It seems like an eternity ago, but it has only been three months since Scott Morrison became Prime Minister, during a week of madness from the Liberal Party that ended Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.
The moulding and development of a prime minister is a slow moveable feast and takes a long time to form, and Morrison doesn’t have much time on his side, with the next federal election due before May 2019 – only six months away. How much can we read into his performance as prime minister, and is three months long enough to make a reasonable assessment?
Of course, we never really know how a prime minister will perform until they achieve the position but there’s nothing in Morrison’s past – or his performance since he became leader – to suggest we have a leader that could achieve any level of greatness.
Before he entered parliament in 2007, he was relatively unknown, fulfilling positions in Liberal Party-aligned sectors, such as a research manager for the Property Council of Australia at the age of 22 (from 1989–95), a range of positions in the tourism industry (the Tourism Council of Australia, the Office of Tourism and Sport in New Zealand), before becoming the state director of the NSW branch of the Liberal Party in 2000.
He headed Tourism Australia in 2004, but was sacked by the then Minister for Tourism, Fran Bailey, after only 18 months in the position. The full reasons for Morrison’s termination have never been fully disclosed, but reports indicate a combination of factors, including a personality clash with Bailey, differences in management styles, Morrison’s role in branch stacking and preselections during his time as state director of the Liberal Party, and his resistance to the government’s plan to severely curtail the independence of Tourism Australia – which would place greater scrutiny of his role as managing director.
Insiders who worked in the marketing department at the time have mentioned to me that Morrison’s performance was poor, he spent most of his time on Liberal Party business matters, was rarely seen in the office and seemed to do very little work – and then, all of a sudden, he was gone, his office cleaned out, never to be seen at Tourism Australia again. However, Morrison did receive a severance payment of $300,000 – a nice little sweetener for departing without fuss or inconvenience to the Liberal government of the day. A reward for incompetence and negligence? In light of recent evidence, it’s more than likely.
An auditor–general’s report from that time – buried for 10 years somewhere in the Australian National Audit Office – found there were many serious issues with the governance at Tourism Australia, little documentation for contracts worth millions of dollars that were going out to companies with links to the Liberal Party, and a failure to disclose those contracts publicly.
Most people with a sense of normality might wish to go into hiding for a while, satisfied with the comfort of a $300,000 severance package which would go a long way to salving any bitterness about being sacked, and gearing up towards another stint in a high-powered corporate job. But Morrison is not like most people and is not someone that can ever win anything in a fair contest.
Bruce Baird, the long-term parliamentarian from NSW state and federal politics, had decided to retire from politics at the upcoming 2007 election, which meant a preselection contest would be held to determine who would represent the Liberal Party in the division of Cook. Cook is an ultra-safe conservative seat, and was held by a margin of 27 per cent by Baird. And with that level of margin, the candidate preselected by the Liberal Party was highly likely to become a member of parliament – and, more than likely, for a very long time.
In July 2007, Morrison contested the preselection contest against Michael Towke, a far more credentialed candidate. Towke at the time was 34 years old, had acquired degrees in engineering and sociology, a masters in business administration, volunteered for the St Vincent de Paul Society, a long-term member of the Liberal Party, and resident of the Shire region for over a decade. Morrison, on the other hand, had a degree in economic geography.
The result was the expected outcome between two candidates with such a wide degree of abilities: Morrison lost the vote by 74 votes, gathering only eight votes, while Towke gained 82. Dissatisfied with the result and believing Towke’s Lebanese background would seriously harm the party’s chance of holding onto the seat of Cook, just three years after the 2014 Cronulla race riots, Morrison swung into action.
He called on his connections within the hard right faction of the Liberal Party, and disseminated smears about Towke to News Limited – claiming Towke was serial liar, he was facing jail, and involved in branch stacking. The Daily Telegraph duly published the material, seriously damaging Towke’s character.
The result in the preselection contest? The vote was annulled, a second ballot was ordered by the state executive of the Liberal Party, subsequently won by Morrison. And what of the allegations made against Towke? Many years later, all of the published allegations were found to be untrue in court, and defamation was settled with a payment by News Limited to Towke. But this was far too late, Morrison had already been elected to parliament.
Other details of Morrison’s credentials are difficult to find, as are any of his intellectual interests, published materials, or creative pursuits. There is some evidence of his religious background – his family has a background in the Uniting Church, he considered studying theology in Canada in the late 1980s, and converted to Pentecostalism in the late 1990s, and is now a member of the Horizon Church.
Who are the ideological figures from history that guide his thinking? Is there any deeper thinking behind his ‘give a go to those who have a go’; ‘don’t raise people by bringing other people down’; or the latest installment: ‘fair dinkum’? Based on his performance as prime minister over the past three months, and his history in the public arena, Morrison is the consummate anti-intellectual and is guided solely by personal pursuit and power.
I’ve commented in the past that the Australian electorate is far more advanced than its elected officials, and Australian politics is enveloped in a quagmire that has little hope of advancing the nation’s interest or the public good. The garbage dished up by all sides of politics, either through three-word slogans at media conferences, virtually all of parliament question time, or policies developed to benefit a political party and their benefactors, rather than the country, shows how inept political leaders can be. It’s a depressing thought that we’re being lead by people in federal parliament with little interest in good government.
But politics is occupied by the people who participate, and Scott Morrison is there because he’s there. That’s about the only reason for why he’s prime minister.
So what is there for a prime minister to do, if there’s little intellectual depth in their history, no curiosity for the world aside from some Christian-driven pursuit of power, and the only purpose for occupying the seat of government is to keep the Labor Party out of office?
Engage in base politics; that’s the only weapon in Morrison’s arsenal and, in the absence of any other political and intellectual skills, he’ll use this to the maximum levels.
Morrison is like a slightly more sophisticated version of the racist politicians we witnessed in the 1950s. Just like the Liberal Party poster-boy, Robert Menzies, he’s happy to use any form of base racism to further his electoral prospects – most recently, race-baiting of Sudanese communities in Melbourne, and tarring the entire Islamic community by claiming they were unwilling to do anything at all to combat terrorism, especially after the recent incident in Bourke Street, where Hassan Khalif Shire Ali attacked three people with a knife, and killing one.
The victim of the incident, Sisto Malaspina, co-owner of Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, had never met Morrison, or served coffee to him, but Morrison decided to fly direct to Melbourne to “pay respect to Sisto”. Standing with Victoria Liberal leader, Matthew Guy, he proceeded to score political points about terrorism, national security, and gang violence in Melbourne. To be sure, these may be valid points to make in other contexts, but metres away from Pellegrini’s, surrounded by the grieving family of the victim? I’m not so sure about that.
But it does show that Morrison, like his Liberal predecessors, former Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, will go to any lengths, and crawl to any depths to score political points, seek advantage, and gain votes. It’s the worst skill that any politician can have.
Does Morrison have the political skill to carry this strategy out? Howard was a master at using racism and sheer hypocrisy to divide his opponents. Abbott tried hard at the technique, but was so inept as a leader, the Liberal Party terminated his tenure as Prime Minister after just two years. Morrison knows his time is short and is relatively unknown to the electorate, but the longer he remains in office, the more opportunities there will be to dig up his acts from the past.
His time as Minister for Immigration was masked by the secrecy of “on water matters”, which means his performance can never be accurately assessed. Certainly, immigration is a difficult portfolio, but as far as the political management of the issue, Morrison was ruthlessly effective. But savaging those seeking asylum is easy pickings for a conservative government, and Morrison wholeheartedly denigrated and humiliated asylum seekers and refugees wherever possible, dragging up the issue of “boats” and “drownings at sea” as often as possible.
However, his term as Treasurer, since September 2015, is a different matter. Treasury and economics is an area where there are scores of measures and statistics available, and Morrison’s performance as Treasurer was very poor.
Annual growth is now ranked 25th of the 35 OECD countries – currently at 1.75 per cent; national government debt has risen from $257 billion in 2013 to a current estimate of $598 billion; annual wage growth of 1.92 per cent is the lowest on record; average household disposable income has decreased in the five years before July 2018 from $31,650 to $28,950; national productivity levels are lower than they were in 2014; national building and construction approvals are down to the levels the existed during the global financial crisis.
Not much of an economic record, and Morrison has done well to hide his mistakes and incompetence.
But, more recently, competence in politics has been less important than populism and the vaudeville act and, in many countries around the world, electors have voted in outsider clowns, buffoons and circus acts: President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines; Prime Minister Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil; and biggest one of all, President Donald Trump in the United States. It seems Morrison wants to cash in on this sentiment in his pathway to winning the 2019 federal election, presenting himself as a ‘fair dinkum’ outsider and a ‘man of the people’, even though he’s been a Liberal insider for decades.
Will this presentation work for him? The constant “Trump-lite” two-thumps up and baseball cap he’s adopted is all about positivity and can mask the deep divisions and unhappiness within the Liberal Party for a short period of time – with the usual cover provided by a compliant mainstream media – but a cynical Australian electorate has a habit of detecting a fraud from afar.
Historically, Morrison’s incompetence has been rewarded through a range of backroom tactics and activities that have always been kept away from the public gaze but, as Prime Minister, there is nowhere to hide.
Morrison is not a prime minister with gravitas or someone equipped to say more than the casual platitude or enough to get him by until the next difficult question or difficult issue arises. Moving the Australian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whichever perspective one may have on it, is a serious international issue, and an entire peace process between two groups of people depends on this type of consideration.
When asked by a journalist what Morrison meant when he said a decision about moving the Australian Embassy would be made “in a little while”, Morrison responded: “well, it’s a little and it’s a while”, before hastily exiting the media throng and turning away. Just like Donald Trump, he does this, because he can.
And in a reflection of Trump’s “grabbed her pussy” moment during the 2016 US election, responding to Pamela Anderson’s call for the prime minister to lend support for the return of Julian Assange to Australia, Morrison joked: “I’ve had plenty of mates who have asked me if they can be my special envoy to sort the issue out with Pamela Anderson”. And ever so close to White Ribbon Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls.
That’s the type of prime minister we currently have: an older version of Forrest Gump in a kindergarten, with a juvenile smutty mind to go with it – a odd spectacle largely supported by the media and journalists who have lost the plot and decided it’s better to think of their monthly pay cheque, rather than seriously question the ignoramus currently occupying The Lodge.
Since August 2018, there have been two major electoral tests faced by the Liberal Party: the Wentworth by-election in October, and the Victoria state election in November. In Wentworth, the seat was lost to independent candidate, with a 19.1 per swing against Liberals. Although state elections are generally based around local issues, the Liberal campaign had the flavour of its federal counterparts: campaigning and law and order issues; focusing on social issues such as the Safe Schools program in public schools; magnifying issues of division within the community without offering solutions; negative campaigning without offering positive outcomes.
The result? A thorough repudiation of this negative agenda through a 6 per cent swing against the LNP, and a loss of 14 seats. Although Morrison only appeared once in Melbourne during the election campaign, the residue of the leadership instability and deep divisions in the federal Liberal Party is permeating through to all levels of politics.
Morrison is an accidental prime minister, and came through as the compromise candidate between Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton. Smutty and juvenile, a simpleton who believes the best solution to all political problems is a marketing trick, or seducing segments of the electorate with terror games and law and order fear campaigns. And just like most compromises, we’ve been given the worst of all worlds and ended up with someone who shouldn’t really be there.