The Politics    Thursday, November 18, 2021

Mob whistling

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking to the media at the Tooheys Brewery in Sydney today. Image © Bianca De Marchi / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media at the Tooheys Brewery in Sydney today. Image © Bianca De Marchi / AAP Images

With his depressingly predictable response, Morrison stands with the extremists

Scott Morrison is, if nothing else, painfully predictable. As many (including myself) anticipated on Tuesday, the prime minister’s belated condemnation of the threatening mob outside the Victorian Parliament was always going to come with a “but” – a dog whistle to the protesters, an endorsement of their cause, a swipe at overbearing state governments. Today, following the disturbing news that a right-wing extremist had been charged over threats to kill the Victorian premier, and reports that neo-Nazis, seeking to radicalise other protesters, had infiltrated rallies against the state’s pandemic bill (not to mention anti-vaxxers’ rape and death threats forcing the shutdown of the WA premier’s office), Morrison did exactly as expected.

Asked this morning for his response to the violence being incited against politicians, the PM said that threats and intimidation had no place in Australia. But after a few cursory sentences about “civil society” and “respect” (just enough for many media outlets to report it as a rebuke), Morrison pivoted to justification and understanding. “There are many people who are feeling frustrated,” he said, arguing that it was time for governments to stop “telling Australians what to do”. “Australians have done an amazing job when it comes to leading us through this pandemic, but now it’s time for governments to step back. And for Australians to take their lives back,” he added ominously.

Morrison’s sympathy for the “frustrated” protesters has more than a minor whiff of Donald Trump’s “very fine people” comments after the deadly Charlottesville riots, not to mention the “I know how you feel” video during the also-deadly January 6 Capitol insurrection. While some media outlets declared that Morrison had “hit out” at the protesters, there’s little doubt that, as with Trump’s comments, the dog whistle was louder than the denunciation.

Eighty per cent of the PM’s answer, in fact, was focused on the protestors’ justified frustrations and state government overreach, with an added pushback against mandates and restrictions for the unvaccinated (policies to which, as Niki Savva notes, he owes the impressive vaccination rates he loves to crow about). People should be able to get a coffee in Brisbane, added Morrison, regardless of whether they’re vaccinated – a swipe at the Queensland government’s newly announced restrictions. (The state government has since labelled Morrison’s comments a “reckless” undermining of its vaccination efforts.) There’s little doubt that Morrison is trying to appease some of his own senators, who are still vowing to withhold their votes unless he pushes back against mandates. But he’s also indulging the “frustrated” protesters, with little concern for the dangerous levels of misinformation flying about.

Morrison knows damn well, of course, that the Victorian pandemic legislation (debate on which has now been delayed, following the surprise opposition of vengeful former Labor minister Adem Somyurek) is not an attempt to take additional control over people’s lives, or to enforce more restrictions than necessary, or to install Daniel Andrews as dictator. But the PM – like the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party – is more than happy to inflame the perception that’s what it is, calling for Australians to take their lives back, even as real-life extremists are threatening to take the premier’s life. All in his desperate bid to claw back votes.

Something seemed to twig today for Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, who as recently as Monday night published an op-ed labelling the bill “the most dangerous and controlling laws our state has ever seen”, and who has allowed his MPs to mingle with the protesters. But it’s still unclear whether that’s because he realised his game of far-right footsie has gone too far, or because he’s realised that, as Andrews argued yesterday, voters are likely to remember who was standing with the “ugly extremists”. Speaking to reporters following the news of Somyurek’s return, Guy said we wouldn’t see his MPs at the protests anymore, adding that he was ready to offer the “hand of cooperation” to work with the government to get a “sensible piece of legislation” through parliament. Unfortunately, “sensible legislation” is probably not what the violent, anti-government mob his party has riled up now wants. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle so easily.

Guy knows that the Victorian government needs some sort of bill to be able to manage the pandemic – which is very much ongoing – beyond December, and as supporting crossbencher MP Fiona Patten noted on RN Breakfast, the alternative (state of emergency legislation) “is far more draconian than the legislation we were trying to put through”. But once again, the facts don’t really matter to the PM – all that matters is that the very “frustrated” people know he’s in their corner, even if it means encouraging extremists and continuing to confuse those they are seeking to influence.

This is all getting very real and very dangerous, and many fear that we are on a dark path to the kinds of political violence increasingly being seen in the US and the UK. But to Scott Morrison, it is just another game.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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