Turning away: will Australians render Grace Tame’s judgment on Morrison?

Feb 1, 2022
Scott Morrison Liberal Party council
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The Australian of the Year was immune to the Prime Minister’s blandishments. He may find the voters in a similar frame of mind.

In years to come, the image of the public repudiation of Scott Morrison by Grace Tame may be the one that came to symbolise the beginning of his electoral end, the subsequent rejection of the prime minister at the election a few months hence. Increasingly that looks the likely outcome. There are a good many decent Australians who take unworthy pleasure on any occasion when a Morrison photo-opportunity goes badly for him, but many will derive extra added satisfaction from the Grace Tame occasion, given the way that it was a manifestation of his complete want of understanding of the feelings and needs of women who had been sexually abused.

It won’t be on that account alone that Morrison will lose, if he does. Nor will it be for a want of trying to turn that image around. Yet many of his other problems have come into being in much the same way that he failed over the problem of men’s violence. First,  by denying that there was an issue at all, let alone one personified by his own dealings with women in his team. Then by open disrespect to women protesting the issue, including an aside that they would be shot for doing what they were doing in some nearby countries.

Then galvanised by evidence that he had blundered badly, an array of announcements and inquiries to demonstrate that he understood the problems, a couple of actions showing that he didn’t, an apparently enthusiastic acceptance of recommendations about how  they might be addressed, followed by a half-hearted adoption of only a few of the more innocuous recommendations. Not in front of the problem.

Acting late but ultimately indecisively, with a delivery or actual decision falling well short of the promises in the oft-repeated announcements. With neither the personal insight, nor, apparently, the shrewd advice of minders and professionals about addressing the questions in a systemic and lasting way. Instead applying a few ineffective Band-Aids likely to detach at the next most inconvenient moment.

Morrison went into the Christmas holidays knowing that he had a good many urgent political problems to solve. Not least the arrival of a much more infectious version of Coronavirus and the need to adopt new tactics and strategies to hold it back as his premier strategy, of reviving the economy, was allowed to work.

He failed on all counts, not least because he and his advisers have consistently failed to appreciate that economic recovery is a result of, but not a driver of, getting the pandemic in check. And he found himself some new political headaches, again the result of a failure of planning and anticipation by himself, ministers and officials, about the need for rapid antigen tests, and free or cheap distribution of them in the population, particularly among people who, vaccinated or not, were the most susceptible to infection.

Much more than that, he needed, or should have realised he needed, the opportunity provided by the holidays to devise a strategy  for an election in the first half of this year. He keeps insisting that he doesn’t need a vision for the future, other than the general happiness of all Australians, nor even an agenda going beyond the completely mundane. But with or without a story to tell, or some cobbled-together promises supposed to represent a program of action over the next three years, he needs a pitch that is something more than a meaningless slogan. Something positive, moreover, not merely a series of dire warnings about the risks of trusting Anthony Albanese, who may have his shortcomings but does not scare anyone much.

Perhaps Morrison, his team or his campaign advisers have actually nutted out a winning strategy and are waiting to spring it on voters at the appropriate moment, refusing to be goaded or pressured into deviating from their timetable by mere events. Strictly after all, it is only now that most Australians are returning to work from their Christmas holidays (if indeed people still act in this pattern during a raging resurgence of an epidemic).

In normal circumstances, absent bushfires, floods or other natural disasters (or perhaps agitation about RATs tests, vaccination boosters and the protection of primary schoolchildren) voters are assumed to be distracted by family and holidays from the sordid business of politics and the cost of living. On Australia Day, perhaps inspired by the flag, organised jollity and popular relief that Gina Rinehart has been belatedly recognised as a great citizen, the adult Australian mind swings back into focus and it is game on.

By this theory, Albanese may have jumped the gun by speaking at the National Press Club on the day before Australia Day. I have been a critic of Albanese’s strategy — still am — but I must admit that his presentation was far better than I expected, and that he was on message and on song. And not easily rattled by cross-examination, such as it was.

Yet the  occasion contained its warnings, not least that if he wins, as he probably will, it will not be because of much assistance from the mainstream media, or from most journalists in the press gallery. Even those who do not seem on some mission to find a new scepticism about Labor and a new infusion of hope in the Coalition seem committed to election reportage focused on the detail rather than the message, the streets rather than the suburb, and the deficiency, or perceived deficiency, rather than the efficacy. It might be defensible , if only the scrutiny were evenly applied to the other side.

Liberal voters need hope and confidence, and a hug

Morrison’s political year begins, in theory, with his National Press Club speech on Tuesday (February 1). Since it’s the first of a number of set-pieces before June — a brief return of parliament, probably a Budget, an election-date announcement and a policy speech — it is important that he sets a tone, able to be reinforced in successive addresses and pronouncements. And, as with the Albanese speeches it’s not primarily about a string of promises or announcements, but about a message, a reason for asking for continued support, a sign that the show is still on the road, not run out of puff and ideas. Liberal voters in particular need a good deal of reassurance about their still being valued, about the continuing worth of campaigns to keep Labor out of power, even about why they are there.

Morrison needs more than flash marketing words or glib slogans — already discredited — about “can-do capitalism” from the most statist government in 75 years. He needs to inspire his followers — out in the electorate as much as in parliament. A good many who have already given the game away either because of the opinion polls or dismay at the continuing scandal, incompetence and mad management, need reassurance and reinforcement, but above all hope. Mere bullshit from a master bullshitter won’t cut it, because crap has come to define the brand.

Part two will appear tomorrow.

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