Inside Story

He’s not the Messiah

A former prime minister ponders providence

Robert Phiddian Books 23 May 2024 1870 words

“God was not going to leave me, Jenny, and Abbey stranded,” writes Scott Morrison. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Gentle reader of Inside Story, Scott Morrison’s Plans for Your Good is not addressed to you. Its spelling is American, Anzac Day is glossed as “like Memorial Day in the United States,” and many of the significant events an Australian follower of politics might expect to read about do not appear.

The book is really a testament to God’s plan for Scott Morrison, who wanders through the world making a few mistakes but always trying to love others and attend to God’s commands through scripture and through prayer. Biblical figures outnumber people Scott has actually met in its dramatis personae, and the targeted reader is an American evangelical with a need for Christian encouragement and — beyond a warm memory of Crocodile Dundee — little knowledge of Australia. As I write its author is in the United States spruiking the book to them.

After speaking in many tongues all his career (as politicians tend to do), Morrison comes out in Plans for your Good as fluent in evangelical. To an outsider, it is not an appealing dialect, and tends not to be concrete on any detail that lacks devotional purpose. Some passages of homiletic cliché might have been generated by an evangelical instance of ChatGPT. So the question I struggle with is whether this is the real ScoMo, or whether it is a pitch to the next mob who might support his career trajectory. Brother Scott or still Scotty from Marketing?

Perhaps we should start with the improbability of an Australian politician being a God-botherer. Writing in 2010, John Warhurst had the religious beliefs of only twenty-seven prime ministers to account for. He found that most of them were nominally or culturally Christian (with a handful of atheists) but that religious belief played a major role for only half of them, always in fairly private ways. Moreover, apart from Alfred Deakin and his fringe Theosophical spiritualism, they all belonged to orthodox churches (mostly Anglican, Catholic or Presbyterian) that were part of the civic fabric. This makes sense, as politicians tend to be joiners of existing institutions, not rugged individualists.

Then, just recently, came Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, three of the most publicly declared Christians as leaders in our history. This is odd: at the same time the census shows that Christian allegiance is now a minority identity in the wider population. Are our politicians becoming more religious even while the country is ever more secular? Please, God, let this be just a trick of history, not further evidence that demonstrative identity politics is rising here. Emotional reticence used to be one of the easier things to like about Australians.

That tradition of devotional reticence is something ScoMo tended to cleave to as a politician. He didn’t make a fuss about being a born-again Pentecostal Christian, and he didn’t let the mass of voters know that he was our first prime minister to see events as God’s revelation of his plan. If Plans for your Good is anything to go by, he made more major decisions in private prayer than I am happy with. Better, really, that they be made in committees.

It is easy (indeed, supremely tempting) to be flippant about this, but the fact that we had a leader with an apocalyptic view of how God’s revelation from the Bible worked its way in the world is a serious worry. Evangelical godliness is strikingly unhistorical in its view of humans and events. Scripture speaks directly to twenty-first-century, first-world experience in a way that flattens out the past and dissolves society into individual believers seeking God’s plan.

Perhaps that is why the book’s publisher in Nashville didn’t identify the clanger in the second paragraph of Mike Pence’s generous foreword, where he talks of the long partnership between the United States and Australia: “In 1918, Australians and Americans first fought side by side to liberate the French town of Le Hamel from Nazi occupation during the First World War.”

Nazis in 1918! It’s a mistake that points towards a deeper problem with providential politics. If you really believe God has a plan for the world, human efforts to make this a better place — fairer, say, among social and racial groups, or stabler ecologically — become a bit pointless. Just renounce the devil, put good men in charge, look after your own, and wait prayerfully to see what God has in mind. People of a secular bent really do need to take this attitude seriously, as many of our fellow citizens think something like this. And it’s not a bad summary of the underlying strategy of the Morrison government.

In his frankly accusatory biography of Hillsong’s controversial pastor Brian Houston, Mine Is the Kingdom, David Hardaker asserts that Morrison was a disguised disciple, with an “ability to speak to two audiences at once: the secular and the religious. But to really know what he meant, you had to understand the code. And, perhaps luckily for Morrison, very few did.”

Now Morrison wants his readers to believe that he was the Galilean candidate after all, as well as being the boofy, Sharks-loving dad and husband from the Shire. Surely only God could have led such a loving, guileless guy to the highest office in the land. Read your scriptures, love others, and wait on God’s word in prayer — that is how Morrison claims he bumbled into the prime ministership. Is this plausible?

The short answer is “no,” at least for anyone with a solid knowledge of Australian politics over recent decades. Let’s go down one significant rabbit-hole in the text to make the wider point. It’s Morrison’s description of how he came to be preselected for the seat of Cook:

Jen and I moved to the Shire in southern Sydney… I put everything on hold to run a solid preselection campaign… Then I lost. I didn’t even come close. I was basically jobless again, my career was stalled, and I had a new daughter to take care of.

Things are pretty bleak for our hero here, but he just sucks it up, and trusts in God.

What I knew from the security of my relationship with God is that whatever happened, God was not going to leave me, Jenny, and Abbey stranded. Some months later, the preselection was remarkably overturned, and I was preselected as the party’s new candidate.

Note the passive voice; it is often a dodge. The syntax gives no hint that Morrison was active, as many have reported, in white-anting the successful candidate for Cook, Michael Towke, including with accusations of a vaguely racist nature that were proved unfounded in court.

Politics is a brutal game, and nowhere more brutal than during preselection to a safe seat, so the fact of skullduggery is not that shocking. We would have missed some fine leaders if being pure were a real requirement. But Morrison’s disingenuous gap opens up a series of omissions that make the account of his career deeply flawed and almost certainly hypocritical.

So, what isn’t in Plans for Your Good that a follower of Morrison’s political career might expect to find? No one fails to hold a hose or refuses to shake his hand. He did nothing to organise against Malcolm Turnbull and didn’t enter the race for leader until he assumed Turnbull was resigning, even though he had “a pretty good idea of the numbers we could count on” before he “hit the phones.” Faith is a wonderful thing!

For us suspicious bastards, it is interesting that his chief lieutenants in party matters, Alex Hawke and Stuart Robert, scrape into the book only in the acknowledgements. To bring them into the plot he might have had to mention party matters, “on water matters” and the robodebt controversy, all of which would be hard to square with his humble approach to humanity: “If you see the dignity and worth of another person, the beating heart in front of you, in all its complexity, you are less likely to disrespect them.” I hope no victims of relentless, systematic othering among asylum seekers or welfare recipients get far enough into the book to read this. It would not be good for their health.

And similarly for women. “Jen and the girls” bulk large, and I am willing to believe that Morrison is a faithful and affectionate husband and parent. The trouble is that almost no other women feature in the book and, apart from Jen, they do or decide almost nothing. This is an intensely and, I suspect, unconsciously patriarchal vision of action in the world.

On my count (there’s no index) fifteen non-biblical women are mentioned by name in the text, and a third of those belong to the Abdallah family (it’s a sad and redeeming story). Julie Bishop appears only to lose the race for the leadership, Marise Payne appears only to worry about annoying the French over AUKUS, and the late Queen offers him “a unique, fresh framework for appreciating how our Father God is able to be intimate with us while never surrendering His divinity or majesty.” So Liz was a top bloke after all. Otherwise its mates like “Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, Treasurer Josh Frydenburg, and Health Minister Greg Hunt” who solve things like Covid.

You have to read against the grain a bit, but David Hardaker’s assertion holds: “Morrison’s leadership style mirrored the absolute authority enjoyed by a senior pastor.” He was best at discerning God’s plan, so he was the I in team.

If you want to find out about what really happened during the Morrison ascendancy, read Nikki Savva’s focused, feminist fury. Dilute the farce a bit with a recognition that the Covid response was pretty good and the hope that AUKUS may play out well for us, but Savva’s image of an unlovely bully and hypocrite fits the facts better than Morrison the faithful follower of Jesus.

The memory of a great scene in Molière’s Tartuffe (1664) kept gaslighting my reading of Plans for Your Good. In that play the man of God, Tartuffe, is caught in flagrante delicto with Elmire — by her husband Orgon — who is infatuated with Tartuffe’s religiosity. After pulling up his pants, Tartuffe admits vaguely to a whole host of sins then, over a couple of hundred lines of superb logical and emotional manipulation, persuades Orgon that he is really the suffering Christ, picked on by evil-doers in the family, whom he forgives.

Right the way through this book I felt Morrison was trying to manipulate me into seeing him as an honest man dropped into politics when he would really have preferred being a pastor. He tried hard, and he did okay. How good is that!

Will any of this criticism matter to ScoMo as he kicks the Australian dust from his feet and heads towards the new Jerusalem of evangelical, militarist America? I for one find little consolation in the fact that he forgives us all. •

Plans For Your Good: A Prime Minister’s Testimony of God’s Faithfulness
By Scott Morrison | Thomas Nelson | $34.99 | 272 pages