Frank Bongiorno, Australian National University
The recent months have been kind to Peter Dutton and the Coalition. Scott Morrison’s announcement that he will leave parliament at the end of February is the latest instalment of the federal opposition’s good run.
When the Coalition lost the 2022 election, Morrison was, according to the Australian Election Study, the least popular major party leader at any election since the survey began in 1987. Since that time, it has been revealed that he secretly took five ministries for reasons he has never been able to explain with any plausibility. He was also a deeply unimpressive witness before the Robodebt royal commission, a scandal he played a large role in making.
The reasons for his unpopularity even before those post-election revelations were clear enough. He was seen to have failed in the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20. The image of Morrison holidaying in Hawaii while the country burned became the image of Morrison the politician, rivalled only by his carrying a lump of coal into parliament and the spectacle of his ukulele playing on national television.
Part of Morrison’s problem was that like so many political leaders, he seems to have come to believe in his own artifice. The “Scomo” image – the rugby league-loving daggy dad from the Shire – was pure performance. Morrison was really a rugby union man from affluent Bronte who had enjoyed a string of highly-paid jobs since his twenties.
His error was to believe Australians had voted him back into office because they bought this image. The result was that we had to endure more – curries, cubby-houses, flamboyant displays of barracking, and tedious cosplay in a bewildering variety of workplaces.
One suspects that most of us spotted the fakery a mile off. People voted for him – not overwhelmingly, but enough to get him over the line once – because they didn’t like Bill Shorten, and because they believed Labor was coming after their utes, weekends, jobs, negative gearing and franking credits.
When faced with something more benign three years later, they abandoned him in droves, turning to Labor, Independents, the Greens – anyone but Morrison and his similarly unpopular deputy, Barnaby Joyce.
Morrison’s defenders are already pointing to a “legacy”. We will hear much about AUKUS. But the Morrison legacy there was a poisonous relationship with France – whose president publicly accused Morrison of lying – and a big splashy announcement lacking basic detail made alongside a United States president who could not recall his name. AUKUS was designed to wedge the Labor Party. The Biden administration wanted him to take Anthony Albanese into his confidence. Morrison predictably declined to do that. There was political hay to be made.
With Morrison, politics invariably trumped policy. He does, however, deserve credit for the government’s handling of the pandemic in 2020. Australia was probably fortunate it had a Coalition government, because any Labor administration that had come up with JobKeeper and JobSeeker would likely have been subjected to relentless hostility by the media and Coalition opposition.
Of course, Morrison never dropped politics: favoured groups of Australians – men in high-vis and corporates – were treated well, while anyone regarded as in the camp of the enemy was less fortunate. His instincts were often bad, but tempered by an understanding of how bad they had proved during the bushfires, by the expert advice of officials, by the obstruction of premiers and chief ministers and, above all, by a desire not to be seen as responsible for a very high pile of dead bodies.
It was obvious the pathway through vaccination and out of danger was meant to lead to an early election and Morrison’s return – an outcome widely regarded by Australia’s political pundits as inevitable until the summer of 2020-21. His government’s muddling of the vaccination program, a new round of lockdowns in 2021, and the failure even to arrange enough test kits put paid to any prospect of an early resort to the polls and, in retrospect, can be seen to have sealed his fate.
Morrison’s Pentecostal religion gained a good deal of attention at the time he contested and won the 2019 election, but had less prominence thereafter. A recording of him addressing a conference of co-religionists that did the rounds served as a reminder that it was both odd and American. Morrison was itching to introduce US-style conservative religiosity into the everyday discourse of Australian politics but had sufficiently well-honed political instincts to understand he should not go there.
The poverty of his political language owed something to this prohibition. Take out the religious material, and Morrison had only slogans that tired those he had acclaimed as “quiet Australians”. After a while, the import of that phrase also became clear enough. Morrison’s ideal citizenry was one that left politics to professionals such as Morrison.
In the end, future historians will probably scratch their heads over why Morrison took the plunge from being a not-very-successful tourism executive to a not-very-successful prime minister. He was also for a time state director of the New South Wales Liberal Party, and his political career took its tone and colour from these earlier roles. He was always campaigning, always looking for the rhetorical trick, political stunt and clever phrase (Remember “negative globalism” and “can-do capitalism”?) that would gain him advantage. He launched his prime ministership in 2018 with a crackdown against criminals who were said to have placed pins in strawberries.
Sean Kelly, easily the most perceptive Morrison watcher, called his book on Morrison The Game and was astute in doing so: that was precisely how Morrison treated politics. It was just a game to be played and won.
He has been unable to hide his pride in besting Shorten in 2019, but seems otherwise uninterested in what he leaves behind him, including the wreckage of the Liberal Party, the public service and parliamentary government – which received its worst battering since November 1975 at the hands of Morrison’s secret dealing with the governor-general.
And for that, we have all paid a price. Politics might look like a game if on your way up you’ve coasted from one bubble to another, one executive job to another, one ministry to another, one political ally to another, one policy to another, one suburb to another, one football code to another. But it’s no game if you are being pursued by Centrelink for a debt you don’t actually owe. It’s no game if your home has just burned down in a bushfire. And it’s no game if you can no longer sell your barley, wine or lobster to China because the government thought it a good idea to go front-running on a grand international enquiry into COVID-19.
On the day of the 2022 election, Morrison tried another stunt – a public announcement that the government had intercepted a Sri Lankan asylum-seeker boat. The news was then texted to mobile phones for the benefit of undecided voters. It was the political equivalent of a minor Bond villain’s last, desperate throw of the dice.
It did the Coalition no good. But it was a reminder of what Morrison had never ceased to be: the marketing man who believed that, in the end, he had the punters’ measure.
It is by no means only the left of Australian politics or the population at large who came to dislike Scott Morrison, his own side of politics utterly loathed him. Witness this utterly scathing piece from the conservative leaning Sky News Australia.
Rocco Loiacono, Co-author of Deconstructing ScoMo: Critical Reflections on Australia’s 30th Prime Minister, wrote that he had not been a great fan of Morrison ever since he sneeringly dismissed the value of free speech, wrongly claiming that fighting for it “doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business, doesn’t give anyone one extra hour. It doesn’t make housing more affordable or energy more affordable.”
His prime ministership was like ‘Seinfeld’, a show about nothing (but without the laughs). These are just some indicia of Morrison not being a politician of any obvious principles or values, with an authoritarian bent.
“Lacking any depth, Morrison’s modus operandi was to be a little to the right of a very left Labor party which effectively delivered Australia two left-wing parties. The results of this have been disastrous for Australia, at so many levels.
To read the full piece go to Sky News Australia here.