July 2019

Comment

Scott Morrison’s quiet Australians

By Mark McKenna
Just how silent does the PM want Australians to be?

For better or worse, some phrases stick. The more memorable examples, from prime ministers over recent decades, makes for a rather bracing display of what is the true centre of Australian politics – conservative Australia’s grandest ambitions and deepest fears in free verse.

“Life wasn’t meant to be easy.”

“An Australian nation that feels comfortable and relaxed about three things … their history … the present … and the future.”

“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

“Stop the boats.”

“Jobs and growth.”

Now we have Scott Morrison’s electrifying “quiet Australians”, as much a hybrid of John Howard’s “battlers” and “mainstream Australians” as a predictable riff on President Donald Trump’s (and Richard Nixon’s) “silent majority”; a phrase so vague and so open ended it’s like a pool in which any voter can see their reflection. For government ministers who’d expected to be packing up their parliamentary offices in June, it has suddenly become the rhetorical keystone around which the Coalition plans to maintain their slim electoral majority. Claiming his belated victory in the electorate of Hume on June 10, Angus Taylor thanked “the quiet Australians”. Three days later, justifying the government’s inertia on energy policy, Taylor was summoning the same shadowy mob, which prompted CS Energy chief executive Andrew Bills to quip that “we heard today one policy announcement, which was the QAP – the Quiet Australia Policy, which is, effectively, we don’t need to do anything”.

Be prepared for three more years of it. Since day one of the Coalition’s victory it has served as a rallying cry for the Murdoch cheer squad – “Quiet Australians Get Morrison over Line”, “Quiet Australians Heard Loud and Clear”, “Morrison’s Election Weapon: The Quiet Australians” – a simple peg on which to hang any number of self-serving explanations for what happened on May 18. The most flimsy was the all-too neat equation with Trump’s America and Nigel Farage’s Brexit. The Australian crowed that “the silent majority has finally spoken with … such a shout that it would shake and redefine the public discourse in Australia”. While there were undoubtedly parallels – a polarised electorate being the most obvious – the return of the Morrison government was little different from three of Australia’s past four federal elections (as George Megalogenis has pointed out). Labor married an unpopular leader with an ambitious policy agenda that Morrison exploited with relentless negativity. There was no “populist wave” or army of battlers who had returned the Coalition to power; merely a populist catchphrase to spin the victory as one fought on their behalf.

The quietness was evident from the moment Morrison uttered his first words as prime minister in August last year. “We’re on your side”, he said, “because we share beliefs and values in common. As you go about everything you do each day: getting up in the morning, getting off to work, turning up on site, getting the parent you’re caring for up in the morning, exchanging that smile each and every day, getting the kids off to school, getting home at night, perhaps if you’re lucky, a bit of time together … The Liberal Party is on your side.” Morrison was not offering to govern; he was ministering. Work, domesticity and “aspiration” quickly became the calling cards of an eternally chipper PM who cheered the Sharks on Saturday and the Lord on Sunday. Add the baseball cap and a beer, and the image was complete. Morrison created an illusion that neither Turnbull nor Abbott could achieve: he claimed solidarity with those outside the “Canberra bubble” at the same time as he presided over it. All the while, his deeply conservative social agenda was alarmingly conspicuous. Explaining his decision to appoint General David Hurley as Australia’s 27th governor-­general in December, Morrison reflected that he was “a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to these things” and had “always been impressed” by the governors-­general chosen from among Australia’s military. He also took the unusual step of pointing out that Hurley and his wife “have been married for over 40 years and have been an example in that relationship”, as if to suggest that unmarried, separated or divorced candidates need not apply.

By the new year, with an election fast approaching, Morrison wheeled out the quiet Australians for the first time, via an article he wrote that was published in The Daily Telegraph. It was the story of a holiday epiphany he’d had after visiting Shoalhaven Heads on the New South Wales South Coast. “I wasn’t there on any political visit,” he wrote, “just holidaying with Jen and the girls enjoying the flathead and chips like everyone else.” He spelt out the virtues of “us quieter Australians”. They lived in the suburbs. They were not stuck up. They were neither right nor left. They were not the “angry mob on social media and in other media, shouting at each other and telling us all what we’re supposed to do, think and say”. They were just ordinary Australians who want secure jobs, low taxes, a strong economy and to be “kept safe”, whether from boats of asylum seekers, “radical Islamic terrorists”, or bullies at their kids’ schools. After all, what more could you want from life? Australia is a “pretty great place” so let’s keep it that way. Morrison’s vision was less likely due to the flathead and chips than it was the result of a carefully honed election strategy devised with his team of advisers, including chief of staff John Kunkel, who’d helped shape many of the Coalition’s policies designed to connect with conservative voters during the Howard era.

Throughout Morrison’s campaign, the quiet Australians occasionally morphed into the “quiet masses” or the “quiet army” – the people who “don’t campaign in the streets or protest outside parliament [and who] are not reading the papers, or following the political news every day” – but they remained the bedrock of his pitch to voters till the very end. When the unexpected moment arrived, he harked back to his first speech as PM and claimed victory in their name: “It has been [for] those Australians who have worked hard every day, they have their dreams, they have their aspirations: to get a job, to get an apprenticeship, to start a business, to meet someone amazing. To start a family, to buy a home, to work hard and provide the best you can for your kids. To save for your retirement and to ensure that when you’re in your retirement, that you can enjoy it because you’ve worked hard for it. These are the quiet Australians who have won a great victory tonight.”

It was an accountant’s vision – federal government as the shepherd of cradle-to-the-grave materialism – not so much of a society but of so many workaholic individuals and their quiet nuclear families “getting ahead”, amassing their pile and being rewarded on earth and, at least in the prime minister’s case, in heaven above. By the time Morrison entered a jubilant party room on May 28 to address his fellow MPs, his language was tinged with an undeniable evangelical fervour. He seemed to be falling into prayer as he promised to “govern humbly” and place Australians “at the centre of our thoughts, each and every day”. “We must burn for the Australian people,” he told them. At this point, I felt myself burning too. I was tired of Morrison’s paternalism and the utter banality of so many of his protestations in defence of the “quiet Australians”, the people he patronisingly described as “too busy” to take an interest in politics, those who either couldn’t be bothered or preferred to cling to their disdain for politics and bed down with the eternally disaffected. “But they turn up every three years at elections and they take a good, close look at what the options are.” And then, like sleepwalkers, they vote for the Coalition or the more extreme parties that send preferences its way. It’s an old recipe in a faintly new guise, but its dangers for our body politic and for Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party are clear.

Will Labor, still reeling from its defeat, cede the middle ground entirely to Morrison? Will it disguise its traditional goals of social equality and a fairer redistribution of wealth, or forsake them for the siren song of “aspiration”? Morrison’s quiet Australians are not Menzies’ “forgotten people”; they are the citizens he rewards for forgetting about politics. He disparages civic engagement and active participation as the grubby business of noisy elites. His political centre is akin to a compliant congregation: the silent faithful who dutifully leave it to others to lay down the rules that govern their lives.

Just how quiet does Morrison want Australians to be? If the government’s troubling response to last month’s federal police raids on journalists is any guide – avoiding ministerial responsibility and falling back on the familiar evasive strategy of not interfering in “operational” matters – it clearly prefers Australians to be well and truly asleep. The more sinister connotation here is that the public cannot be trusted with the knowledge of what governments are doing in their name, and that we may have a “ruling ethos” of secrecy, as Australia’s first independent national security legislation monitor, Brett Walker SC, has warned, in which Canberra alone decides what Australians should and shouldn’t know. In the face of such creeping authoritarianism, and an electorate in which contempt for all things “political” is rife, the last thing that our democracy needs is quiet Australians. Rather than passive and uninterested citizens who cast their compulsory vote every three years, Australia needs vocal, engaged, informed and committed citizens. Citizens who understand their obligations, and how their parliaments, laws and Constitution work.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is a professor of history at the University of Sydney. His books include An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark.

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