(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

With Trump fading into the distance, the attentions of progressives in Australia have turned back to Scott Morrison, a man who has barely figured for months in the political imagination.

With his comments about Australia Day 1788 — “it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels” — he magnificently brought it all back home and reminded us that, in this new era, we need to talk about ScoMo Derangement Syndrome.

ScoMo is driving progressives nuts — mostly because Labor is failing so absolutely at providing an alternative — which in turn makes progressive politics worse, and so on. The fantasy that the Morrison government is some sort of Trump-lite outfit is utterly distorting a political response.

To the boats comment first. Look, this was genuinely funny. I dunno if the intent was to be funny, but there it is. Firstly, it’s of dubious truthfulness: the First Fleet prisoners had been under sail for eight months, in dank holds, with weevilly biscuits and stagnant water for sustenance. Even if the fabled Botany Bay beach orgy has proved to be a myth, landfall was probably not the worst day of the experience.

Is ScoMo trying to get favour with victims of bad cruises or something? “They in 1788 also had to endure jugglers, and a disappointing buffet.”

But of course there was no rational or important point being made. The line was come up with in some Liberal backroom skunkworks as a way of rendering the whole Australia Day debate confused and misdirected. “What about the convicts huh?” is instantly confusing because yes, they were the English poor, political prisoners etc, but that’s not really the point about the huge event of colonisation, is it?

ScoMo’s interventionette means you have to spend five minutes explaining why the thought is misplaced, and by then the point is lost. It’s a measure of the weakness of Australia Day as a positive rallying point that the current right-wing response is to game it for a cheap shot.

The furious reaction to this wilfully absurdist moment indicates that many progressives are desperate to make Morrison and his government into right-wing culture warriors of an earlier era.

It’s such a bad fit to what Morrison is actually doing that one can only presume its purpose is self-serving — to give progressivism an identity, by way of antagonism, that it cannot supply to itself.

ScoMo’s comment was of a piece with other interventions on the culture front, which indicates that the Morrison government sees the culture wars of the 2000s as played out, and a culture-politics realignment underway.

The very limited changes to the national anthem, the 1788 Sitmar moment, and the release of 20-plus refugee/prisoners from hotel detention in Melbourne are clear indications that the Morrison government wants to avoid the sort of grand confrontations that defined the Howard government, and that Tony Abbott briefly revived as a Dada fringe performance.

The reasons are not hard to see: the demographic changes in the suburban middle classes which form the Liberal base. With Greens and teal candidates getting 23% votes in blue-ribbon seats, and rural seats under pressure from the various “voices” independent movements, someone in the Liberal skunkworks presumably realises that the progressive/multicultural moment has happened.

We are no longer, in urban centres, an anglo society, and the prosperous middle classes are no longer socially conservative. The Howard government had more than a touch of European style kulturkampf politics about it; Morrison’s moves, like changing two words of the anthem to minimally decolonise it, is classically Burkean conservative, controlling change to preserve an overall set-up.

(Of course, it’s a game of two sides; for every anthem change, there’s a Margaret Court gong. But it’s not exactly children overboard.)

The subsequent construction of Morrison by many progressives is one of the greatest acts of political misperception currently running.

It’s one Labor joins in, trying to lean on some notion of ScoMo as a content-free flim-flam guy, and his government’s moves on the social/culture front as cynical hypocrisy. Is there any indication that the mass of Australians believe this to be the case?

The change to the anthem’s words was met with a type of fury. Yet I’d presume that it aligns with the degree of change wanted by most non-Indigenous Australians — a dispensing of colonial ideals of the country, without committing to being defined by historical guilt.

Like it or not, that’s how most people want to think about the country. The simple administrative rewrite of the anthem doesn’t look like spin to them: it looks like the essence of good government.

The bitter fact for progressives to accept is that Morrison is now perceived as a quietly competent leader, avoiding the chaos seen in the UK and US, and not pushing his own religious values into the general social space.

Culturally, he’s governing to the left of himself in a country that has avoided the upsurge of a right in anything like the way that has occurred in the US, the UK or continental Europe.

The attempt by elite progressive opinion to construct a sort of imminent Trumpism here is absurd, and is simply a compensating mechanism for the absence of a genuinely left progressive program that should come from a Labor party currently consumed by a new leadership stoush.

Given that the most racist thing going on in Australia at the moment — the Black gulag in NT that it calls a justice system — is Labor bought and sold, there’s a bit to do on our side. This isn’t the US, and ScoMo ain’t Trump lite.

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