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Bernard Keane

Scott Morrison, an inflection point between old and new forms of rotten politics

After more than 18 months of struggle, Scott Morrison has finally found someone who’ll employ him beyond politics, and so is leaving the sphere he has inhabited, tainted and, briefly, dominated since 2007. The hollow man has left the building, leaving barely even a vacancy to signal his departure.

If he’d never become prime minister, and instead remained Malcolm Turnbull’s, or even Peter Dutton’s, treasurer, he’d be leaving politics with a far better reputation.

While apparently compelled to leak to his News Corp mates — a tendency that drove his colleague Matthias Cormann nuts — Morrison was a good treasurer. With Cormann on point as finance minister (Cormann, Morrison’s superior in every personal and political way, would have made a much better PM), Morrison presided over falling spending and rising tax levels, significantly reducing the deficit the Turnbull government inherited from Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott. Unemployment fell from over 6.2% when Abbott was booted out to just 5% when Turnbull was dumped.

And most importantly, workforce participation rose half a per cent — by then it was more than a decade after we’d been told participation would start plummeting as a result of an ageing population — fuelled by a more than one percentage point rise in female participation. For a man so clearly bereft of even the slightest understanding or empathy for working women, Morrison as treasurer saw a remarkable rise in female economic engagement.

Needless to say, he didn’t stay treasurer, but ascended to the prime ministership — and proved to be the single worst occupant of that office in Australian history.

After his surprise win in 2019, Morrison, the miracle man, wholly dominated federal politics. But that dominance lasted less than a year. It began crumbling during the Black Summer bushfires, and then vanished with the pandemic that became the defining feature of his prime ministership. The cause: his innate quite profound personal and political flaws in the spotlight after Labor decided to stop making itself and its policies the issue. Now that real leadership and competence were required.

Crikey was among the first to point out Morrison’s apparently obsessive need to lie, in 2021. We’d intended to do so in early 2020, but the pandemic arrived and we thought it was hardly in the public interest to call into doubt the veracity of the man leading the nation at a time of major global crisis (though the intervening period yielded a treasure trove of Morrison whoppers).

We were also the first to explore in detail Morrison’s commonalities with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. All three came from backgrounds unrelated to policy content or public governance — Trump and Johnson from TV, Morrison from marketing. All three proved incompetent. All three routinely lied, even about things they didn’t need to lie about. All three presided over corrupt governments riddled with scandals.

The differences were fascinating, however. Trump has readily encouraged right-wing Christians to believe he is divinely appointed to lead the US, “heaven sent”, when he is so solipsistic the question of whether he believes in anything other than himself is moot. Johnson appears to have no personal morality or faith of any kind. But Morrison genuinely believed himself to have been personally gifted the prime ministership by God, elevating him above everyone else in public life — and certainly above the normal standards of behaviour required for public life.

His personal faith and theology is a weird and incoherent mix of beliefs cherrypicked from a variety of sources, but there is no doubt of his personal central role in the scheme of things.

He was also in many ways the culmination of long-term trends within the federal Liberal Party rather than a genuinely new figure — not merely its infiltration and shift to the right by extremists, climate denialists and social reactionaries, but its complete transformation into a money-for-policy racket in which political donations and provision of post-politics employment were the primary determinants of policy.

Morrison perfected this by effectively blocking the public service from any policy role (and appointing Liberal Party hacks to key public service positions), handing billions of dollars to major consulting firms to provide whatever policy advice was deemed necessary, and effectively running the government from his own office, helped by his unprecedented secret appointment of himself to multiple key ministries.

What he couldn’t control was the national response to the pandemic, given critical levers were in the hands of the states while he was stuck with control only of national borders. His early laissez-faire “I’ll go to the footy” approach to the pandemic — of a piece with the criminal denialism of Johnson and Trump — was thus overridden by state leaders such as Gladys Berejiklian, who famously regarded Morrison as a psychopath, Daniel Andrews, Annastacia Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan, all of whom often left Morrison looking like an addled bystander as they helped Australia avoid the fates of the UK and the US. Those areas within Morrison’s control — vaccine sourcing, the COVIDSafe app, residential aged care — were disaster areas.

There was another way in which Morrison was a transitional figure too. While always happy to pursue the culture wars cooked up for him by News Corp and his C|T advisers, many of which ended up backfiring on him, Morrison as prime minister — courtesy of the hard work of his Indigenous Australians minister Ken Wyatt — presided over a significant shift in Indigenous affairs policy.

Having correctly concluded that Closing the Gap simply wasn’t working, Morrison backed Wyatt to commence a fundamental shift in how the Commonwealth developed and implemented Indigenous policy by elevating partnership with Indigenous communities to centrality in policy — including by devoting real resources to capacity-building and empowering Indigenous communities to participate fully in the policy process.

The Coalition has since moved radically backwards on Indigenous affairs — not merely in opposing a constitutional Voice to Parliament, which Morrison never supported, but in adopting a neo-assimilationist policy in which the unique experience of Indigenous Australians is erased and the whole idea of specific Indigenous policy is dismissed.

Under Dutton and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the Coalition’s policy is now to shut down Indigenous policy full stop, with First Nations peoples deemed honorary white people and told to get over it and on with it.

The full-blown white nationalism and grievance exploitation of Trump, and the (spectacularly failed) Euro-xenophobia of Johnson, never quite had an analog under prime minister Morrison. But that’s changed under Dutton. Morrison was only the harbinger of a worse politics to come.

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