It’s hard to imagine another prime minister of the last 10 years handling the events of 2021 as catastrophically as Scott Morrison has.
Tony Abbott, sure, but at least he would have failed in some way that betrayed his own fully formed idea of the world. Each of Morrison’s forebears elicits their own brand of contempt, admiration, exasperation and even pity (as lucidly sketched here by Guy Rundle). Morrison is much harder to get a handle on.
The question is, and has always been: what is Scott Morrison for?
This was supposed to be a relief after Kevin Rudd’s grandiose wonkery, the relentless ugliness directed at Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott’s fight for Western civilisation and the long retreating sigh that Malcolm Turnbull’s stint became. Morrison was supposed to be a suburban dad in a Beefy’s cap who didn’t seek to mean anything much. He just wanted to get on with things.
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And yet, the language of his prime ministership has always been passive. When asked early on about why he replaced Malcolm Turnbull he said. “I was not the one who sought to change it”.
That then changed to “I don’t hold a hose, mate” and “that’s a matter for the states”. And now we’re faced with endless casuistry around what he knew and when about Brittany Higgins.
As we’ve noted elsewhere, this seems to partly stem from how he views politics. For all the talk of faith and flag lapels in the early days, he’s never given much of a sense of a defined national interest he wishes to build and serve. Instead, we’ve been treated for two-and-a-half years of public relations issues and opportunities to be managed individually.
He didn’t even have a policy vision at the election. Morrison scraped to his “miracle” victory in 2019 by pitting his personality against then-opposition leader Bill Shorten (a decent bet, you’d have to say).
Dragged from crisis to crisis, this approach is now riddled with holes. And like an increasingly desperate Jerry Lundegaard figure, hoping his rictus smile will distract from the sweat on his brow, you sense he’s now just trying to get through the interview, the end of question, the end of the sentence before ducking out the nearest window.
Let’s look at the PM’s last four days.
On Monday he misled Parliament about the status of the internal investigation concerning allegations of rape by former staffer Brittany Higgins.
On Tuesday he derailed his own press conference by sniping at a journalist about their own workplace culture and weaponising a harassment claim that, it turned out, no one had actually made.
On Thursday, when asked about the alleged backgrounding against Higgins by his office, he reached for disingenuous sophistry: “There has been no one in the gallery, nothing has been raised with my office from anyone in the gallery making any of those accusations or any discomfort about anything that my office has done.”
You will note, there is no actual denial of anything in there. Another investigation is now being launched.
He also ducked an interview with Leigh Sales (for the 13th time) this week and instead chose the chummier environs of Ray Hadley’s studio. Having been assured he wasn’t going to be “carved up”, he went on to say “blokes don’t always get it right” and chuckled that at least “the footy is back”.
In the background of all this, there have also been several policy disasters. The inexplicable push to allow domestic violence victims to empty their superannuation was thrown away, as was most of the government’s industrial relations agenda.
Last week Nikki Savva worried in The Australian that the defining moment of Morrison’s career would turn out to be “I don’t hold the hose”. But it may have come even earlier.
A month or so into his “accidental” stewardship, a bus plastered with slogans and a picture of Morrison’s face drove some 1500km around Queensland. Morrison appeared in front of it and said things like, “Here in Queensland, I’m listening and most importantly I’m hearing, and that means we’re doing”.
But Morrison and his team were actually traveling via a taxpayer-funded VIP jet, while the bus rolled from photo op to photo op — an empty billboard on wheels. Asked whether the trip was a cynical attempt to get a head start on the next election, he said “This is just me, doing what I do”.