I can see why something that was originally intended to be a profile of Scott Morrison evolved into a larger meditation on the politics of the pandemic – there is not enough of Morrison that can be pinned down on paper.
Seeing how a crisis of this scale affects politics – and individual politicians – has been fascinating, and Katharine Murphy’s essay is a vivid dissection of the people at the core of our country’s response. What it revealed, or rather didn’t reveal, about the man at the top made me feel uncomfortable and worried.
In a crisis, things are thrown into sharp relief. All that is unnecessary is (or at least should be) stripped away as we focus on what matters. As individuals living in Australia, we have evaluated what we can sacrifice for the good of the country. Social lives. Hobbies. Seeing family. Many businesses have been forced to let go of the notion that physical presence is a vital element of commitment to a job. Maybe working from home isn’t a last resort. Perhaps that meeting could actually be an email. And in politics, as Murphy’s essay explores, are we finally seeing petty issues and partisanship put aside for the greater good?
In some cases, sure. The unusual partnerships brought out by the earliest stages of the pandemic did, fleetingly, provide a glimpse of this. But the deeper problem is that, for many, the business of politics is simply to stay in politics. The picture painted, from the few brushstrokes our PM would allow, is of a transactional man – a description of his own choosing – who is motivated by his own career.
For me, in an ideal world politics would be a-partisan. But I realise this is fundamentally impossible. And so, in the real world, the separation of parties should be by ideology, with individuals willing to let go of their own needs for the bigger goals they are working towards.
This does not describe Scott Morrison. The essay asks what hill Morrison would die on, and, reading between the lines, the answer seems clear: his own.
The theme of who is useful to Morrison comes up again and again. Not useful to the country. Not even to the party. To the individual. “I wasn’t useful to him, so I wasn’t a person he cultivated,” Murphy writes.
Murphy’s assessment of how Morrison’s failures in the bushfires shaped his pandemic response was particularly interesting. Is he doing better now because he wants to do the right thing and be a stronger leader, or is it because he simply wants to be re-elected? The fact that this is a question at all is concerning. No matter how much someone says they are putting aside politics for the greater good, if we don’t know what their definition of the greater good is, what it is they are working for, that is a problem.
I don’t want an ideologue who can’t shift their views or actions for the greater good, but I think it is equally or even more dangerous to have someone so motivated by the trajectory of their own career. Can you truly act in the civic interest and make hard decisions if you have an eye on the polls at all times? No.
We’ve seen this in Morrison refusing to talk about climate change in the context of the Black Summer bushfires. We’ve seen it in the groups excluded from financial support during the pandemic. And we’ve seen it in cutting back JobKeeper when it is still needed, because a conservative government will always want to appeal to its conservative voters – in order to stay in power. Bigger, harder decisions will never be made, and necessary conversations will continue to be put off when politicians are driven by re-election.
The essay says Morrison is a populist. Watching him from Melbourne, I notice he is quick to swoop in and bask in reflected success, and he is equally fast to condemn when it might curry favour. He swiftly raked Australia Post over the coals for behaviour that, if engaged in by someone useful to him, might have seen him ringing the police commissioner for support. What is his underlying ideology or ethical drive beyond what is good for him as an individual?
Motivation matters. And with Morrison it feels that when push comes to shove, he will swing whichever way will best serve his political longevity or ultimate career goals. In a crisis this is terrifying.
Government can’t be apolitical but we do need to know what we are getting, particularly from someone in the top job. When we have a prime minister who is primarily motivated by their own political survival, that will inevitably compromise their approach, make them fickle in the worst of ways.
As well as offering a glimpse of what could be, Australia’s handling of the pandemic, despite the many successes, has actually revealed a deeper problem: with Morrison, there has never been any certainty – just the prioritising of image over action and long-term consequence.
Elizabeth Flux’s writing has been widely published, including in The Saturday Paper, Guardian Australia, Island and Meanjin.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 80, The High Road.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY