Crikey’s week-long series on the lying ways of our prime minister tells of the dangers these pose to the political culture. As ethicist Simon Longstaff suggests: “Without truth, no democracy can stand.”

But the lies — the outright lies — are really only the half of it. Other aspects of Scott Morrison’s style and methods — the bluster, the bullying, the evasion, the feigned ignorance — all serve a similar undemocratic purpose.

Such qualities are regularly on display in the PM’s press conferences or media interviews. This includes the recent Morrison/Leigh Sales face-off on 7.30 earlier this month, an event that attracted some interest after the PM had assiduously avoided fronting the program for so long.

It’s worth spending some time picking over the entrails of this interview, because it provides insights into the rhetorical tactics resorted to by the PM when under genuine pressure. Such an analysis also sheds light on a special talent Morrison has acquired over the years — to effortlessly flip probing and threatening lines of questioning into supreme and shameless marketing moments for himself and his government.

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Woman interrupted

The interview began with an immediate tussle for control of the floor. Sales’ opening gambit was to ask about several issues of the moment — deficiencies in the government’s vaccination rollout, as well as plans for opening up borders. The PM would have none of this, and launched in with a set piece on the wonders of the budget and the government’s all-round exceptional handling of the pandemic. Efforts to steer the interview back to the original question saw no letting up in the prime ministerial monologue.

SALES: But as I point out…

PRIME MINISTER: … [all this] is the incentives for taxation, the incentives for skills development, and putting the investment through businesses that creates those jobs into the future …

The use of the honorific did little to stem the flow:

SALES: But as I point out, prime minister…

PRIME MINISTER: … The federal government is stepping up to ensure that we can secure this recovery, as we go ahead.

Finally, Sales was allowed her question:

SALES: As I point out, prime minister, all of that is predicated on vaccination and borders. Let’s unpack…

The prime minister is known for his aggressive verbal style, and also as a ready-interrupter. His notorious cutting across ministerial colleague Anne Ruston — when she was asked about sexism in the government — managed to attract worldwide interest, with The New York Times rating it as likely “‘manterruption’ of the year”. An ironic moment later in the 7.30 interview was when the serial interrupter took offence at being interrupted:

PRIME MINISTER: … Sorry [Leigh], you’re interrupting me. I’ll let you go.

Playing dumb — the last to know

The accusation of the prime minster being a “control freak” has been made by many. It’s a curious thing that he, the relentless micromanager, is determined at key moments to appear so much the hapless bystander in events, and so strangely out of the loop.

This was evident enough in the sports rorts affair. There were a number of similar moments in the 7.30 interview.

When Sales asked about a likely submission date of the Gaetjans inquiry — who knew what, when in the PM’s own office in the Brittany Higgins affair — what came back was a blank look, along with an expression only of hope that he might find out something about this.

SALES: When would you expect [the report] to come back to you?

PRIME MINISTER: … He hasn’t given me a date at this point but I would hope he can provide one at his earliest opportunity.

When pushed for details about the inquiry, including whether the delayed process has started anew, just one modicum of detail was forced out. The rest however, is mystery.

SALES: But you must know, it’s recommenced. So I’m just asking

PRIME MINISTER: I know it’s commenced, but I have no knowledge of its conduct…

When no answer is an answer

The bon mots employed by the PM to shut down pesky lines of inquiry are now legendary: “On-water matters”, “that’s a bubble question”; “that’s just gossip”.

The 7.30 interview didn’t produce new pearlers on this front. However, the same underlying techniques were evident. Thus, when quizzed about why the alleged breach of security in the Brittany Higgins incident resulted initially in only a sanction for the individual involved, something like “in security matters” was invoked to deny an answer:

PRIME MINISTER: Leigh, I’m not going to go into details of something that relates to those issues.

In another stonewalling moment, the basis for not responding — or at least, responding in some minimal way only — was that the relevant issue had been addressed on a previous occasion. Thus, a question about why the PM and other ministers appeared to know so little about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins drew the following retort:

PRIME MINISTER: I’ve already made those points publicly…

The shameless non sequitur

Avoiding the question — or choosing to answer a question that was never posed in the first place — is an age-old technique used by many a public figure. The prime minister is a past master at this game.

In any coherent exchange between speakers, the assertion that MP Andrew Laming “is not contesting the next election for the LNP” would be a plausible answer to a question like: “What is the future for Andrew Laming?”

Here, though, is the context of that statement in the 7.30 interview.

SALES: Why should Andrew Laming be allowed to continue chairing a parliamentary committee given his track record against women?

PRIME MINISTER: Andrew’s not contesting the next election for the LNP.

As Sales tried to press on with her line of inquiry, a whole new imaginary question was concocted in the mind of the PM.

SALES: He’s chairing a committee though.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I have never made comments on that matter.

The big flip

Amid all this evasion and bluster, the interview worked towards its climax. The final Sales question was a doozy. She launched in with her own set piece, which is worth quoting in full:

SALES: You’ve been the prime minister now for nearly three years and so Australians have had a chance to observe how you’ve responded to various things. When it comes to taking responsibility, they’ve seen vaccine stumbles — not your fault, “it’s a supply issue”. Quarantine — that’s “mostly a problem for the states”. Bushfires — “I don’t hold a hose”. Brittany Higgins — “I was in the dark”. COVID deaths in aged care — “mostly the fault of state governments for not controlling virus spread”. Christian Porter — “don’t need to drill into the particulars”. Minister’s breaching standards — “I reject that anybody ever has”. Doesn’t all that taken together add up to a tendency to blame-shift and duck responsibility wherever possible?

The crowd loved it. This was looking like serious pressure. How would the ducker and weaver deal with this damning — yet quite credible — assessment? Effortlessly, it turned out. The Sales thrust was parried away without a care.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s your narrative, Leigh, but that’s not one that I share … I’ll tell you what the narrative is, Leigh…

This, sadly, is a genius of sorts. The ABC view of the world is dismissed with a wave (“your narrative”), trumped by some definitive version of things (the narrative). And so an opening was created for the counter. What followed was a rapid-fire recitation of triumphs and achievements: pandemic suppressed, jobs created, economy in recovery, aged care, mental health, Australians safe, envy of the world, etc etc etc. And that was the end of it. Morrison triumphant. And with a final smirk: “I’ll get on with my job, Leigh, and I’ll let you get on with yours.”

Katharine Murphy, in a recent piece, commented on this special talent — she called it the PM’s uncanny ability to spin straw into gold. The fine art of embossing excrement would be an alternative metaphor. About this talent, Murphy wonders which is the more irritating: Morrison’s “unapologetic chutzpah” as she terms it, or “the fact he gets away with things far more often than he should”?

The outcome of the forthcoming election just may well hinge on this latter notion — whether an increasingly supine media (Sales’s commendable efforts aside) has the inclination, fortitude or even the ability to stop him so easily getting away with it.

Tim Moore is a lecturer in linguistics and literacy at Swinburne University of Technology.

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Peter Fray
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