August 2021

Comment

The coward’s pulpit

By Nick Feik

© James D. Morgan / Getty Images

Scott Morrison is a leader who not only fails to accept responsibility but continually abandons his post

Australians are doing it tough. We know this is a challenging situation. We thank Australians for your perseverance and patience in this difficult time.

Through fires and pestilence, droughts and flooding rains, political leaders have, for good reason, lamented the misfortunes and tribulations faced by the Australian public. Yet for all the talk of tough decisions in response, so few have actually been made, in federal politics at least.

With conviction in such short supply, it’s perhaps fitting that the highest office in the land is occupied by Scott Morrison. No one will ever say of him, as they did of Howard, “Like him or not, at least you knew what he stood for.” Because what does Morrison stand for? You’d be forgiven for thinking “himself” or “God”. (Not that his belief in God has ever been adequately addressed, in the context of his political leadership. Does he also believe in a literal Devil? Should we be concerned that Pentecostalism is the only major Christian denomination that hasn’t endorsed the call for action on climate change?)

He barely even believes in the Liberal Party. As former Canberra Times editor Jack Waterford recently wrote, Morrison’s personal political prospects are fundamental: “He has an enormous capacity to believe that anything in his own interest, or the government’s short-term political interest, is in the public interest, even when it has been in breach of the law, the decencies, and undermines longstanding institutions and conventions. He is a polished professional politician but has been unable either to articulate long-term goals or visions for his country.” Morrison’s leadership style is evasive and reactive, and he is reluctant to take responsibility, except in a rote or performative sense, for his government’s mistakes.

Much was made of Morrison’s absenteeism during the worst bushfires in Australian history – not just with his trip to Hawaii but for months before then too – though he was thought to have partially redeemed his leadership during the early days of the pandemic, with a timely closing of Australia’s borders and the institution of the JobKeeper program. Yet these decisions, while effective, were hardly bold: border control is like catnip to Australian politicians, and JobKeeper was implemented amid increasingly desperate calls from business groups, unions and economists, and with bipartisan political support. In fact, in the days leading up its announcement, Morrison was virtually the only Australian leader declaring that a broad wage subsidy scheme wasn’t necessary.

The most complex and difficult decisions – on lockdowns and other restrictions – were left to state premiers, often amid active discouragement and sniping from the prime minister. Over time, the innovation of the national cabinet came to seem more like a way to claim credit for premiers’ decisions.

Morrison’s insistence that the states’ hotel quarantine programs were up to the task (even as he blamed state leaders for the programs’ failures) belies the fact that quarantine is a federal responsibility, and the lack of purpose-built federal quarantine facilities has left tens of thousands of Australians unable to return from abroad due to caps on traveller numbers. Eighteen months into the pandemic, the only reasonable conclusion is that Morrison doesn’t want to shoulder this responsibility.

The most unedifying thing about the vaccine rollout failure, similarly, has been to watch the prime minister’s various attempts to dodge blame. First came the denials of reality: for how long did he claim Australia was “on track”, if not leading the pack? Then came the excuses; the withdrawal and re-naming of vaccination targets (or horizons or phases); the appointing of a military leader to run the operation; and his blaming the government’s medical advisers, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. Not once has Morrison acknowledged that the ultimate responsibility rests with him. Or that ATAGI’s advice was always qualified, conditional, and dependent on infection case numbers and vaccine supplies. Not once has Morrison acknowledged that his government initially secured large numbers of doses of only one vaccine, and was predictably caught short when the advice changed.

In fact, Morrison misrepresented ATAGI’s guidance. As early as April, ATAGI recommended that, while Pfizer was preferred, “AstraZeneca can be used in adults aged under 50 years where the benefits are likely to outweigh the risks”. Rather than explaining the nuance, contextualising the risk (that having the vaccine is safer than driving a car) and planning for when an inevitable outbreak occurred, Morrison blamed the advice. So, for most people under 50, for months it was Pfizer or nothing – i.e. nothing.

During the most difficult times of the pandemic, he often simply disappeared for days at a time. And, like a teen breaking up by text message, when he needed to relay bad news, he sometimes did it via a late-night Facebook post.

The year 2021 has brought a parade of political problems for the prime minister, but in some ways it’s the non-pandemic issues that have been most revealing, and most dispiriting. In response to allegations against then attorney-general Christian Porter, the prime minister refused to hold an independent inquiry and accepted Porter’s word without even bothering to read the allegations. Since Brittany Higgins was allegedly raped in Parliament House, Morrison’s office has expended far more effort covering up what it knew than doing anything to help Higgins or other women in danger in that workplace. The investigation into what the prime minister’s office knew and when has been running since March.

Morrison refused to attend or address the March4Justice, just as he refused to meet with a delegation of former emergency services bosses to hear their warnings about the threat of climate change, just as he refused to meet with a delegation of university leaders to discuss the dire state of higher education since the pandemic began.

It was Morrison’s snarling, bullying attack in parliament on Christine Holgate – “She. Can. Go.” – that led to the chief executive’s departure from Australia Post. But did he ever apologise, or own his mistake, when it was shown she’d done nothing wrong? He did not. It’s striking that when you apply a basic moral test to the prime minister’s leadership – “What would have been the right thing to do, in this circumstance?” – so often Morrison did the opposite.

More corruption was revealed – most recently it involved outrageous pork-barrelling for car parks – but still there’s been no movement on the once-touted national integrity commission, and Bridget McKenzie, who departed cabinet following the “sports rorts” affair, is back in the ministry. All allegations have been swept under the carpet, where they gather dust alongside those made against so many other ministers.

So, what would you call a prime minister who hides his own convictions, hides behind others’ decisions, won’t make hard decisions himself, won’t consider unpopular or difficult policies, sets targets he’ll never have to meet, won’t face up to his responsibilities, refuses any scrutiny of his ministers, never responds to legitimate criticisms, and doesn’t own up to his mistakes? Yes, exactly.

But, sadly, an accusation of cowardice in Australian politics can be more broadly applied than just to Morrison and the Liberal Party.

In early July, Labor quietly leaked to the press that it would wave through the Coalition’s “Stage 3” tax cuts to the wealthiest Australians, and not seek to unwind them. As a response to rising inequality in Australia, it was disheartening. And days after the mercury hit 49.6 degrees Celsius in Canada, smashing its temperature record by almost 5 degrees, and while large parts of Europe were experiencing once-in-500-year floods, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese flagged his stance on climate change by criticising the Greens for their ambitious emissions target (net-zero by 2035), on the perplexing basis that it wasn’t treating people with respect. His party’s current position is to not announce any major climate policy, or medium-term targets, or do anything that will directly threaten the very fossil fuel and mining industries responsible for climate change. Albanese’s strategy generally has been to avoid any difficult policy decisions and hope that Australians will decide his party can’t possibly be worse than the existing lot. How inspiring. Put that on your campaign hoardings.

On the other side, Barnaby Joyce, recently reinstated as deputy prime minister, told journalist Phil Coorey that he would lose the Nationals leadership a second time if he committed to any net-zero target. “Once you start putting a cost to these things, people’s attitude changes,” Joyce said. He went on to complain, on ABC’s Insiders, that his party wouldn’t commit to any targets or policies until he’d seen “the plan”, as if it’s not his job, as the country’s deputy leader and head of the Nationals, to help devise one. Put simply, the second-most senior figure in government fears to plan for the future in case it risks his own leadership. Joyce is the pin-up of politics’ misplaced system of rewards and incentives: his folio of career achievements is embarrassingly thin, and his main political attribute is getting on national television and “cutting through” with folksy non sequiturs.

We have a political system that rewards ideological “pragmatism” over principle, grandstanding over careful negotiation, cut-through over persuasion, tactics over policy, personal ambition over achievement, and exposure over substance. The greatest sin for a politician now seems to be getting trapped by their own convictions. To be tied to a particular position is like carrying around an anchor; a sign of foolishness or, worse still, naivety. Is it any wonder Morrison and Joyce floated to the top, or that Albanese struggles to find the right tone? (Or that federal politicians tend to find their true voice – on issues such as climate change, the scourge of Murdoch, or the misogyny in the Coalition – only after they leave office?)

There are structural explanations for this state of affairs, of course. The list is as long as you want it to be, starting with the state of our mainstream news media, the growing role of social media, the power of political donations and industry lobbyists, shifting demographics et cetera. Not to mention the degradation of the public service and other government institutions, and the increasing irrelevance of ministerial standards. The irony, though, is that these changes have made the personality and character of our political leaders ever more critical in how decisions are made. It’s unsophisticated to talk about character in relation to politics, perhaps because there’s so little of it on display, but the results are obvious.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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