard. He will be remembered for no speech, no act of generosity or empathy. Held up no virtues or values, exciting very little in the way of personal or professional affection. All the more pitiable, perhaps, because he has affected to be comfortable within his own skin, an everyman, a loving husband and father, and a devout adherent to an American religious cult.
Almost all politicians are doomed to ultimate failure. Ultimately they lose power — by losing the confidence of their colleagues, the parliament, or the electorate. A very few step down voluntarily. Most of those with the will to power will not surrender it lightly, and ultimately outlive their welcome. By then, as likely as not, the wriggling and manoeuvring to stay in power, and to avoid their fate, has made them a quite different person from the woman or man who originally took office.
It’s almost of Biblical hue. The gnostic Gospel of St Thomas — written within a century of the Crucifixion — says that “if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring it forth, what you do not bring forth will destroy you”. (I often think of these words when I contemplate the political fate or Malcolm Turnbull, and the likely fate of Anthony Albanese: men who were chosen to be themselves, who decided to be anything but in their desperate attempts to hold favour.)
History is much much more than the history of great women and men. It involves the clash of national, social and economic forces, events from all over the world, matters of relative chance such as the weather and earthquakes. It involves luck. Some of the better Australian leaders may have the conceit that they have made a material difference to the lives, the culture and the mood of Australia. But 2021 has shown a plodder and a pedestrian.
In 2020 he seemed remarkable, even when his decisions and actions were much the same as his international counterparts. In 2021, he has seemed to fail in strategy against Covid-19, in organising vaccines and vaccinations, and in providing effective national leadership, especially on lockdown strategy. His responses to other events, including climate change, regime change in Afghanistan and China showed that his limitations were not confined to health or federal-state relations.
Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg may think, for example, that their agile response to the financial collapse “saved” the Australian economy, and that voters owe them everlasting gratitude. Yet virtually every western polity and economy — even that led by Donald Trump — responded in much the same way. It would be very hard to prove that the distinctly “Australian” form of the branding of relief measures were what made the difference here. That Australia emerged more quickly from the depression, and that our mortality and morbidity were strikingly different from most other countries owes rather more to our geography than to peculiar insights or decisions made by the government.