The Politics    Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Quiet please

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit to Penshurst Girls School in Sydney today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit to Penshurst Girls School in Sydney today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The PM would like both Christensen and the media to zip it

Scott Morrison has at last condemned government MP George Christensen’s appearance on American conspiracy theory program InfoWars, making the PM, as usual, one of the last leaders to do so. In a very brief statement last night, Morrison denounced the comments and criticised the Holocaust comparison, though, as Guardian Australia noted, he didn’t have much to say about Christensen’s dangerous incitement of protests outside Australia’s embassies. In today’s press conference – at which the PM also announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, and indicated that he “suspected” Gladys Berejiklian wouldn’t be running in Warringah after all – Morrison was again asked about Christensen. “I thought those comments were appalling, and I have spoken to George directly about them,” he said. “George is not a candidate for the LNP at the next election, and I think George should quietly go into retirement,” Morrison added, despite the question at hand being about what someone would have to do to actually be removed from the party. When asked whether his MP was undermining the health response, Morrison blamed the media. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to promote what they’re saying by constantly drawing it to people’s attention.” It’s clear that Morrison would like more than just the member for Dawson to go quietly.

Morrison would no doubt rather this was all dealt with as surreptitiously as possible, although there’s little chance of Christensen obliging, with the defiant MP last night posting to Telegram a video of Braveheart’s “never take our freedom” speech and re-sharing his “S.O.S to the rest of the world” post to his Facebook page. But the PM’s swipe at journalists, for reporting on comments made by a member of his government, is troubling (even more so than Simon Birmingham’s recent blaming of the media for escalating the French dispute). Morrison’s preference is that this kind of fringe rhetoric, which is a serious and growing concern within his government, be allowed to go unnoted, so that he doesn’t have to come out and denounce it, and so that questions aren’t asked about his leadership when he fails to.

There are often genuine reasons behind not amplifying certain kinds of speech. But in Christensen’s case, there’s little doubt his intended audience is hearing him: the MP has amassed huge reach on social media (not to mention his parliamentary platform, from which he can seemingly make whatever speeches he likes). It’s mainstream Australians that the prime minister doesn’t want to hear about it, and not because he’s worried about it influencing them. As Labor MP Graham Perrett put it, in an imitation of the PM’s stance: “Please don’t call out my LNP colleagues when they narrow-cast a hateful message to the extreme right wing: it interferes with my mainstream messaging.” In essence, Morrison would like Christensen (or whoever is making outrageous claims in any given week) to be able to speak to these groups, while keeping him in the tent – but at arm’s length. Those shining a light on Christensen’s time in “the dark corners of the internet” are really inconveniencing the PM.

The prime minister would also prefer not to have to publicly call out Christensen, as he seeks to avoid losing another MP ahead of the election – though look how well that turned out when it came to Liberal MP turned United Australia Party leader Craig Kelly, who departed despite his gentle handling. The fact that Morrison ignored today’s question about what someone would have to do to actually get kicked out of his party was telling. There does not seem to be a limit to what the PM will tacitly condone if it means hanging on to power. The “let’s all just ignore it” response is emblematic of Morrison’s entire approach towards the likes of Christensen, Kelly and Gerard Rennick: he merely hopes the issue will go (“quietly” or otherwise) away. 

Christensen, like Kelly, will certainly not be going quietly into retirement. Over the past few months, the controversial MP has been preparing for life after office, building his online profile and even launching his own “pro-freedom” news website, filled with conspiratorial links and stories. Soon he will be beyond the walls of parliament, and beyond the reproach of the PM. What a relief for Morrison that he won’t have to say a word.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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