The Politics    Friday, May 27, 2022

Smirk on the water

By Rachel Withers

Image of a memento in former prime minister Scott Morrison’s office. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

A memento in former prime minister Scott Morrison’s office. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Morrison’s final act as PM was a fitting reflection of his time in office

It came as little surprise to learn, via an ABC exclusive, that it was Scott Morrison who instructed Australian Border Force to put out an election-day statement on the interception of an asylum-seeker boat, in what has been described as one of his “final acts” as prime minister. The contentious statement, now the subject of an inquiry, went against ABF policy, while Morrison’s commentary (and marginal seat robo-texts) went against his hollow policy of not commenting on “on-water matters”, in what was clearly a desperate ploy to hang on to power. (Unverified reports from The Saturday Paper’s Karen Middleton suggest the boats may have been intentionally timed around the election.) Speaking to AM this morning, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said there was “nothing normal” about the way protocols had been ignored, and described it as a “new low” from a government willing to politicise everything. On the contrary, this abominable act was par for the course for a man more concerned with politics than people, who was willing to trash national security if it meant scoring points, and who has left us with an even more debased culture on asylum seekers than when he started. On immigration, Morrison started low and couldn’t get much lower, hard as he tried. The question is, what is Labor going to do about it?

It’s fortunate that this breach of caretaker provisions doesn’t appear to have swayed the election result, either because it was too late in the day (robo-texts went out around 2.30pm) or because this kind of scare campaign around boats simply doesn’t work anymore. (Or perhaps it did sway votes, but Morrison was just so unpopular that it made no difference.) Had the Coalition won the seats it was targeting with the text messages, there would need to be some serious questions asked about what it meant for the election outcome. It’s fortunate, also, that the change of government enables this breach of protocol to actually be investigated, even if it’s once again being done by the head of the department responsible. (Albanese has said that he has confidence in Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo.)

Morrison may not have succeeded in turning around the result. But in many ways, his non-stop politicisation of asylum seekers – the way in which he sought to make boats rhetoric central to the campaign at a time when it wasn’t really on the agenda – did succeed in further debasing our national culture. Labor had long ago matched the Coalition on turnbacks, but the party bent over backwards in this campaign to insist that it really would turn back boats – something it then proceeded to do with the boat in question, despite it being a breach of international law. It was really no surprise that Labor did so (and just imagine News Corp’s reaction if it hadn’t, as Crikey noted). But it is because of people such as Morrison that Labor cannot be seen to have an ounce of compassion in this space, having had the last shred of humanity beaten out of them by this cold-hearted campaigner.

In what is a great relief for much of the country, Labor has just announced that the Murugappan family, of whom the Coalition chose to make a cruel public example, will finally be allowed to return home to Biloela. But what of the Tamil asylum seekers on the boat that the new government has just sent back to Sri Lanka?

It is going to take a long time and some serious courage from Labor for the nation to recover from what Morrison – a man who displayed a boat-shaped trophy on his desk engraved with the words “I stopped these” – has done to it. Morrison was instrumental in designing our internationally condemned border policies, and he (along with News Corp and incoming Liberal leader Peter Dutton) was instrumental in dragging Labor down to his level. While many in the Coalition have been brutal about this issue, it was Morrison who seemed obsessed with campaigning on it, and who reportedly saw votes in an anti-Muslim strategy that was a bridge too far even for his own party. Far from being a new low, Morrison’s gross breach of protocol over the weekend was a continuation of his one-eyed view of asylum seekers as nothing but a political football. His final act as prime minister was a fitting one, taking one last stab at demonising the most vulnerable in order to win an election.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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