Scott Morrison
Image credit: Lukas Coch/AAP

Scott Morrison, good old Scomo, daggy Dad, Mr Suburban…well that didn’t last long, did it? He was in trouble even before last night’s cataclysmic tweet of a clip of parliament – possibly illegal and featured a song glorifying “no strings attached, sex from the back”and asking n—s, ‘who f—ing tonite’. Presumably the question has been taken on notice].

He had already ceased to be Mr Boring, one of us, and become immediately identified as a God-botherer. He started in on the religion thing and then, apparently in answer to a question, suggested that one response to the drought would be to “pray for rain”. The remark was immediately jarring, in an Australian political context. Americans see such expressions of faith as heartfelt, a measure of character, even if they don’t share the sentiment. Here, Morrison sounds like the bloke in the blue skivvy at the BBQ, being too friendly, the one you know to avoid.

The sweet-Jesus-give-us-rain moment, and the feint towards Safe Schools sits ill with a parallel commitment to being a leader in the spirit of Menzies. Menzies was, of course, by the standards of our time, socially conservative. Even the mild progressive shifts within the party in the mid-’60s were too much for him; he quit and made it known he was voting DLP, as Harold Holt and others began mild liberal feints on anti-censorship, race relations, etc.

But the key phrase is “standards of the time”. Menzies wasn’t ostentatiously religious, because no one was, or needed to be; some vague Christian-deistic god was kinda sorta believed in by most people. By the mid-’60s, many people thought that having thousands of books banned by the government was absurd. But many didn’t. Howard managed to combine cultural warriordom – used mainly to regain the leadership in 1994 – with the Menzies style, by presenting progressives as the disruptive force, and himself as a champion of those wanting to be “comfortable and relaxed”.

Tony Abbott was, by contrast, the loony on the tram. “Please don’t sit next to me, please don’t sit next to me,” we all thought, for nearly two years. Part of the initial success of Turnbull was the sheer relief from anxiety we all felt as Abbott strode the national stage. Then he turned out to be some sort of optical illusion, which was worse. Now people just want it over with.

The reason there isn’t more ridicule about praying for rain is not that there are large numbers of interventionist God believers out there, organising prayer circles under clouds – which is the sort of thing you’ll actually find in the US. It’s that everyone has just given up on this government, even as a source of derisive amusement. Ostentatious religiosity could well make a terrible situation much much worse for the Coalition.

The right commentariat will encourage them in that because, as far as one can tell, they still believe that the religious right can represent the non-fanatical norm in the culture war. They seem genuinely unaware that the polarities have flipped since the first culture war in the early ’90s. Strange, because their culture war, then, was about warning what would happen if a secular-progressive culture/education system triumphed.

What would happen is this. They lost the war. Now everyone under about 40 has been educated in that framework. So they don’t see what the fuss is about. Even people who are somewhat racist, anti-refugee, anti-trans culture are, in other matters, far more attuned to gender equality, tolerance on sexuality, secular and “agnostic” – i.e. functionally atheist – in culture.

With a few responses, Morrison has made it difficult for himself to get back into the homo suburbiensis demeanour. The addled right commentariat aren’t helping. They still think they’re fighting the ’60s/’70s culture war: that progressives are libidinous and antinomian, worshipping will and dynamism. If only. Actually, the real problem for the right is that Christian values of sacrifice to the other have lodged so deeply in secular progressive culture, that Morrison – as a former runner of our hellish detention system – appears pompous, vain and hypocritical, not merely irritating.

It’s bizarre to watch the right keep on this line. Culture war got Howard the leadership and the Lodge. Culture war has got this lot almost nothing. They’ve lost on 18C, marriage equality, they can’t get the African gangs narrative going, religious freedom, the works. Still it keeps going.

They keep believing they’ll draw Labor into defending renaming helium as theylium or something, while Labor, having moved economically leftward, now has a shared economic-state program both of its wings can get behind. In Victoria, Labor wants to spend three decades building a rail tunnel to thoroughly reconstruct the city. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s praying for a miracle for the farmers. And for closer to home.  

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey