November 1, 2021

Federal politics

Scott Morrison’s suburban development

By Sean Kelly
Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison cheering during an NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the North Queensland Cowboys, July 25, 2019. Image © Craig Golding / AAP Image

Prime Minister Scott Morrison cheers during an NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the North Queensland Cowboys, July 25, 2019. Image © Craig Golding / AAP Image

On the creation of the prime minister’s daggy dad persona

Observing how determined Scott Morrison’s performance has been could lead easily to cynicism and the assumption that his persona is made up. Such logic leads nowhere. If the image Morrison con­stantly seeks to portray is false, this implies there must be some true Morrison he has hidden from us, lurking out of sight. Across so long a period in public life, one would expect this alternative persona to slip out at some point – but this is, to a very large extent, not the case. When other facts – such as his brief love affair with Australian Rules – emerge to cast doubt on the specifics of the picture Morrison has painted, there is no obvious real Morrison they point us to, one possessing a different sensibility, another way of being in the world.

And yet it is hard to feel that there is not something odd about this diligently achieved picture. It is too perfectly calibrated, too perfectly representative of a certain version of Australianness – as though the man himself had been created out of the desires of a focus group. We know, too, that Morrison understood this representation would work to his advantage, from the time and effort he put into making sure we knew all about it.

In his classic account of Australian society, The Lucky Country, Donald Horne writes that sport “to many Australians is life and the rest a shadow”. It was also a proxy for our relationship to the nation. “To play sport, or watch others play, and to read and talk about it was to uphold the nation and build its character.” By plac­ing his love of sport at the centre of his public persona, Morrison was billing himself as essentially Australian and also as somebody who loved what it was to be Australian. Rugby league added a class-based appeal to this image.

The adoption of a specific team was important. John Howard liked rugby league, and rather quietly supported the St. George Illawarra Dragons; but this was not the team from the area he represented. Morrison supported the club which represented the suburban community in which he lived, the Sutherland Shire – which he mentioned almost as often as the Sharks.

Elsewhere in The Lucky Country, Horne described Australia as “the first suburban nation”. When he wrote this, Australia’s status as suburban was, by Horne’s account, not yet entirely accepted. This was in part because the nation still clung to an idea of itself as a “race of laconic country folk”. The idea of suburbs carried a sense of affluence that ran against the notion of being working-class, which was the other part of the nation’s identity. As well, elites, who con­trolled much of the public image of Australia, hated the idea of suburbs, and tended to ignore them.

By now, Australia has embraced its affluence. Living in the sub­urbs has become a way to define yourself against both poverty and snobbish elites. Morrison’s constant references to the Sharks and the Shire ensured that this positioning was communicated to as many people as possible. In this repetition was something else, too: a sense of defiant pride in this identity.

As with rugby league, the picture of this Shire devotee was not precisely accurate. Morrison’s love for the Shire seems sincere. Still, he grew up in Bronte, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. In 2016, he talked about his attachment to the Shire: “Bronte wouldn’t feel like home to me today.” That may be true, but he was not talking about a distant memory: he and Jenny bought a bungalow in Bronte in 1995, and only sold it in 2009.

In an email to constituents after he became prime minister, Morrison wrote: “Our house in the shire is a typical family home. It has a mortgage, it needs a bit of work and no front fence.” In an interview with The Daily Telegraph around the same time, he was more specific: “My mortgage is about the average size, it isn’t a zero, it’s still got lots of zeroes on it and we’ll deal with that like any other family.” Again, this is likely true, but at the time the Morrisons bought the house, for $920,000, that was nearly twice the median house price in the area. One expert publicly suggested it would be worth double that now. Morrison is not extremely rich, but he is still far richer than most: this is a man who has earned between $100,000 and $300,000 per year for most of his working life.

Some novelists like to talk about their characters as though, in the writing process, they become real people. At some point in the writing of the novel, these writers say, the characters escaped their control. They began to stand on their own two feet, spoke when they felt like it, made their own decisions about where to go next. At that point, the book more or less wrote itself.

This is a fantasy, of course. The novelist always had control. And this is very similar to the fantasy to which most journalists remain attached: that they are at the mercy of the flesh-and-blood characters they are following, merely reporting, dutifully, what those real-life characters say and do.

Morrison understands that this is a myth. But he understands, too, that – like any myth – it has enormous power. In those early anecdotes about his brushes with the media, there is a sense of ner­vous caution. In two, the journalists note a pause before Morrison speaks. But the pause has not been used to come up with an illu­minating answer, some articulate demonstration of knowledge or insight. Instead, it has been used to figure out how to put a stop to this line of inquiry, however harmless it might be.

At some point Morrison must have realised this was a mistake – or at least that it was not sustainable. He had left too large a gap. The only thing filling it was his image as a hard-hearted political warrior on the issue of refugees. In 2015, with the chance of becoming prime minister looming, with an election due not long after that, it was essential for Morrison to fill that gap in some other way. That is when the ScoMo character was first imagined. In 2018, with the same combination of circumstances approaching, he faced much the same challenge, but with three years’ readiness behind him. The strategy fell into place.

Morrison’s sudden enthusiasm for media appearances, his over­eager desire to talk about himself, is not the opposite of his earlier reluctance to answer questions. It is a more sophisticated version of the same understanding of the world: one in which journalists will, ultimately, be the ones to tell his story. At first, Morrison was able to prevent certain stories from being told, and minimise the amount of attention he received. Later, as his fame grew, he came to understand that, given the inevitability that stories about him would be told, his best option was to play a role in shaping them. And he understood, too, that many journalists felt obliged to report what was put in front of them – if he simply said the word “pragmatic” often enough, set up the idea of “authenticity” and spoke about foot­ball at every opportunity, then this was the version of him that would reach the public.

The existence of Jane Cadzow’s 2012 Good Weekend profile, written before Morrison began his determined 2015 campaign to reinvent himself, is a stroke of luck. It acts as a kind of scientific control, a test against which the later, cloying coverage of Morrison’s daggy dad status can be mea­sured. There was nothing inevitable about the way that Morrison was presented to the public just a few years later. The ScoMo char­acter was not the only possible version of Scott Morrison – there was the man who didn’t want money spent on relatives attending funerals, or the man with an intense commitment to evangelical Christianity, or the man who couldn’t decide which footy team he liked, or the man who fluently lied about what he had and had not said. That “ScoMo” was the version that came to dominate was not an accident.

Morrison’s skill in constructing this version of himself should be recognised. First, he adopted his trademark characteristics. Second, he telegraphed them to the public, again and again and again. Third, he convinced journalists to transmit the facts he wanted them to transmit. This last achievement is, especially for a certain type of politician, easier than it sounds. Anyone who works in politics long enough learns that many journalists, like many people in any pro­fession, are short on time. A press secretary writing a press release learns to put the most important information in the first paragraph, the next most important in the next paragraph, and so on, because that is the way the journalists will write their articles, and it pays to make their job easier. Morrison did not simply like rugby league and cook once a week. He covered himself with Sharks parapher­nalia, mentioned the team often and found new ways to bring up curry in interviews. He made it easy for journalists to do what he wanted them to do.

None of this would matter if it were not for two other facts. The first is Morrison’s understanding – though he would not put it this way – that the journalists he depends on to tell his story are not only like novelists; they are like poor novelists, constantly creating flat characters. In somewhere between 800 and 1500 words, the jour­nalist must present a picture of a politician that the reader will find sufficiently entertaining and, most important, easy to digest. Her aim is to make him recognisable; his aim, provided the portrait is sufficiently flattering, is to be recognisable. Almost inevitably, this means regurgitating the most obvious facets of a politician’s life. In Morrison’s case, he chose what would be obvious, and journalists went along with it. Their interests coincided.

Much is made of the “insider” status of reporters, their access to politicians. In Australia we even have a political television show called Insiders. This mythology can give the impression that journal­ists know politicians in ways that voters don’t. This is not really true. Politicians are like characters in a novel to the journalists who write about them, too. The journalists will have some personal impressions: perhaps they ate with the politician once, or interviewed them; certainly they will have watched the politician up close at press con­ferences. But the politicians are performing for the journalists – and the depictions of them the rushed journalists provide to the public are shaped, to a very large extent, by what other people have already written about them, by the widely accepted stories about who they are. Once an impression has been noted down on paper – “prag­matic”, “authentic” – it will find its way into other reports, and from there it will make its way further.

Still, the credit does not belong entirely to Morrison, nor to the journalists who spread his messages. If journalists are poor novel­ists, then Annabel Crabb, in presenting Kitchen Cabinet, takes on the role of a literary novelist, one presenting us with depths, should we wish to notice them. Most of the time, though, we don’t – which is why most journalists don’t bother. And this is because they recognise, on some level, what Morrison knows in his bones: when it comes to politicians, flat characters – simple, without nuance and easily digestible – are exactly what we, the voters, want.


This is an edited extract from The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison by Sean Kelly, published by Black Inc.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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