When the world falls apart, when all those carefully plans collapse in smouldering ruins, when the present seems desolate and the future seems hopeless, there is only one recourse: invoke the ghost of Robert Menzies.
This is what distraught Liberal leaders have done for the last 50 years, and the latest, Scott Morrison, was never going to break the pattern.
But perhaps surprisingly, he was not ready to parade his evangelic nostalgia to the public at large: instead he preached only to consenting adults in the privacy of a meeting of the Liberal elite.
And what better venue than his party’s eponymous Menzies Institute, in the city of Albury, sanctified by the founder’s own appearance there. Here the converted were treated with an invitation to link arms and hum Kumbaya as they mused on the gospel according to St ScoMo, which adjured faith in both Menzies and religion – at least the sort of religion that can be related to Pentacontalism.
And in a weird way the juxtaposition made sense, because our Prime minister has reverence for both, but might also have noted their common utility.
Like the Bible, Menzies’s recorded words are a voluminous document – so much so that within it there is room for justification and endorsement of just about every known position, conservative or progressive, worthwhile or harmful, rational or clinically insane. If the devil can cite scripture to his purpose, ScoMo can certainly find a way to quote the thoughts of Ming.
And while he was in his proselytising mode, it was only fitting that he gave a shout out to religion – the religious (well, at least the Christians) are to be protected and privileged, though not as part of the culture wars being waged by his supporters – heaven forbid. The Church of England was once described as the Tory Party at prayer; Morrison apparently wants his own conservatives to be similarly born again.
And just for starters, everyone should pray for rain or if they weren’t prepared to pray themselves, they should bloody well cheer on those who do.
This approach to drought relief is somewhat different to that of his predecessor, who advocated engineering and economics, or to Morrison’s designated drought envoy Barnaby Joyce, who says that farmers in need of water should just steal it from someone else: that’s what you do in an emergency, or even when there is not one, as Joyce’s tenure in his former portfolio made clear over the Murray Darling rorts. So much for the eighth commandment.
But of course masterful inaction seems to be the hallmark of the new generation of leadership – the NEG is buried, the corporate tax cuts are dead, sensible reform of pensions has been killed off, Gonski 2.0 is terminal and it might be thought that the entire coalition is moribund.
But not at all: our new Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, assures us that the Pacific Solution is still in place and the men, women and children held as asylum seekers in overseas detention can stay there until they rot. This policy has always been arbitrary, and arguably against international law – it is clearly against international standards of human rights. But last week Payne took it to a new level of cruelty.
During the Pacific Islands Forum at Nauru, the New Zealand deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, repeated his country’s long-standing offer to take 150 refugees from Nauru. Knowing that the island and its corrupt and despotic ruler Baron Waqa were wholly owned subsidiaries of Australia, Peters went straight to Payne, who equally promptly said no.
But Peters tried again: Australia’s refusal to release its victims to a haven across the ditch was, ostensibly, based on the fear that they might somehow make their way back to Australia, thus undoing John Howard’s unbreakable prohibition and unleashing untold armadas of people smugglers on our vulnerable shores.
This never made much sense; apart from the obvious fact that refugees made welcome in New Zealand would be unlikely to want to go to an Australia which was happy to see them die rather than admit them, Payne remains eager to send a few to the United States, where the same risks – if risks they are – apply. And in any case Peters said cheerfully that the problem was easily fixed: New Zealand would legislate to prevent it happening, so why not get on with it?
Because – well, because we said we won’t, and we will decide, et cetera. At which point the brutal slogans lapsed into sadism. The suffering, trauma, dementia and death no longer has any real point: we do it just because we can. At which point our new Prime Minister insists he never bullies anyone and has no time for it, and asks his acolytes if they love Australia and all Australians – but not, presumably, those nasty foreigners.
Many decades ago the great comedian Barry Humphries defined xenophobia as love of Australia. He thought he was being satirical. But these days so-called patriotism is not just the last refuge of a scoundrel: it has now blown into full on jingoism, and the pursuit of and exploitation of prejudice and bigotry has become one of the main foundations of the coalition’s hopes or re-election. That, and religion – or faith, as Morrison prefers to call it.
And without much hope or charity, it is probably all he has left. The terrible reality struck at the Wagga Wagga by-election, True, it was a state poll rather than a federal one, but a swing of 30 per cent in one of the safest Liberal seats in Morrison’s home state of New South Wales cannot be dismissed as an aberration. Nor will it help Morrison to blame everyone else or to say that it is now in the past, time to move on, nothing to see here. But he has to remain defiantly ordinary and upbeat, so perhaps it is time to go back to the master.
Menzies once encouraged the public with the exhortation: “I appeal to all citizens to go about their affairs in characteristically normal and cheerful fashion.” This was back in 1939 when the then Prime Minister was announcing that Australia would enter the Second World War, a conflict that among other things destroyed his government.
But it worked for a few months, and that is all the time Morrison has got before he has to face the people. Worth a try – there isn’t much else.