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Just before the last federal election, my Guardian colleague Sarah Martin trawled through Scott Morrison’s school yearbooks looking for ancient gems to embed in a profile. The hunt for durable insights delivered. She discovered Morrison was cast as the Artful Dodger in the school musical production of Oliver! in 1982 (“I’d Do Anything” being one of the more memorable anthems of the resourceful pickpocket and street urchin). Fifteen-year-old Morrison, captain of his year 10 rowing four, noted he was known for his “psyche-up sessions and aggravating coaching suggestions”. He described himself as “the brains of the crew, plotting the race strategies”. This is likely adolescent self-satire, but the accuracy of the report stands.
In 2020, occupying the most powerful position in the country, Morrison is still plotting race strategies, and doing whatever it takes, but he is also still deciding what sort of leader he will be. He’s still journeying to the core of his own project. As well as creating a track record of actions that will form the contours of a prime ministership, Morrison is refining his political identity in plain sight. He dials himself up and down, tuning to remove the static. I’ve seen him try on a Trump suit to see if that fits, and discard it as not quite right (although I suspect that’s still in the wardrobe in case he needs it). I’ve seen him seek to inflame and divide, and I’ve seen him bring people together.
You see the constant refining with his word pictures. This is a prime minister always on the hunt for a cut-through line or analogy. He’s relentless, working through iteration after iteration. Think about the various descriptions of former Labor leader Bill Shorten. He hammered “Unbelieva-Bill” for a bit. During one outing in June 2018, Morrison hurled that same sobriquet nine times, like a projectile at a window. He wants the optimal moment. He’s prepared to work to get it. He doesn’t lose interest. Eventually, he or the brains trust around him found “the Bill you can’t afford”. “The Bill Australia can’t afford.” The sweet spot. The earworm. The precise chord progression that the three-chord pop song needed to make it Bad Moon Rising rather than a kid noodling valiantly in his bedroom. Bye-bye, Bill.
Because he is a perpetual-motion machine, if you start from a fixed position, from a set predisposition, you’ll always be coming at Morrison the wrong way, because he doesn’t start from a set position, apart from the persistent reflex to identify what needs fixing. Sitting at opposite ends of the communal table in his Parliament House office in a rare interview that took place in the moments before the second wave of coronavirus hit Victoria, he tells me politics is about finding the right answer, and to do this you need to suspend your political brain. I ask him to explain what he means by this. It seems highly unlikely to me that a political animal like Morrison ever suspends his political brain, but I’m curious to hear the rationale.
To illustrate, he tracks back to his time in the immigration portfolio. Morrison says before 2013, the idea of turning back boats to Indonesia was not universally popular with Australian voters. He says the public split 50/50 on the question. But Tony Abbott had promised to stop the boats. No ifs, buts or maybes. Stop the boats was the election promise. After assessing the range of options, Morrison’s view was that turnbacks would work. That was the practical fix, and the fix was required because “If I don’t fix it – well, we are done. You’ve got to have the right answer, and you can’t let the politics stop you from coming up with the right answer, because if you don’t get the right answer, you will fail, and the worst thing in politics is failing.
“I’m a problem-solver. They say good policy is good politics – well, actually, good problem-solving is even better. That’s what I mean by suspending ideology – you’ve got to find the right answer.”
Morrison isn’t enamoured of the conventions of politics. Parliament clearly annoys him. He disdains procedures others hold to be sacred. Despite being naturally combative, he doesn’t crave the theatre of the bear-pit, like a Keating or a Howard. While I accept the point Arthur Sinodinos made to me about Morrison liking all aspects of the job, he’s not enamoured with that element of the life, that ritualised coming together of competing philosophies. The institution constrains him, it imposes routines and rituals, and Morrison is always packed for flight.
He’s also irritated by the frequent characterisation of national cabinet as a bipartisan exercise, as an enlightened synthesis of competing world-views. Again, in his estimation, this is the wrong starting point for analysis.
This whole idea that things need to be bipartisan – I don’t understand this.
It’s not what we were doing. It wasn’t bipartisanship in the national cabinet, it was government, and government is a practical exercise. The people who needed to be in the room were not people who needed to represent different political ideologies and philosophies. It needed to be people in the room who were responsible for people’s health and safety and could make decisions and apply resources. If you couldn’t do that, there was no place for you at the table.
Bipartisanship – I don’t know what that means. A-partisanship, well that matters, coming together in the national interest. If you’ve got something to add to that cause, well, you are welcome. The idea that bipartisanship is some goal in itself, I don’t get that.
I ask whether he thinks the pandemic will kill activism, because Australians will be more focused on their health and their material well-being – and whether the crisis has suspended ideology. He claims not to have considered the chilling effect of the crisis on activism, which is possible given the volume of pandemic-related deliberations, but, I think, unlikely given the way his political brain works. Morrison was so irritated by activism at the end of last year, at least the kind of activism that the Coalition and the resources industry finds inconvenient, that he branded climate protesters “anarchists” and foreshadowed a crackdown on various forms of protests during a speech claiming progressives were trying to cancel the liberty of the quiet Australians. Activism made his life hell during the bushfires. This prime minister thinks about activism, and how it might shift the centre of Australian politics.
I’m interested in how Morrison thinks his pragmatism sits with more ideological colleagues. The key test of this will be how quickly the government seeks to unwind the fiscal support it deployed during the crisis. We got the first litmus test of this in July, when Morrison extended but cut the jobseeker and jobkeeper payments; a sense of hastening slowly towards an exit. But cutting the payments was risky, given all the variables, and the government was forced to amend its own exit strategy only a couple of weeks later, when events in Victoria demanded a longer tail of income support. Morrison was back to whatever it takes without skipping a beat. I ask Morrison whether he accepts that stimulus will be needed for quite a long period of time, given that the prospect of a V-shaped recovery looks increasingly remote. On current indications, Australia is heading for a recession that will be worse than those of the early 1980s and early 1990s. The Reserve Bank and the IMF are clear that economies will need substantial support. But stimulus isn’t a word small government people like. Stimulus is not a banned word, but it’s not a welcome one either.
Which is why Morrison doesn’t use it. “I don’t know if I’d describe it as stimulus. It can be described as stimulus, but that’s probably not how I think of it. There’s an aggregate demand policy which will be important because the Covid economy is still constrained by definition. International borders are closed and social distancing restraints will artificially limit the size of your economy. That will have implications for aggregate demand, so there is an obvious gap there.” An aggregate demand policy is stimulus, isn’t it? “It is supporting aggregate demand,” he says, before changing the subject. As well he might, given that the concept of aggregate demand is fundamental to Keynesian analysis. The need for government spending to support demand and bring the economy out of protracted slumps was the main policy prescription advanced by John Maynard Keynes.
Morrison’s caution here is illustrative. I ask him how long the ideologues in the government will tolerate the government’s shapeshift. The pandemic has been stressful and all-consuming, and it’s entirely possible the worst is yet to come. But it has also given Morrison the operating conditions he prefers: a suspension of conventions he has little respect for, and lots of latitude. Morrison is still determining what sort of prime minister he will be, but doing that is about more than sating your own desires. It requires a judgment about what your colleagues will tolerate. Success creates the opportunity for prolonged self-expression; adversity makes a political leader a creature of the firm. As a player in the removal of Tony Abbott and a beneficiary of the demise of Malcolm Turnbull, Morrison knows this all too well.
Asked about his freedom to move, he says: “A crisis brings its own sort of focus, and its own tolerance for leaders to just get on with things.”
How long does the tolerance stretch for, then? There’s the hint of a smile at the other end of the table.
“We’ll find out,” Morrison says. “We’ll find out. We are still in the crisis, though, and we can’t be complacent about it.”
This is an extract from Katharine Murphy’s Quarterly Essay 79, The End of Certainty: Pandemic Politics and Scott Morrison, published 7 September
Source: The Guardian
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