NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. (Image: AAP/David Gray)

If you observe closely enough, you can detect the underlying truth in the responses of even the most practised politicians. This week delivered an instructive example.

Scott Morrison, Gladys Berejiklian and Daniel Andrews were each asked, naturally enough, what they thought about Sydney and Melbourne’s eye-catching protests of a loose coalition of anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination, anti-Bill Gates and apparently anti-personal hygiene activists.

On the protesters, there’s really not much to say.  They may be stupid, deluded or nihilistic; who knows, they may be conscientiously attempting to bring on the rapture in which the prime minister believes. 

Society will always have a little froth around the rim, and in tenser times it’ll be more visible. These folks aren’t Galileo. Their sole use is to remind us why we have gun laws.

Under questioning, Andrews chose to deflect, talking instead of how proud he is of his fellow Victorians for behaving so well under lockdown.  Berejiklian said she doesn’t care what people do in their spare time, including engaging in protests, provided they follow “the rules”.  If they don’t, they should feel the consequences.

Morrison simply gave the answer anyone could have predicted: “It’s a free country.”  Predictably, too, that triggered a wave of cries of hypocrisy, given that it’s just a few months since he was equating climate protesters with terrorists and threatening to criminalise consumer boycotts.

But forget about the self-perpetuating machinery of outrage politics which will soon enough re-engulf our discourse. It is pointlessly reflexive, just a lazy alternative to actual debate.

Andrews is a sharp politician, a populist with a clear eye on the long game.  It’s unsurprising that he tries to tiptoe through one of the central tensions of his premiership — he comes from a liberal Labor tradition in a state that celebrates social activism, while presiding over a policing regime that is arguably the nation’s most militarised and repressive. 

That is to say, he doesn’t like dissension. He’d just prefer not to look like he’s keen to shut it down, while shutting it down.

Berejiklian’s approach to all issues of policy is pure pragmatism — she appears to have almost no ideology. Unlike Morrison, she is a genuine conservative. She sees the world as a rule-bound jungle — as long as we all comply, nobody gets hurt. 

She seems genuinely puzzled why there is so much questioning of the rules she’s imposed in this crisis, since to her they are merely rational. It’s the same with pill testing, strip searching, lockout laws and any other intersection point between civil rights and her definition of an ordered society. 

For Berejiklian, policy is just a logical balancing of risks. It makes her effective as a leader (and good in a crisis) but maddeningly obtuse to ideologues of any stripe.

Morrison’s response was predictable but also revealing. Although he is often accused of having no ideology and being a purely political animal driven by polls and talkback radio, I think that’s a little shallow.

He is certainly a populist and shameless in his willingness to self-contradict. The constant allegations of hypocrisy mean nothing to him.

However, if he was truly unanchored to beliefs he would not be so predictable. The truth is that it’s not hard to know what he is going to say on any issue. Ideologically he is just a child of John Howard, a believer in the myth of a quiet Australia, populated by people like the ones he’d invite over for a curry. People like him.

Once you appreciate that for Morrison normality is actually a thing, then his beliefs and words make perfect sense. 

It’s a free country. There’s nothing wrong with people holding strange beliefs, like that 5G causes coronavirus and that getting a flu jab increases your COVID-19 infection risk by 36% (source: an NRL player’s wife). 

And there’s nothing wrong with them exercising their right to be patently stupid in a public place.

Having personal beliefs that are on the outer edge of reason (like the conviction that the end times are literally imminent) isn’t inconsistent with Morrison’s understanding of normality. 

You hear some pretty wild social theories from your mates around the backyard barbecue sometimes.

What’s not normal is to want to do something in practical pursuit of those beliefs, like challenge the authority of the state, or interrupt commerce, or traffic, or blow things up.  It’s not normal to threaten the compact that says that Australia, after a little unpleasantness with the original inhabitants and the occasional hiccup encountered by immigrants, has matured into a paradise of assimilated harmony.

It’s also not normal to care too much about politics, demand actual accountability from politicians, or get too angry about the erosion of rights.  Have your opinions, sure, just keep them confined to Facebook and talkback where they belong.  

In that frame, it makes sense.  The anti-lockdown protesters are harmless as they present no real threat to anything. For them, provided they don’t start demanding anything real, it is a free country. 

Schoolkids marching to demand an end to fossil fuels though? That’s a threat to something very real and therefore, to Morrison, intolerable.

There’s a difference between conservatism, which in its proper form is agnostic, and bigotry. Morrison is not a conservative.