The last week saw a good deal of the character, strengths and weaknesses of our Prime Minister on display, and it was not, generally, a cheering or encouraging sight. The brawl with France, and Australia's inept and inadequate contribution to climate change action were unattractive issues in their own right, and both will be hard to spin to silent Australians as a reflection of an Australian way of never compromising our sovereignty to foreigners, or as a necessary incident of making tough but essential decisions in the national security interest.
We were all demeaned, including by his affectation that the attack on his honesty by the French president was a criticism of Australia itself.
What sort of mugs does he take us to be?
The curious thing was the demonstration that Morrison's international political skills were seemingly on a par with the way in which he has managed an array of domestic crises since he took power. There was little strategy, long-term thinking or progress fitting neatly into a unified vision of where the nation should be going. He was not anticipating events, let alone making provision for accidents, failures or even the weather. Rather, as so often over the past three years, he seemed ever behind the ball, responding with fixes rather than solutions, marketing slogans rather than insights, and an increasingly belligerent or aggrieved view towards anyone who contradicts or criticises him.
Coupled with chronic secretiveness and refusal to explain or account, he now seems to live in a perpetual present, in which statements made previously can be blandly denied or redefined, and those who harp or dwell on his faults can be accused of being focused on the past rather than the glorious, but entirely undefined future, towards which he is leading us.
He has exhibited no talent for planning, for management or for selecting or motivating good managers, nor for leadership of the population at large.
Rueful retrospect, acknowledgment of mistakes, or any expression of sorrow or regret has seemed to become impossible. So self-assured is Morrison indeed, that he can convince himself, at least for the moment, that black is white, that his actions and motivations are pure, and that, in any event, harping on alleged matters of the past is "playing politics". He, of course, would never do that.
Like Charles de Gaulle, he has succumbed to the vanity that he is the personification of his nation. Yet he has always struggled with imagination, or with words that can inspire or lead.
Like Trump, he seems to believe himself to be very popular among international statesmen, even if the visuals reinforced his isolation and the reluctance of many of our friends to associate with us. His empathy gap is not merely a political weakness, but increasingly a national embarrassment.
One of the most delicious reasons for yearning for a wide-ranging and public federal integrity commission to deal with the obvious corruption of spirit within the Morrison government is to imagine Morrison being publicly cross-examined by a lawyer in somewhat the same manner as Gladys Berejiklian in NSW recently. Like Morrison, Berejiklian is adept at not answering the question asked but the question she would like to have been asked. Like Morrison, Berejiklian is adept at vague answers followed by false statements such as "I have answered" the question, or distractions such as "I do not agree with the premise of the question". Both ignore questions they do not want to answer. Both have been adroit at declaring that it is time to "move on".
Counsel in formal inquiries are not so lightly dismissed or dissed as mere journalists or members of the opposition in Question Time. Free-ranging attacks on the questioner, or on other parties are not allowed. Counsel demand answers - often yes or no answers - to questions. Wordy formulations, full of meaningless jargon, are not enough, and, when given are readily seen to be, as they usually are from the mouth of Morrison, distractions, attempts to avoid the answer, and a reflection of a person who seems to be able to make up, and then passionately, if just for the moment, believe anything at all.
Lawyers are able to pin a person to an answer, or to show that the contemporary interpretation of what was said is at great variance with the original meaning - sometimes, despite the denial, the exact opposite of what was initially said. On occasion, people find themselves confronted with tapes of what they once said. Bluster won't do it. And the answers given will not be mediated through spin doctors and rendered meaningless again, but can be compared with what has been said before.
In 20 years of involvement in politics and public administration, Morrison has been able to avoid such an inquisition. Thanks to a precedent set by Tony Abbott - when Abbott was junking the conventions in an effort to pin Kevin Rudd with the blame for industrial manslaughter - Morrison, still in, or even retired from politics, will not ever be immune from the risk of such questioning - whether as to his own conduct, or the dubious conduct of colleagues. Unless, of course, he is able to be re-elected forever.
Nor would Morrison be able to get away with the pretence this week that he was driven to heavy-duty retaliation on Emmanuel Macron because Macron had slurred the sacred nation of Australia, rather than, as Macron was at pains to make clear, the character and integrity of Morrison himself. Any person who heard what Macron said understood that he distinguished his affection for Australia and its people from his indignation at Morrison personally, for what he unequivocally called lies.
Morrison's pretence that he was responding to a sledge of the whole nation was among the least of the self-deceptions of the week, but one of the most telling. So was his decision, not for the first time, to throw out convention and sometimes to put national security material into the public domain if he senses he is under personal attack. The material leaked on his behalf this week, ostensibly to prove that it was Macron himself who was lying about having no warning of cancellation of the subs contract, in fact proved the opposite.
Much of what our Prime Minister did over the past fortnight he had done before in the domestic sphere. But it blended into a sense that he is not really in charge of events, that he is increasingly accident-prone, that his statements are entirely unreliable and that performance on announcements he has made, promises given or timetables presented will be very patchy.
He can blame only himself for the debacles with ordering vaccines, and in delivering them to the population; though now Australia has among the best vaccination rates in the world, it seems almost in spite of him, rather than because of his leadership or his planning. A host of awful impressions and surly disclaimers punctuate his period in office, and seriously undermine an impression he once worked assiduously to create - that he was just an ordinary guy, a bit of a dag, if anything, an everyman but quintessentially a traditional Australian. He has pushed governors-general out of their unifying role of representing the nation back to itself, but has consistently proven unable to play the role himself because of his continual political combativeness.
Victory at the next election will go to the one best able to show how a stronger, wealthier and kinder nation emerges.
Morrison, the marketing man with messages, has yet to show any sort of vision for the future, and looks at least somewhat handicapped in campaigning, as he largely did last time, on warnings about Labor's leadership or the risk that Labor will ruin the economy. He ought to have a message to sell about navigating Australia through recovery from the pandemic and the recession. But his mistakes of the past year, and resentments that he and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have cultivated, make it more likely the election will be settled not on achievements but aspirations, ideas and ideals for a better, bigger and renewed Australia. And that's just the area where he is weak.
But it is probably idle to consider that the past two weeks have greatly damaged Morrison's capacity to be re-elected. Like politicians around the world, and successive Australian politicians, Morrison chiefly plays foreign affairs and national security policy for a domestic audience and domestic political consumption. Most Australians are neither deeply concerned with the nation's relations with other countries, especially with its detail, and there is a national prejudice, to which politicians on both sides, but particularly the coalition, have pandered, about being told what we ought to do by outsiders or international bodies. Getting up the nose of a French president may even be a badge of honour in some quarters. Nonetheless many Australians are well informed about our trading relationships, and the fall in Australia's reputation - so much of it because of the personality of Morrison himself - will hardly bring the coalition votes.
MORE JACK WATERFORD:
We can fairly confidently expect that France and the French president Emmanuel Macron would like to inflict further political damage on Morrison. It may be exquisite and focused on some defining Morrison conceit or characteristic. But I would be very surprised if the revenge is focused at doing serious damage to Australia itself, given first, the way Macron distinguished his grudge with Morrison and allegation of deceit, from a general affection for Australia, and second, the moral advantage he already has over Morrison's clumsy but unsuccessful attempt to prove that no misleading conduct was involved.
No doubt the French still smart at the loss of their submarine contract, though it is not impossible that it could retrieve even that further down the line. One of the reasons the contract was becoming unwieldy was that the submarine we were buying was nuclear-powered, but that Australia, at the time of making the contract, wanted the standard French design to be powered by diesel and batteries. It was that variation which was making the project difficult and expensive. Once Australia decided, for lunatic reasons of its own, that it would now prefer a nuclear-powered submarine, the French were as well-equipped and able to produce a fleet of them as Britain or the US, from one of whom we hope to make a purchase. Given the very long lead-up times, and the price, it is not impossible that France could even do it more quickly and more cheaply, for what that is worth.
Of course Morrison did not embarrass Australia only with the French. Joe Biden has made it eminently clear that he considers that Australia was very clumsy in its dealings with France, and has moved to repair US-French relations without regard to Morrison's feelings. Long before that, Morrison's over-enthusiastic tilt towards Donald Trump has made the present US Administration less than completely enthusiastic about its most loyal and uncritical ally, in much the same manner that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had no affection for John Howard. While Boris Johnson was kind enough to describe Morrison's net-zero policies as "heroic", Morrison's presence, or speeches, were hardly applauded by members of the European Community, by other British observers, or most G20 leaders. They may have satisfied the rump of the National Party, but they disappointed millions of Australians who were hoping that Australia could take a lead, in its own interest as much as the world's. The impression, here and abroad is that Australia is increasingly a selfish and self-absorbed nation, without much sense of international citizenship, and with a particular meanness of spirit in matters such as refugees, human rights and climate action.
As Josh Frydenberg has warned, increasingly the international financial system will judge Australia on perceptions of whether it is doing its bit. Our bona fides and our reputation in our neighbourhood will likewise be hostage to perceptions of the calibre of the national leadership - Liberal, National or Labor. What a pity that Labor is so shy of creating clear choices, or of establishing some credentials for a rebirth of a liberal nation good to and at peace with its neighbours, more concerned with example than with pandering to the lowest common denominator of Australian society.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.