The Politics    Thursday, April 7, 2022

The not-so-quiet Australians

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison being confronted by a disability pensioner at the Edgeworth Tavern in Newcastle, New South Wales, last night. Image via Sky News

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was confronted by a disability pensioner at the Edgeworth Tavern in Newcastle, New South Wales, last night. Image via Sky News

Why should struggling Australians have to accost the PM in a pub to have their problems heard?

It was another terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time for the PM last night, as he was excoriated on The Project and accosted in the pub. Former preselection rival Michael Towke laid out further allegations, including that he had been threatened into throwing his votes behind Scott Morrison in the second 2007 ballot, and that the PM’s associates are again backgrounding against him (another area in which Morrison has form, as other alleged victims were quick to point out). But it was a disability pensioner called Ray, at Newcastle’s Edgeworth Tavern, who really caught the PM’s ear, with a spray informing him that he was “sick of [his] bullshit” and calling on him to “fucking do something” – making Ray perhaps the most viral punter since Paul from Nelligen. Speaking to reporters today, a faux empathetic Morrison insisted he had “carefully listened” to Ray’s “very complicated” case, and said that his team were looking into how they might be able to “assist and progress with that”. On the contrary, it seems Morrison didn’t really listen to a word Ray said.

Politicians being accosted by angry voters on the campaign trail is far from new, and nor is the promise to “look into” their particular woes. (As often as not, these aggrieved citizens end up getting torn apart in the media.) But why is it that this seems to be the only way that struggling Australians – many of whom weren’t really helped by the government’s “cost of living” budget – can get political leaders to listen to them? This is not how government is supposed to work; a pensioner shouldn’t have to confront the PM in a pub to be able to have their “very complicated” issues addressed, and the prime minister’s office is there (in theory, at least) to fix issues with the system, not to help one particular person navigate it. (As Brittany Higgins so perfectly articulated, she didn’t want Morrison’s “sympathy as a father”, she wanted him “to use his power as prime minister”.) A disability pensioner shouldn’t be left in a position where they require the PM’s staff to intervene in their case to allow them to live with dignity.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that Ray was indeed crying out for some help. And it was hard to not to feel greatly for a man who felt he’d “had a go”, as the PM loves to recommend, but wasn’t seeing the divine rewards Morrison so devoutly believes in. But what is the prime minister going to do about the systemic issues plaguing disability pensioners such as Ray, those who don’t have the (mis)fortune of finding the PM in their local pub on Wednesday night, or who don’t have the courage to call him out in front of the cameras? Far from being “complicated” or specific to one person, it’s very simple to see that the deck is stacked against people like Ray, and in favour of those who fit the Coalition’s mould. As Ray pointed out, someone with a million-dollar house can have negative gearing and franking credits, but he wasn’t allowed an income on his pension. “Listen to me for a change!” he bellowed when the PM tried to interrupt. But Morrison chose not to hear.

As for the other issue raised by Ray – the Coalition’s broken promise to establish an integrity commission – that one certainly isn’t “complicated” (unless of course you’re a government that desperately doesn’t want to form a body that is capable of investigating your own misdeeds). It’s long been clear that Australians overwhelmingly want this. Yet another survey has today found that 96.7 per cent of respondents agree or strongly agree that a federal corruption watchdog should be established. (The Australian Federal Police, meanwhile, are demanding it be able to look into politicians and law enforcement equally.) That broken promise is now coming back to bite the PM – the first leader, some have noted, since John Howard to go to the electorate having to answer for last election’s promises – while the Coalition’s desperate bid to blame Labor for not supporting its toothless model is falling flat, if last night’s spray was anything to go by. Sadly, the PM is well and truly out of time to “assist and progress” with that one.

This surely won’t be the last negative interaction that Morrison – who was recently unable to walk down the street in flood-ravaged Lismore – will have with a voter this election campaign (nor Albanese, for that matter, although it makes a huge difference when you’re the one in government being accused of not helping). There are plenty more Rays out there, ready to call out a leader who doesn’t listen to aged-care workers, who refuses to lift welfare above the poverty line, and whose best attempt at cutting through to Australians worried about the rising cost of living was to suggest that struggling renters simply buy a house. As independent senator Jacqui Lambie said on Today this morning, voters are seething: “People have been doing it really, really tough over the last couple of years. I can tell you, they’re on edge.” Morrison, she added, seems out of touch. There’s one way to solve that, as Ray so bluntly laid out for him with his demand that the PM “Listen to me for a change”. The prime minister claims to have listened to Ray, but he just can’t seem to hear him.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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