Three years ago this month, Scott Morrison was chosen by his party to succeed a prime minister who had disappointed his constituencies by neither being the leader he wanted to be nor the leader the party wanted him to be. Morrison was chosen ahead of another of similar general philosophy, but somewhat more abrasive personality.
In less than a year, the party's selection of Morrison was seen to be justified by the surprise re-election of the coalition, against the predictions of the pundits, the opinion polls, and, indeed, the expectation of most of his colleagues. It was a remarkable victory - described by Morrison himself as a miracle - even if we know now that it was assisted by the conversion of more than $1 billion of public money into Liberal Party campaign money - used by it to featherbed marginal seats, including the seat of the Treasurer, and most likely future leader of the party, Josh Frydenberg. The public was unaware of the corrupt conduct in question, although the supposed guardian of the consolidated revenue fund, Minister for Finance, Simon Birmingham, has suggested that voters sanctioned the misappropriations by their act of returning the coalition to power. It was a comment that invited questions about his fitness for office, in just the same way that a bogus legal rationalisation of ministerial abuses of funds supposed to go by merit by the then attorney-general Christian Porter, invited questions about his.
Did his 2018 Liberal colleagues and the electorate of 2019 overestimate the abilities and fitness for office of Morrison himself? Was it a mistake they should remedy before May or June next year, when the coalition must again face the voters? While many colleagues and voters might give him some credit for how he faced the coronavirus pandemic last year, many remain flabbergasted by his seeming incapacity to take charge of the vaccination program, by the sense of a government seriously adrift, and his apparent inability to connect with an increasingly critical electorate.
Most ominously it is becoming clear that the Prime Minister, otherwise adept in the dark arts of politics, lacks both the flexibility and capacity to learn from mistakes that all of his most successful predecessors have shown. Capacity to learn, for one thing, involves admitting to mistakes and attempting to avoid them in future. For some reason, confession of personal error of judgment or failure to anticipate, understand and respond appropriately to events is almost impossible to extract from Morrison. Instead one sees prevarication, distraction, blame of others - anyone but himself - bluster, threats and positively misleading statements and refusal to answer questions. Loyally supported, of course, by a corrupted process of government by which his office and his department have made a farce of Freedom of Information legislation, and official secrecy is used to hide political error, particularly if the Prime Minister, or his office, have fingerprints on what has occurred.
Morrison is such a poor organiser of the effort to deflect, distract and deny that the truth is as often as not obvious from his face. But there is an obstinacy that persists long after his blockages are found to be counterproductive. It is not an obstinacy based on any principle, other than one of denying his accountability to the public. It is demonstrated by the high farce of his persistent refusal to say sorry for multiple vaccine disasters this week, followed by a hollow "sorry" the next day when it was clear that everyone was laughing at him. Making him look doubly weak, of course, when he had wanted to sound firm in his expressed determination to look ahead, not backward, in attempts to get matters back on track.
But sudden surrenders on such matters are not new. He ultimately answered questions - albeit from very friendly interrogators - after refusing for ages to confirm that the Trump White House had rejected his request that his best friend from the religious cult Hillsong, Brian Houston, be invited to a dinner with the president. Not only did he make the issue seem more important than it probably was, but he again focused attention - as likely to be as unpleasant for him as for Houston - on the failure of the NSW Police, and the Commonwealth to act over apparent failures by Houston to report paedophilic conduct by Houston's father.
And it was just the same about his bluster and parsing associated with questions about whether members of his private staff had briefed journalists with negative material about the boyfriend of alleged rape victim Brittany Higgins, even as Morrison himself was publicly proclaiming his complete sympathy with her. The Prime Minister is acquiring a reputation as a liar and a deceiver. Worse, his agenda is usually suspect.
PM's focus on short term fixes and politicisation of every conflict
Can prime ministerial temporising, short-term fixes and spin see him out to a new election? His best hope is continuing good economic news. But the real crisis is about his character and his credibility - as well as his apparent abdication of a leadership agenda. Increasingly people perceive that Morrison is full of bullshit, even (or especially) when he is being sincere. But there's just as much of a problem with his failures to make real or lasting policy, instead of promises and quick fixes to instant political problems. Less and less does he seem in charge.
Most of his failings seem rusted on. He doesn't change much. Or learn much from experience, however much he pretends. His declining cred involves much more than an eccentricity about coming clean, or being resistant to telling the truth.
Nineteen months ago, Morrison was widely criticised first for taking a family holiday as bushfires were raging and secondly for an almost complete want of empathy with bushfire victims. He confessed some error, but seemed determined to show he "got it" by pledges of large sums for reconstruction, calling in the military for emergency aid, and efforts to be seen to be very concerned, and very much in touch. At least until the pandemic became a problem a month or two later. Since then it has become clear that actual government help to survivors, other than that organised through a partisan political system of helping friends and ignoring enemies, has been slow, and disorganised. And far from involving any inspiration or vision about a reconstruction program that improved the social, physical and economic environment of scores of little communities, it was boringly addressed, at best, to a grumpy and minimalist restoration of what had been lost. No Christopher Wren was involved.
Morrison must be blamed for overpromising, schedules and declarations about the progress of vaccination, and prevarication and delays about supplies.
Morrison made umpteen marketing efforts, not least in standing alongside compliant military officers, to show he felt for the victims and their losses. It was always a short-term public perception problem, and soon he was back inside his strange incapacity to see the world through eyes other than his own. The most one can expect is that the next natural disaster, of flood, or famine or fire, will come with warning so he won't be caught with a beer in his hand on the other side of the world.
Morrison announced many inquiries and not a few initiatives when he and the government came under sustained public attack over issues of violence against women, including women who worked in parliament. At first, there was inertia, including a refusal (by himself and women ministers) to go outside to speak to a large gathering of women in front of Parliament House, alongside some tough talk to press gallery sycophants about how neither he nor the government were going to be bullied by street action. Soon after, he realised that he had miscalculated - again - on an issue he had long regarded as of low priority in the political order of things. He was, apparently, helped to this insight by his wife. Later, he pleaded and wheedled about his failure to get it, and masqueraded his new-found empathy and determination to do lots of things - tough things, by golly - about the problem, not least in his own backyard. Money was appropriated to astonishingly inept marketing campaigns. More women - none very well regarded by the sisterhood - were appointed to ministerial positions from which they could give the Prime Minister insights beyond those available from his wife. Reports were ticked off, but nothing much happened. Indeed, police have yet to launch a prosecution of the rape case, though they have compassionately assisted ministers in political strife about their inaction. Now we are to have a Parliament House education program by which MPs are to be given, only if they feel like it, a one-hour chat with an expert on matters such as sexual harassment and assault. Morrison seems to feel that the political crisis - for him - has passed. It hasn't. Worse, at least from his point of view, its return will not be countered by lists of the innumerable inquiries or recommendations adopted, but from fresh evidence, such as by the restoration of Barnaby Joyce, that the issue is not regarded as important by the Morrison government.
Morrison, in short, has learnt very little from the affair, just as he learnt little from his public relations disaster with the bushfires. Very little fundamental, that is, other than about managing a political crisis, rather than dealing with the source of it. His short-term responses involve a little bending to the wind - a lot of promises, sometimes (if all too late) agreement that the problem was bigger than he thought. When the publicly funded public relations blast was over, and either a new crisis arrived or the momentum of the issue declined, back to inaction, inertia and conscious downgrading of any policy action. Symbolised, perhaps, by what was said to be the initial Cabinet discussion after the report of the aged care royal commission - with ministers arguing about what minimum amount of money could be thrown at the "problem" so as to convey the public relations impression that the government was taking it seriously.
Neither Morrison, nor his Health Minister, Greg Hunt, are to blame for the individual disasters with particular vaccines. But they, and their bureaucratic advisers, are to be faulted for putting all their eggs in one basket, failing to anticipate serious problems with supply, the initial privatisation of the logistics and delivery of vaccines, and continuing failures (even as they now have surpluses of AstraZeneca) to complete coverage of the aged, people in aged care institutions, the disabled, workers in aged care homes and disability residences, Indigenous people in settlements, and others in vulnerable occupations, including, as we now know, drivers transporting people to quarantine centres.
Morrison must be blamed for overpromising, schedules and declarations about the progress of vaccination, and prevarication and delays about supplies.
He is also the author of most of his own problems with the premiers, not least from the way that he opposed lockdowns - at least until NSW was forced into one - and suffered his ministers into attacking Labor premiers who closed their borders. All the more embarrassing now that the state he held up as the gold standard is locked into a still-expanding crisis, one made worse by the premier's failure to go early, or go toughly, in trying to contain an outbreak. Ministers from the Treasurer down might have expected the sort of rebound their relentless politicisation of fresh outbreaks from clear evidence of high popularity of the Labor premiers, even in the face of non-stop attack by the Murdoch press. In West Australia, the Liberal Party was virtually wiped out at the last election.
It would be wrong to suggest that Morrison's shortcomings have only been on display with issues and crises not anticipated when he won the leadership. No one was expecting a pandemic, and the various challenges that presented. Nor bushfires, or a sudden focus on the sexual and physical assault on women. These may have dominated the headlines, and created and compounded the impression that Morrison is a poor pilot, now scarcely in control of events.
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But in fact all of the same problems have been evident in areas where the government ought to be achieving things, but isn't. Over climate change, where the message changes daily according to the audience but where Morrison and the government are now manifestly out of touch with world opinion, and local public opinion. It has reached the point where Murdoch and Nine polemicists, particularly in The Australian and The Australian Financial Review, are now arguing that Australia must give way to the emotional and overstated arguments of the wider world. Not because the wider world is right, according to them, but because Australia is coming to be seen as a leading recalcitrant and might soon suffer economic damage from our trading partners.
Inaction on climate change - and threats from the Nationals that they will oppose targets unless their constituencies (the coal lobby, first, then farmers) are handsomely bribed is a reflection not only on the government, but on the leadership and moral cowardice of Morrison himself. Just as bad, however, has been his inaction over water, particularly in the Murray Darling basin, including his handing back control of it to the ways of Barnaby Joyce. With that and more general environmental policy, the Morrison characteristic is to avoid or deny any sense of public stewardship - let alone any idea of being a trustee for future generations. Instead it's all about short-term actions designed to appease lobbies, and neutralise opponents.
Morrison, and the government as a whole, have also been undermining their positions with a determined assault on the institutions of government, on the proprieties and decencies of public spending, and over Morrison's refusal to acknowledge fault in very serious abuses of processes required by law. Down the track, indeed, this is a government which may be seen by history more for its corruption or process and abuse of power than for its local management of an unprecedented crisis. It will not be an attractive picture.
Some of Morrison's fixes might paper over the cracks until the next election. But the more that colleagues, his political opponents, the lobbyists and the public come to believe that Morrison has lost moral authority and certainty, and a feel for the right thing, the harder they will press him. More and more will count him a dud. Even if they ruefully blame themselves in part for poor judgement in selecting their leader, they will probably, in the Morrison manner, not look back but seek to get rid of the problem.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. email@example.com