The Politics    Thursday, May 5, 2022

Toxic Scott syndrome

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference in Sydney today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference in Sydney today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Scott Morrison’s toxicity is corroding our democracy

It was an awkward song to be playing on the radio as the prime minister waited to begin today’s presser: Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, an inconvenient reminder of the word being used to describe him in many electorates. Scott Morrison’s presence is considered a net negative in Liberal seats under threat from independents, with the PM notably absent from Josh Frydenberg’s campaign launch on Sunday (indeed, insiders used the word “toxic” there, and Anthony Albanese echoed it this morning). Morrison isn’t showing his face in Kooyong, Wentworth, North Sydney or Goldstein (“ScoMo’s no-gos”, Crikey labelled them), while Labor research reportedly shows he’s more unpopular in the once-safe Liberal seat of Higgins than anywhere else in the country. Today was the fifth time he has visited the seat of Parramatta, prompting the press to ask whether he was avoiding other seats because his presence was considered harmful there. The PM proceeded to ramble about independents, chaos and Labor, before abruptly ending the press conference without addressing the question – all but confirming that the answer was yes. It’s not just Morrison personally – it’s also his policy positions – but his personality does play an outsized role. So what’s he going to do about that? Absolutely nothing, it seems.

That was the impression he gave on Sunrise, when asked this morning what he would change about his leadership style if he won re-election, with the interviewer noting that he was clearly getting some negative “feedback” from the electorate. “It’s not a popularity contest,” Morrison replied (at least not when he’s feeling unpopular), before going on to repeat his lines about making hard decisions that not everyone will like, and again not answering the question. “One of the things I’ve been appreciating once we’ve been able to get out of Canberra is to be out around the country and connect more,” he added, a laughable claim considering how tightly controlled his public appearances have been, with the PM heckled on the rare occasion he does venture out. It’s understandable that the unpopular Morrison would try to deflect here, suggesting that it’s not about popularity. But it’s also clear that he has no plans – no capacity, perhaps – to change anything about his divisive style, whatever the feedback may say.

Being disliked by parts of the community has almost become part of Morrison’s schtick, something he’s decided to make the best of. As he famously told Annabel Crabb during an episode of Kitchen Cabinet: “I’ve just learned not to care”. Over the last term in office, he has repeatedly rejected criticism by claiming that he has a “thick skin”. He did this when he was labelled a “psycho” by a cabinet colleague, and he did it again yesterday when it was pointed out to him that his ongoing ICAC commentary was putting him in the “buffoon” category, per commissioner Stephen Rushton. (“He can say whatever he likes, I’m not easily offended,” Morrison replied.)

As I wrote during the “psycho” saga, it’s unlikely that Morrison really has learnt not to care, that he really is able to block out all the hate he seems to attract. But the fact of the matter is he refuses to do anything about it. Rather than find a way to be more conciliatory, he’s decided to double down. His bellicose style is the only kind of politics he knows, and he clearly sees more pros than cons in continuing to railroad and divide and bully and bluster, even as it turns some crucial voting demographics off. As Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy has been pointing out, Anthony Albanese seems to be offering up a gentler counterpoint, one that “doesn’t exhibit any of the hallmarks of toxic masculinity” – and it’s one that may appeal to voters, if the media could for one second stop trying to trip him up with pointless memory tests

The PM’s toxic style is doing serious damage to his party in seats that were once incredibly safe. His treasurer is currently facing the “fight of his life” – in no small part thanks to Morrison’s leadership – and Frydenberg’s certainly not holding up well in this afternoon’s debate, despite being the more seasoned debater. Insiders are furious at what Morrison has done to the Liberal Party, and there are expected to be recriminations if the Liberals lose the election. But what’s far worse than what the PM has done to the party is what he’s doing to Australian democracy, what with his lying and his obfuscation, his cheap attacks and open disregard for the national interest, his instinct to divide and wedge, his misuse of public funds, his disdain for accountability, and his non-stop tendency to put politics (and photo ops) over people and the environment. These are the things that make Scott Morrison so toxic in Kooyong and Wentworth, but he’s been a toxic influence over the entire nation. One can only despair at the thought of what other aspects of our democracy might be eroded if he succeeds in winning another term in government.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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