Scott Morrison is, famously, “transactional” in his approach to politics. He once waved away a request from then-senator Nick Xenophon to meet for coffee because he was “purely transactional”; the meeting had to be about something specific and include some kind of deal.
The word “transactional” comes freighted with meaning. Not merely does it suggest this is a man above the idea of building relationships with key players, who is uninterested in forming an ongoing capacity to work with someone over more than one piece of legislation, one amendment, one spending proposal, but a man uninterested in building trust.
Indeed, as is now clear, there is no trust when it comes to Morrison. Not even in his transactions: just ask French President Emmanuel Macron. Morrison will lie and break his word without a second’s hesitation. If he is “transactional”, then caveat emptor. Count your fingers after you shake on the deal.
But in politics “transactional” implies a broader — if not necessarily higher — purpose. What is the purpose of the bill you want through the Senate, the spending measure you want agreement for, the policy you’re pushing? What end does it serve? What are you transacting for?
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This is where Morrison is singular as a prime minister: there is no broader purpose for him. This is not merely to say he is obsessed with staying in power — that is true of any prime minister. Nor is it to say merely that he lacks vision. Morrison can have no vision because what he ultimately lacks is that prerequisite for vision: imagination.
Being prime minister of Australia entails a three-step process: having an idea of what kind of country you want Australia to be; understanding what will change the status quo to create that; knowing what steps will deliver those changes. Imagination is required for all three, but especially the first — a capacity to envisage a different country that becomes the broad purpose of a leader.
Every prime minister of recent decades has had that imagination, however skewed and bizarre that imagination may have been, or however little they had the chance to implement it.
Malcolm Turnbull, for example, saw an Australia comfortable in a fast-moving, high-tech world, innovating and competing in a global marketplace and international community — a nation like the man himself, always on the lookout for opportunity, fascinated by change.
Tony Abbott wanted a return to the 1950s, if not the 12th century, socially, economically and in foreign policy — a place where he was most comfortable. Julia Gillard had a kind of softened neoliberalism that rewarded hard work and aspiration, one geared for those who “set their alarms early”, along with a very traditional foreign policy. Kevin Rudd had a kind of managerialist vision of Australia, of incremental reform and better federalism, until the financial crisis unleashed his inner Keynesian.
John Howard — often accused of wanting to return Australia to the ’50s — in fact had a more complex vision of a kind of neoliberal democracy of shareholders, rather than of voters, where the role of government wasn’t to vanish, but to enable each Australian to maximise their true ambition to be a mum and dad investor/independent contractor in a McMansion, sending their children to subsidised childcare and subsidised private school and enjoying subsidised private health insurance and the proceeds of their privatised Telstra shares.
It was Paul Keating who had the most integrated and imaginative vision, a coherent whole that embraced foreign policy, the economy, reconciliation, the republic and much else. Bob Hawke’s vision of Australia, or more properly of Australians, was that of a lover. Malcolm Fraser, the last Liberal, did little to articulate vision but much to deliver a progressive, multicultural Australia of the kind we have long taken for granted. Gough Whitlam, of course, was all imagination and vision and not enough management.
The contrast with Morrison is stark.
Not merely is there a lack of vision, there’s no imagination that could create a vision. His “vision” speeches are recitations of banality: “If you have a go, you get a go,” and “We look after our mates.” In his most insightful speech about his personal ideology — delivered to a gathering of fellow evangelicals, and not distributed by his minders — Morrison revealed a profoundly confused, deeply self-contradictory set of beliefs which bounced from communitarianism to individualism to identity politics to social media, overlaid with an obsessive focus on the Bible and a passion for “building communities”.
He has plucked ideas from the Bible, Jonathan Sacks and Friedrich Hayek and jammed them together, however much they contradicted one another, as if he lacked the imagination to even attempt to reconcile them.
That’s why it was so telling that Morrison’s office thought it was some sort of clever PR move to hand to a Nine newspaper stenographer the story that Morrison had embraced net zero because he’d read Bill Gates’ book on climate action (encountered “while perusing Amazon”, we were breathlessly told). Morrison is a national leader, an experienced politician who has been a minister for eight years, with the resources of a wealthy developed country and large bureaucracy at his disposal, but he goes trawling for policy ideas through the turgid techno-utopianism of a billionaire.
Much like he had to go and ask his wife how he should respond to a staffer being sexually assaulted.
This perhaps also explains why virtually every policy issue Morrison as prime minister has taken on has been a failure: climate policy, energy policy, industrial relations reform, the vaccination rollout, the submarine program, quarantine during the pandemic, international relations, Indigenous recognition.
Successful development and implementation of policy requires imagination and capacity to foresee challenges and devise risk management strategies. Climate and energy policy, quarantine and vaccine rollout ended up defaulting to the premiers, who are now the most potent leaders in Australia. Others, like the subs program and Indigenous recognition, have been shunted off beyond the event horizon of the next election.
Morrison doesn’t even display the kind of animating fantasy world that his fellow noted liars, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, inhabit. To watch the Liar-in-Chief and the Prime Minister of Johnsonia in action is to watch freewheeling fabulists who will say anything and everything, usually to attack their opponents. The same kind of bullshitting was displayed by Abbott, who’d say anything to attack Labor, no matter how implausible.
But Morrison is no fabulist liberated from the truth: the bulk of his many lies are simple denials of his own statements and actions, with all the imagination of a schoolboy caught red-handed but denying the obvious. There’s not even the entertainment value of watching a prize bullshitter on the hoof.
Morrison’s lack of imagination isn’t necessarily an impediment politically — it’s entirely possible to see him winning election after election with the help of News Corp, Nine and Seven. But a country without imagination is one going nowhere. And the answers aren’t on Amazon.