Scott Morrison is nothing if not a marketeer. Or, to put it more precisely, he is nothing except a marketeer.
His sole area of expertise consists in convincing the gullible to buy stuff they don’t need and generally don’t want and his success can be measured by the extent that he can persuade them that they can’t do without it.
His triumph. of course, was the 2019 election, in which a relentless campaign of spin revolving around the two great motivators of greed and fear overwhelmed any serious debate over policy.
And for this he became something of a demigod to his troops, who had been resigned the idea that their manifest divisions and incompetence were finally ready to catch up with them. If substance could be abandoned and bluster enshrined, it would save them a lot of trouble – when problems multiply and the situation becomes hopeless, just unleash the master marketeer. He will have a quick word to the powers above and produce another miracle.
It sounds all very convenient, but there is a catch: Morrison is not actually invincible, even within the narrow parameters he prefers. His marketing record is, to say the least, patchy.
He was ignominiously tossed out of the prize gig of Tourism NSW, and while he has rehabilitated himself within the less demanding environment of the Liberal Party, this has led to instances of hubris and impulsiveness. In particular, he has a tendency to over egg expectations – or if he doesn’t, those around him are always keen to do it for him.
His immediate staff seem to have taken up ideas way above their station – it sometimes appears that they see him more of a puppet than a prime minister, a useful logo to be deployed as a sort of ersatz messiah to neutralize crises in the belief that what worked two years ago can be repeated at will.
Fine if it works. But if it doesn’t – if the expectations cannot be matched – there is a risk not only of disillusionment among the electorate, but a mounting anger and resentment that they have been conned. And if it happened once, perhaps it also happened in the past and can be anticipated in the future.
Which brings us to last week’s National Press Club address. In the days preceding it, the battalion of boosters belched forth a barrage of ballyhoo. This was to be the prime minister’s first major speech of the year, the one that fixed the agenda for 2020 and beyond. It would be a complete reset, the prelude for initiative, innovation and action on a scale seldom envisaged in Australian politics.
Why, there was a rumour (clearly deliberately leaked) that climate change was in the recipe, that our woefully inadequate Paris accord targets were to be ramped up to more credible levels. There was even a suggestion that some form of carbon tax could be on the table. That one had to be hosed down quickly and decisively, before the compost in the party room burst into spontaneous combustion.
But still, the optimists hoped that at last something might be offered other than bluff and bluster. However, the hope was, as so often, extinguished by the pitiful reality.
The first half of Morrison’s lecture was pure self congratulation, a list of his government’s so-called achievements over the last twelve months. Then we indeed moved on to dealing with climate change – but not really. The key words were adaptation and resilience – we just needed to adapt and resile like buggery, and all would be well.
As for emissions reductions – the usual evasions, denials and procrastinations. We are only 1.3 percent, we are doing our bit, will meet and beat our pathetic promises, we won’t destroy our economy, if we don’t flog fossil fuels some other bastard will, it’s our coal and we will bloody well do what we like with it so those interfering foreigners can shut up and piss off.
But there had to be what is delicately described as an announceable – so Generalissimo ScoMo was going to ring in legislation allowing him to declare a state of emergency, not the kind the British did to actually confront climate change, but to pretend that he is doing something when the continuing and worsening disasters stemming from it emerge in the near future. He wants to be able to send in the troops.
Okay, that sounds like action: but when and how – and also why and what? Will his emergency include conscription, rationing, censorship, night time blackouts with the populace sent to the shelters? Presumably not; in almost the next breath Morrison averred that he was a federalist, meaning that the states would be consulted (which they have not always been during the present disaster) and that in spite of the emergency, it would be essentially business as usual, his constantly reassuring slogan as things go to hell in a hand basket.
But this will not work, because Morrison, unwillingly and reluctantly, has been forced to assume a leadership role: having talked up an emergency, and involved the armed forces on a continuing stand-by basis, he has effectively abandoned his old line about the states being the ones with the responsibility.
The public never bought it; as the catastrophe mounted across borders and the news dragged on, worse every day, even the quietest Australians could recognise a national issue when they saw one. They expect, demand, that their prime minister will do the same and will take charge. So Morrison has to try, even though his immediate response has been, to put it mildly, underwhelming.
But even the long-winded and half-arsed speech last week has raised expectations; don’t you worry, the government has your back, we will get things back under control. But what if we can’t? What if the nostrums offered so far prove to be too little and too late?
This fire season is far from over, and there are two more to confront before the next election. We can all hope that they will not be as frightful as the current one, but they are unlikely to be totally innocuous. And next time there will be nowhere to hide: Morrison, having been dragged to a leadership role which he did not want, now owns it.
He has already been politically charred; and it will he much harder for him to market his way out of the next crisis. But given that he has no other skills ,marketing is his only hope.