Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Images: AAP)

If you believe much of what you read and hear from Nine, News Corp and the ABC’s political journalists, Scott Morrison is a political genius tuned into middle Australia who is cruising effortlessly towards another election win later this year against a hapless Anthony Albanese.

It’s much more rare for the mainstream media to point to the more prosaic reality: that Morrison only has a two-seat majority and — despite Australia handling the pandemic very well, a stronger-than-expected economic recovery and the government splashing out half a trillion dollars in deficit spending — the Coalition is stuck at 50-50 in the polls.

What the prime minister is very good at, as everyone knows, is political theatre, media management and spin, which acts as a cover for a lack of substance.

He never had an agenda for government and was only saved in that department by the pandemic. Just this week he claimed his government wouldn’t undertake any significant reform for the rest of this year i.e. until after the next election (cue collapse of stout party at the reliable chorus for neoliberal reform, the AFR).

The usually skilful media management of the prime minister’s office, however, has had a distinctly Noises Off quality this week over climate denialist, Trump apologist and COVID-19 misinformation machine Craig Kelly.

Morrison has been trying to wave off Kelly’s dangerous conspiracy theories about, inter alia, Trump being robbed of victory and quack cures for COVID for months. Until recently his preferred line was “it’s a free country”, as if he was, in addition to being prime minister, some benign guarantor of free-flowing debate.

On Monday, when asked about Kelly by ABC journalist and National Press Club president Laura Tingle, he smirkingly dismissed her question and declared Kelly was “doing a great job in Hughes”.

Within about 24 hours, and after Kelly teamed up with anti-vax loon Pete Evans for a podcast, the “great job” line was abandoned, and journalists carefully briefed that Morrison had called Kelly to warn him to watch his social media use.

At least Ten’s Hugh Riminton resisted the narrative and expressed scepticism. Peter van Onselen, as always, also called bullshit.

Another resister was Kelly himself, who completely ignored Morrison and told the ABC “he would continue pushing for Australia’s medical authorities to change their position” and that experts would “have egg on their face”.

If a Labor leader had sought to pull a backbencher into line and been so publicly defied, you can imagine the headlines. But that would confound the Morrison-as-political-titan narrative, so that was quietly ignored until Tanya Plibersek, doing what Morrison, his health minister and every other cabinet minister had failed to do, and had a crack at Kelly face to face.

With his first piece of media management so publicly failed and Kelly so completely undeterred, Morrison had to react with another piece of theatre. Kelly was “hauled in” and “dressed down” by Morrison after the stoush with Plibersek. How do we know? Well, his office told journalists that that was what happened. We specifically know that Kelly was “hauled in” and “dressed down” because… well, see for yourself:

Morrison had “hauled in rogue Liberal MP Craig Kelly for a face-to-face dressing down”.

Morrison “called Mr Kelly into his office for a 30-minute private dressing down” (the URL of that story says “hauls”).

Morrison “hauled Mr Kelly into his office for a dressing down”.

“Craig Kelly has been called into the prime minister’s office for a ‘dressing down’.”

“The PM has hauled Craig Kelly into his office for a face to face dressing down.”

“Kelly was immediately hauled in for what the Prime Minister’s Office described as a dressing down.”

Fancy. It was less than 48 hours since Kelly was deemed by Morrison to be doing a great job in Hughes. And they say a week is a long time in politics.

Where were the headlines about a backbencher flagrantly flouting the PM’s authority? About Morrison’s spectacular U-turn in less than two days from enthusiastically lauding Kelly to a theatrical wrist slap? What much of the press gallery, with a couple of notable exceptions, gave us was pre-prepared narrative of Morrison the authoritative leader flexing his political muscles.

Kelly’s conspiracy theories and attacks on science remain on his Facebook for his adoring far-right followers. You can still read his climate denialism, his conspiracy theories, his Trump-was-robbed claims, his endorsement of rank quackery.

Kelly is ignoring another “dressing down” from Morrison. Don’t let that interfere with the narrative though.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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