Federal politics

Broken record
Why should we assume Morrison’s good faith, given his track record?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

I’d really not wanted to describe the scandalous funk that constitutes our federal government this week. Not again. As an abuse victim, stories of sex crimes are faintly radioactive for me, and sustained exposure to them makes me sick. These past months, the Geiger counter has been clicking noisily.

It’s been hard to dodge. As a news junkie, I’ve made it harder than it should be, but still: the gamma rays are everywhere. Stories of victims’ degradation, doubt and self-loathing. Aggressors’ nonchalance and immunity. A wider culture’s indifference, ignorance or cover-up.

It’s enervating. Oppressive. I’ve felt exhausted, tender. I’ve ground my teeth, I’ve sighed and I’ve felt that proverbial pit in my stomach deepen. It’s difficult for a journalist to turn the news off, but perhaps that’s best for a while. Maybe a month or two. Or a few decades.

These headlines emerged within just 72 hours this week:

– “Former NRL star found guilty of sexual assault”

– “Liberal staffer sacked for sex act on female MP’s desk”

– “Scott Morrison accused of weaponising complaint minutes after fighting back tears”

– “Morrison denies misleading parliament over Brittany Higgins report”

– “NSW MP accused of raping sex worker”

– “Tasmanian speaker says Liberal senator questioned Brittany Higgins’ drunkenness”

– “Concerns about Craig Kelly aide taken to highest level of Liberal party several times”

– “Brittany Higgins has formally complained to the prime minister’s chief of staff that colleagues in his office were backgrounding media about her partner”

But how can I not stare at this cyclone of shit once again, when I read this from Phillip Coorey in the Australian Financial Review: “Morrison is not a misogynist, quite the opposite. But he’s a wee bit unreconstructed and struggles to grasp the zeitgeist. Even when he means well, things tend to come out arse about, such as the comment this week about the rally outside Parliament being a triumph of democracy when others protesting abroad were being shot at.”

This is exceedingly generous. In fact, it sounds like a son defending their dad to a new partner, after their first meeting at a family barbie has dramatically come out arse about. “He doesn’t really mean that stuff, you know. It’s just the froths speaking.” 

Morrison’s failure to firmly and honestly address the Higgins allegation, and the cascading failures that followed, isn’t a loveably clumsy “struggle to grasp the zeitgeist”, and to suggest so conforms with the prime minister’s own insistent projection of himself as the nation’s daggy dad. That vision is closer to a cheesy, retrograde sitcom – I Dream of Jenny, perhaps.

I’d suggest a darker vision as the more accurate one, which is that Morrison doesn’t lead for all Australians, that he’s indifferent to large swathes of us and that he’s certain (or was certain) that he can maintain electoral supremacy in spite of (or because of) this indifference.

The caricature of “dagginess” – and its implication of forgivable kinds of ineptitude – also shifts focus from the prime minister’s wilfully sustained incuriosity about Brittany Higgins. “I tend to not pay attention to the rumours,” he said on March 1, when asked what he had known about the allegation against his attorney-general.  

But of course he does. This week he threateningly spewed an unfounded rumour from the lectern. He was wrong – badly wrong – just as he was when he did much the same with the Save the Children teachers, slanderously accused of coaching kids in detention on Nauru to self-harm.

Scott Morrison isn’t a sitcom dad – he’s the leader of a historically suspect government, and regarding Brittany Higgins, sits at the helm of what could very generously be described as a calamitously cynical treatment of an alleged crime.              

What has Morrison done, exactly, to oblige the benefit of our doubt? What in the prime minister’s past behaviour suggests his belief in accountability? What suggests that it would be wise or valorous to assume his good faith? Or administrative competency? Or distaste for sordid tactics?

Is it the 13 consecutive refusals to appear on 7.30 since Higgins went public? His emphatic refusal, only recently reversed, to take advice from the solicitor-general about Christian Porter? Was it the joke of “on-water matters”, invoked with comic profusion when he was immigration minister, and used to cast the number of boat arrivals, and the circumstances of turn-backs, in secrecy? Was it failing those in aged care during the worst of the pandemic, and his blithe shifting of blame to the states? Perhaps it was Morrison’s prompt shredding of Malcolm Turnbull’s plan to improve the transparency of political lobbying? Or the neglect of the Australian National Audit Office, the same office that recommended those substantial improvements to the Lobbying Code of Conduct, and exposed the sports rorts, the government’s unethical purchase of land at Badgerys Creek and the unforgivably persistent vulnerability of our government’s IT networks?  

Was it a clumsy grasp of the zeitgeist when Morrison, as shadow immigration minister, taunted the Gillard government for flying a freshly orphaned boy to Sydney to watch the burial of his father – killed when their boat smashed upon the rocks of Christmas Island? Was it daggy when, as prime minister, he revoked the medevac laws designed for the children on Nauru who suffer from chronic illness, have self-harmed or succumbed to morbid stupors (and after his government had been repeatedly criticised by the Federal Court for delaying or ignoring urgent requests for medical care)?

Excuse the pompous self-citation, but let me offer my own words from December 2019: “Morrison proved more cunning than the rest. Than Turnbull, Dutton and all of the Labor Party. But cunning alone won’t elevate us, and for a long time now we’ve suffered from people more gifted at assuming power than acquitting it. With Morrison, we very likely have our shallowest leader in my lifetime – a period stretching back to Malcolm Fraser – and his recent sustained silence during the New South Wales fires was almost eerie.”

Now you tell me what’s changed.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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