Scott Morrison Josh Frydenberg
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

There’s a remarkable fact about Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington’s new book on Scott Morrison, which was released today: in the first 40 to 50 pages, a woman’s name is barely mentioned.

This has nothing to do with the authors of How Good is Scott Morrison? and everything to do with Morrison’s own world and who matters in it.

Wife Jenny gets a brief mention for the support and “humanising influence” she brings. And National Party Senator Bridget McKenzie gets a line as sports rorts fall-girl. Other than that it’s raining men.

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Van Onselen and Errington namecheck Morrison’s “magnificent seven” inner circle of trusted advisers: federal Liberal MPs Ben Morton, Alex Hawke and Stuart Robert, staffers John Kunkel and Yaron Finkelstein, head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Phil Gaetjens and, outside politics, the highly networked Liberal businessman Scott Briggs.

Open the lens further and you get to media adviser Andrew Carswell and speechwriter and “fellow devout Christian” Paul Ritchie. Josh Frydenberg and Christian Porter provide the parliamentary heft for Team Morrison. And it’s all framed in the various comings and goings of Peter Dutton, Malcolm Turnbull, John Howard and Joe Hockey.

The real problem for Morrison — the one that has been flashing red for the last several weeks — has been hiding in plain sight all along: that he sits atop a government that is close to a no-go zone for women.

And the real shame for the authors is that their publishing deadlines have meant they missed the one explosive issue that’s revealed Morrison’s shortcomings more than any other: his inability to comprehend, let alone deal with, allegations of sexual assault striking the core of the government and revelations of the party’s rampant systemic sexism.

How Good is Scott Morrison? dresses itself as a rhetorical question, but it’s a real one. And the answer is simply different today to what it was before the events of February and March. These events have shown the limits of Morrison’s abilities to deal with issues that are not at all extraordinary for a man with broader life experience.

Adjacent to that is the ever-intriguing question of Morrison’s faith. As we reported today, as a 21-year-old student Morrison devoted his energies to writing a 154-page thesis on an obscure, evangelical religious group with socially conservative values. At the age of 21 he also married his one true love, Jenny Warren, after the two met as teenagers at a Christian camp. You might gain a lot but you also miss out on a lot when that’s all you do on campus. Not a lot of intellectual awakening — at least of the secular kind — going on there.

Has this come home to roost? You would think so given how genuinely flummoxed Morrison has appeared by some of the gendered concepts he’s been confronted with of late.

If anything the PvO/Errington book downplays the influence of religion on Morrison’s politics. Granted it has been hard to be categorical about that influence — despite the exotic quality of Morrison’s Pentecostal religion with its speaking in tongues, the belief in the rapture, the miracles, et al. Again, timing is everything. The authors might have taken the role of religion in how Morrison responds more seriously, rather than go along with his well-worn line that the Bible is not a policy document.

It is possible that it’s too early to ask “how good is Scott Morrison?”. He is, after all, only just past the half-way point of his first full term as PM. With the rate of turnover of Australian prime ministers, it must have been tempting to get in quickly and also to probe the election-winning phenomenon that Morrison proved to be in 2019.

The authors nail Morrison for his readily apparent flaws, primarily that he is a “buck-passer” when it comes to accountability and a champion deflector when the tough questions are asked.

The case against Morrison includes aged care failings and a rapid distancing from the Ruby Princess saga. The book is particularly strong on Morrison’s too-political handling of robodebt — the very exemplar of cruel government policy made at the expense of the most vulnerable.

It would be illuminating to explore how Morrison’s form of Christianity sits with the fundamental unfairness of robodebt. Could it really be that the prosperity Christianity of Morrison’s razzamataz religion means that the poor somehow deserve to be punished as part of God’s plan, as some critiques have it? Yikes, if so.

For those outside the beltway, it is illuminating to learn the depth of Morrison’s relationship with Queensland MP Stuart Robert. Like Morrison, Robert was elected in 2007. The two are both Pentecostal Christians and previously shared digs in Canberra. Robert might have been punted from Turnbull’s cabinet due to one too many financial irregularities but he has become the biggest winner of Morrison’s recent reshuffle, scoring a role on the powerful Expenditure Review Committee on top of his job as employment minister. There it is. Mates over merit again. If you’re a bloke.

Morrison is in some ways quite a phenomenon and getting behind that could be intriguing. He’s the one percenter who passes himself off as dead ordinary. Morrison opposes same-sex marriage, unlike the vast majority. He opposes voluntary euthanasia. His religion has a tiny following in Australia. His kids go to a Baptist-run school. Heavens, Morrison has a family friend who follows QAnon (not explored in the orthodox political tome of PvO and Errington).

The book captures the PM’s shape-shifting ability: the one-time rugby union fan turned league tragic, the shift from Sydney’s eastern suburbs to tradie heaven in the Sutherland Shire; the move from moderate to uncompromising conservative.

Van Onselen and Errington conclude that Morrison is the ultimate pragmatist, not letting ideology get in the way of policy. In what amounts to the first take (at time of writing) on Morrison as PM, the authors considered he was in the box seat to win the next election “comfortably” against an unconvincing Anthony Albanese.

That certainty must be at least a little wobbly now given the serious delays that have hit the COVID-19 vaccination rollout. That too came along after the deadline for How Good is Scott Morrison?.

A week might be a long time in politics. But it’s an eternity for a book publisher.

How Good is Scott Morrison? by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen is published by Hachette Australia.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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