June 3, 2022

Federal politics

The mystery of Scott Morrison

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of Scott Morrison conducting morning television interviews on election day, May 21, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Scott Morrison conducts morning television interviews on election day, May 21, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Reflections on the empty legacy of our 30th prime minister

Now that removalists have emptied The Lodge of its Sharks memorabilia, we might fairly ask: What the fuck were these past four years all about? For his party, Scott Morrison leaves behind him an electoral crater and the ashes of two illusions: that he was a supernaturally gifted campaigner, and that the Liberal Party was a functionally broad and collegial church. 

For the rest of us, Morrison leaves behind something more disturbing and mysterious: a confoundingly empty legacy. I don’t mean this only as a reference to his scant achievements, but to something deeper: four years of a prime ministership that seems eerily without purpose, substance or even obvious motivation. “The mystery of why Scott Morrison wanted to be prime minister now may never be solved,” writer Richard Cooke tweeted on election night. Cooke’s tweet exists as a perverse Zen koan, an invitation to attempt the impossible: to stare at an abyss and derive conclusions about its meaning.

On election night, Morrison’s concession speech conceded nothing, and did not even obliquely attempt to address Cooke’s mystery. The next day, his last as prime minister, he spoke more emotionally at his local church in a speech composed almost entirely of scriptural quotes – but this, too, was mysterious. Before his biblical citations, he said:

God calls us. Whether you’re a prime minister, a pastor, running a business, teaching in schools, working in the police force, it doesn’t matter. We’re each called to trust and obey, and that’s the life of faith He calls us to. That’s how we live our faith, each and every day, regardless of what your job is, and to express it through how you do that.

It was opaque boilerplate, ratifying faith but saying nothing of substance. And his comments yield nothing about his motivation – unless, as he’s hinted at before, he felt genuinely called by God to lead the country through four years of decadently aimless dysfunction. But then came the scripture. The first quote came from the book of Habakkuk, a minor prophet of whom we know nothing:

Even if the fig tree does not blossom and there is no fruit on the vines, if the yield of the olive fails and if the fields produce no food, even if the flock disappears from the fold and there are no cattle in the stalls, yet I will triumph in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.

Morrison did not reflect upon the fertility of the Liberals’ soil, and how he might have poisoned it. He concluded with a quote from the book of Micah: “My God will hear me. Do not rejoice over me, enemy of mine. Though I fall, I will rise. Though I live in darkness, the Lord is a light for me.”

It is tempting to interpret this final quote as both graceless defiance and sickly self-pity, but what’s interesting about Morrison’s final words as prime minister is that he devoted them to such a narrow audience. He spoke only to those believers immediately before him, gesturing to profundity but still saying nothing, and ignoring the wider country. Rather than speak to his own failures, or his hopes for the new government, Morrison indulged another platitudinous sermon. He would be fine, he said, because he has faith – and so too will those who share it. Was there nothing else he wanted to share? He’d led the country, after all, through historic fires, floods and plagues.

I don’t write this to mock religiosity, and the left’s initial scepticism or even disgust of his faith bothered me. But I’ve read the Bible, as I’ve read articulate Christian apologists – G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Philip Toynbee, for example – who have shared their faith in humble and thoughtful ways, and precisely described faith’s influence upon, say, their acceptance of grief or, in Bonhoeffer’s case, his acceptance of the legitimacy of assassination.

But Morrison’s faith is another mystery to me, not because of the faith itself, but how incoherently he described its relationship to his power and sense of purpose. The men mentioned above all transposed their faith into meaningful activity, both internal and external, and they could clearly explain how. Morrison never could. “Trust and obey,” became the unspoken motto of so many of his press conferences. 

Asked about his “miracle” win in 2019, he said: “I must admit I was saying to myself, ‘You know, Lord, where are you, where are you? I’d like a reminder if that’s OK?’ And there right in front of me was the biggest picture of a soaring eagle that I could imagine and of course the verse hit me. The message I got that day was, ‘Scott, you’ve got to run to not grow weary, you’ve got to walk to not grow faint, you’ve got to spread your wings like an eagle to soar like an eagle.’”

Did Morrison feel uniquely anointed by God? And if so, why was His only lesson the confirmation of Morrison’s divine fitness to lead the country – did He have nothing to say about governance and corruption?

Last year, the writer Sean Kelly – a former adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard – published an unusually thoughtful biography of Scott Morrison. It was called The Game, and I had both the privilege and displeasure of reading an early draft. The privilege was in being trusted to offer opinions on it; the displeasure was reading a book that searched intelligently, but fruitlessly, for a sense of Morrison’s conviction. The fault is not Kelly’s, but his subject’s. To read The Game is to fall into an elevator shaft without a bottom.

This will be my final column about Scott Morrison. There’s a new government deserving scrutiny. But we might still think about how a failed ad man of no discernible conviction rose to prime minister in such short time, in a party that celebrates itself as a dynamic boiler-house of ideas.

And here lies my headache: Morrison was profoundly vacant, and yet energetic in the retention of his power. Why? And to what end? I can grasp other prime ministers’ motivations, but not Morrison’s, and I’m left with the contradiction of a shameless, volatile and controlling man with no discernible purpose.

In the first week of the campaign, Anthony Albanese was embarrassed by his failure to answer what the current unemployment and interest rates were. It was basic stuff, and weird that he didn’t know it. I thought the subsequent criticism was largely appropriate.

But there were other, more urgent questions. Like, why did Scott Morrison, who had such a bizarrely limited view of the responsibilities of his office, want to retain it? For a long time, the press gallery would have given, in response to this question, some journalese that included the word “pragmatic”.

Morrison wasn’t pragmatic, but conniving and empty. And, by the end, a sad and terminal victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect. As one of his senior colleagues told The Saturday Paper, Morrison wasn’t a campaign genius but a deluded fuckwit. And yet I’m still no closer to answering Cooke’s mystery. I suppose one thing that we might say confidently is that Morrison succeeded in making voters hate him just as viscerally as so many of his colleagues did.

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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