In the news … October/November 2021

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Kelly’s Morrison: as one-dimensional as the real thing

8 November 2021: If Sean Kelly’s insights about Scott Morrison are revelatory at all, it is only by making it plain we cannot understand Scott Morrison in isolation from his environment and enablers.

Taken only in isolation, and at his word, Morrison is too shallow, vacuous, and vulgar to have risen to the prime ministership but for three other historical developments:

  1. the descent of the Liberal Party of Australia into an amoral, dishonest collective of mercenary individuals turning politics into a game in which national interest is a distant third place behind the narcissistic gratification of political operatives’ egos and the repayment of debts to powerful patrons in increasingly corrupt, upward wealth redistribution schemes;
  2. the rise of populist demagoguery in the West that can be rightly called neo-fascism for its divisive, bigoted, and often violent characteristics; and
  3. the undisguised intervention of media conglomerates pursuing plutocrat ends by supporting neo-fascist political figures, quite likely in the hope of destroying democratic institutions and practices that might moderate the excesses of immensely wealthy corporations and individuals.

Kelly is a columnist for a variety of Australian newspapers, and was a political adviser to former prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.  His book, The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, was released this month.

Why he didn’t pay more attention to those environmental factors in Morrison’s political career might be explained by his own self-denial: he is employed by one of those media conglomerates–Nine Entertainment–which is a player in politics rather than functioning as a neutral observer, let alone as a check on corporate and individual power.

It seems compelling to speculate that Kelly’s identity as a journalist would be seriously undermined by an admission that the editorial policy at Nine Entertainment (controlling all the former Fairfax mastheads and Channel 9 television around Australia) is to propagandize for the Coalition government, and against all opposition to it.  Worse, Kelly might have to admit to himself that many of his colleagues working for Nine and News Corp are in fact not journalists at all anymore, but the ‘courtiers’ British journalist Frankie Boyle tweeted about three years ago:

If you’re a political journalist who has regular contact with people in power, and your analysis is always aligned with prevailing orthodoxy, then you’re not really a journalist, you’re a courtier.

Morrison Palmer montage

Is it too obvious to point out that that Nine Entertainment’s editorial policy is presided over by former Coalition treasurer Peter Costello, chairman of Nine’s board?  That under his stewardship the Fairfax mastheads lost independent editorial control?  That News Corp gave the Howard government, in which Costello was a senior minister, a long run of soft handling?

Likewise, must it be stressed that News Corp’s American parent supported Donald Trump in the USA, and suborned an attempted insurrection in Washington?  That the same corporation propagandized for Brexit and Boris Johnson.  That the same corporation promoted conspiracy theories, including climate change denial and anti-vaxx sentiments?  That this corporation apparently normalized lies and disinformation as on par with truth and rationality?

When interpreted against this background, Kelly’s somewhat timid observations about Morrison make much more sense.

Writing for the Guardian, Kelly proposed the apparent vacuity of Morrison says more about Australian journalists and their publics than about Morrison.

Looking closely at the ways in which Scott Morrison has succeeded – and the ways in which he has failed – can tell us a lot about politics, and journalism, and Australians. Whether most of us want to know those things is questionable. So much of Morrison’s career – the character he has created, his practised avoidance of scrutiny – has been built on the knowledge that, most of the time, we don’t.

It’s just shy of saying, as journalist Peter Brent has, that a sociopath with no convictions or understanding of human motivations, has been able to fake a persona, disguising his sole interest in political power at all costs.  Kelly says because ‘we’ just don’t care.  Yet, it seems more likely it came about because he has never been questioned closely or persistently enough by our media courtiers about inconsistencies in the carefully confected ‘legend’ about himself.  Celebrated spy novelist John Le Carré coined the term ‘legend’ to signify a cover story for a spy, being fabricated, but as credible as a lie can be.

The hole in Kelly’s reasoning about ‘we’ or ‘us’ is the failure of the Fourth Estate to inform the public with disciplined and independent analysis of facts.  How else has the wider public ever known about politics in the past?  Is he suggesting the public somehow voted for mindless stenography of empty rhetoric or uncritical reproduction of political propaganda?  Nor does Kelly appear to give any weight to a mounting social media backlash against both Australian news media and the Morrison government.

Without the historical descent into mercenary political habits and mass media propaganda support, could Morrison have succeeded at all?  How is it that we openly discuss a man so apparently devoid of any virtue without causing a crisis of confidence?  One answer is that this kind of mediocrity has been normalized by repeated propaganda messages from the mass media.

It seems almost not controversial anymore to call Morrison a pathological liar.  He’s been called out often, denying he said things that are already on the record in video or sound bites.  Even the French president, Emmanuel Macron, is largely unscathed after taking a step that is highly unusual in international diplomacy and calling Morrison out as a liar.  But why did it take so long for media workers to make that point, and to pursue it?

It looks like Morrison continues to have his party’s support, and that of an unseemly number of news media employees.

Sean Kelly makes the point that Morrison understood the news media’s need for at least some personal details about a prime minister, and set about manufacturing a carefully curated, if somewhat inconsistent, vacuous profile.

If each politician is like a character from a book, then journalists are, in effect, the collective authors of that book. Any examination of the character that Morrison had created would have to look closely at the journalistic habits that made his success possible. The notion of objectivity is important, but often is used as an excuse for uncritically repeating what politicians say. Too many in the media too readily treat politics as a game, with political cleverness admired more than substance.

Not just in the news media.  Politicians themselves, and their paid operatives, seem to regard politics as a game in which underhanded tactics thrive because of immunity from the law and censure, encouraging the plunder of public funds for personal and party political purposes, integrity is for fools, and dishonesty is almost a byword.

Writing for The Monthly in 2018, Kelly proposed:

If we do not know who Morrison is, it is not because he hasn’t been asked. It is because he has worked hard not to tell us.

Of course, the determination to avoid leaving traces is a trace itself. It tells observers that you are self-conscious, ambitious and careful. It suggests you are more aware than most about the stories that might be constructed around your public utterances, both now and in the future – and of the power those stories might have. It betrays an interest in doing what you can to control those constructions.

But more than seeking to manipulate his image, Morrison has learnt from his political apprenticeship that it pays to go to great lengths to sperate himself from his official statements and actions, as if he were merely an empty vessel fulfilling a preordained rôle:

Scott Morrison, in his own telling, is so often a mere observer. When reckless and false accusations have been made, it turns out Morrison has only presented the facts as presented to him; when offensive comments have been made, he has been only the dutiful messenger of the sentiments of others; in the rare cases he has made mistakes, they have been minor errors of timing. Events occur, but Morrison’s involvement is passive, tangential, almost accidental. He may be the minister, but he is not an instigator, only a vessel through which others’ bidding is done.

If you are Scott Morrison, it is even possible to become prime minister without any agency on your part.

Kelly cites an unnamed source saying that Morrison can make himself believe things he determines to be desirable narratives, even if they are obviously untrue.

If accurate, this might make sense of Morrison’s blunt assertions that he has not said things he has said and that he has played no role at all in events in which others believe he was central.

This refusal to pick a side and stick with it, and the insistence that it is possible to firmly believe two contradictory things at once, is everywhere in Morrison’s career.

[Morrison is] a prime minister who assures us he has beliefs, but who cannot be held to them, because he has not told us what they are. A conviction politician, conveniently free – at least publicly – from upsetting convictions.

Is this the picture of a modern politician, slippery beyond any responsibility for the consequences of what he says and does?  Or is it the profile of a deranged man, at a dangerous remove from reality?

If you say you have convictions, but show no sign of those in your words and actions, and if you can change your position to its diametric opposite without seeing any contradiction, can you really be trusted to have any moral foundation at all, any guiding set of principles, any sense of integrity and decency?

Morrison has demonstrated a corrosive insensitivity on many occasions, as if unable to empathize with others not useful in his political machinations.  Almost as if in a parody of himself, he told the nation his wife had to explain rape to him in terms of his own daughters.  Is that the image of a man fit to make sound judgements on behalf of the nation?

Kelly’s exposition describes Morrison, without using those words, as a sociopath playing at games with the nation’s fortunes, as if he never left the carefree environment of a university Young Liberals club.  No concept of conscience, honour, or the noblesse oblige that once applied to most successful politicians.

Morrison’s finance minister, Simon Birmingham, cornered over the use of public funds to attract votes in marginal electorates by paying for commuter car parks in marginal electorates, responded unashamedly by saying the Australian public had elected his government, which would not rule out similar corruption in future.  Is this Kelly’s point that ‘we’ chose the sociopathic moral abyss that is Morrison?  Not quite.  That conclusion would ignore again the enormous influence of the news media propagandizing for Morrison, and against challenger Bill Shorten.  It would also ignore the well-financed wrecking campaign by mining magnate Clive Palmer.  And finally, it would overlook the shrinking majority Morrison achieved at that election, with fewer than half the national votes.

Sean Kelly is wright about one thing: you can’t count Morrison out.  However, he doesn’t seem to place much weight on Morrison’s baggage since becoming prime minister.  Baggage that just seems to get heavier and uglier as time passes.

Something Kelly doesn’t highlight is that the Labor opposition has not been impressive, and if it wins the next election, due no later than May 2022, it will have been because Morrison lost, not because Anthony Albanese won. It will have been because Morrison alienated rape victims, women altogether, First Australians, pensioners, the poor, refugees, people with climate change consciences, and all those concerned about integrity in public office.  Only if Morrison wins will Kelly be right: we just don’t care how ethically void and corrupt our governments are.

Has Morrison taken dishonesty too far?

3 November 2021: Writing in the Guardian, Hugh Riminton has suggested that prime minister Scott Morrison’s posturing on global warming and being publicly called a liar by French president Emmanuel Macron has been successful, leaving his opponents ‘clawing at the open air. Less chameleon than oiled seal, he has already slipped them by.’

That may be true for the news cycle in Australia, but Macron remains a powerful enemy internationally, and Morrison’s reputation at home won’t be tested until a federal election, due no later than May 2022, settles the matter.  With the Coalition already slipping in opinion polling, which may not be a reliable indicator, he has nevertheless never faced quite the political obstacles he now returns to from his overseas jaunt.

  • National Party leader and acting prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s comments after Macron called Morrison a liar, that the French president needs to ‘move on’ highlights Coalition expectations that the news media move on without too much scrutiny of yet another Coalition malfeasance.  Has that continuously used tactic worn too thin?
  • The recent NSW ICAC hearings have exposed former Liberal Party darling Gladys Berejiklian as a practiced liar who misled her own parliament and the media on frequent occasions.  Moreover, it appears as if casual corruption and routine lies are embedded in the Liberal Party’s modus operandi. Not good news for Morrison, who is both the most senior Liberal in the NSW branch of the party, and a formerly fulsome admirer of Berejiklian, hitching a lot of political capital to his description of her leadership as a the gold standard for the other states to follow.
  • Anonymous donations of around $1 million to help with a horribly botched defamation process continue to dog disgraced former attorney general Christian Porter, with questions likely to be raised in the Senate privileges committee despite Coalition strategies to shut down scrutiny. The lengths to which the anonymity of the donations is being maintained are themselves an indication that there is something to see and report on.
  • A fractious but fragile Coalition parliamentary contingent continues to make headlines Morrison could do without, like tarnished MP Andrew Laming controversially ‘withdrawing’ public apologies he made to two women following online bullying accusations, but likely to be related more to a defamation action than facts or reality. And Peter Dutton’s recent ill-advised foray into the public limelight, floating the bizarre idea of public funding for MPs to pursue defamation actions does nothing to suggest the Coalition has nothing to hide.

After a dream run since 2019, it seems Morrison may have now lost control over a carefully cultivated public narrative about his prime ministership, apparently underestimating the public concern about climate change policy, corruption, and dishonesty.

Image showing Macron stare balefully at Scott Morrison who is smirking.
Macron’s eyes shoot daggers at the characteristically smirking Morrison.

Worse, he also seems to have mistaken his ability to outmanoeuvre local political opponents in a placid news media environment as translating seamlessly to international settings.  Perhaps he simply cannot conceive of journalists more dogged and politicians more skillful than those he’s used to in the ‘Canberra bubble’.

It may not be possible to spin Macron’s personal insult as one to Australia’s national pride or reputation.  Especially given Macron’s care to differentiate between the two.  As Michelle Grattan commented: ‘Admitting error or showing contrition are not part of Morrison’s political repertoire. Instead, when caught or cornered, he denies, spins, blusters, changes the subject.’  But how often can you get away with that set of excuses before the pattern itself becomes an indictment?

Morrison’s travails with international climate change policy, and French president Emmanuel Macron, also illustrate quite potently how news media choices about what to report, and what not to, determines the public narrative, particularly for only casual or lazy observers.

Yesterday it might have seemed that our plucky prime minister won’t cop any insults to Australia from Macron.  If you ignore context and facts.  Macron was actually quite specific in calling only Morrison a liar, while talking affectionately of Australia and Australians.

Morrison’s carefully staged photo op of him ambushing Macron for a faux show of bonhomie backfired spectacularly; one can see the hostility in Macron’s eyes when faced involuntarily by Morrison’s smirking buffoonery.  Without that incident, would Macron have taken the unusual step of calling Morrison a liar in front of journalists?

Jingoistic bluster and a leaked text message aside, has Morrison’s hubris about his own ability to manipulate reportage led him to take a step too far?

How credible is his rejection of Macron’s accusation given his mounting reputation for dishonesty, and US president Joe Biden’s suggestion that the rejection of the French $90 billion submarine contract was not handled very well.  Even if Biden referred only to failings by his own advisers, questions arise about Morrison’s staff.  But if we take those comments together with the ‘feller down under’ episode, can we discern a subtle rebuke of Morrison by Biden?

All of this occurred even before Morrison tried to sell a sham ‘plan’ as a serious environmental policy initiative at Cop26 in Glasgow.

Not only was the ‘plan’ widely derided locally and internationally as a shallow marketing effort with no content, the issue won’t go away locally or internationally as another bushfire season approaches and political enemies even outside the Labor Party take aim at this weakness in earnest.

Morrison’s international performances have always made him look like a very small fish in a very large ocean filled with ferocious predators.  This time around it may be impossible to gloss over Morrison’s superficial leadership skills.

Nevertheless, his strategy has never been to shine, but to win the game.  To game the rules of parliament, shutting down debates and scrutiny.  To deflect and divert in the media spotlight.  To deny all personal or party responsibility for any consequence, and to claim credit for any outcome regarded as positive, regardless of whether that’s deserved.  It is an unashamedly dishonest marketing strategy that has nevertheless led Morrison into the top job, warded off challengers like Peter Dutton, won him an election, by however small a margin, and proven that you can get away with anything if black letter law does not very specifically address it as a crime.

It is a game strategy in which he has been bale to heavily rely on extraordinarily, even astonishingly, favourable media coverage, particularly from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, but also, significantly, from Nine Entertainment, chaired by former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello, which took over the former Fairfax mastheads in 2018, notably The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Australian Financial Review.  These conglomerates account for about 70 per cent of the Australian news media market share.  Other commercial media, and even the national broadcaster, the ABS have been quite reluctant to closely question the Morrison government, its ministers, and its activities.

However, journalists and media proprietors cannot ignore that Coalition ineptitude and corruption has left them with egg on their faces more than once in recent years.  No more conspicuously than Morrison’s backflip on ‘net zero’ (even if it is entirely without substance) leaving climate change denialists in the Murdoch media grasping for belated justifications, or the ICAC Berejiklian hearings coming close to a sugary hagiography of her in the Australian Financial Review as Australia’s saviour.

Having stepped through every trick in the book about gaming the rules, what has Morrison got left to roll out ahead of the federal election.  And is there anyone left who will believe anything he says?

Perhaps the last words in this news cycle deserve to go to veteran journalist Paul Bongiorno:

Labor’s climate spokesman Chris Bowen drew the issues together with the blunt observation that when Scott Morrison said last week the election would be about who do you trust.

“Well, President Macron made it clear, ‘Not you, mate’ and the Australian people will have an opportunity to say ‘not you, mate’ to Scott Morrison,” Mr Bowen said.

The opinion polls suggest this may be the case, but harsher judgment will be delivered by the rapidly warming planet if all the dissembling and politicking stalls a significant response to the climate crisis.

 

Since this comment questions the accuracy and neutrality of news media, it is disclosed the opinion expressed here is based at least in part on an analysis of the following sources:

Annabel Crabb, 1 November 2021, ‘Morrison’s climate “plan” reveals a spectacular new model of political leadership in Australia’, ABC.

Paul Bongiorno, 2 November 2021, ‘Paul Bongiorno: Scott Morrison’s trustworthiness takes a battering on the world stage’, The New Daily.

Josh Butler, 2 November 2021, ‘“Lies” and sledges: Scott Morrison’s “tiring” week dogged by Macron’s nuclear-grade fury’, The New Daily.

Josh Butler, 2 November 2021, ‘ “Big” or “measly”? Scott Morrison comes to Glasgow bearing gifts, but not everyone’s happy’, The New Daily.

Melissa Clarke, 2 November 2021, ‘As Australians gamble on the Melbourne Cup, Prime Minister makes each-way bet on climate change at COP26’, ABC.

Courtney Gould, 1 November 2021, ‘“Move on”: Barnaby Joyce’s message to Emmanuel Macron’, news.com.au.

Michelle Grattan, 2 November 2021, ‘How will Emmanuel Macron’s ‘liar’ claim about Scott Morrison play in the focus groups?’, ABC.

Daniel Hurst & Katharine Murphy, 1 November 2021, ‘“We didn’t deface the Eiffel Tower”: Barnaby Joyce dismisses French anger at axed submarine deal’, The Guardian.

Greg Jericho, 1 November 2021, ‘The Morrison government’s emissions projections are a farce based on technological pipe dreams’, The Guardian.

Paul Karp, 28 October 2021, ‘Liberal MP Andrew Laming withdraws apology for online treatment of two Brisbane women’, The Guardian.

Paul Karp, 1 November 2021, ‘Christian Porter to be formally asked to explain declaration that “blind trust” helped pay his legal fees’, The Guardian.

Samantha Maiden, 2 November 2021. ‘Scott Morrison accused of leaking private texts between himself and Emmanuel Macron’, news.com.au.

Amanda Meade, 19 November 2018, ‘Fairfax Media shareholders approve Nine takeover bid’, The Guardian.

Katharine Murphy, 31 October 2021, ‘When Morrison met Macron: tension in the air as G20 leaders gather for “family photo”’, The Guardian.

Katharine Murphy, 1 November 2021, ‘Macron took aim at Scott Morrison over the submarine fracas – and he did not miss’, The Guardian.

Katharine Murphy, 1 November 2021, ‘“Not going to cop sledging”: Scott Morrison hits back at Macron in row over submarine deal’, The Guardian.

Andrew Probyn & Matthew Doran, 1 November 2021, ‘Scott Morrison rejects French President’s criticism over handling of scrapped submarine project’, ABC.

Hugh Riminton, 2 November 2021, ‘Branded a “liar” by the French, Scott Morrison’s slipperiness is now on show for the world to see’, The Guardian.

Uncredited, 27 October 2021, ‘Climate change: Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050’, BBC.

Uncredited, 1 November 2021, ‘Aukus: French President Macron says Scott Morrison lied to him over submarine deal’, BBC.

Uncredited, 1 November 2021, ‘Scott Morrison: Australian PM rejects “sledging” from France amid row’, BBC.

Pablo Vinales, 1 November 2021, , ‘“I don’t think, I know”: Emmanuel Macron accuses Scott Morrison of lying about submarine contract’, SBS.

Morrison jettisons own authority

18 October 2021: The political ineptitude of Scott Morrison has never been in clearer focus than after being rebuffed by the National Party on climate change targets today.

This is as much of his own making as the inevitable consequence of the shallowest talent pool in the Coalition parties–state and federal–since federation.

It doesn’t really matter what spin the politically motivated cheersquads of Nine Entertainment and News Corporation put on these matters, it is apparent three grave strategic errors have come to haunt Morrison:

  1. The national cabinet that excluded federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese;
  2. Failure to sideline loose cannon Barnaby Joyce; and
  3. Loss of control over the NSW state branch of the Liberal Party.
Scott Morrison

NATIONAL CABINET

Likely conceived as a devious means of sidelining parliamentary accountability by effectively shutting down the federal parliament and excluding the federal opposition from the national cabinet, Morrison probably thought he was being clever by shifting responsibility to the premiers and territory leaders.

It seems evident Morrison did manage to avoid parliamentary scrutiny, but he also gave Labor leaders in WA, Victoria, and Queensland a chance to shine in the national spotlight as competent leaders, contrasting sharply with the incompetence of Morrison’s front bench, and his personal lack of leadership.

Effectively, Morrison handed over an authority he cannot now claw back from the states and territories. In hindsight this was an amateur mistake with far less return on investment (lack of parliamentary oversight) than fallout (public perception of Coalition incompetence).

The longer-term fallout of this political miscalculation is that the states, including those governed by the Coalition parties, now feel emboldened to defy the federal government on issues extending well beyond the management of the coronavirus pandemic.

It may well cost the Coalition seats in the three Labor states mentioned, if not nationally overall. Seats the Coalition cannot afford to lose.

BARNABY JOYCE

Given Morrison’s stated Christian values, it seems incomprehensible that he did not act behind the scenes, after Joyce’s widely publicized infidelity, to permanently sideline a man who was bound to create further problems down the line, arising from his undisciplined and highly publicly visible drinking, which is just the most notable example of his poor judgment.

As prime minister, it is inconceivable that Morrison could not have made it plain to the Nationals Joyce could never again be deputy PM, nor hold ministerial responsibilities. Talk about the independence of the Nationals is just cover for Morrison’s lack of authority in making his wishes plain.

Some commentators likely suggested he could not do so without threatening the Coalition, or that right wing extremists in his own party would not have supported threatening the Coalition. But to accept such propositions is also to accept that he lacked either the judgment or authority to sideline an erratic, incompetent, troublesome politician.

Ultimately, it is an issue on which Morrison should have been prepared to call and fight an election. If he were a leader, had integrity, and stood on principles.

The reward for his cowardice or impotence has been to highlight those qualities far more painfully in an unforgiving national spotlight set against looming climate change talks in Glasgow. Can there be a more humiliating reputation than being so weak he can be held to ransom by the likes of Joyce, Canavan, and Littleproud?

THE KING OF NSW

Notionally, Morrison is the most senior Liberal in the NSW state branch of the party, and it’s presumptive leader. That’s what he counted on when he all but canonized Gladys Berejiklian, apparently for no greater benefit than to direct petty insults at the Labor premiers.

It seems a naïve and juvenile strategy even in its conception, never mind the outcome. Intelligent advisors would have pulled Morrison back from this hubris after the Daryl Maguire affair became public knowledge in October 2020, anticipating precisely the outcome we have now witnessed.

To compound this amateur mistake, Morrison then failed to prevent a political enemy in his own party, Dominic Perrottet, from taking over leadership in NSW.

Perrottet, who seems quite young, inexperienced, and lacking finesse, immediately set about usurping federal powers by declaring international border restrictions lifted for NSW. After pushing Berejiklian as the ‘gold’ standard in flouting health advice for the sake of re-opening businesses, Morrison had nowhere to go. His response was a lukewarm admonition that restrictions would remain in place for all but the stranded overseas Australian citizens , residents, and their families.

Commentators had a lot of fun with this, having dubbed Morrison prime minister of NSW while he was lionizing Berejiklian, and then calling Perrottet the premier of Australia for his audacious (or silly) comments.

So, Morrison was shown up publicly to have no authority within even his own state branch, after demonstrating he doesn’t have it in the Coalition or in the other states and territories.

How much more authority can a prime minister lose before no one actually believes he is the PM?

It seems compelling to argue there is no coming back from this, short of the miracle of Labor self-destructing prior to the next election (not entirely implausible). And he now has to suffer the international embarrassment of turning up at the Glasgow COP26 UN climate change conference (31 October-12 November) with no fresh policy, after having been admonished already to ensure he has something of substance to say.

If you had to paint a picture of a more incompetent prime minister, with less authority in his own ranks, and mounting criticism at home despite the assistance of politically partisan media, how would you do it?

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