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Who is Scott Morrison, really?

Journalist and author Sean Kelly on what’s underneath the persona that Scott Morrison presents publicly, and what his Prime Ministership tells us about our national identity.

As the next federal election approaches, the question of whether the Prime Minister Scott Morrison can pull off another ‘miracle’ win looms large. 

But how much do we really know about the man who’s been in charge through a pandemic, a sexual assault reckoning, and a crystallising climate crisis? 

Today, journalist and author Sean Kelly on what’s underneath the persona that Scott Morrison presents publicly, and what his Prime Ministership tells us about our national identity.  


Guest: Author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, Sean Kelly.

Show Transcript

[Theme music starts]

 

RUBY:

 

From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones - this is 7am

 

As the next federal election approaches, the question of whether the Prime Minister Scott Morrison can pull off another ‘miracle’ win looms large. 

 

But how much do we really know about the man who’s been in charge through a pandemic, a sexual assault reckoning, and a crystallising climate crisis? 

 

Today, journalist and author Sean Kelly on what’s underneath the persona that Scott Morrison presents publicly, and what his Prime Ministership tells us about our national identity. 

 

It’s Monday, November 15.  

 

[Theme music ends]

 

RUBY:

 

Sean, could you start by telling me why you decided to write about Scott Morrison? 

 

SEAN: 

 

Well, I mean, the answer on some level is I didn't. At first I said, no, I was approached by a publisher. I said, I don't think there is enough in this man to interest me or to interest readers. I can't see how I can get a book out of this. 

 

And then I thought a bit more and I thought, this is odd - this boringness. And then I realised that the boringness was, in a sense, the key to why he was interesting, because it's strange. 

 

There was this man who became prime minister in strange circumstances. He then wins an election against everybody's expectations. And yet people know so little about him and what’s more, nobody seemed to want to know anything more. 

 

So I began to become interested in the question of how he pulled off this trick. And that's a very large part of what the book is trying to answer.

 

RUBY: 

 

Hmm. There does seem to be a sense of futility to that task. Why bother trying to get to know Scott Morrison? And I wonder where you think that comes from your own initial lack of curiosity, but also, as you say, you're tapping into something bigger here, I think, which is why aren't we more invested in understanding the prime minister and his motivations when the things that he does has such a large bearing on our lives? 

 

SEAN:

 

Yeah, I mean, I think half of this is absolutely Scott Morrison, as you say, and half of it is us and the half that is Scott Morrison - we need to have a look at the two halves of his career. 

 

There's the half up to 2015, when he essentially keeps himself as an outline without anything filled in a blank slate, if you like. 

Archival tape -- Reporter

“But you’re not addressing what I’m asking about the change in..”

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison 

“Well, you're asking me about politics, Lee. You're asking me about politics. What I'm talking about is what is actually happening with the budget”

SEAN:

 

And he doesn't answer questions, he doesn't like talking about himself. He doesn't stick firmly to any clear belief, certainly nothing that would attract attention. 

Archival Tape -- Reporter

“Politics frames everything”

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison 

“Well, it may frame things for journalists, what it doesnt frame for me is how we go about…”

SEAN:

 

The only thing he does in his time is be immigration minister, and that begins to fill in the outline with the image of this man who many people detest. This hardline immigration minister.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“If you have a valid claim, you will not be resettled in Australia. You will never live in Australia.” 

 

SEAN:

 

And when he exits that portfolio around 2015, he also has a first glimmer of a sense that he might become Prime Minister. And he suddenly obviously realises that he needs to provide an alternative to this picture of the hardline immigration minister. 

Archival Tape -- Reporter

“These are your personal Somosa/Sco-mosa recipe”

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“That’s what my staff have called them, the Sco-mosas. Everyone’s getting used to this new nickname.”  

 

SEAN:

 

And then we get this very simplistic ScoMo character, a guy who cooks curries. So he's modern, but he only cooks them once a week, so he's not too modern. He really likes rugby league. 

 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

 

“I can say this year - I’m very confident about how the Cronulla Sutherland Sharks  are gonna go in this year’s premiership.” 

 

SEAN:

 

He goes back to tweeting quite regularly about his team after an absence from social media of 18 months. 

 

And I think together those two elements, the refusal to tell us anything about himself and then the eagerness to tell us a few very simple, carefully chosen facts really repelled attention.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“You know, Jenny and I will have a sip of wine or something, I’ll have a beer, and umm watch a movie, then I’ll cook the curry and they’ll all laugh at me and we’ll all go to bed….”

Archival Tape -- Reporter

“Sounds wonderful.”

RUBY:  

 

And this character that you are describing, this two dimensional kind of character, the daggy dad who cooks curry once a week, supports the sharks. Why do you think that this is the character that Scott Morrison has chosen? What do you think that it helps him achieve to have us see him that way? 

 

SEAN: 

 

Well, the first thing is that it made him seem representative of the group that he said he was talking to.

 

You know, some Prime Ministers like to say they talk for all Australians, that they are there to serve all Australians. And Scott Morrison does use that rhetoric sometimes. But he also uses this rhetoric of governing for the quiet Australians. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“These are the quiet Australians who have won a great victory tonight.” 

 

SEAN:

 

And then tied to that, there is a message of pride. It's a message of pride in Australia. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“How good is Australia...and how good are Australians!” 

 

SEAN:

 

And the political message hiding behind that is Australia is perfect as it is, there is no need to change, there is no need to change anything. We can all be proud of exactly what Australia is and everything Australia has achieved. And he, in taking on those characteristics, is essentially embodying that message. He is the essence of a proud Australian, somebody who will refuse to be shamed for his defiantly suburban identity. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“This is the best country in the world in which to live..”

Archival Tape -- audience

“SCOMO! SCOMO! SCOMO!” 

 

RUBY: 

 

And to what extent do you think this character, this representative, is the real Scott Morrison. Because this is obviously a deliberately constructed character, but what is underneath it? 

 

SEAN: 

 

Look, it's a really difficult question to answer. One of the things I noticed when I was looking at everything Scott Morrison had said over his career was how often at key moments he returns to theatrical metaphors. Playing a role, staging things, bringing the curtains down on this show and bringing the curtains up on another show. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison

“This is coal - don’t be afraid, don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal, it was dug up…”

 

SEAN:

 

So there is a performance there, but I do think on some level he's performing something real. So he might not always have been the rugby league fanatic that he now claims to be, but I think his sensibilities are fundamentally suburban. I think he is performing and exaggerating, but I think he's performing and exaggerating a version of himself. 

 

But I think an interesting thing has happened recently, which is that the thon character, the flat character he created in the lead up to the 2019 election that served him very, very well in that short period of time has begun to wear a little thin. 

 

A former colleague said to me this week... You know, the Prime Ministership finds out every Prime Minister. It just places a spotlight on every Prime Minister and eventually the real person starts to emerge in some respects. 

 

You know this is dangerous for Scott Morrison. It's dangerous because it draws into question that flat character. And in doing so, it draws into question some element of the authenticity that he has placed so much stake in as Prime Minister. 

 

Very early on in his Prime Ministership, he talked about authenticity. Some of his supporters, especially in the media, talked about his authenticity. And so that's an important part of what he thinks his political appeal is. 

 

So if that starts to fade a little, and I think that has been a trouble for him in recent weeks, then that is a political danger. 

 

RUBY:

 

We’ll be back in a moment. 

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

RUBY:

 

Sean, we’re talking about Scott Morrison, the version of himself that he presents to the public. To what extent is what you're describing specific to Scott Morrison or even to politicians in general? Because doesn't every politician need to craft an image in this way? 

 

SEAN:

 

Absolutely. Look, as soon as TV started to take over politics in the late 60s, this problem began to grow worse.

Archival Tape -- Reporter

“And now it's my pleasure to introduce a man that I have known, respected and admired for many years. Richard Nixon.”

SEAN:

 

You have Roger Ailes helping on Richard Nixon's television advertising in the 1968 campaign, saying this is what politicians will be forever after. They will be performers. 

Archival Tape -- Richard Nixon

“Together we can hardly fail. There is no force on Earth to match the will and spirit of the people of America.” 

SEAN:

 

And as politicians have become better and better at performing, we have become more and more accepting of the idea that politics is all performance and the combined effect of this as a politics has become more and more distanced from reality. 

Archival Tape -- Donald Trump

“Wow. Woah. That is some group of people, thousands.”

 

SEAN:

 

And politicians have become more and more focussed on image.

Archival tape -- Donald Trump

“Bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again. Thank you, thank you very much…” 

SEAN:

 

Donald Trump is the American that everybody else imagines Americans to be. You know, Boris Johnson is the Englishman that everybody imagines Englishmen to be.

Archival Tape -- Boris Johnson

“Would like a cup of tea.”  

 

Archival Tape -- Reporter

 

“Yeah sure.”

Archival Tape -- Boris Johnson

“Go on, have a cup of tea.”

Archival Tape -- Reporter

“Thank you, thank you. Do you regret your comments?” 

Archival Tape -- Boris Johnson

“Go on, have a cup of tea.”

 

SEAN:

 

And I think Scott Morrison, in a certain sense, is this perfect representation of a certain stereotypical Australia. You know, Donald Trump was a former reality star, and Boris Johnson as a former journalist, and Scott Morrison is a former marketing man. And it's not a coincidence that these three men who have spent their lives crafting narratives concerned with image have ended up at the tops of their professions in the Anglosphere at a certain point in time. I think that does say something very particular about where we're at in terms of a shallowness in politics.

 

And I think this is a terrible development and you are absolutely right, Ruby. It is true of all politicians. In some ways what separates Scott Morrison is that, for a brief period at least, he was much more skilled at this than his contemporaries. And that is what helped him rise through the ranks. And that's what helped him become Prime Minister and then hang on to the Prime Ministership.

 

RUBY: 

 

I wanted to ask you about that because Scott Morrison became Prime Minister in 2019, and it's been an eventful time for anyone to be Prime Minister. There's been a pandemic. There's been allegations of sexual assault in Canberra. The climate has become a more important issue than ever before. So to what extent do you think that the character that Scott Morrison has created is still the character that three years later, people want to lead? 

 

SEAN:

 

I think one of the things about the way that Scott Morrison has approached politics is as a game, as a set of techniques in a way, a set of tactics that can be deployed. And the ScoMo character and the way this kind of character responds to certain situations is a part of that game.

 

But I think what has happened in those periods of crisis or those periods of national discussion around real consequences that happened during the bushfires that happened during the national discussion about sexual violence, and it happened again when vaccines were a massive problem. There has been this sense suddenly of people waking up from slumber and realising that politics isn't a game. That politics has consequences because in each of those cases we were talking about physical harm and I think when physical harm comes into play, it becomes almost impossible to maintain the pretence that politics is a game. 

 

And so I think that has been telling about Scott Morrison. And, you know, I think that is a question that certainly some Australians will be asking themselves going into the next election. Are we going into another period of stability and slumber, if you like? Or, are we going into a period of continuing crises? In which case do they want Scott Morrison's particular approach to crises?

 

RUBY:

 

That’s the big question that’s looming for him, I suppose. And Sean, his success so far has been significant - and he is still the preferred Prime Minister now. So what does that success tell us about our national identity - and do you think it’s likely to bear out at the next election? 

 

SEAN: 

 

Well, I think it says a few things. Firstly, it says that we are more comfortable with the idea of politics as a game in politics, as performance than perhaps we'd like to admit to ourselves. I think it tells us that Australians respond very well overall to the message that Australia is great, that everything is fine and everything will remain fine. 

 

I think people are very vulnerable to that incredibly soothing message. Even some people who might intellectually like to contest the idea are still vulnerable to it at an emotional level. I think those are the main factors, and I think both of those factors together could well mean that Scott Morrison is triumphant again in 2022. 

 

RUBY:

 

Sean, thank you so much for talking to me about all of this. It's been fascinating.

 

SEAN:

 

Thanks so much for having me on. 

 

RUBY:

 

You can read more of Sean Kelly’s thoughts on the Prime Minister in his new biography, ‘The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison.’

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

[Theme music Starts]

 

RUBY:

 

Also in the news today… 

 

The COP26 international climate summit in Glasgow came to an end over the weekend, failing to reach an agreement to phase-out coal use. 

 

A last minute intervention by India saw the language watered down to “phasing down”, instead of “phasing out” the use of coal. 

 

And thousands of protestors descended on Melbourne’s central business district on Saturday to protest the Victorian government’s vaccine mandates and proposed new pandemic laws. 

 

The proposed laws will empower the premier and health minister of the day to declare pandemics and enforce health directions - instead of the state’s chief health officer.

 

There have been weeks of protests about the proposed laws. 

 

I’m Ruby Jones - this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

 

[Theme music Ends]

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