When Scott Morrison and I sit down to talk, it’s not yet clear whether the coronavirus is going to jump its containment lines, triggering a significant second wave. Infections have spiked in Victoria, and the trend looks grim, but Australia has flattened the curve before. We are supposed to be good at this.
These are some of the last hours in which Morrison hoped the second wave in Victoria could be avoided. When I realise this later, the insight feels transgressive, as if I’ve stumbled into somebody’s private space, even though this is nonsense – there is nothing private about a man’s hope when the country he leads is suspended between two possibilities: successful suppression and a rising body count. In any case, hope will expire shortly after we speak. Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, will lock down public housing towers in inner Melbourne, close the border with New South Wales, then he’ll lock down the city, and Morrison will stand in his courtyard in Canberra and declare that today we are all Melburnians.
Just before my arrival on a Friday afternoon, Morrison has been on the phone to Andrews. The prime minister and the premier are close. Actually, that’s not quite right, at least not in the way the term is commonly understood in human relationships. Perhaps it’s truer to say they have each other’s measure. Each sees a person he can work with. When it suits their interests, or when frustrations boil over, the opposite is also true: Morrison and Andrews go to war, usually covertly, sometimes overtly, a couple of big cats pacing and prowling the open-range zoo of politics. But Morrison says his relationship with Andrews is “the key fusion” in the federation – the glue that holds Australia’s pandemic response together, even though the two leaders have not always agreed. Andrews has been the evangelist for lockdowns and Morrison has cajoled the premiers towards reopening. So it’s ironic, given this dynamic, that the first state to battle a second wave was Victoria, because the state government failed in the enforcement of hotel quarantine.
Andrews spent months warning Victorians they were a heartbeat away from catastrophe, a precautionary drumbeat that made him a whipping boy in circles inclined to believe with a force bordering on fervour that commerce must always prevail, that livelihoods trump lives. The virus chose not to make a liar out of the premier just as Australians had begun to hope that the worst would be something we would read about, rather than experience; just as we’d come to invest in the idea of our own exceptionalism. 2020 is a cruel year, a terrible bastard, and the reversal in Victoria as winter began to bite felt wanton enough to exemplify the cruelty.
The age of social distancing requires interviews to be conducted at safe reach. Morrison and I sit at opposite ends of the communal table in his parliament house office. The last time I was in the prime ministerial office, Malcolm Turnbull was at the head of the table serving some kind of health-enhancing tea. This was reasonably early in Turnbull’s tenure, before the deputations arrived and the walls closed in. Given the limited shelf-life of Australian prime ministers over the past decade, I’ve come to think of this office as a private Gethsemane, a place where the trickle of vanquished men, and Julia Gillard, endured their five stages of grief, then summoned the resolve to make the final journey to the stone courtyard just outside to have their crucifixions narrated live by David Speers in his Sky News days.
The current custodian of the space would understand my whimsy, but I’m sure sees his lair quite differently. Shortly after the election, one of Morrison’s senior advisers told me on the sidelines of an event that the posse was settling in for a long stay. “We’ll be here a while,” he reported, in the placid tone of a man who thinks he’s cracked a code. That’s what they all think, of course, and perhaps this crew will evade the anguished indignity of defenestration, or the terrible indifference of the people. But during my professional lifetime, longevity has been a quirk of a bygone era. Only John Howard has managed it.
Last time around, I was listening to Turnbull narrate his prime ministership while surreptitiously eyeing off a handsome John Olsen on the wall. This time, out of the corner of my right eye, I think I see a small grinning garden gnome on a shelf. Morrison looks tired, but I’ve seen him grey-washed over the past few months, in his press briefing room late at night, willing himself not to sway on his feet.
I’m amazed this conversation is happening at all. The interview, long promised but elusive, has been put back by fifteen minutes, then thirty, then an hour, polite little bleeps in my WhatsApp, because events are crowding in. Victoria is in trouble, and the government in Canberra is meeting around the clock to determine what to do with the income support rolled out during the crisis. The Indigenous affairs minister, Ken Wyatt, is also wearing out the carpet in the corridor as he perambulates slowly, but with purpose, between the ministerial wing and the lift to the committee rooms, something otherworldly in his gait. There’s a meeting of peak Indigenous groups underway upstairs.
Morrison is fully extended. There’s not a lot of bandwidth for sharing, or delving, and I suspect very limited tolerance for it. All prime ministers are interviewed on high rotation. It’s part of the job. But Morrison’s outings are almost exclusively in the “yes mate” genre. Talkback. Paul Murray on Sky News at night. 2GB with the new Alan Jones. Sometimes Ray Hadley, but not much, not since he asked Morrison to swear on a Bible, an affront killing a fine bromance stone-dead. Neil Mitchell in Melbourne when he has to. That creaking baritone whose name I can’t remember on Adelaide commercial radio. Sometimes, A Current Affair. Political alphas develop a method to keep intimacy and insight at bay: relentless patter punctuated with bursts of micro-aggression. The prime minister treats his “yes mate” outings like open mic nights. Heckling, if you encounter it, and mostly you don’t, is immaterial, as long you land the line.
Mining and interpreting the line is the stock-in-trade of the Canberra press gallery journalist. We chase the daily increments with the relentlessness of cats chasing flickering lights or small prey. But I’m not here for a new line. I’m trying to bear witness. I want to document what it has been like to be prime minister at this moment. I want to record and analyse these extraordinary times, and understand how Morrison is shaping them, because if I understand that, I’ll capture a prime minister in flight, at a critical moment.
But Morrison’s objective right now isn’t to be understood. He’ll tolerate this conversation, he might even enjoy bits of it if we both choose to be present and avoid lapsing into passive aggression, but being understood is not really his purpose. He’s a perpetual-motion machine, a man of verbs. I suspect reflections happen, but safely outside this theatre, because musing in politics is akin to napping. It makes you vulnerable.
His opening gambit as we take our seats is “I haven’t done a lot of this.” He means sit-down conversations during the pandemic, or indeed at all during his prime ministership. There’s an implication in the unsolicited situation report: he’s not certain this interview should be happening. I’m not a media intimate of the prime minister. I don’t know the secret handshake of the “yes mate” club. Morrison and I bump along convivially enough, but periodically I irritate him, and we both know I’m not of much use to him. So don’t expect much sharing. I turn on the recorder and pick up my pen.
As we settle into the back and forth, we both agree that it is hard to keep the basic facts and events of COVID-19 straight; it feels like years have passed. At one point in the conversation, he prefaces an observation with “what I said to the party room many years ago when I became leader.” For the record, that was less than two years ago, but he’s right, 2020 has been a decade, and we are only at the midpoint. I tell him it took me about three days to construct an accurate timeline for this essay. Morrison says his memory is terrible. “I have a flow brain,” he says. I’ve never heard of a flow brain. When I look it up later, I discover it is a cognitive state associated with peak mental performance. Apparently, flow brain means you are in the zone, when your skill level is equal to the challenge before you.
We work through questions and answers until we reach the nub of what I want to ask. The pandemic is at a pivot point, and the government is neck-deep in deliberations about how to navigate this tremendously challenging period, a period Morrison has, correctly in my view, compared to the two most dangerous decades of the twentieth century. Morrison says one of the problems with the deliberations is that you are required to make decisions with imperfect information. Officials give you material. A lot of it is helpful. But it doesn’t tell you what to do. He says he makes the upper echelons of the government drill concepts into submission, describing his deliberative method as “things come up and up and up, you shave them off, you smash them out, you bring other people in.” What he means is that proposals go around the room many times until there is a satisfactory resolution. If there’s not enough certainty in the room, then other perspectives are sought. He thinks the extent of the drilling might frustrate his colleagues. After half a second’s thought, he adjusts that to “exhaust” rather than frustrate.
“Are the hardest decisions in front of you, or behind you?”
“It’s a good question,” Morrison says. There’s a pause while the prime minister mulls.Watching him gather his thoughts, I’m curious. Will the response be a formulation, or an answer? I leave the silence there, and in the silence, Morrison chooses truth.
“I hope they are behind us, but I’m not convinced,” he says. “That’s my honest answer.”
This is an extract from Katharine Murphy's Quarterly Essay, The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.
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