In years to come, the image of the public repudiation of Scott Morrison by Grace Tame may be the one that came to symbolise the beginning of his electoral end, the subsequent rejection of the Prime Minister at the election a few months hence. Increasingly that looks the likely outcome.
There are a good many decent Australians who take unworthy pleasure on any occasion when a Morrison photo opportunity goes badly for him, but many will derive extra added satisfaction from the Grace Tame occasion, given the way that it was a manifestation of his complete want of understanding of the feelings and needs of women who had been sexually abused.
It won't be on that account alone that Morrison will lose, if he does. Nor will it be for a want of trying to turn that image around. Yet many of his other problems have come into being in much the same way that he failed over the problem of men's violence. First, by denying that there was an issue at all, let alone one personified by his own dealings with women in his team. Then by open disrespect to women protesting the issue, including an aside that they would be shot for doing what they were doing in some nearby countries.
Then galvanised by evidence that he had blundered badly, an array of announcements and inquiries to demonstrate that he understood the problems, a couple of actions showing that he didn't, an apparently enthusiastic acceptance of recommendations about how they might be addressed, followed by a half-hearted adoption of only a few of the more innocuous recommendations. Not in front of the problem.
Acting late but ultimately indecisively, with a delivery or actual decision falling well short of the promises in the oft-repeated announcements, with neither the personal insight, nor, apparently, the shrewd advice of minders and professionals about addressing the questions in a systemic and lasting way. Instead, applying a few ineffective band-aids likely to detach at the next most inconvenient moment.
He needs something more than a meaningless slogan. Something positive, moreover, not merely a series of dire warnings about the risks of trusting Anthony Albanese, who may have his shortcomings but does not scare anyone much.
Scott Morrison went into the Christmas holidays knowing that he had a good many urgent political problems to solve. Not least the arrival of a much more infectious version of coronavirus and the need to adopt new tactics and strategies to hold it back as his premier strategy, of reviving the economy, was allowed to work. He failed on all counts, not least because he and his advisers have consistently failed to appreciate that economic recovery is a result of, but not a driver of, getting the pandemic in check. And he found himself some new political headaches, again the result of a failure of planning and anticipation by himself, ministers and officials, about the need for rapid antigen tests, and free or cheap distribution of them in the population, particularly among people who, vaccinated or not, were the most susceptible to infection.
Much more than that, he needed, or should have realised he needed, the opportunity provided by the holidays to devise a strategy for an election in the first half of this year. He keeps insisting that he doesn't need a vision for the future, other than the general happiness of all Australians, nor even an agenda going beyond the completely mundane. But with or without a story to tell, or some cobbled-together promises supposed to represent a program of action over the next three years, he needs a pitch that is something more than a meaningless slogan. Something positive, moreover, not merely a series of dire warnings about the risks of trusting Anthony Albanese, who may have his shortcomings but does not scare anyone much.
Perhaps Morrison, his team or his campaign advisers have actually nutted out a winning strategy and are waiting to spring it on voters at the appropriate moment, refusing to be goaded or pressured into deviating from their timetable by mere events. Strictly after all, it is only now that most Australians are returning to work from their Christmas holidays (if indeed people still act in this pattern during a raging resurgence of an epidemic). In normal circumstances, absent bushfires, floods or other natural disasters (or perhaps agitation about RATs, vaccination boosters and the protection of primary school children) voters are assumed to be distracted by family and holidays from the sordid business of politics and the cost of living. On Australia Day, perhaps inspired by the flag, organised jollity and popular relief that Gina Rinehart has been belatedly recognised as a great citizen, the adult Australian mind swings back into focus and it is game on.
By this theory, Albanese may have jumped the gun by speaking at the National Press Club on the day before Australia Day. I have been a critic of Albanese's strategy - still am - but I must admit that his presentation was far better than I expected; he was on message and on song. And not easily rattled by cross-examination, such as it was. Yet the occasion contained its warnings, not least that if he wins, as he probably will, it will not be because of much assistance from the mainstream media, or from most journalists in the press gallery. Even those who do not seem on some mission to find a new scepticism about Labor and a new infusion of hope in the Coalition seem committed to election reportage focused on the detail rather than the message, the streets rather than the suburb, and the deficiency, or perceived deficiency, rather than the efficacy. It might be defensible, if only the scrutiny were evenly applied to the other side.
Morrison's political year begins, in theory, with his National Press Club speech next week. Since it's the first of a number of set-pieces before June - a brief return of Parliament, probably a budget, an election-date announcement and a policy speech - it is important that he sets a tone, able to be reinforced in successive addresses and pronouncements. And, as with the Albanese speeches it's not primarily about a string of promises or announcements, but about a message, a reason for asking for continued support, a sign that the show is still on the road, not out of puff and ideas. Liberal voters in particular need a good deal of reassurance about their still being valued, about the continuing worth of campaigns to keep Labor out of power, even about why they are there.
Morrison needs more than flash marketing words or glib slogans - already discredited - about "can-do capitalism" from the most statist government in 75 years. He needs to inspire his followers out in the electorate as much as in Parliament. A good many who have already given the game away either because of the opinion polls or dismay at the continuing scandal, incompetence and mad management, need reassurance and reinforcement, but above all hope. Mere bullshit from a master bullshitter won't cut it, because crap has come to define the brand.
Morrison won the 2019 election virtually single-handedly, if with the assistance of about a billion dollars in public funds improperly directed to partisan interests. Most of his colleagues expected to lose. Morrison must be given some credit for seeing a way to victory, not least by relentless attacks on the character and personality of the opposition leader, and the gift of a Labor campaign that spoke frankly of tax increases. One cannot expect that Morrison would ever abandon a tactic that had worked for him before, but it is not likely to pay anything like the dividend this time. The time is different, not least because of the pandemic and its economic consequences. His opponent is different and harder to undermine. Morrison himself has acquired a history and repute, not least for slipperiness, spin, non-delivery and tendency to blame others. His secretiveness, refusal to accept responsibility, and resistance to the need for transparency and accountability has begun to grate.
There are new enemies, not so many obvious friends. Some campaigns, not least about honesty and probity in government, have seriously tarnished reputations for integrity and trustworthiness. Some challenges faced - such as sexual assault and harassment in Parliament itself, and wider problems of violence against women in the broader community have demonstrated him, and his colleagues, even his female colleagues, to be seriously out of touch with community expectations. Morrison's incapacity for empathy and his personal instincts have been a big part of the impressions now stored in Australian heads. Likewise his poor judgment in standing too long by people whose own behaviour was being criticised.
So solidly has Morrison become the incarnate symbol of inaction - on climate change for example - that any change of position, however adroit, has failed to shift impressions and perceptions of his being dragged kicking and screaming to any new place. John Howard was a politician as set in his fundamental views and beliefs, but like Morrison, was ultimately pragmatic on almost everything if it showed up as a significant political problem. But when Howard pivoted, he dropped all the baggage at once. As often as not, Morrison will not even admit that his current position is a new one.
All of this is accumulated weight in the government's saddlebags. It can't get clear air. It has struggled to get any sort of momentum from which it can move forward and change pace quickly. Old problems - not least its 2021 nightmare of poor judgment over pandemic strategies, lockdowns and border closures, quarantine, vaccination supplies and strategies, two new highly infectious variants of the virus, and testing, tracing and supplies of testing equipment - keep coming back to haunt the government and Morrison's own record of stewardship. No matter how he has tried to escape his personal responsibility for some of the failures, including by attempting to shift responsibility to the states, the public has seen through his bluster.
One does not need snapshots of the particular crisis of the hour, or day, or month over the past year. Each by itself at the wrong moment could have brought the government down. The crisis of the moment is representative, and damning enough. Though most of the events of right now are novel, most could have been anticipated with action taken much earlier. Countries whose initial management of the pandemic was much worse than ours saw the risks and acted, while Morrison, his colleagues and his bureaucratic advisers were inert or positively against action.
They devised strategies to cope with the problems of the moment, ignoring evidence that they were not working, primarily because they were not really strategies for the protection of health, but strategies for taking risks with health in the hope of earlier economic revival. Even now, Morrison and the NSW government are trying to twist the health realities to make them fit into their political and economic hopes, rather than the other way around. They are responsible for critical shortages of health equipment, particularly RATs, food shortages and supply chain disruption, and have stretched human resources, particularly in hospitals, to absolute limits.
Even now, ministers are reassuring each other that the big problems, and poor publicity, will end sometime soon, as peaks are reached and numbers decline, as belatedly-ordered supplies come on line, and as the virus disappears into the sunset. The same ministers were saying this to each other before the emergence of the Delta variant changed the game, and they were saying it during all of the fuss of delayed vaccine orders, bad vaccination strategies and many unnecessary infections and deaths before the Omicron variant emerged. Having told the public each time that no one could reasonably have anticipated either, our national government still lacks the experience, or the suspicion to think that new variants are certain, and that there is no reason to think that they will follow any supposed trend of increasing mildness.
It's hard to talk of momentum, public confidence and clear air when one is wrestling with an alien thing like a virus. How much more satisfying it ought to be in dealing with people and problems of human relationships, with issues in families and entrenched and durable beliefs about how people should treat each other. One might expect that an ordinary Christian bloke, guided by a partner with a human touch, would have just the right feel for changing and improving lives, and stopping people hurting each other. Alas what the image of a righteously sullen Grace Tame represents about the accumulated Morrison experience and record in improving human lives - from refugees in concentration camps to slowing family violence, respect for the disabled and measures to prevent sexual assault - must make him yearn for the inanimate.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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