May 2022


Morrison’s power without purpose

By Judith Brett
Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time, 2021

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time, 2021. © Sam Mooy / Getty Images

As prime minister, Scott Morrison has offered neither competence nor vision

“‘Julia. I. Am. The. Prime. Minister,’ Morrison said to me, in a Trumpesque tone, enunciating every word with a full-stop emphasis, as if I’d missed the news cycle.”

Julia Banks had just announced that she would not re-contest the marginal Melbourne seat of Chisholm at the 2019 federal election, and Scott Morrison was ringing to talk her into reconsidering. It was only a week or so since his surprise win after Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership came crashing down. Perhaps he was still needing to persuade himself.

He used the same line this February at a meeting of the Liberal Party’s federal executive, as he tried to persuade it to support a motion installing his preferred candidates in several New South Wales seats, overriding the rights of branch members to preselect the candidates. According to journalist Niki Savva: “In between yelling and thumping the table … Morrison felt compelled to remind members of the executive who they were dealing with. ‘I am the Prime Minister,’ he told them. As if they could possibly forget.”

When Morrison says “I am the prime minister” what does he mean? What does he think being the prime minister entails? These two incidents are not reassuring. Confronted with opposition, Morrison simply demanded obedience because of his office. He might just as well have said “I’m the boss” or “I’m top dog”.

I have read everything I can about Scott Morrison, trying to understand what political power means to him and how he is using it. As I try to discern the patterns I remind myself to avoid easy cynicism, that personal ambition is rarely the only reason for a political life, and that ideals and service will also be part of the story, even if they are ideals I don’t share.

When Morrison became prime minister, I was relieved it was not Peter Dutton, whose rigid, self-righteous authoritarianism frightens me. And I was still cheering the removal of Tony Abbott, the worst prime minister in my lifetime. So I was prepared to give Morrison the benefit of the doubt. I thought his background in marketing might be a good thing, making him responsive to public opinion rather than to the sort of mad, archaic voice in the inner ear that told Abbott to knight Prince Philip. I thought it might enable Morrison to break the government out of its climate-change denialism.

To give him due credit, it has done so, though it’s more of a slow-motion disentanglement than an urgent, Houdini-like escape into the clear air of scientific rationality after precious years wasted by the Coalition’s refusal to believe the science. Still, he has signed Australia up to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. The words “climate change” are no longer banned, and he did not deny that the rise in global temperatures contributed to the catastrophic floods in late February and early March in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales. He warned that there will be more to come, that “Australia is getting harder to live in”. Compare this with the ridiculing of suggestions that climate change had any role to play in the catastrophic fires of the 2019–20 summer by leading Coalition figures Barnaby Joyce and Dutton, and their echo chamber at News Corp.

But despite this recognition of climate change, the Morrison government’s interim target of reducing emissions to 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 remains unchanged. This is roughly half of what the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union have committed to.

As for how we are going to get there, the government produced the Long-term Emissions Reduction Plan, a glossy blue pamphlet of dot point motherhood statements and a slogan, “technology not taxes”. Presenting the plan to the nation in October last year, the prime minister promised that it would all be positive and enabling, that there would be no jobs lost and no increased costs to households. Really? No costs at all? This, he told us, was the “uniquely Australian way”. Sounds more like magical thinking.

Unsurprisingly, given the Coalition’s culpability, Morrison never mentions the costs of delayed action that climate scientists have been predicting for decades now, and that are already upon us. The Queensland government’s estimate of the costs of this year’s “unprecedented” floods started at $2.5 billion. The Coalition has also provided scant detail on what, exactly, it proposes to do. A few weeks after the release of the plan, Morrison revealed that the mechanism would be “can-do capitalism, not don’t-do governments seeking to control people’s lives and tell them what to do”.

But when the can-do capitalist Mike Cannon-Brookes made an offer to take over energy company AGL, bring forward the closure of its coal-fired power stations and transform it into a wholly renewable energy company, Morrison was conspicuously silent. It turned out he wasn’t really inviting can-do capitalists to contribute to our uniquely Australian way at all.

In the early days of his prime ministership, I was also not especially hostile to Morrison’s religious faith. Perhaps it provides him with a sense of community and underpins his sense of service, I thought. Perhaps it helps him to retain his sense of proportion and to centre himself amid the turmoil of political life. Perhaps it is a private matter and essentially harmless.

Now I see it more negatively. The irreconcilable conflict between Christianity’s injunction to compassion and his government’s persecution of asylum seekers is not what troubles me most, though it does belie a shallow, hard-hearted faith. People have all sorts of ways of maintaining contradictory beliefs. Nor do I see the prosperity gospel of Pentecostalism as a major contributor to this. His promise of “a fair go for those who have a go” is just a sloganeer’s version of the long-established affinity between the Liberal Party and traditional Protestant belief in individual responsibility for everything from your relationship with the Almighty to paying your own way through life.

What troubles me most is the supernaturalism of Morrison’s religious belief. I presume Morrison really does believe there is a God, that Jesus, his only son, is divine, and that heaven awaits the righteous – or some versions of these. Maybe he keeps these beliefs in a separate compartment of his mind from the one he uses to think about public policy in health, energy, the environment, transport, or any of the other areas where policy development is based on empirical, scientific evidence. I don’t know. But for me his religious faith undermines my confidence in his reality-testing capacities. A baker or a builder or a financial consultant who believes in the reality of a supernatural being doesn’t worry me too much, but I want my prime minister to have a firmer grip on material reality.

Morrison is repeatedly criticised by progressives for his lack of vision. Sometimes this means an incapacity to inspire, to appeal to people’s better selves and their hopes for a fairer society, in contrast to a cautious politics of maintaining a mean-spirited status quo. Longstanding differences in political values are at stake here, and while I yearn for a leader who inspires hope and fights for equality, I can understand why some of my fellow citizens might not. And a cautious politician can still be competent.

More prosaically, a lack of vision can also mean the failure to look beyond the next election, to look into the future to see, based on present evidence, the problems we are likely to face and to develop policies accordingly. For the leader of a nation, these are failures of competence. We all hope for the best, but we need our leaders to also prepare for the worst.

Competence is what I want most from the prime minister, including the capacity for the long-term assessment of threats and looming problems. I don’t think Morrison truly believes in climate change. If he did he would have acted differently. Presumably his wife, Jenny, doesn’t either, or she might have said to him, “Think about what life will be like for our girls, bringing their children and our grandchildren up in a much more dangerous world.” He says he doesn’t want children to be worried and anxious about the future. Neither do any of us, but as prime minister he has a responsibility for that future.

When reality plays its hand, too often Morrison has been caught absent or flat-footed. In December 2019, he flew to Hawaii on holiday when the bushfires had already started. He declared a national emergency for flood-ravaged northern New South Wales more than a week after the crisis began. With COVID-19, Morrison did better. He closed the borders, and introduced JobKeeper, but the vaccine rollout was delayed and confusing, as was the availability of rapid antigen tests. The states made many of the decisive moves to lock us down and did much of the heavy lifting of actually getting the jabs into people’s arms. As PM, Morrison seemed always to be playing catch up, both to the virus and the premiers.

And as for aged care! One of Morrison’s first acts as prime minister was to establish a royal commission into the sector, with broad terms of reference. Aged care in Australia was in crisis, with falling standards in many homes – as government-indexed funding lagged rising costs – and appalling abuse in some. There had already been 19 reports and inquiries since the Coalition came to power in 2013, but little action. COVID-19 amplified the crisis, with the sector’s problems rarely out of the news. Many residents of aged-care homes died lonely deaths, while others spent months locked away from friends and family. The royal commission’s report, handed down in March 2021, found that the sector was underfunded by $10 billion a year, that aged-care staff were underpaid for the work they do, and that there was a looming staffing crisis. The recent federal budget included some extra money for home care packages and training places, but failed to commit to higher wages for the workforce. Morrison cannot be expected to be across the detail of every sector of government responsibility, but he can be expected to provide competent ministers. Instead, the minister for aged care, Richard Colbeck, who is widely regarded as incompetent, has kept his job.

On national security and defence, Morrison’s record as prime minister has been better. In October 2019, after winning the miracle election, Morrison told the Lowy Institute that, “as a politician my instincts have always been domestic … But as prime minister you must always be directed by the national interest.” So he has had to step into the unfamiliar foreign policy space. Perhaps because of its unfamiliarity, or because he has had good advice from foreign affairs and defence and listened to it, he has done better here than with domestic issues, even if the Solomon Islands pact with China seemed to have taken him by surprise. He has otherwise stared down China’s use of trade sanctions to scale down opposition to its militarisation of the South China Sea. And he has taken us into AUKUS – the agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States to share defence technology – with its centrepiece commitment to Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines. He has also participated enthusiastically in the dialogues of the Quad security alliance, comprising Australia, the US, India and Japan.

Labor has largely given the Coalition’s foreign policy and defence initiatives bipartisan support, limiting criticism to their tardy implementation. Morrison had hoped for some Labor pushback, to create a discernible difference he could use to persuade voters that Labor was not a safe pair of hands in an increasingly dangerous world. When parliament was sitting in February, Morrison tried to wedge Labor on national security by suggesting that China was compromising Labor’s commitment to the national interest. Morrison accused Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, of being a “Manchurian candidate”, a comparison he subsequently withdrew, and Peter Dutton said that Albanese was China’s preferred candidate for the upcoming election. The wedge failed. Not only was there no hard evidence, the attempt was politely slapped down by the head of ASIO, Mike Burgess, who told the ABC’s Leigh Sales that the weaponising of national security was “not helpful”.

When Morrison told the Lowy Institute that the prime minister must always be directed by the national interest, he was primarily thinking of the national interest in terms of foreign policy, but it is also true of domestic policy. The prime minister must govern not just on behalf of those who voted for his party but also for those who didn’t, and this is where Morrison’s idea of national interest collapses into an unstable collection of voter cohorts, only some of which he considers worth wooing.

Prime among them, Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy said, are blokes who might vote Labor. She wrote this in March 2021, as Morrison was buffeted by women’s anger, prompted by the way Brittany Higgins’ allegations had been pushed aside, and swelling to encompass the failure of many workplaces to protect women from sexual harassment.

If you feel that Morrison is not talking to you, Murphy said, you are right: he isn’t, because he thinks more like a campaign director than a prime minister as he searches, again, for a narrow path to Coalition victory with blokes in hard hats backing him in.

If your votes are locked in, then you are of little interest. There are many ways to cut the electoral pie, and so many people Morrison is not talking to: university staff and students, artists and musicians, people who live in inner-city suburbs, poorly paid women care workers, trade union members, fans of the ABC, public sector workers, Indigenous Australians, young people who rent… in fact, anyone in a demographic category very likely to vote Labor or Green. But this is almost half the country. The two-party breakdown of the vote in 2019 was 7,344,813 for the Coalition and 6,908,580 for Labor. This is a lot of people to be excluded from the prime minister’s attention, a lot of people to be marginal to the national interest.

A focus on the votes of the undecided rather than on solving national problems explains much of the government’s behaviour. The “sports rorts” affair is telling: the recommendations of the responsible department were overturned by the minister, Bridget McKenzie, with strong suspicion that the prime minister’s office was involved. There were rumours of a colour-coded spreadsheet determining the funding decisions, though no smoking gun has been uncovered.

In December last year, Nine newspapers published a comparison of the amount of grant money going to Coalition and Labor seats since the 2019 election: $1.9 billion went to those held by the Coalition, $530 million to Labor ones. When Morrison was asked to explain why Dutton’s seat of Dickson received $43 million while the neighbouring Labor seat of Lilley got only $932,000, he laughed it off, saying, “Dickson must have a very good local member.” To me, Morrison’s reply was even more shocking than the grant discrepancy. Not only was the government openly bribing people to vote for it, Morrison seemed to be threatening them, implying that if they voted Labor, they couldn’t really expect their needs to be met. He really was happy to be prime minister for only half the country.

And if you live in Victoria, where there are fewer marginal seats than in Queensland and New South Wales, don’t be surprised that your state received less federal funding for transport infrastructure per head of population than the battleground states, or that it received not a dollar from the $7.1 billion regional investment fund controlled by National Party leader Barnaby Joyce.

For four years, from October 2000 to late 2004, Scott Morrison was the state director of the NSW Liberal Party. Too often he governs as if he still is, with far more interest in polling, focus groups and electoral strategy than on governing, and with far more attention to the factional battles of the NSW branch than a prime minister should have time for.

Morrison’s skills in electoral strategy delivered for the Coalition in 2019. Despite Labor being ahead in the polls for years, Morrison was able to find his path to victory by carefully targeting marginal seats in Queensland and New South Wales. In March, he promised the Coalition party room that he would do it again: “I know where we’re going and we’re going to get there.”

This was before the floods, before Labor defeated Steven Marshall’s one-term Liberal government in South Australia, before Hillsong pastor Brian Houston resigned because of “inappropriate behaviour”, before the revelation that the government of the Solomon Islands was negotiating a security deal with China. Fortune is not flowing Morrison’s way, and the narrow path to victory is starting to look like a track for goats.

The blame shifting, the careless inattention, the failure to prepare, the blatant favouring of Coalition and marginal seats with government largesse, the focus on announcements with little follow-up, the absence of serious concern about corruption and integrity, the habitual attempts to wedge Labor, the slim legislative record after three years of government… all can be explained by the almost exclusive focus of Morrison’s prime ministerial attention on winning the next election.

I want to end with the ukulele. Morrison had invited Karl Stefanovic of Channel 9’s 60 Minutes to share some informal time with him, Jenny and their girls. He was reminding people that he was just an ordinary suburban guy, as he had been since he created ScoMo – the goofy dad who cooks Sri Lankan curries and loves the Sharks – in the early days of his prime ministership when he was barely known outside the Canberra bubble. Towards the end of the visit, after Jenny had taken responsibility for the family going on holiday in Hawaii as the country burnt, Morrison picked up a ukulele, strummed a few chords and then sang a few lines of Dragon’s 1977 hit, “April Sun in Cuba”. Jen and the girls crooned “oh-oh-oh”, and the performance petered out with Morrison saying, “I can’t remember the words.”

You can’t remember the words! It’s not as if you didn’t know Stefanovic and his crew were coming. It’s not as if this wasn’t all planned. Why didn’t you learn them?

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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