By Andrew Elder
Our Prime Minister knows the big challenges facing the country in our time are beyond him.
The vital early period of his term is over: he is not asking what you can do for your country, nor proclaiming excitement and disruption, nor bringing together unelected stakeholders for summits. The first hundred days is the same as the next hundred days, and the hundred days after that: culture war stuff, picking on transgender kids, visiting drought-stricken country while bagging environmentalists, proclaiming his faith – headline-grabbing but insubstantial. He will demonstrate once and for all the electoral futility of focusing on culture war while big and significant issues go begging.
When you ask people what they remember about the Whitlam government, they usually rattle off something from the duumvirate of December 1972: recognising the People’s Republic of China, say, or ending prosecution of draft resisters, or sanctions against apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. Whitlam and his deputy, Lance Barnard, achieved a lot without putting legislation to parliament. The House of Representatives had been elected on 2 December but had not been convened while these administrative arrangements were put in place. This then set the context for Labor’s caucus to convene and elect ministers, who would then put legislation for more substantial reforms through parliament.
Morrison is in the opposite position. The failure of tax cuts, the strange idea that a Liberal government would punish energy companies for making profits, and the outcome of the Wentworth by-election demonstrate that the legislative agenda of this government is over. A government needs to be able to negotiate with the formal opposition, but the Abbott-Dutton tendency are paranoid about catching Labor germs. The minor parties offer small achievements that go against the government’s agenda (e.g. banning live animal exports or ending mandatory detention), a time-suck for a government running out of time. The agenda of his government, insofar as it has one, is administrative and petty: toying with asylum-seekers, a ‘pub test’ for academic research, outsourcing Centrelink.
The party man
Morrison did not attempt to be the big man on campus at UNSW, like Turnbull or Abbott had at Sydney University. Instead, he sought out Bruce Baird as a mentor: Baird was then the NSW Transport and Tourism Minister, and on his staff at the time were Barry O’Farrell, Mitch Fifield, and Ross Cameron. Morrison was found a policy role at the Property Council, where he would have learned how to lobby and how to do just enough research to make your proposal look plausible.
He later became NSW State Director of the Liberal Party. At a time when the moderates and the right were starting to carve up the party between them, he shut down a rich ecosystem of members beholden to neither faction, and thus regarded as troublemakers by both. Both factions worked with him but neither fully trusted him.
Morrison then went onto tourism jobs in New Zealand and Australia. When Bruce Baird went to Canberra as Member for Cook, he believed Howard would promote him to ministerial rank. Instead, Howard appointed as ministers other backbenchers he had been deliberately ignoring, but who became leading lights in the successive Coalition government: Pyne, Brandis, Dutton. Had Baird joined their ranks, Australian political history might have been slightly different. Certainly, Morrison might have enjoyed more support in Canberra than he did when Fran Bailey sacked him.
Morrison is entirely a creature of the Liberal Party but has no capacity to shape it. John Howard had been a party activist since he was 17, but when he became leader in 1995 he was able to reshape the entire party in his image. None of those who followed him had either that depth of understanding, nor the clout to make the party pivot around him. Nelson didn’t. Abbott lacks Turnbull’s wealth and breadth but is shaped more profoundly by sixth-century Catholicism than by the Liberal Party. Morrison, like Rudd, is only there until the factions unite and cast him off.
Morrison has lived the narrow political life Turnbull studiously avoided, which may explain some of the disdain the former prime minister shows toward the incumbent. If Simon Crean or Alexander Downer had become PM, they might have been like Morrison is now: transactional, cliche-ridden to the point of being a cliche himself.
If ever there was a clear example that Lebanese males in their vast numbers not only hate our country and our heritage, this was it. They simply rape, pillage and plunder a nation that’s taken them in.
– Alan Jones, 2GB, 28 April 2005
Michel Taouk wanted to exercise political power. His politics were to the right of Australian politics’ main right-of-centre party, but several active members of that party assured him they could help him.
The NSW Liberal right at the time was led by David Clarke, who was appalled at swarthy types and demanded they Anglicise or “de-wog” to meet his approval: Concetta Fierravanti-Wells smothered herself in pancake makeup and insisted on being called Mrs Connie Wells. Michel Taouk became Michael Towke, and stuffed Liberal branches in the Sutherland Shire with goons who couldn’t sign their own membership forms or pay party dues.
Morrison shored up the outgoing member for the area, his old mentor Bruce Baird (much he same as he had with Turnbull in August), then set about undoing Towke’s work on local branches. When Towke beat Morrison, Morrison worked to have the result reversed with far-right stackers weeded out. Reversing a branch-stack is highly complicated work and requires a high degree of political sophistication, cleverness and toughness. It is unlikely that the Liberal Party today could hold off a right-wing insurgency like that. It is a proven fact that the Nationals couldn’t.
Morrison deserves credit for outmaneuvering Towke. Firstly, the end of outmaneuvering a right-winger almost always justifies the means. Second, political success involves beating
Had Towke’s victory been allowed to stand he would now be a minister in the Dutton government, or he would have gone the way of former Queensland MP Michael Johnson. People who use Towke as a stick to beat Morrison do so on the following assumptions:
- Nobody could be a nastier, further-right politician than Scott Morrison, and
- This article can and should be taken at face value.
Firstly, Morrison is a vicious right-wing thug or he’s an ineffective duffer: he can’t be both. Second, the journalist who wrote that article, Paul Sheehan, is what happens when you give traditional media more resources than they enjoy today. He wrote a number of apocalyptic if-blood-should-stain-the-wattle books predicting and tacitly endorsing right-wing violence in Australian politics. All I can say to those people taken in by the Sheehan article is, have a swig of Magic Water and be careful about believing articles that you wish were true.
Morrison started his career as a lobbyist. Being a lobbyist relies very little on media exposure to be effective. Lobbyists walk straight past press gallery journalists day after day on their way to meet with politicians to make significant decisions that affect us all: if press gallery actually contained journalists, they would intercept the lobbyists and ask them questions, refusing to be fobbed of by non-answers in pursuit of the public’s right to know. In reality, press gallery just sit there waiting to be approached.
Everyone who has ever become Prime Minister has courted the media to some extent. Deakin, Scullin, Curtin, Abbott, and Turnbull had been journalists and learned the tricks from inside that trade. Morrison has actively courted the media less than any of them, except for those that only ever sought to act as caretakers (Forde, and Country Party PMs Fadden, Page, and McEwen). He has worked his way up and through the Liberal Party, with no media exposure beyond The St George and Sutherland Shire Leader or the odd, quickly passed story in national media on his tourism shenanigans.
For all those comparing Morrison’s evasive interview answers to Trump, look at his performances as Shadow Immigration Minister. Morrison developed a line and plugged it, and plugged it and plugged it. In opposition he could (and did) dodge questions about his own position, or that of the Coalition. In the same way that journalists love capturing an unscripted remark and make the departure from scripted lines the story, so too those who are interviewed often relish pumping their lines out and avoiding unscripted questions. He simply talked over Leigh Sales until she learned not to push him for information. By renting a house he smashed the whole concept of, and conceits behind, Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet. Morrison has made an art form of dodging answers. He did this before Trump, dodging answers has got him where he is today, and he isn’t changing.
The only time that mask slipped was when he admitted to David Speers that putting children into offshore detention caused him to weep and pray. This had the capacity to fracture the whole self-image he had built up, as both a tough guy and fair at the same time (after all, mandatory offshore detention is bipartisan, and the press gallery thinks the ship of state is bipartisan-ship). Advocates of offshore detention thought he showed weakness of resolve. Supporters of ending mandatory detention hoped to use his humanity to confront the idea of ending the practice. No journalist pressed him on this: he put up the facade by resolving to cut immigration, playing along with Matthew Guy’s doomed law-and-order strategy, and even if he were pressed he would dodge the issue.
Right Ho, Fink
Before there was South Park, there was Yaron Finkelstein. As a student at UNSW he saw people throw themselves passionately into various pursuits, and he thought they were risible. I only saw him care to the point of stone-faced seriousness on two occasions: when performing volunteer labour for Keith Windschuttle, who had schooled him in the arts of copywriting, and on the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister whose death effectively ended the two-state solution and gave rise to Binyamin Netanyahu.
Imagine my surprise to see Finkelstein photographed in a shadowy way and described accordingly by Michael Sainsbury:
“An avid practitioner of the edict that political operatives should be rarely seen and never heard, Finkelstein has flown under the radar in politics for some time. This, however, has not impeded him in becoming one of the top campaign operatives in the country,” according to a bio on the website of lobbying firm Advoc8.
It is a false dichotomy that one cannot pursue a career in politics without the media quoting your every word and putting your name to it; Morrison knows that and so does Finkelstein. The only people who don’t know are the press gallery and others who don’t understand politics.
Yaron Finkelstein has spent his entire life in Wentworth, and if you don’t understand the politics of your own backyard then how good are you really? It is nonsense that the Liberals are shrugging off the loss of Wentworth, because when a party fails in relatively safe seat then it fails all round. Whether it’s the byelections in Bass in 1975, Flinders in 1982, or Canberra in 1995, this is a byelection that clangs like impending doom.
Dave Sharma was an excellent candidate, almost certain to be a future cabinet minister, but he did not have a high profile. A high profile is not only useful in terms of name recognition by voters, it necessarily makes the candidate more likely to get national news coverage, which feeds back into the campaign.
Here we see the sheer poverty of a life spent in politics and media: nobody will vote for you if they don’t know who you are. Sharma was kept away from public engagement because the Liberals feared unscripted encounters, and the more they double down on this the more they will shun votes. A dedication to the base is an exercise in seeing who exactly will keep voting Liberal in the face of this highly scripted crap.
It is snide to blame Finkelstein for the policy brainfart of moving the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Finkelstein could argue either side of that debate equally convincingly, as he might any position really. There is no sign of any policy nerds making up for Morrison’s absence of policy, and if they did Finkelstein would snuff it out before Morrison got any ideas. This is a screensaver government. All sorts of stuff is going on behind the facade, but so long as there’s a daily press conference the press gallery will never dig for them.
John Howard employed staff who compensated for abilities he didn’t have. The triumvirate of Arthur Sinodinos, Tony Nutt and Graham Morris were different to each other and to Howard, but together they complemented Howard and made a formidable team. By employing Finkelstein, Morrison has entrenched his worst aspects (flippancy, disdain for policy detail) and failed to compensate for his manifold shortcomings.
Very foreign policy
Scott Morrison does not give any sort of fuck about foreign policy, and you can’t make him. His political career began in earnest trashing various international protocols on refugees. Denunciations from foreign media and multinational organisations made not a whit of difference or were flung into the culture-war mill.
Treasurers get an appreciation of the wider world – we saw this in Keating and Swan, but not Morrison. Turnbull had planned to go to the South Pacific Leaders’ Forum at the end of August, and when Morrison took over he simply didn’t go. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe gave Morrison a lesson in tact at the commemorations in Darwin, which Morrison has almost certainly missed (watch Morrison at the next wreath-laying speech-giving ceremony to honour The Fallen, and see if he doesn’t behave like an oaf trying to accept Best & Fairest at footy club trophy night). At the APEC summit Morrison sat there without headphones: leaders of mighty nations tuned into translators to hear from other leaders, but not our current Prime Minister. They must know he won’t be at the next one, he does too and doesn’t give a damn, so how many opportunities go begging for the nation as a result is hard to quantify – but it is probably more than the bugger-all assessed by the Prime Minister. At the G20 he is a tourist, not building in any way on recent low-profile work by Julie Bishop and DFAT in improving relations with Latin America.
Say what you will about Turnbull, but he could play a Prime Minister on television. That stuff matters less than Julie Bishop thinks it did, but more than Morrison and Finkelstein (“Merkel? How many points in Newspoll is she good for?”) can imagine. All Morrison has done is lower the bar for Shorten to scale on his way to press gallery endorsement as Prime Ministerial.
Jakarta, Jerusalem and junk analysis
Toward the end of World War Two Australian troops were shunted off to clear Japanese forces out of the Dutch East Indies while US forces powered toward Japan. Australians regarded themselves as sidelined. In 1945 striking dockworkers in Melbourne inhibited the restoration of Dutch colonial rule, helping the Indonesian nation come into being and in turn compelling the Chifley government to recognise the new nation of Indonesia. In the 1960s Australian policymakers came to recognise Indonesia was a growing power economically and militarily; despite fifty years of appalling corruption that commitment to dialogue and ever closer relationships continued, with military and currency agreements already in place, and had begun to bear fruit as a limited but promising free trade agreement.
All Morrison has to do to make that agreement happen is to junk a symbolic commitment to moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He can’t though, because the Liberal right need a win. The Liberal right were denied Dutton as leader, and are facing a rollback of their beloved mandatory detention position. They failed utterly, and publicly, on marriage equality. The Liberal right hobbled Turnbull on climate change; Morrison is so happy to nobble himself on this policy that the right can’t assert their influence by making him adopt a position with which he doesn’t disagree.
Moving the embassy to Jerusalem is the ankle bracelet that the Liberal right have clapped on Morrison. They expect him to scupper a deal over fifty years in the making to deliver a victory that the Liberal right can claim as their own. Pentacostal churches hold the Liberal Party together in WA and in parts of Queensland. In Victoria, Marcus Bastiaan mobilised fundamentalist Christian sects into joining the Liberal Party there, and even without him the party there is reaping the rewards for appealing to a base that is already within the party membership but scarcely evident beyond it.
I doubt that Morrison is particularly torn by the pentacostalist belief in bringing on the Rapture by fomenting divisions between the Israeli Jewish state and their Muslim neighbours. Moving an embassy to Jerusalem, recognising Israel as one state and not two with Palestine, is deliberately provocative and successive Australian governments have left the issue well alone. If you can accept that Tony Abbott is a committed Catholic, and yet after several years as Health Minister and PM abortion is practiced lawfully in public hospitals, then you can accept that the is relevant but not pressing for Morrison.
Even so, he lacks the wit and the clout to simply draw a line under this issue. Both the power dynamics within the Liberal Party (the right must be seen to have a win over the new Prime Minister) and Morrison’s own professed faith (pentacostalist churches in the US strongly support Trump’s relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem) explain why this seemingly unimportant issue cannot simply be shut down by the Prime Minister.
The reason why this experienced political journalist cannot fathom Morrison’s position is because of press gallery niceties around political coverage: that Morrison’s faith is a private matter (clearly it isn’t), that everything is just grist to the mill of winning momentary advantage (er, not true either), and so the Liberal right must logically be in pursuit of votes not otherwise available to the Liberal Party (not true either, but telling an obvious truth means you miss out on juicy juicy drops).
In other words, the niceties of the press gallery are preventing the story from being communicated to the public.
As always, the press gallery move as a pack. Gone is the Annabelle Crabb notion where every lumbering manoeuvre and dull quip is fascinating, and everyone in Canberra is lovely once you get to know them (so please don’t vote out my friends!). Now the pervasive mood is adolescent truculence, where everything and everyone is, like, soooo lame. The press gallery are trying to cultivate the impression that they’re above this, that if there were some serious policy happening they would absolutely prefer to cover that than, uh, whatever it was Josh Frydenberg said about the thing.
The press gallery were a docile bunch when Keating fed them policy on a daily basis, and they are worse now. They have not become high-minded policy wonks and are not judging what politicians say against what people who know about policy say. The idea that they chafe against this government’s backbiting and dithering and yearn for the broad expanses of, say, energy policy is obviously nonsense. When Shorten makes policy announcements they are roundly ignored in the gallery, so that when they are repeated at election time they can be covered in a thick layer of hype, and when rolled out as government policy the gallery will treat them with incredulity and rely on the new opposition to frame them.
There will be more on this later (soon, soon), but we are heading into a transitional moment where Labor occupies the centre of politics, doing the worthy work of government with limited room/imagination to innovate much, while various bits of jetsam orbit them to no or limited effect. The model here is Queensland, where Her Majesty’s Official Opposition is indistinguishable from chancers and freaks like Hanson or Katter. The political system can adapt to deal with this.
The press gallery can’t. It is built around balance and he-said-she-said, where every disagreement is argy-bargy and all water is muddied. There will be lots of colour-and-movement, which will be enough for the press gallery; but as ever they will offer little enlightenment about how we are governed and what the options are. Combined with the inherent weakness of media organisation management, and their insistence on elevating the non-stories of the press gallery in place of news, this means the press gallery is doomed in its current form. They will tell you this means democracy is doomed too, because democracy is a thing they own; this is crap too. We need information and we need to go around the press gallery to get it. If the political system can adapt so too can the population at large, and the press gallery can mark time until relieved.
This article was originally published on Press Gallery Reform and has been republished with permission.