National COVID-19 Commission
Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Just who — or what — is a Scott Morrison? That’s the question that Australia’s media have been grappling with over the past seven days as Morrison attempts a narrative reset, the PM twisting from pivot to pivot in the face of the challenges of the post-COVID times.

He’s not the first politician to wrestle that particular greasy pig. But he’s the first prime minister to try it through a fractured media where News Corp has exchanged public power wielded through its tabloid front pages for inner-party influence delivered by its Sky commentary and op-eds in The Australian.

News Corp opinionistas want a culture-war wolf-warrior. Morrison wants to lead Team Australia. The political sub-plot in the reset is just how much weaker the influence of a much-diminished News Corp will be as a result of yesterday’s report of job cuts and closures.

The common wisdom has already determined what Morrison is not: he’s no once-in-a-generation political giant, not yet anyway. Having won the miracle election, he’s an above-average political operator who’s taken longer than usual to learn how best to take advantage of what former British PM Harold McMillan described as the heart of modern governing: “Events, dear boy. Events.”

In the BC (Before COVID) times, the narrative of Morrison seemed set — the unformed clay thrown on the potter’s wheel of the always ugly inner-party politics that made him leader, glazed with the daggy Dad-from-The-Shire schtick, then fired in the kiln of summer’s climate crisis bush fires. 

It’s a narrative bluntly laid out in the political memoirs of his immediate predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull: a Morrison, it turns out, is a perpetual motion machine for getting itself elected and then staying there — and not much else. 

That’s not a narrative that meets the demands of an historic moment like the COVID shock. It leaves journalists, like Peggy Lee, mournfully singing “is that all there is?” all the way through to the next election. It’s not the song that a Morrison wants to hear — particularly if it’s true.

In its place, Morrison is attempting the Team Australia reset, stretching from the national cabinet to the not-really-Accord. His backbench and Sky commentariat are happy to go along provided, to paraphrase John Howard, the government will decide who gets to be part of the team and the manner in which they’re selected.

The reporting challenge of the Team Australia reset is that, like all such populist plays around the world from Trump in the US to Viktor Orban in Hungary, it’s very much a Schrodinger’s narrative: it’s both in the box of government policy and not in the box. Inside the box, wrapped in government rhetoric, are all of us and just some of us, at the same time.

That seems the only rational explanation for the government’s gaslighting of the shortfall in JobKeeper take-up as due to administrative error by applicants. It concealed the ugly truth of the policy. In the box: Aussie jobs. Not in the box: arts workers, casuals, universities and temporary visa-holders.

Gaslighters confuse journalism, sitting as they do somewhere between the more customary outright liar and the bullshitter who, according to Princeton University’s Harry Frankfurt, “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly”.

This confusion carried all the way through to last Sunday’s Insiders panel. There, the JobKeeper shortfall was both in the Team Australia box (either an administrative error by employers or a typical forecasting error by Treasury egg-heads) and not (a design flaw that excluded key groups).  

Of course, the government’s refusal to reallocate the shortfall to excluded groups pops the box open to reveal a different possibility, as Crikey reported on Wednesday: the government is pivoting to austerity more quickly than it thought necessary two months ago.

The Morrison perpetual motion machine bustled on, bringing a new box tucked under its arm into the National Press Club on Tuesday. Marked “industrial relations reform”. It, too, came wrapped in Team Australia packaging with loose talk of Accord-style consultation. Still unopened, this box replaces the dead cat that the anti-union Ensuring Integrity Bill had become.

Morrison was openly Schrodinger about it in his words to ABC’s AM: “this is a process that wants to see workers better off, this is a process that wants to see employers better off”. Theoretically possible — until the government opens the box to show us what’s inside.