After his National Press Club speech to mark the start of the political year yesterday, it’s clear that, at least for now, Scott Morrison has nothing to offer.
It looks like 2020 will be another year of doing nothing. There will be a pretense of action, and copious amounts of marketing spin, but Morrison, the most hollow prime minister in living memory, has nothing, at a moment when the country needs leadership more than at any stage in recent decades.
It’s also clear — to the extent that it might not have been from his stint at Tourism Australia — that Morrison isn’t a particularly good marketer. His speech made “where the bloody hell are you?” look like genius.
It’s clear the PMO is in dire need of a speechwriter, given his reliance on clichés, clunky language and the sort of sentences that can only emerge from an office spitball session:
“Australia is strong but we must become even stronger.”
“We live in a world of increasing global uncertainty.”
“We will counter the evil ideologies that underpin those terrorist attacks from whichever evil ideology it stems from.”
“Australians can be kept safer by an economy that is strong.”
Scotty from Marketing doesn’t even have a marketer’s ear for a glib phrase or musical language.
But clunkiness is fine if the content is there. But whether the aim of the speech was some sort of reset after a disastrous summer, or an attempt to provide reassurance that normal service was about to be restored, or simply because it’s now a tradition for leaders to speak at the Press Club in late January, the speech had so little content as to make you wonder why Morrison was bothering.
Australia faces three crucial policy challenges right now: climate change, integrity in politics, and a stagnant economy. Until late last year, the economy was the primary challenge, but that now looks relatively innocuous in the wake of a catastrophic summer and the vivid demonstration of political corruption given us by the sports rorts affair.
Readers may recall a time, many hours ago, when our finest political journalists spoke of Morrison “pivoting” on climate change.
Yesterday’s speech confirmed there never was a pivot, or even a mild lean: Morrison devoted a substantial part of his speech to the lies that Australia’s emissions abatement targets are sufficient, that they will be met and that he is undertaking “climate action”, a phrase uttered over and over, as if sheer repetition could make it true.
“Our climate action agenda is a practical one,” Morrison said, sounding uncannily like John Howard talking about “practical reconciliation” (in a world where “Orwellian” is grossly overused, the Newspeak-style abuse of “practical” to mean “something that has no meaningful impact” has long escaped notice).
Instead, Morrison will attempt to look busy with royal commissions to examine whether previous royal commissions’ recommendations have been implemented (something a bureaucrat in PM&C could surely do in a week) and fiddling with the rules around using the ADF in national emergencies.
Worse, Morrison argued that “climate action” could consist of measures that would actually worsen climate change. Allowing landowners to clear their properties and doing more hazard reduction is “the climate action we need now”.
More fossil fuels are needed, as well, apparently. Morrison talked at length about the need to tap more natural gas, about how “we need to get the gas from under our feet.”
Whether by coincidence or not, the share price of one of the Coalition’s biggest donors, gas company Santos — which also has extensive staff links to the Coalition — rose at the same time to an intra-day high.
Despite the dominance of sports rorts in the media cycle, Morrison didn’t even mention integrity in the speech, except to refer to his anti-union legislation. Evidently, the only integrity problem in Australian public life is among union officials.
As Nationals MP Darren Chester — by far the smartest, most competent and thoughtful member of his party, which is why he is languishing in the outer ministry — noted yesterday, “the greatest deficit we face right now in Australian politics has nothing to do with the budget, it’s a deficit in the trust between us and the public we represent”.
But it was a deficit Morrison thought not worthy of mention, not even to note the government’s laughable “National Integrity Commission” proposal.
In his answers to a flurry of questions about McKenzie from journalists in the post-speech Q&A, Morrison went further and dismissed any factual statements about McKenzie’s rorting as “editorial” by journalists. Presumably the Australian National Audit Office, too, is guilty of “editorialising” about the rorted program.
It was less of a surprise that Morrison, assuring us the economy was “strong” over and over, had nothing to offer on wage stagnation, persistent low economic growth, interest rates stuck near zero or the country’s productivity crisis.
The only surprise was his claim that retail sales indicated the strength of the economy — a perverse claim to make when six national retail chains have collapsed over the summer, following in the wake of over a dozen in 2019.
On three key issues facing Australia, Morrison’s message was “nothing to see here”. When it comes to national leadership, he’s dead right.