QUARTERLY ESSAY 79 The End of Certainty



David Marr

Pollsters and journalists weren’t the only ones caught unawares last May. So were publishers. Nothing on Morrison hit the market before or after his miracle victory. No biographies charting his rise and, it must be said, no Quarterly Essay exploring his character. We didn’t bother. It wasn’t just that Morrison seemed destined to lose. There was something else, something we mistakenly thought would underwrite his loss: he wasn’t interesting.

We knew enough about Morrison the man not to want to know more – the sackings, the happy clapper faith, the ugly scramble through the ranks to snatch preselection, his ambiguous role in the slaughter of Turnbull. But there wasn’t much curiosity to know more. So despite the return of the Coalition government there was nothing in the shops from Allen & Unwin or Scribe or Black Inc. The verdict of the publishing trade was: adios.

His win was interesting. We’ve been picking over the victory ever since to see what it tells us about this country and its politics. But few would venture to find reasons for the Coalition’s success in the character of Scott Morrison or his avatar ScoMo. This was a victory owed to technique not character. His win was fascinating but Morrison has remained stubbornly dull until now.

To Katharine Murphy are due the thanks of a grateful nation for producing a fascinating study of such an unrewarding subject. I’ve not read anything about Morrison so attentive, respectful and revealing. That she is left in the end quoting Gertrude Stein – “There is no there there” – is not an admission of defeat but a conclusion loaded with meaning.

She doesn’t slam it down on the table. The Murphy technique is to take us with her as she thinks things through. We judge as we follow. She builds trust. She has a way – it’s her tone – of reminding us that beyond the Canberra wrangling is a plain question that always matters: is all this decent?

Her portrait of Morrison is of a not-indecent machine man learning on the job to be prime minister. That takes time. It’s assumed that prime ministers know what they’re doing from day one. The truth is, the only place to learn that job is on the job. Kevin Rudd once told me it takes a term. He didn’t get it. Nor did Gillard or Abbott or Turnbull. This one will at least have time.

He can learn. I remember the horrible press conferences he held as Minister for Immigration to beat up on the invasion of Australia by criminal hordes of asylum seekers. Beside him as a most uncomfortable piece of set decoration was General Angus Campbell. Neither man answered a single question that mattered.

What remains with me most vividly from that time was Morrison’s smile as he refused to play ball. A smile is a valuable thing in politics; a good, easy smile is a vote-winner. But as he wouldn’t say how many boats had been caught or how many refugees had drowned on the way, Morrison’s smile was a little smile of victory: I’m not telling and you can’t make me. It said: fuck off.

He can’t do that in the pandemic and Murphy’s account of how he has come to understand the need to be more inclusive, more informative is a fascinating case study of a man growing in the job. He is likely to be with us for some time, the first prime minister since John Howard to serve a few terms.

So we need to understand this man more, perhaps, than we have any of his recent predecessors. We will come back and back to Murphy’s superb account of a politician with no back story, an advertising guy who doesn’t believe in persuasion, a scrapper who can vanish at a moment’s notice, and a deep blue conservative with no ideology.

There and not there.

After reporting a few prime ministers over the years, I’d add that Morrison is the best of them at not answering questions. That great professional John Howard was, of course, a superb non-answerer. But even he didn’t bring to the job the panache that Morrison displays when in top form.

The problem we face living with this oddly durable leader is that we have already lost so much of our capacity to compel answers from our politicians. The news cycle rolls on, leaving lies and rubble in its wake. In a highly partisan political world, too few of us are willing to call out dishonesty, incompetence and sheer indecency wherever it lies. It’s why, more than ever, we need Katharine Murphy and Quarterly Essays.


David Marr is the author of Patrick White: A Life, Panic, The High Price of Heaven and Dark Victory (with Marian Wilkinson). He has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Saturday Paper, Guardian Australia and The Monthly, and been editor of the National Times, a reporter for Four Corners and presenter of ABC TV’s Media Watch. He is the author of six bestselling Quarterly Essays.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 79, The End of Certainty. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 80, The High Road.


Lech Blaine
Peter Dutton's Strongman Politics
Alan Kohler
Australia's Housing Mess and How to Fix It
Micheline Lee
Disability, Humanity and the NDIS
Megan Davis
On Recognition and Renewal
Saul Griffith
Electrification and Community Renewal
Katharine Murphy
Albanese and the New Politics