Federal politics

Everymen don’t exist
On the campaign trail with Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten – a Quarterly Essay extract

Mitch Fifield is waiting at the police youth club in Bateau Bay. He has his hands on his hips and is standing alone. There is a mural off to one side, of an eagle and a boy surfing. The announcement is of new penalties for internet trolling. There will be new regulations for digital products and a digital platforms inquiry should the government be re-elected. There is little of significance and no new money.

A Healthy Harold igloo has been inflated on the basketball court and a brace of children arranged for the cameras. Healthy Harold lessons are not ordinarily taught here, but the venue has been organised at the last minute. The children have been pulled together from local sports clubs. The giraffe mascot itself is in Parramatta: the weekend’s league game still takes precedence. Morrison is not answering questions from the media today, but he is making images.

“Hello, kids,” he says as he arrives. “What have you got there?” He steps towards the smallest boy in the crowd, who has something under his shirt. The cameras drop with Morrison. “It’s Thomas the Tank. Can I have a look?” The boy produces a blue locomotive. It looks as if it has been sucked on. The boy looks at it, then offers it to the prime minister. “Well,” Morrison says, “you have played with that a lot.”

Morrison’s wife, Jenny, helps him speak to the children. He makes an effort to always be moving. His face is oddly smooth and when he speaks his bottom lip does the greatest share of work. He crawls inside the igloo to sit in on a class. It is about cyber safety. Most of the media waits outside. You can hear the teacher quieting the children. Morrison speaks the loudest. “This is a different kind of bubble,” he says from within the igloo. “The kind of bubble I like.”

Officers from the federal police guard the igloo full of children and the prime minister. There is only one entrance, so they stand either side of it. Ben Morton is here, the member for Tangney, in Western Australia. They call him the prime minister’s watcher. He travels everywhere with Morrison. He has on a chequered button-down and hemmed blue jeans and looks 15 years older than he is. “I’m really focused on what our task is at hand,” he says. “But good luck with the essay. They’re important pieces.”

An adviser goes into the igloo: “I’m just going to ask him to come out.” Morrison emerges, smiling. “That’s the sort of bubble I don’t mind,” he says again for the cameras. “I think that’s a helpful bubble.”

The children follow him out. Their parents are waiting. Morrison rolls his shoulders when he stands. The tail of his tie reaches not quite to his sternum. He has taken off his jacket: his paunch is oversatisfied and his nipples are erect. “Who’s got any questions for me or for Mitch?” he asks. “Not the media. You’ll get your chance later.”

There are no questions. Jenny goes to the bathroom. Morrison shakes hands with everyone. “Thanks very much. Thanks for coming along.”

As he works the background, a television reporter starts her cross: “The Coalition wants heftier penalties for anyone who trolls people online …”

At the Labor launch in Brisbane, Penny Wong receives an enormous cheer. Shorten calls her a weapon. She is sharp and crisp. Everything she says lands. She envisages an Australia that is generous and serious.

“The Liberals and the Nationals and their far-right alliance don’t care about the diversity and the unity we’ve all worked so hard for here in Australia,” she says. “They don’t cherish the progress we’ve made, progress I’ve seen in my own lifetime. And they will compromise it all, and they will give it all away, for nothing more than a handful of votes in a handful of seats from a handful of haters. And this isn’t just something the conservative parties do; it has become who they are.”

Chloe Shorten introduces her husband as caring, smart, funny and gentle. She says he is a great listener. Her voice is small and worn and convincing. “He’s driven by a determination to make a difference for those who need it,” she says. “My friends, I know how much this party means to Bill. I know how much your support means to him. And I know he leads a group of extraordinary people who with your help will be a great, great government for this country of ours.”

Before he speaks, he kisses Chloe on both cheeks and shakes hands with Tanya Plibersek. He promises a better deal for the next generation. He mentions dental care and early childhood learning. He says there will be real action on climate change. He says theirs will be a government focused on serving the people of Australia. “This is the choice for every citizen of our great nation: three more years of smug, smirking, unfair complacency under the conservatives, or a bolder, better and more equal future for Australia under a new Labor government.”

It works in the room.

When you stand very close to Scott Morrison, he is just as ordinary as he appears on television. Before he arrives, Jenny tells the audience he is a loyal and trustworthy person. They met at the age of 12 and married at 21. “My first impression of Scott was that he was really confident and a very cute boy. It was, like, in Year 7 and Year 8. That’s really all that mattered, how cute someone was. I think there’s a lot more to him now.”

This is the largest meeting the Terrigal branch of the Liberal Party has ever held. The room has low ceilings and helium balloons and pitchers of iced water on the bar at the back. There are gold watches and men with sweaters over their shoulders. A man in wraparound sunglasses has had a suit made the same colour as the campaign t-shirts. He stands to have his picture taken.

The local member, Lucy Wicks, says Morrison’s father was a police officer and his brother is an ambulance driver. She says Jenny is trained as a nurse.

“Service is sort of ingrained in Scott, his family,” Jenny says. “I’d say in my family. Service to the community. His father was in local council. He was the mayor of Waverley for a while. That’s where Scott got, I think, his love and taste for politics.”

Jenny says he is a soft touch with their children. She says the girls have him wrapped around their fingers. “I want people to know that Scott is an – he will fight for you,” she says. “What things are on your mind. He will listen to you. He will take everything on board. And he will go in to bat for you. He is tenacious. He’s stubborn. And he’s doggedly determined. So if he believes in something, he is going to go straight down and fight for you. For what you need and what you want for a better life for your families. He’s a good, honest, compassionate person. That’s the Scott I know.”

Morrison enters to the song “Hotshot” by Gyom, who writes music for phone apps and branding campaigns. The prime minister is described as a friend of the Central Coast. There is a long applause. “It’s great to be here on the Central Coast,” he says. “I love being on the Central Coast. Love it.”

There is a high table with a single bottle of water on it. Morrison walks back and forth across the stage. He has a performer’s energy. The cliché of the televangelist is hard to avoid. “How good is Lucy Wicks?” he shouts over the cheering. “How good is Lucy Wicks? And just quietly, how good is Jenny Morrison?”

He puts his hand in his pocket and calls his wife a blessing. He modulates his voice. He knows how to speak quietly. He calls on seriousness. It has the feeling of an act but it has the showmanship of a good one. He says visiting here reminds him of the simple things that make Australia great. He describes a vision of Australia, of humble people with decent aspirations.

“We have aspirations to get a job, be well trained and educated, start a family, support your kids, pay your taxes, live in your community and make your community stronger, making a contribution, not taking one, not seeking to anyway, and understanding that there are those less fortunate than ourselves, who we support, because that’s what we do in Australia.”

He points his finger to make a point. “We have the aspiration to buy a home and to make a home. Not just buy one, but to make one: for our kids, for our families, for our friends. This is where we live. We come together in our homes. Our homes are very important to us. Menzies talked about homes as not just materials. Homes that go well beyond just the four walls in which we live and the landscaping out the front, which is nice to have.”

He fills out his hand, as if he is holding something to his chest. “The value in your home is important. It’s the biggest investment, biggest thing you will buy in your life for most Australians. Certainly that’s the case for Jenny and I. It means a lot and people shouldn’t play around with that and undermine it.”

He says the final aspiration of all Australians is to save for their retirement. He looks for faces in the room. He makes eye contact. “This is a fundamental, decent, honest aspiration. You know, in the Liberal Party, we get aspiration. We understand it. Because we live it. It’s our stories.”

His hand is turned outwards now in rapture. “It’s the stories that we live. It’s the stories our families live. It’s the stories our parents live. It’s the stories we want our children to live as we raise them up. That they understand that having an aspiration – and having these decent, honest, simple goals – is nothing to sneer at. It’s something to celebrate. I tell you what, it’s also not something you should tax.”

He waits on the applause. There are teacups placed at the side of the room, like in an Olive Cotton photograph. “Bill Shorten and Labor want to tax the honest, decent aspirations of Australia because they don’t know how to manage money. I have a plan and my government has a plan and my team has a plan to celebrate and back in the aspirations of hard-working Australians.”

He gets a cheer for his tax cuts. He says money is better off in the hands of people, not governments. He says these cuts are not a cost to the budget. The smell of ammonia comes from the beer taps at the back. “It’s not a cost,” he says. “It’s your money. And you should keep it.”

He says the last time Labor delivered a surplus was the year Taylor Swift was born. He says it takes a long time to shake off their mismanagement. He tries the line twice. A woman turns to the old man next to her: “It’s a song.”

The biggest cheer he gets is for announcing his government has cancelled the visas of 4400 people and sent them home. He says many of them were paedophiles. He says when Labor was in power, this wasn’t happening. “At this election,” he says, “we have to stop the Labor Party from taking your choices away by taking your hard-earned money away.”

Morrison works here. His face is on the corflutes alongside the local member’s. In this room there is no doubt: he has won the election.

Pictures come through of the Labor launch. The press bus is excited to see Kevin Rudd seated next to Julia Gillard. They see the grab of Paul Keating calling Morrison “a fossil with a baseball cap.” They play it over and over. He has won the day. “Keating’s the sort of guy who would walk in naked to a swingers’ party,” a journalist says. “He doesn’t care. He ratchets it straight up.”


This is an extract from Erik Jensen’s Quarterly Essay 74, The Prosperity Gospel: How Scott Morrison won and Bill Shorten Lost, available now.

Erik Jensen will be in discussing this Quarterly Essay at various events in Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra. Details available here.

Erik Jensen

Erik Jensen is the founding editor of The Saturday Paper and editor-in-chief of Schwartz Media. He is the author of Acute Misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen and On Kate Jennings.


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