Inside Story

Inventing “ScoMo”

The prime minister set his own test for success — authenticity — and then went about passing it

Sean Kelly 5 November 2021 2569 words

Lifelong supporter? Scott Morrison at a rugby league match between the Sharks and the Panthers during the 2019 federal election campaign. Dean Lewins/AAP Image

In September 2018, less than two weeks after the events that made him prime minister, Scott Morrison was interviewed on breakfast television at a rugby league stadium, the goalposts clearly visible behind him. He said that it had been “a confusing and bewildering series of events, and not ones that I had any part in.” Asked about the theory he had somehow orchestrated his rise to the leadership, he said that if that was true, then “Elvis is cutting hair in Lithgow.” Then he declared that the previous era was over: “The curtain’s come down on that Muppet Show and an absolute new curtain has lifted up.”

Immediately after he took over, the Liberal vote fell sharply and Labor’s vote rose even more sharply. For the first time in three years, Labor’s Bill Shorten was the nation’s preferred leader.

This was not surprising. Shorten was not well liked, but Morrison was the most anonymous politician to have become prime minister in several decades. Bob Hawke had been a famous union leader for years. Paul Keating had been Hawke’s treasurer for eight years. John Howard had been a senior MP for decades, and held the second-most prominent political job — opposition leader — twice. Kevin Rudd, via breakfast television, had turned himself into a new kind of political celebrity, and had been opposition leader. Julia Gillard had been deputy prime minister, and the first woman in that role. She was beaten by Tony Abbott, who had been opposition leader for four years and two elections. Abbott was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull. And then came Morrison.

Despite his three years as treasurer, Morrison had somehow failed to leave much of an impression on Australians. In September, approaching the Melbourne Cricket Ground, he was caught on camera as he stopped to shake hands with a Geelong supporter. The man had a question for him: “What’s your name, then?” Newspapers across the country ran brief biographies to catch their readers up, under the heading “Who Is Scott Morrison?”

Morrison set about answering the question. A week after he became prime minister, he gave his first one-on-one interview to a newspaper, for the Murdoch tabloids printed in most of the nation’s capital cities. He said of that first week in power, “Two major things didn’t happen, I didn’t get my footy tips in on Thursday night and I am not going to get to cook a curry tonight.”

What stands out is not the fact that he followed rugby league but just how often he managed to bring it up. This began just before he took the job. As he walked into the room where the vote for a new prime minister would be conducted, he told the media: “The only tip I’ve got — Sharks to beat Newcastle this weekend.” In his first prime ministerial press conference, a few hours later, he said — in an odd combination of humour, football and refugee policy — “We all want to be able to make our own choices in life. Whether it’s about who comes to our country, as John Howard famously said, or what school you want your kids to go to, or what team they want to follow — I suggest the Sharks.”

It is possible to be too cynical. Sometimes politicians are just making dumb jokes. Morrison’s contrivance, though, was extreme.

The very first TV interview he gave as prime minister was not to a political journalist or even a breakfast television host, but to a rugby league star. One of the first videos produced by his press team was a montage of twenty times he had said “Go Sharks!” or something similar. In his first week as leader, he gave a press conference while holding a rugby league ball. In September, he gave an interview to Sabra Lane, host of the ABC’s flagship radio current affairs program, AM, that he concluded, with no context and no lead-up, by saying, “Thanks a lot, Sabra. Great to be here. Go the Sharks.”

Morrison’s standing didn’t take long to rise in the polls. He was behind Shorten just once as preferred prime minister; in the Newspoll immediately after that, he took the lead. At the poll after that, in late September, he increased his lead, and the Liberal vote began to rise.

In that late-September poll, another question was asked: which leader did voters believe was most authentic? This term, authentic, was defined as somebody genuine or true to their beliefs. The answers to this question allowed Simon Benson at the Australian, which had commissioned the poll, to write that Morrison had emerged “as a more trusted and authentic leader” than Shorten.

News like this can take hold quickly. The Australian is read by the political class. Benson’s Newspoll copy would have been read by every political journalist and every politician, and so, unsurprisingly, the point about authenticity was picked up and repeated by other political journalists. Later that day, on Sky News — which, much like the Australian, was followed in every political office in Parliament House — Liberal minister Alan Tudge said, “I just think that Scott is a very authentic individual.”

Three weeks later another Newspoll was released. Responding to the results, cabinet minister Simon Birmingham said the prime minister had done an “incredible job over the past couple of months connecting with voters across Australia… He’s seen as authentic.” In November, the former NSW police commissioner, a friend of Morrison, described him as “genuine, authentic and courageous. My impressions are not of the politician, they are of the man. He’s a very genuine Australian… an honest, forthright man, exactly what you’d want, and we want more genuine, authentic, courageous leaders.” A few weeks after that, John Howard, Morrison’s hero and mentor, who spoke regularly to Morrison, said, “He’s come across to the Australian people as an authentic, genuine, direct person.”

It is worth noting that the initial Newspoll didn’t find that voters saw Morrison as authentic. It showed that voters found him more authentic than Shorten — and still, in fact, less than half the population believed him more authentic than Shorten, with a significant portion, we can assume, undecided.

The word authentic hadn’t come out of nowhere. Two weeks before the Newspoll story, the prime minister himself had told the parliament, “As a new prime minister, I understand I have a big job to do as I demonstrate to Australians my authenticity.” Morrison had, in effect, constructed his own test, and the polling, conducted for and reported by a newspaper favourably disposed to Morrison, appeared to confirm that he had passed it. Then his colleagues, friends and mentor affirmed this, and their words were broadcast and printed across the land.

Political outsiders might see efficient conspiracy in this. Those who have been on the inside know that politics is rarely quite that organised. Still, conversations are had in certain circles; suggestions are made by powerful individuals. The only thing more naive than believing that the fate of the world is decided by two or three men in a smoky room is believing that there is no truth at all in that image — that the dissemination of certain concepts and ideas via the public sphere, and from there through a society, is entirely accidental.

Scott Morrison had been contemplating the idea of authenticity for some time. In 2017, still a year away from becoming prime minister, he delivered a speech to a meeting of the Liberal Party. He spoke of entrenched cynicism and a disconnected electorate. “To crack through this thick ice,” Morrison said, “we must communicate candidly and with authenticity.” He cited Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn as politicians who had taken on “the role of the authentic outsider; the one to challenge a system that voters did not think was serving them.”

Once Morrison became prime minister, he set about following his own advice, by performatively challenging that system. He began by distancing himself from the party that he led, calling it a “Muppet Show.” Not long afterwards, he cancelled a scheduled meeting with the premiers, and when asked about it said, “The only thing that happens as a result of not having that COAG meeting is less Tim Tams will be consumed in Canberra that week.” In an interview with right-wing radio host Alan Jones, he segued into an attack on global institutions: “I’m not going to spend money on global climate conferences and all that sort of nonsense.” Within weeks of taking over as leader, he had ridiculed government at a state, national and international level. He was — with his rhetoric — challenging a system that voters did not think was serving them, and presenting himself as “the authentic outsider.”

A still more illuminating comment was made outside the 2017 speech to the Liberal Party. In an interview to promote the event, with Sharri Markson at the Daily Telegraph, Morrison said that “the staged nature of politics” had been the orthodoxy for a long time, but “that’s not the way forward anymore. People are looking for a more honest, direct engagement. They’re interested in what you think about the footy or what you cook because that’s their life, that’s what they talk about.”

It is remarkable how accurately this laid out the strategy Morrison adopted once he became leader. Immediately, he made sure that voters knew exactly what he thought about the footy and exactly what he cooked.

Morrison’s love of the Cronulla Sharks seems sincere — or, at least, not insincere. He very often watches them play. The team’s chairman has said that, when he does, he is focused and concentrated, and when the weather is bad, he declines the chance to sit in the glass-walled viewing areas. The Australian Financial Review’s article introducing the new prime minister to its readers concluded like this: “A move to The Lodge in Yarralumla is on the cards, but don’t even think about asking him to start barracking for the Canberra Raiders.”

This was a cute ending — except that Morrison had already changed teams once, and changed codes as well. When a 2006 CV listing Morrison’s old interests emerged in one of Niki Savva’s columns, rugby league wasn’t mentioned — in fact, it was the only one of Australia’s three major codes not to be included. He had started out as a rugby union man. The divide between the two codes in Sydney is sharp: rich private school kids follow rugby union, often just called “rugby,” while working-class kids follow rugby league.

The CV also mentioned Australian Rules, and the team that Morrison supported, the Western Bulldogs. He tweeted about the Bulldogs several times during the finals in both 2009 and 2010 — he was singing the club song. Asked on Twitter why he had chosen the Dogs, he said he liked their coach, and that “loyalty counts.”

A decade later, in April 2019, Morrison told a Melbourne radio host that he didn’t have an AFL team. “I like AFL but I am not a phoney,” he said. “I am not going to go around pretending I am something I am not. I grew up in New South Wales, a suburban boy. I’ve been following that code ever since I was a kid. I am who I am. I like going, I really enjoy it. But when I back something, I’m all in. So I follow my team, which is the Sharks and the Southern District Rebels up there in the Sydney comp… I am never going to be someone I am not. I am not going to be inauthentic. What you see is what you get.”

The issue is trivial: nobody really cares which football code or team a politician follows; despite what Australians like to tell themselves, nobody cares, either, that a politician has switched allegiances, and Morrison is not the first prime minister to have done so. It is this triviality that makes the vehemence of his response so telling.

The discussion began after Morrison had used an analogy about a player for Collingwood. The interviewer playfully suggested Morrison was jumping on the Collingwood bandwagon. Immediately, the prime minister spoke over him, saying twice, “I don’t have a team.” This was odd enough — it was only banter. But then, just as he’d done in an interview with broadcaster Ray Hadley, Morrison began to speak at length about himself. Over and over, in different words, he made the same point: I’m not a phoney, I won’t pretend to be something I’m not, I am who I am, when I back something I’m all in, I am never going to be someone I am not, I’m not going to be inauthentic.

It was a striking display, strangely defensive, comprehensively rejecting an accusation that had not really been made, and certainly not with any seriousness. It is difficult, at first, to understand what might have sparked it — until you realise that Morrison could not afford to have the charge stick because of how close it ran to the truth. He was pretending to be something he wasn’t; when he backed something — like, say, the Western Bulldogs — he was not all in but, rather, entirely willing to give it up and then deny that it had ever happened. Even the most apparently innocent assertion of fact in this short passage was more shadowy than it seemed. When Morrison said, “I’ve been following that code ever since I was a kid,” he was implying he had always followed rugby league, whereas in fact the code he had always followed was rugby union.

In his Clark lectures, delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1927, the novelist E.M. Forster put forward a theory of literary characters. There were two sorts: flat characters and round characters. Flat characters were sometimes called “types,” and were constructed around a single idea or quality. They could be described simply, captured in a sentence or two. Often they would have a catchphrase. One of the advantages of a flat character for the novelist, Forster said, was that they never needed reintroducing, because they were so easily recognised.

Isn’t this a fine description of Morrison? When he became prime minister, we did not know much about him. Quickly, he set about helping us to know him, by making himself a flat character. We were given just a few details; we were given them over and over again. These details gave us clues to other parts of his character but, crucially, none that complicated the portrait.

Morrison demonstrated a certain skill in creating this flat character. But this skill would have been useless without another, which preceded it. Not far into Morrison’s prime ministership, veteran journalist Michelle Grattan quoted a Labor man arguing that the contest now was about trying to define Morrison. “The prime minister is a blank canvas,” he said. That a man who had been in politics for ten years and in public life for twenty could have remained a “blank canvas” for so long was as necessary to the emergence of “ScoMo” as the Sharks and the curries themselves. •

This is an edited extract from The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison by Sean Kelly, published by Black Inc., available in bookshops and online now.