Inside Story

Once a winner

A new book that attempts to understand the prime minister runs into its own problems

Frank Bongiorno 16 April 2021 2490 words

Unwilling to take responsibility? Prime minister Scott Morrison during a press conference at Parliament House earlier this month. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

How Good Is Scott Morrison?
By Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen | Hachette | $34.99 | 320 pages

“So,” he said, “what do you think: is she or ain’t she?” The question is O.J. Berman’s about Holly Golightly, and it’s directed to the narrator of Truman Capote’s bestselling 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

“Ain’t she what?” the narrator enquires. “A phony.” “I wouldn’t have thought so.” “You’re wrong. She is a phony. But on the other hand you’re right. She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes. You can’t talk her out of it. I’ve tried with tears running down my cheeks.”

It’s a fictional conversation I recall these days whenever I see Scott Morrison hamming it up on television. Is he a phony? Or perhaps he’s not a phony because he really believes all the crap he believes.

Perhaps he believes it was pressingly important for the government of the Commonwealth of Australia to legislate tougher sentences for anyone putting pins in strawberries. Perhaps he believes it was necessary to reopen Christmas Island because of the passage of the medivac legislation. Perhaps he believes his daughters should be kept away from public schools because they’ll be infected by other people’s values. Perhaps he believes “negative globalism” poses a dire threat to Australia’s democracy. Perhaps he believes heading for Hawaii with his Pentecostal friends during a bushfire crisis and having his office lie about it is legitimate behaviour.

Perhaps he believes a man can’t make up his mind about how to respond to an alleged rape until he’s consulted his wife. Perhaps he believes the rule of law would be irreparably damaged if a rape allegation against his attorney-general were the subject of an inquiry. Perhaps he believes a businesswoman deserves the sack for presenting her executives with watches as a reward for delivering a massively lucrative contract.

Perhaps Scott Morrison believes it really is always someone else’s fault.

The prime minister might believe all these things, and, like Holly, he might be a real phony. On the other hand, he might believe none of them, or only a few of them, and therefore be an opportunist. In their latest book, How Good Is Scott Morrison?, Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen seem to lean towards the latter judgement. They worry over Morrison’s “lack of empathy and authenticity,” as displayed most vividly in his response to the bushfires of 2019–20, and especially the unnerving gaucheness during his visit to Cobargo.

The failure of Morrison’s leadership that summer may well be the most serious example of prime ministerial ineptitude in Australian history. I can think of only one instance of comparably poor judgement: that of Billy Hughes in 1916–17, whose antics not only failed to achieve the result he wanted — the introduction of conscription for overseas service — but also split his party and divided the country so badly he probably reduced voluntary recruitment and support for the war.

Yet Hughes was a prime minister of substance, in the sense that he exercised power with purpose. In Morrison’s case, there seems to be little more than the desire to get one over his opponents and win the next election. To be sure, he talks about “doing” a lot: about getting on with things, about not letting the obsessions of the “Canberra bubble” divert his attention from what he thinks electors are after. This is a large part of the image that Morrison has crafted for himself: the practical suburban “daggy dad” in touch with the common man — he rarely shows much interest in the common woman — because he is one himself.

In a sense, it’s the ordinary image-making of democratic politics, and hardly sets Morrison apart as unusual. But there does seem to be something unusual about Morrison’s obsession with image at the expense of substance, which it’s hard not to connect with the path he trod to get into parliament via tourism marketing and political campaigning. If Tony Abbott governed like an opposition leader, it would be fair to say Morrison does so like a campaign director. This might be helpful in winning elections — it’s worked once, anyway — but as a foundation for leading a country it’s often been found wanting.

Errington and van Onselen argue that Morrison’s approach to pandemic leadership was shaped by the failures of his response to the bushfires. It’s a reasonable case, even if it must involve some degree of conjecture. They don’t present Morrison as possessing either the wisdom of Solomon or the inspiration of Churchill. He came out of the bushfire experience chastened as well as needing reassurance.

Theirs is a portrait of a politician who learned from his earlier mistakes, and whose worst instincts — to go to the footy early in the pandemic, for example — were leavened by the greater caution of state premiers, governments and health officers. But Morrison was more cautious than some of his colleagues. Within the government, some backbenchers and a minister, Peter Dutton, favoured a Swedish-style quest for herd immunity. Meanwhile, the treasurer Josh Frydenberg was apparently curious about the “major social experiment” being undertaken by Donald Trump. I imagine his curiosity has now been satisfied.

Errington and van Onselen don’t offer a particularly flattering account of Morrison as pandemic prime minister. “There really isn’t anything of substance under the political marketing veneer,” they write. They see the national cabinet as essentially a public relations exercise on the prime minister’s part, as well as an opportunity to sideline public scrutiny. More generally, they believe Morrison is unwilling to take responsibility, a champion buck-passer who is forever seeking to lay blame on others — state governments, especially Labor ones, being handily in view.

He also hates criticism, or even just being questioned. He often lacks in judgement. He has little interest in anything except tactical advantage. He is pragmatic yet stubborn. Having failed to treat a crisis as an opportunity, they suggest, he might already have blown whatever prospect he had of leaving a policy legacy of any worth. But they imply that he doesn’t much care.

How Good Is Scott Morrison? was completed well before the recent ordeals that have made Morrison’s prime ministership look as bad as it did while he was telling us it wasn’t his job to hold the hose. As I write these words, former Australia Post boss Christine Holgate has just appeared before a Senate committee where she delivered Morrison a richly deserved bollocking for humiliating her in parliament and bullying her out of her job. He has repeatedly shown a want of judgement in his handling of a range of issues related to women, especially allegations of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct on his own side of politics.

The authors point to Morrison’s efforts to weave an image of his leadership as “protective masculinity.” They might have done more to explain how and why this schtick has never worked for Morrison. A short answer might be that he’s gone out of his way to evade the kind of responsibility that this particular, usually conservative image of political leadership implies. According to such a view of gender relations, real men do hold the hose, a point that Tony Abbott, for all his failings, seemed to understand.

Worse, Morrison has swung between trying to seem as if he’s engaging with these issues in a manner sympathetic to women’s concerns and resorting to a snarling vindictiveness. Morrison’s private life may well be as unblemished as he is forever telling us, but as a political leader he seems, like William McMahon before him, amoral rather than immoral, and mean in the way Richard Nixon was mean. His office was backgrounding against alleged rape victim Brittany Higgins while he was professing public sympathy for her plight. He then used a media conference, ostensibly called to announce that he was listening to women and prepared to act on their concerns, to issue a thinly veiled warning to journalists that he was collecting dirt on them — even as he hopelessly muddled the details of an incident involving one of those concerned, Samantha Maiden.

This pure specimen of the modern political class is the first of Australia’s post-truth prime ministers: his leadership is very much a product of the Trump era and its pathologies. It is not that Morrison lies; politicians often do that. Nor would it be fair to suggest he lies as frequently as Donald Trump, for that would hardly be possible.

It’s more that Morrison, like Trump, says things that anyone paying attention can immediately recognise as untrue. His image of the good citizen is not so much one who believes what he says but one who is so disengaged from politics that they either don’t know or don’t care.

For all that, Errington and van Onselen believe Morrison will win the next election. Or, rather, they believed he would win when they wrote their book, since Morrison was “as politically dominant as he’d ever been.” “Morrison has the next election in the bag,” they assure readers. Even if the vaccine rollout falters, they suggest, as it now has, Morrison will be able to control the narrative. Voters won’t care that the Coalition “has achieved very little” in policy. “A defeat for Morrison would be as unlikely as was his victory in 2019,” they declare.

Here is a well-known hazard when venturing analysis in a rapidly changing political environment. The election punditry on offer from these two is probably of no more use than the kind of thing you might pick up at the bar in the Rooty Hill RSL, for the authors have evidently now changed their minds. In last Saturday’s Weekend Australian, in an article titled “The Botched Rollout Could Spell Doom for PM,” van Onselen wrote that “the degree of difficulty for the Coalition winning a fourth term is real.” More amusing is the “edited extract” from their book in the same edition of the paper. Edited indeed: they now think that Morrison’s slowness in responding to women’s concerns and in dealing with the problems of the vaccine rollout have “left him more vulnerable as a political leader than at any time during his prime ministership.”

It’s a pity that the authors don’t give more attention to Morrison’s life and career before he was elected to parliament. There is a fresh sense of familiarity in the squalid manner of his preselection for the seat of Cook — the latter fell into his lap when, after he was defeated eight votes to 160, his allies leaked various false allegations to the media about his opponent. With the dubious content of the government’s dirt files now being strewn around media conferences, all this now seems more pertinent than a few months ago when one of van Onselen’s colleagues at the Australian was comparing Morrison to John Curtin.

Morrison’s religious beliefs receive cursory attention — the authors seem quite unable to make up their minds if his Pentecostalism really matters — and his family life and undistinguished career at Tourism Australia even less. It’s becoming hard to escape the sense that Morrison remains at heart a small-time Sydney politician, without the intellect, vision, moral compass or judgement to do much more than position himself tactically. When Errington and van Onselen recount his raising some trivial matter of internal party machine politics during what was supposed to be a discussion of Covid-19 responses with Gladys Berejiklian, it’s another of those telling moments when we have a glimpse of an authentic Morrison.

The authors’ Coalition sources are obviously impressive, and we meet “the magnificent seven” — those said to be Morrison’s closest confidants — early in the book and then at intervals throughout. Revealingly, none are women. The accident-prone Stuart Robert is apparently his closest colleague, as well as a friend and co-religionist, which may help explain how repeated failure seems to have had no dampening effect on Morrison’s view of that man’s merit. Alex Hawke and Ben Morton are the only other serving politicians on the list. No one would describe any of these three as being in the front rank of Coalition ministers.

The rest of the seven are mainly staffers or public servants, including chief of staff John Kunkel and principal private secretary Yaron Finkelstein. Department head Phil Gaetjens, the prime minister’s “head butler, serving cooked-up political fixes when the bell rings” — as Labor’s Katy Gallagher put it — is in the seven, which is completed by businessman and donor Scott Briggs. These are the kinds of men who help make Morrison’s miracles happen. Some of them also help get rid of those pesky “events” that bedevil prime ministers.

How Good Is Scott Morrison? is a brightly written account that reveals how the pandemic challenged and changed a government whose members had long ago fallen prey to the banalities and trivialities of pre-pandemic politics. Errington and van Onselen recognise the government’s achievements — which included a willingness to listen to experts — without seeking to pretend this was an effort without its darker side: the government tended to hide behind its experts to avoid accountability. The Coalition also took the opportunity to lay the boot into its accustomed enemies among the young — who were often unsupported casual workers — and in the arts community and the universities.

In fact, the pandemic provided an opportunity for settling scores in the culture wars, while women were poorly treated in the major stimulus packages. Australians stranded overseas experienced brutal indifference. The federal government was fortunate not to receive harsher criticism for its failures in aged care. The Victorian government largely carried the can for the outbreaks in Melbourne during last year’s second wave of infections.

This is a long way from a whitewash: among many scathing observations of Morrison and the government, the authors point to the hypocrisy of the monumental build-up of debt and deficit by Coalition parties that routinely accuse Labor of profligacy. Whatever the justifications for JobKeeper, it provided wide opportunities for corporate profiteering, with Liberal Party mates and donors inevitably prominent among the beneficiaries. Some of that money will end up back in Coalition coffers as political donations.

The authors might well have given a little more scrutiny to the role of the media company for which van Onselen writes, News Corp, in providing leeway to the Coalition on a wide range of issues, latitude that it would never have allowed a Labor government. It is striking that their account of Morrison’s prospects at the next election doesn’t discuss one of the most significant assets he will have at his disposal: the fact that most of the country’s commercial media companies will be barracking hard for his return. •