The Politics    Friday, November 19, 2021

Base instincts

By Rachel Withers

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit to the Western Sydney Airport in Sydney, Friday, November 19, 2021.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Sydney, Friday, November 19, 2021. © AAP Image/Dean Lewins

The Coalition’s cynical game has produced the outcome many feared from the start

Animal Justice Party MP Andy Meddick’s “worst fears have turned into reality”, as have the fears of anyone paying even the remotest attention to the extremist views being promoted outside Victorian parliament this week. In an afternoon statement, the state crossbencher revealed his adult daughter was in hospital after being attacked on the street with a spray can (for, in her words, “being political”), with Meddick believing the attack was linked to the position he had taken on the state pandemic legislation (negotiating, amending and ultimately supporting it). Earlier this week, Meddick – who, along with other MPs, has received death threats over his support for the bill – called for Liberal leaders to condemn the violent rhetoric aired this week “in no uncertain terms”, furious that members of the party had stood with the protesters. Yesterday, and again this morning, Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to do so, instead continuing to express sympathy for “Australians who have had a gutful of governments telling them what to do”. Many people saw this awful outcome as an inevitability of the protests and of the Coalition’s cynical decision to stoke outrage and misinformation about the bill. Scott Morrison, however, didn’t. Either that, or he simply didn’t care.

Pushed by journalists this morning over his mob-whistling comments (which he last night uploaded to conspiracy-friendly Facebook, sans the weak condemnation he’d offered), the PM doubled down, seemingly unable to stop himself from engaging in the “double speak” he has rightly been accused of. Morrison insisted he had denounced the violence, threats and intimidation, and that he “couldn’t have been clearer” in doing so. And yet in almost every single answer he gave, Morrison pivoted back to freedom, to governments “keeping their side of the deal” with Australians, and to Australians having had a “gutful of governments telling them what to do”. (“The Labor Party likes interfering in people’s lives,” he said, talking up the party’s love of “control”.) Asked repeatedly if and why he had “sympathy” for the protesters, Morrison tried to differentiate the demonstrators from the “frustrated” Australians he was talking about, the ones who were fed up with government intervention. “That’s the cause I have sympathy with,” he added. But if these groups are so disparate, why then does he keep linking the two, bringing up his sympathy for the latter whenever he is asked about the former? If the PM truly has “no truck with” the protesters, why won’t he stop going on rants about Australians taking their lives back when asked directly about the anti-Victorian bill protest?

“Double speak” is exactly what Morrison and his colleagues are engaged in here, pretending they stand apart from the demonstrators while stoking their wildest government overreach fears. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham this morning attacked Labor over its criticism of the PM, joking that there must be a co-ordinated Whatsapp group (because how could the premiers possibly have each come to the conclusion that sympathising with extremists threatening to kill them was dangerous?). Defence Minister Peter Dutton, meanwhile, defended the PM’s “perfectly sensible remark”, suggesting that it was that Mark McGowan and Annastacia Palaszczuk who were engaging in “segregation”.

The prime minister is, of course, welcome to try to speak to “frustrated” Australians – as grossly hypocritical and cynical as it is to rail against the life-saving interventions that governments of all stripes have utilised. (Victoria, it’s worth noting, currently has fewer restrictions in place than NSW, whose premier Morrison stood beside today without admonishing. And the proposed Victorian pandemic law also has more checks and balances according to the vice-president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties.) But Morrison’s decision to do so whenever asked about the Victorian protests, where misinformation abounds, and to call, Braveheart-style, for Australians to “take their lives back”, without offering any accurate or nuanced critique of the bill (which is clearly not trying to take away their freedoms), is worse than cynical. It is dangerous, showing a deep disregard for people’s lives and safety.

The prime minister has since tweeted a response to Meddick’s horrific news, finally “unequivocally condemning” something – the attack, but not the protests in general. “This is not on,” he wrote, in his idiosyncratically Morrisonian style, now that the outcome we all could have predicted had come to pass. For the first time, he managed to resist adding some kind of acknowledgment of the protesters’ "frustrations", of Australians who have had a “gutful” of controlling, overbearing politicians such as Meddick and Labor MPs. He didn’t need to – the protesters have already heard him, loud and clear.


Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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