Inside Story

The summer Scott Morrison’s leadership broke

The prime minister’s political authority has fallen away more quickly than anyone could have imagined

Frank Bongiorno 3 January 2020 2308 words

No going back? Prime minister Scott Morrison with wildflower farmers Paul and Melissa Churchman in Sarsfield, eastern Victoria, today. James Ross/AAP Image

The late political psychologist Graham Little saw strong leadership as the default position for conservative politicians. Strong leaders value structure, order and discipline, offer stark moral alternatives, and promise to protect the community from internal weakness and external enemies. Margaret Thatcher seemed the most obvious model when Little was writing on this subject in the 1980s. But, were he still alive, Little would have had much to offer on the rise of the Putins and Trumps of this world.

Scott Morrison is not a strong leader. I offer this judgement not in a pejorative spirit, but as a simple description of political reality. He is neither a Putin nor a Trump, each of whom likes to project himself as a spectacularly successful version of his adoring followers — an image that wouldn’t work in a culture such as ours with its strong tradition of social egalitarianism. Nor is Morrison a Boris Johnson (who has also been holidaying on an island, in his case in the Caribbean). Yet, while Johnson appeals to the prejudices of the ordinary man and woman as he understands them, this Homer-reciting (in the original Greek) graduate of Eton and Oxford is not in the habit of claiming he is one of them. In their heart of hearts, those northerners who voted Tory know that behind the artifice necessary for electoral purposes, Johnson regards them as “chavs, losers, burglars and drug addicts,” to use his own words of a few years back.

Morrison’s prime ministerial persona was unveiled a year ago this month, and that brilliant exercise in public relations underpinned the strategy he maintained all the way up to election day. Labor, as it admitted in its post-election review, was caught wrong-footed. Political parties and leaders have long used marketing expertise, but we have never had a product of that industry as prime minister. Nor have we ever seen a government go to the voters with most of its ministers and policies in hiding, making the leader’s image something like the grin of the Cheshire Cat.

The unveiling occurred in an article in the Daily Telegraph on 14 January. In due course, that article should become for Morrison what “The Forgotten People” broadcast was for Robert Menzies. Morrison is unlikely to govern for sixteen years, especially in the wake of his abject leadership failures this summer. But that doesn’t mean his prime ministership will be without significance for future historians. Even if its fruits are as barren as they are shaping up to be, he will need to be taken seriously as an emblem of the failing politics that Australia’s people must now endure.

Morrison’s op-ed was purportedly inspired by his family holiday, which was not in Hawaii on that occasion but on the south coast of New South Wales, an area that has now descended into a living hell. There, a year ago, he encountered “no sign of the angry mob on social and in other media, shouting at each other and telling us all what we’re supposed to do, think and say.” Rather, the place was full of people with “a positive outlook” — “Locals, holiday makers staying at caravan parks, small business people from western Sydney, surf lifesavers, fishing and rural fire service members, professionals, kids, mums, retirees, pensioners. It was refreshing.”

“I wasn’t there on any political visit,” Morrison hastened to add, although he quickly turned it into one with his op-ed piece. The place was full of people just like him, holidaying in his case “with Jen and the girls enjoying the flathead and chips like everyone else.” Morrison was gratified by what he had supposedly discovered, this “great reminder that there are quite a lot of us who actually think Australia is a pretty great place and we don’t really have too much time to be angry.”

Morrison contrasted these people, whom he called “quieter Australians,” with the “angry noisy voices” of the people John Howard called elites. Quiet Australians were mainly interested in jobs, the cost of living and other “everyday” issues and wanted policies that would “allow us to get ahead.” (To get ahead of whom or what he did not say, but political language of this kind works via artful evasions.) They believe in welfare for the less fortunate, but resent giving people “a free ride.” They want better services but they also want taxes to be as low as possible. They want to see their kids safe, well-educated and with smiles on their faces.

They also care about the environment, “especially locally.” “Australians can always be counted on to make and keep our commitments,” he assured readers without directly mentioning climate change, “but Australians must always come first.” He was “not going to sign up to destroy our economy because of the extreme views of some.” We’d need to wean ourselves off coal eventually but let’s not do anything that might involve higher taxes or unaffordable subsidies. “Just keep it sensible. We’ll get there,” he assured his readers.

Well, we’re there now. A year later, much of that article looks ridiculous when it doesn’t look like an elaborate (although successful) confidence trick. Of course, Morrison was not describing but prescribing. Throughout the piece, he wrote of “we” as if to dramatise his own sharing of the desirable values he set out, the most desirable of them all being to keep one’s mouth closed about politics. On this matter, quiet Australians were expected to leave the job of running things to professionals like Morrison who, by some unexplained magic, could be ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.

Graham Little would possibly have called this “group leadership,” of which he saw Bob Hawke as an exemplar. Group leaders stress “neighbourliness, translating the experience of life in smaller groups, like the family, into the nation as a whole.” Clearly, a contrast needs to be drawn here: Hawke was a masterly practitioner of this style of leadership while Morrison increasingly looks like a plodder. I am unaware of any Australian prime minister who has managed to burn up political capital as quickly as Morrison has, and for so little return.

For Paul Keating, political capital was finite, and good politics was to burn it up to achieve policy ends that couldn’t happen without it. Keating understood that good policy would always result in the practitioner losing skin along the way. The key was to argue, to educate, to cajole and to hope that luck ran your way when you faced electors — that they would reward good policy even while they sometimes had to pay a price for it.

Whether or not it was the logic with which they set out, many of Hawke and Keating’s reforms of the 1980s worked in this way, as did John Howard and Peter Costello’s creation of a goods and services tax a decade later. Its promise almost lost Howard the 1998 election, and for a time its implementation threatened to cost the Coalition government in 2001. But Howard gambled and won each time, with a mixture of the skill and luck that accompanies any successful political career.

There is nothing here that is recognisable in the Morrison prime ministership so far. Morrison has governed like a political billionaire yet without a recognisable policy agenda because he refrained from taking one to the last election. But his majority is small and he cannot take for granted that the Labor Party will continue to offer the kind of break that the Coalition did so little to deserve at the 2019 election.

Like Tony Abbott’s prime ministership, Morrison’s has been a remarkable exercise in self-indulgence, although mainly of a different kind. Abbott burned capital on rubbish such as a knighthood for Prince Philip, culture wars over the Racial Discrimination Act, and broken election promises that no Senate controlled by such a cross bench was ever going to pass.

Morrison’s self-indulgence has been of a different order. Like Abbott, he has been prepared to waste political capital on the culture wars, with the religious discrimination bill shaping up as this government’s version of the 18C debate on racial vilification. But for the most part, his waste of political capital has been more personal. The photos of the prime minister holidaying in Hawaii before Christmas while eastern Australia burned and firefighters died were deeply damaging to his image as the daggy dad and all-round down-to-earth everyman. Even leaving aside his office’s foolish lying to journalists about his whereabouts, the decision to take a holiday in Hawaii while the drought continued and the country was on fire represented a lack of judgement, a failure of leadership and a carelessness about image that are usually deadly to politicians in a functioning democracy.

In the midst of this controversy, it was revealed that Morrison and his family had received thousands of dollars of upgrades on a family trip to Fiji in the middle of the year, and had occupied a $3000-plus per night villa. There was nothing improper about any of this, and we all love discounts, bargains and freebies. But this kind of lifestyle — while increasingly taken for granted by the political class as their reward for a life of selfless public service — is incomprehensible to most Australians. Importantly, it is a sharp contrast with the image, presented in his January 2019 op-ed piece and in the months that followed, of an ordinary bloke mixing happily in the pub and loving nothing better than a curry with the wife and kids, a cold beer and a Sharks win.

Morrison’s return to the country was worse than the bad publicity generated by his Hawaiian frolic. It was simply fatuous to issue images of his hosting Australian cricketers at Kirribilli House — with its splendid views of Sydney’s fireworks — on the day thousands of frightened people were stranded on beaches trying to escape Australia’s version of Armageddon.

Many of his public statements about the bushfire crisis — that its victims would gain inspiration from the Sydney New Year’s Test, for instance — also seemed to be the work of a political amateur. The video images of his efforts to comfort fire victims (and, not coincidentally, generate some positive media images) were disastrous. He was virtually run out of town by bushfire victims in the Bega Valley village of Cobargo. When a pregnant woman there refused to shake his hand until he guaranteed more money for the Rural Fire Service, he decided to grab it anyway, and then turned his back on her and walked away. A local National Party worthy helpfully blundered in, holding the woman and telling her to “shush” — presumably on the grounds that if quiet Australians will not do their duty, it’s the role of municipal councillors to remind them of it. In another excruciating scene, Morrison tried to shake the hand of a similarly uncooperative firefighter at another venue. The video ends with the man walking away.

Morrison’s political authority has fallen away more quickly than anyone could have imagined even a fortnight ago, and is unlikely ever to be quite the same again. The giant-killer and performer of miracles of May 2019 is no more. Instead, we have a prime minister whose inability to respond to a crisis has resulted in widespread national loathing, international ridicule and sharp questions about his capacity for national leadership.

The background to his political nightmare is the Coalition’s failure over more than six years in office to develop a credible climate change policy to replace the Gillard-era scheme, its enduring marriage to the fossil fuel industry, and its hospitality to climate change denialists and their fellow-travellers in its own ranks. But Morrison’s crisis of leadership is also the result of the hollow nature of his leadership style. Fundamentally, he has never established himself as an adult leader capable of dealing with serious things, a dawning realisation expressed by the Twitter hashtag #scottyfrommarketing. It seems likely to stick.

There were early experiments in “strong leadership” — farcically, over pins in strawberries, and hardly less so when Christmas Island was reopened in the wake of the medevac legislation. After that, Morrison settled into a populist style of leadership well-designed for defeating Bill Shorten and a Labor Party carrying too much policy lead in their saddle-bags but unsuited to dealing with a crisis in which vast numbers of people see their country being destroyed and their lives falling apart.

Still, Morrison remains joined at the hip to the Murdoch and Stokes media, which helped him get re-elected and will be critical to his efforts to rebuild his credibility in the months ahead. We will hear often from the usual suspects what a top bloke he really is and how all the criticism is the work of lefties on Twitter. On climate policy, the basic thrust of the denialist right’s next move is plain for all to see. It will direct blame towards inadequate land clearing as the result of supposed Green influence on local and state governments. From the true believers, there will be an aggressive insistence that the summer’s catastrophes have nothing to do with climate change. From their many hangers-on in the Morrison government, the argument will be that Australia is too small and insignificant to make any difference anyway.

There is, after all, little shame in politics as it is done in this country these days. Morrison has already revealed himself as a remarkably adaptable politician and, given his powerful media allies, it might not be beyond his resources to get his leadership back into some kind of working order. But as we have seen repeatedly in recent years, when you’re on the slide, old friends tend to find new friends without taking too many backward glances. •