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Summer breaks are lovely things. We can clear our heads, and reintroduce ourselves to our loved ones – important activities for maintaining the soul.
But a few consecutive weeks out of the fray is particularly valuable for political reporters, because for a period of time, we consume politics in the same way that most of the country does. Professionally, it’s like having a factory reset without losing all your data.
Normally, forming perceptions from a distance isn’t a luxury we are afforded. If one of your occupational requirements is reporting (and preferably breaking) daily news, political journalists have to inhabit the frenzied zone of highly engaged partisans. We have to saturate ourselves in process and minutiae to find new facts and contextualise accurately and fairly.
But most voters don’t consume politics this way. Information comes in fragments – a 10-second grab on the car radio while driving the kids to cricket, the TV news as ambient noise while cooking dinner, a headline floating past on Facebook.
The point of me drawing this contrast is simple. The impressions you form at a distance are different from the impressions you get when your face is pressed up against the glass.
When I’m at work, watching Scott Morrison intently, I see a shape-shifter. During my recent break, the impression I caught was related to this kinetic quality, but slightly different. In the rare moments Morrison managed to punctuate my consciousness, I heard a prime minister who validates everything.
Lest this feel like a distinction without a difference, I’ll step through what I mean by this.
January is typically culture war season. Morrison started the month by changing a word in the national anthem, in part to acknowledge Indigenous Australians (instead of “young” and free, Australia was to be “one” and free).
By the time the country was warming up for the annual discussion about whether or not Australia Day should still fall on 26 January – the opening salvo of a colonial power’s violent dispossession of the first Australians – Morrison cast himself as a non-combatant in the history wars. He was about respecting “all” the stories.
The prime minister noted Indigenous Australians were the “great overcomers” because they had survived colonisation. Perhaps this was the greatest Australian story. But the convicts had it tough, too, on that grim sea journey to the penal settlement, and how good are the migrants who helped build a nation in the new world? From that bedrock of every child getting a prize, Morrison managed to pole vault over the change the date controversy by noting in general terms that it was impossible to “cancel” the past.
I’ve said before that Morrison has in the past experimented with a copy-cat version of Trumpism.
But the prime minister now seems to be intent on honing his own genre of aerodynamic populism. In an age of polarisation and identity politics, the prime minister seeks longevity in office by wafting, watchfully, above the fray rather than deploying the Trump technique of defining himself through confrontation.
Morrison, at least in this particular iteration, tries to maximise what he’s for, or sort of for, and limit what he’s against, unless there is currency in picking a side.
So what might this “big tent” technique portend about the year ahead? The prime minister enters the new political year trying to preserve what he would regard as optimal operating conditions.
Obviously no prime minister wants to preside over a pandemic and the first recession in 30 years. But Mr Marketing is intent on reinforcing the brand he developed with the help of the premiers in 2020. Let’s call the brand “competent in a crisis”.
Morrison will spend the coming year telling Australians we are not yet out of the crisis, both because it is true, and because politically, it is optimal. If we are still in the crisis, Morrison can keep restive colleagues at bay.
The prime minister can set clear priorities – which will be keeping Australians safe from the virus, and job creation – but also recalibrate, defer or dump any politically contentious reform program that, outside wartime, might be considered an article of faith for a Liberal prime minister presiding over a third-term government. Industrial relations is an obvious case in point.
IR reform invites a noisy conversation about who is winning and who is losing, which messes with aerodynamic populism. Tracking back to our validator in chief, it’s hard to validate everything when you are demonstrably validating one thing (flexibility for employers) at the expense of another (take-home pay).
If Morrison can keep the conversation within the parameters of ongoing crisis management, Morrison will feel confident about the government’s prospects at the next election if he chooses to go to the polls in the second half of this year.
Perhaps he can pull this off. That will certainly be the ambition.
But a couple of significant things are outside the government’s control. The first is the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines, and whether or not the vaccination program can be rolled out effectively. If the program doesn’t deliver, or is plagued with problems, Morrison’s competent in a crisis brand takes a direct hit, and the psychology of the country changes.
The second wildcard is the economy. Because Australia has been successful in managing the public health risks, and because of the fiscal support rolled out in 2020, the economy is coming back from last year’s downturn. Perhaps economic recovery will be sustained. But Australia is minus migrants, tourists and international students, and the staggering infection rates in Europe and America through the northern hemisphere winter are a harbinger of the ever-present public health risks.
The other issue that is genuinely difficult for Morrison to manage is climate change. Government people will tell you the pandemic has pushed voter concerns about that issue well down their list of priorities, and here again, Morrison is deploying the validate everything/I’m a non-combatant in the climate wars strategy to try and manage the various cross-currents.
Left to his own devices, Morrison would sign up to net zero by 2050, but on this issue, unlike industrial relations, he can’t outrun the colleagues, because some regional Liberals, and the Nationals, are prisoners of their cynical weaponisation of this issue. Fossil fuels must continue to be good for humanity because some members of the Coalition have spent every election cycle since 2013 telling their constituents nothing needs to change. Reverse engineering that lie isn’t easy.
Another complicating factor is the ongoing, unresolved saga of the Nationals being unhappy with their leader, Michael McCormack, but unable to agree on who should replace him.
While that ennui persists, Nationals with leadership aspirations will feel compelled to play to their base – demanding coal and gas, and blasting banks with the temerity to grapple with carbon risk. Just for the record, Matt Canavan remains my favourite character in this otherwise tedious telenovela – the former Productivity Commission economist who thinks a centre-right government should tax iron ore exports to China, engage in protectionist measures, and taxpayers should subsidise stranded assets.
Metropolitan Liberals will be triggered by the performance art from the Nationals, and Morrison will be reminded that signing up to net zero (as opposed to saying I’m not opposed to it, I just won’t do it) risks blowing up the Coalition.
Aerodynamic populism requires a prime minister to love it all: coal, gas and renewables; Barnaby Joyce and Trent Zimmerman.
But preserving the viability of the planet, and making sure Australians have viable opportunities in the sustainable industries of the future, requires leaders worthy of the name to pick a side.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Scott Morrison, aerodynamic populism and the art of never choosing a side | Australian politics