The Politics    Thursday, February 24, 2022

Bully for us

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a press conference in Sydney today. Image © Bianca De Marchi / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a press conference in Sydney today. Image © Bianca De Marchi / AAP Images

Morrison stands up to Russian “thugs and bullies” but too often acts like one himself

The prime minister has found his main talking point regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: we will stand up to bullies. Speaking in interviews and press conferences this morning, Scott Morrison confirmed that Australia would not hesitate to increase sanctions on Russia, using a variation on the word “bully” at least 20 times in the space of about two hours. “This is about an autocratic, authoritarian government that is seeking to bully others,” he told Sunrise. “There are consequences for this threatening and bullying and aggressive behaviour,” he claimed on Today. Asked on AM about the Russian embassy’s claim that Australia’s sanctions are xenophobic, Morrison brushed it off: “I’m used to bullies saying those sorts of things when people stand up to them.” In a statement posted to Facebook on Wednesday night, the embassy disputed Morrison’s declaration that Australia always stands up to bullies, citing its silence on the discrimination of Russian speakers in Ukraine. While this is quite clearly spin, the embassy is right in one respect: the Australian government does not always stand up to bullying. In fact, the Morrison government is often the one doing it.

The irony of the PM’s pushback against “bullies” has not been missed on Twitter, where a quick search of the word turns up a number of derisive tweets, noting Morrison’s treatment of everyone from Christine Holgate to trans kids to the Biloela family. Picking on women, children and refugees is obviously not the same as invading a foreign country. But is this really the kind of rhetoric that Morrison, with his reputation for bullying tactics, wants to rely upon?

There are plenty of examples of such behaviour from the PM to choose from, and several in the past week alone. Today brought another brutal column from Niki Savva, who reveals that Morrison spent much of last week’s meeting of his party’s federal executive – aimed at sorting out the NSW preselection drama – “yelling and thumping the table” as he sought to get his way, while reminding members that he was the prime minister. The emphatic “I am the prime minister” will be familiar to those who follow Morrison’s conduct closely: it’s the same phrase he reportedly used to assert his authority over former Liberal MP Julia Banks after he took the leadership, one she recognised when he condescendingly used it against ABC reporter Anne Connolly in a press conference about the aged-care royal commission. (It may just be his favourite phrase.)

I previously catalogued much of Morrison’s bullying behaviour towards women after he turned the guns on Tasmanian MP Bridget Archer for having crossed the floor on integrity late last year, so I won’t go through it all again. But it’s safe to say that, in the opening weeks of 2022, little has been done to counter the notion that Morrison is a bully.

There are likewise numerous recent examples of bullying and aggressive behaviour from the Coalition as a whole. The government was more than willing to use vulnerable children as a political football to wedge Labor during the recent religious discrimination debate, and it appeared just as willing to bully members of its own side into supporting the bill. It’s now gearing up to again use transgender people as collateral damage in its bid to appeal to religious communities – even though it can’t name any groups that are actually calling for a transgender sport ban. The government has since launched racist slurs against the Labor Party, particularly when it comes to China, with little regard for truth or the advice of its security experts. (This bullying tactic, reports Savva, seems to be backfiring in the focus groups.) Goldstein MP Tim Wilson, meanwhile, is now copping serious flak over his attempt to intimidate those putting up signage in support of his independent challenger, Zoe Daniel – a move that was last night shut down by Bayside City Council, which said it wouldn’t be fining people (though the council’s statement has since been taken down, following another complaint from Wilson).

The Coalition’s preparedness to threaten, coerce and railroad others to achieve its own ends seems to be, well, endless. Which makes Morrison’s decision to rail against “bullying” a strange tactic indeed. It’s also a somewhat childish and not especially statesmanlike description of what is occurring in Ukraine (it’s probably up there with “not on” in terms of effectiveness). Notably, the word “bullying” does not appear in the PM’s official press release; it’s something he’s choosing to harp on about in interviews and press conferences. This government seems to have a certain fixation with the concept of “bullying” – what with its obsession with cracking down on the trolls, even as it openly trolls others. Bullying, as they say, says more about the bully than the victim. But I wonder what an obsession with calling out “bullying” says about this PM.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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