Blame it on Zoom: meetings are the new work

It seems hard to imagine that there was a time when Zoom meetings were not a thing.

Thanks to Zoom organisational life will never be the same again, thanks not being the operative word.

The role of meetings has long featured in management training and seminars, how-to books and business magazine articles but over the decades the emphasis has shifted from how to conduct more effective meetings to how to reduce the exponentially growing volume of meetings. In the period BC – Before Covid – consultants were doing a roaring trade advising CEOs and senior executives on how to cut back on productivity-sapping meetings. Some organisations were even hiring coaches to help managers break their addiction to meetings.

Whatever few gains were made in curtailing the organisational mania for meetings went out the window with Covid-19.

Meetings have always been a staple – and pernicious – feature of the organisation but with the advent of Covid, and Zoom, the meeting now lies at the centre of organisational life.

The snap lockdowns and restrictions on movement at the height of the pandemic in 2020 saw organisations move as one to remote working models. Video conferencing technology – principally Zoom, but also others such as Microsoft Teams, Skype and Webex – connected employees working from home with each other and their managers. To employers’ surprise, productivity levels were typically maintained, and in many cases surpassed, by their remote workforces.

Employees also got a taste for working from home. The result is that most organisations, many of which previously paid only lip service to flexible working policies, permit some employees to work entirely from home while others work to a “hybrid” working model, dividing their working time between home and office.

The upshot of scattered workplaces is more meetings. A lot more.

While calling a meeting was once the preserve of managers now anyone can call a Zoom meeting. With employees less likely to be in the same place at the same time conversations and everyday workplace interactions that once took place in corridors, over the phone, by email or across partitions are now conducted over Zoom. And that’s in addition to the regular run of meetings called by managers.

The meeting has always been an organisational enigma. Nobody likes meetings – or would admit to liking meetings – and yet they flourish. Meetings are the cockroaches of organisational life: for every one you stomp on another half dozen will appear from nowhere.

For meeting tragics Zoom is a godsend

Complain as we might about the number of meetings we have to attend, and knowing as we do that most meetings are a waste of time, there will always be the meeting tragics who consider them a status symbol. They make a point of sighing that they have “back to back” meetings, rushing from one meeting “pod” to the next, wrestling with armfuls of manilla folders, secretly celebrating their full dance card while feigning exhaustion.

For the meeting tragics, Zoom is a godsend. But it’s not just those with a round-table fetish who will celebrate the proliferation of Zoom meetings. Zoom conference calls, partly fed by their novelty value, partly because of the prevalence of distributed workplaces, and partly because we can, Zoom has taken the meeting from adjunct activity to primary activity. Zoom is now how we work, in part through necessity, but overwhelmingly because meeting junkies can’t help themselves.

There were good reasons for disliking meetings pre-Covid. There were too many of them; they were invariably too long; they were often hogged by the usual suspects; and they were generally inconclusive. All those reasons apply to Zoom meetings, but Zoom has generated a whole new set of objections.

While some Zoom meetings are discreet affairs limited to a few participants, others have casts of thousands, or so it seems when surveying the Brady Bunch-on-steroids vista on your screen. If getting a word in was difficult in meetings of old, now it is a titanic struggle. Better to bring a good book and let the meeting run its course.

Zoom meetings are a new hell on earth. Where does one begin? The inevitable freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio; the mute on/off travails (initially amusing, now a pain in the fundament); unflattering angles that give participants the appearance of looking up, down or to the side; the plaintive cries of “Can you hear me?” and “Can you see me?” and participants speaking over each other, leading to multiple stop-start utterances and a never-ending stream of “sorries”.

Some semblance of meeting etiquette applied pre-Zoom; now it’s an anything-goes free-for-all. And so we must endure participants eating and drinking (a visual blight made so much worse when their vigorous mastication and chugging provides a background soundtrack); participants who think nothing of appearing in hoodies, inelegant t-shirts and, inevitably, there is the wag who appears in his dressing gown or bunny-rabbit pyjamas. And can we please let it be known that the besuited Zoom participant who “unintentionally” gets up to reveal his nethergarments is no longer amusing.

A sure sign that Zoom has become a permanent fixture in our working lives is the proliferation of consultants, specialist trainers and assorted experts providing advice on how to excel in Zoom meetings.

Enter the Zoom Quotient

A recent arrival in my inbox this week is a press release from the US promoting a new book, Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings Work, by Karin Reed, who coaches executives in “the art of communicating on camera” and Dr Joseph Allen, Director of the Centre for Meeting Effectiveness at the University of Utah and “the world’s leading scientific expert on workplace meetings”.

The book, which promises to become “a bible and lifeline for anyone whose livelihood is currently tied to looking, feeling, and presenting their knowledge and creativity virtually”, has added to the bulging lexicon of management jargon. The authors raise the prospect of employers measuring candidates’ and employees’ ZQ – Zoom Quotient.

“With all the new expectations associated with moving our skillsets onto a virtual platform and having to constantly be on camera…[s]uddenly, a whole new subset of communications skills [are] required. [I]f you are one of the people who [has not taken] to virtual, on camera communication…can your aversion or lack of virtual skills negatively impact your career and your ability to climb the career, sales or corporate ladder?” the authors caution.

Maybe there are new skills that will have to be mastered in the Zoom era, but as always with new corporate fads, a little bit of caution won’t go amiss.

Zoom played its part in enabling organisations to withstand the worst of economic and social lockdowns, but now that Zoom looms as a permanent feature of working life the biggest issue to be addressed is not so much mastering the art of video conferencing as ensuring that organisations don’t become addicted to Zoom.

Before Covid the meeting had become an organisational menace; chewing up time, interrupting work flows, ostensibly a mechanism for making decisions but very often producing only indecision. Now Zoom threatens an environment of perpetual meetings.

Fads are an endemic feature of organisational life but the hold that Zoom has on organisations is particularly pernicious. Zoom is emerging as the most gratuitous of technologies.

This is abundantly clear in my own work as a journalist. Whenever I set up what once would have been a routine telephone interview through a PR or personal assistant it is now always – always – scheduled as a Zoom interview. And always I inform the organiser that I wish to conduct the interview over the phone. It is now my practice when seeking an interview to specify from the outset that I don’t Zoom. On one occasion a PR apologetically explained that it was company policy that all external communication be via Zoom. I insisted on a phone interview or nothing. Surprise, surprise: a phone interview it was.

Occasionally an interviewee will enquire why I don’t do Zoom interviews. “Because I reserve the right to roll my eyes with impunity,” I reply. Not infrequently, an interviewee – CEOs, senior executives and the like – will confess that they are over Zoom. “I’ve had Zoom meetings that once would have been easily dealt with by phone and email,” one admitted.

Fads are by their nature dangerous because they skew behaviour. Fads take the kernel of a good idea and exaggerate it to the point where it becomes a caricature of itself, its original intention long forgotten.

The challenge for managers and organisations is to ensure that Zoom does not become the tail that wags the corporate dog. My money is on Zoom winning the day.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW magazine. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher But not on Zoom.

Depression, anxiety, Covid and the whole damn thing

Last year began with the advice of my psychiatrist of six years that I should undergo electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT.

He was concerned that after a period of equilibrium, minor fluctuations aside, I was experiencing bouts of depression and anxiety that were more frequent, more intense and of a longer duration than had been the case for some time.

ECT is a procedure, performed under general anaesthesia, which involves passing small electric currents through the brain, causing changes in brain chemistry to relieve severe depressive and psychotic symptoms. Drastic as it was, ECT could be the circuit breaker, literally and figuratively, that I needed.

I was open to the idea of ECT, to the possibility of relief from the re-emergent maelstrom of despair, grief, guilt and remorse, feelings of helplessness and worthlessness, of unforgiving self-loathing and self-reproach, debilitating low self-esteem, the tears, the nightmares, the thoughts of suicide, the sensation that one is drowning in life, not for a moment or two, but for weeks at a time. The intensity waxes and wanes but even in moments of relative calm the dread remains. It’s utterly exhausting.

Anxiety came hand in hand with my depression. Anxiety is a natural part of life; a normal and momentary response to stress, worry or pressure. For some, their anxiety is so chronic, so utterly disproportionate and excessive, that it creates a searing nervousness, fear and apprehension of the unknown.

For me, anxiety has been something to endure and crash through. Not that I understood it as a clinical disorder; it was just part of my maddening introverted “personality”. Without even realising it I planned around it so that I could function with apparent self-assurance and, one hopes, aplomb.

Imagine if every time you enter an unfamiliar doorway you do so with a feeling of dread at what you will find on the other side.

I have always avoided arranging to meet someone in an unfamiliar pub or café. The idea of standing in a foreign place and looking around, craning my neck to survey unfamiliar surrounds, was terrifying, as if every eye was on me at this vulnerable time. Meeting someone in a restaurant was preferable. It provided the safety valve of spying my companions at their table, or failing that checking in at the host station, which was especially useful if I was meeting people I did not know, which was a regular occurrence in my business. In the latter instance, once seated at the table, I flicked the switch, and I was “on”.

Rickety house of sticks

This is the paradox of depression: the ability to function, even to reach the highest levels of attainment, to give every appearance of being confident and in control, while being neither. It’s this delusion of “coping”, grinding as it can be, that creates the pretext for not seeking help.

Some will take their undiagnosed or untreated depression to the grave, but for others, and certainly for me, the rickety house of sticks that is coping with depression eventually comes tumbling down.

After decades of living with undiagnosed depression it became clear that I was losing the battle. At the end of 2013, I took a voluntary redundancy package from Fairfax Media, a decision made necessary because I could no longer endure a sustained period of change and instability in the workplace as a feckless management struggled to set a course for the company in the new media landscape. Concurrently, in the background, was my failing marriage, dying the death of a thousand cuts as I progressively shut down, aware but emotionally incapable of responding to the crisis before me. My marriage ended in January 2014.

Some weeks after the breakup I finally reached out for help. My GP referred me to a psychoanalyst and I was diagnosed with clinical – or severe – depression, which I wrote about at the time. He referred me to others and so began a new and intense world of psychiatrists and psychotherapists, which I also chronicled. I underwent treatment, a regimen of anti-depressant medication and therapy, treating a combination of biological and psychological factors.

With that treatment I got to experience the unfamiliar liberation of inner peace. I felt equipped to face the challenge of overcoming the end of my marriage of 25 years and the separation from my three boys. I had the resolve, and the confidence, to rebuild, reboot and refresh. And I was kinder to myself.

One welcome outcome was the apparent reduction in my anxiety. I was much more at ease with the unfamiliar, whether navigating the public transport system or venturing into strange pubs to meet people. I was socialising again after years of being quite reclusive. Although a loner by disposition I was also more comfortable with my own company outside the pub or home, happy to go to the cinema, theatre and concerts on my own, and even to dine alone.

Depression can be managed

As part of the renewal I moved to the Macedon Ranges in regional Victoria, a one-hour train trip from Melbourne. Surrounded by towering gums, delighting in the abundant bird life, it was an idyllic sanctuary for a freelance journalist; when not meeting deadlines I was plugging away at the Great Australian Novel. It seemed to be working.

The journey out of depression is not linear. Depression doesn’t entirely go away with treatment. It lurks and occasionally makes its presence felt in momentary bursts, but it can be managed. The brain can shrug off triggers that might normally descend one into debilitating melancholia. The important thing is that one is not monstered by it; it is not the tail that wags the dog.

After a couple of years of relative peace things turned. The occasional momentary bursts of darkness were becoming more frequent and lasting longer. The nightmares were back, vivid and pointed. Because my sleep was fitful each cycle would bring on a fresh dream. I would wake up feeling sad, distraught and occasionally tearful. Even when I could not recall details of the dreams I would feel burdened by the night’s unforgiving narratives. Although perpetually exhausted I dreaded going to bed and it became my custom to busy myself until the early hours.

The waking hours were no less fraught. Triggers that had been kept at bay were reasserting themselves with a vengeance. How many tears can one person shed? Almost anything could set me off. Television became a minefield of catalysts – somebody declaring “I love you”, depictions of parents with young children, birth scenes (Call the Midwife was best avoided), a journalist or writer at their keyboard (amazing how many times that comes up), even Metricon commercials. The reference points were unambiguous. Not that it necessarily took a particular event to suddenly find myself mired in a thick tar of torpor. It was not uncommon for me to sleep through entire weekends – a sleep to be distinguished from my fruitless attempts at nightly repose – to remerge on the Monday to tend to the week’s deadlines. The work was tedious – mostly “sponsored editorial” for the AFR – and offered little professional satisfaction but it provided a measure of structure to my week.

My psychiatrist was naturally concerned by this slide; I seemed to be back where I was when he started seeing me. He adjusted the regimen of anti-depressants. The combination that had worked for so long was clearly proving ineffective. But nothing helped and that’s when he finally recommended ECT.

Another layer of angst

I went home to think about this course of treatment for further discussion at our next appointment but I was ready to proceed. I wanted the pain to stop and I was desperate for some clear air. And then Covid-19 struck and everything was put on hold.

The lockdowns and restrictions in response to Covid initially had little direct impact – I was already living an isolated existence – but as 2020 progressed it became apparent that the pandemic was adding another layer of angst to my fragile state of being. There was an overwhelming sense that the world was changing around me and that it was leaving me behind. What if I no longer knew how to function in this new world of QR codes and density limits? Would I walk into a pub or café and set off alarms because I wasn’t doing it right? There is nothing rational about anxiety; I understood the facts of the Covid restrictions but it was the menacing shadow of change and uncertainty that rattled me, magnified by the relentless media coverage of the unstoppable coronavirus. The wearing of masks was a manifestation of this new world; I wore them when necessary, but I hated doing so and had an almost pathological aversion to being surrounded by people wearing masks. (This was not a Karen thing; I had no quarrel with the state’s authority to mandate masks.) There were times when I could not bear to step out of the house; not even my idyllic surrounds could tempt me. Because these moods would lift and wane, I would find myself jumping at the chance to do some gardening; it’s difficult to convey what a magical experience mowing the lawn can be.

Quite apart from the devastating disease itself, Covid must be causing untold mental anguish in the community; for some, it will be a mental torment being experienced uniquely and for the first time as a direct result of Covid; for others, it will be exacerbating existing mental illhealth.

A couple of months ago I decided to give up my solitary regional idyll. I can’t precisely pinpoint Covid as the primary reason for that decision, but it probably was. I moved in with my elderly parents in Melbourne. It’s not going to be easy. They are good people, but as they say in the classics, we have issues. The move is not without personal and material sacrifices. Most notably I’ve had to give up my library – my pride and joy – a wrench beyond words.

On the plus side I hope to wring every advantage from living rent-free and without the burden of having to maintain a household. I’ve given up the advertorial work, which was both soul-destroying and an affront to every tenet of journalism I hold dear. I’m lending my hand to a start-up news site for Australian Defence Force veterans and I will be taking a last stab at finishing that damned novel.

As for the ECT, I can’t be certain that I would have proceeded with it had Covid not intervened. I can only say that I was open to it at the time. Today, not so much. There’s no firm reasoning behind that change of heart. I have chosen to trust in myself to do my best and let the cards fall where they may.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

Vinnies CEO Sleepout: it’s time to say goodnight

Amidst the social and economic ravages of the coronavirus pandemic some 1600 business, government and community leaders, armed with “a sleeping bag, beanie and piece of cardboard”, pretended to be homeless for one night at “event locations” in city centres around Australia.

After reinventing itself last year as a COVID-safe “interactive online event”, the Vinnies CEO Sleepout returned on 17 June (24 June in Perth).

Perhaps there was a sound case for the Vinnies CEO Sleepout when it began in Sydney in 2006 as a local community venture before going national in 2010. It was a way to raise awareness of Australia’s homelessness problem while raising money to help the St Vincent de Paul Society do its valuable work with the homeless.

But with each passing year Australia’s homeless “problem” has become an unforgivable blight on the so-called “lucky country” – a phrase meant ironically when it was coined by journalist, author and public intellectual Donald Horne in 1964.

The irony lingers when once a year we smugly pat ourselves on the back that CEOs have selflessly set aside this one night of the year “braving the cold” and “sleeping without shelter” as an act of solidarity with those homeless men, women and children who have little or no control over how many nights they spend without a roof over their heads.

The aim of the event is for leaders to “experience what it is like to be homeless for one night in winter”, which is so much tosh. They experience no such thing.

Newspapers, news sites and TV news bulletins dutifully provide images of beanied-up CEOs cowering in the bitter cold – often accompanied by predictable comments about how bitterly cold it is. The CEOs’ participation in the Sleepout – including their gratuitous weather reports – is supposed to convey empathy and understanding. Instead, this annual charade is tokenistic, condescending and crass.

It takes neither insight nor imagination to understand that being homeless, whatever form it takes, is not just about exposure to the elements. For the suddenly – or chronically – impoverished, those fleeing domestic violence, the abandoned, the unwell, those many thousands who for one reason or another have simply fallen through the cracks of a broken society, homelessness is also fear, despair, shame and uncertainty. It is the distress of the moment and the terror of the unknown. It is the sneering glances of strangers and the indifference of the community that was once their own.

Crass and tin-eared

The money raised through the Vinnies CEO Sleepout – $8.6 million this year – will provide much needed services and shelter for some, but however much money or awareness is raised the homelessness crisis remains, and deepens.

The CEO Sleepout seems especially crass and tin-eared in the current environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the incidence of poverty and demand for emergency support. A recent report revealed that the number of people seeking assistance from the Salvation Army increased six-fold between November 2020 and January this year. Only time – and Australia’s next national Census to be held in August – will reveal the social cost of the pandemic. (At the time of the 2016 Census, 116,400 Australians were experiencing homelessness. On Census night, 8200 people were estimated to be “sleeping rough” in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out, up from 6810 people in 2011.)

However well-meaning the Vinnies CEO Sleepout undoubtedly is, when homelessness is reduced to a PR exercise it trivialises this growing social disgrace. It is offensive that with thousands of Australians at their wit’s end we are still framing homelessness in this way.

Clearly it is not the intention of the St Vincent de Paul Society to gloss over the seriousness of homelessness in Australia but that is what the CEO Sleepout does.

The Morrison government does the very same when it triumphantly declares the Australian economy a miracle wonder that is the envy of the world. It is an economy that has become too comfortable with baked-in poverty and disadvantage, much as it is in the United States.

There is nothing miraculous about an economy – and more importantly, a society – that effectively treats homelessness as a by-product of a “globally competitive” economy to be tolerated. Homelessness has become something to mitigate rather than eradicate, and even then with half-hearted resolve: government services and welfare payments are cut to the bone and affordable housing is permanently out of reach for a growing proportion of the population.

Like hard-line economic rationalists, the CEO Sleepout normalises homelessness.

We have all the awareness we need

Vinnies CEO Sleepout seeks to raise awareness but we have all the awareness we need to know that homelessness has become deeply entrenched in Australian society. Many of us have seen the homeless in our cities, we have seen their bedding in alcoves, on the street and in parks and public spaces, and some of us have seen or suspected that people, especially women and children, are sleeping in their cars.

Even more alarming is what we don’t see. As a current Salvation Army campaign states: “For every person experiencing homelessness you see, there are 13 more that you can’t see.”

By any casual observation the homelessness crisis is getting worse, despite the growing popularity of the CEO Sleepout. St Vincent de Paul is to be saluted for its vital work in the community but the more entrenched Australia’s homelessness becomes the less relevant – and more offensive – the CEO Sleepout becomes.

St Vincent de Paul is already inviting CEOs to register for next year’s Sleepout. If the society won’t reconsider the appropriateness of the CEO Sleepout, those CEOs who participate in the event should.

For many companies – from small suburban businesses to towering corporate leviathans – the CEO Sleepout has become an annual PR staple. Every year the boastful, platitude-laden media releases go out, replete with photos of beanie- and hoodie-clad CEOs and executives in emulation of the homeless people whose souls they are saving, adding insult to their condescension.

Instead of making heroes of these business figures for sleeping in the open for one night, PR advisers would be better served asking their bosses if there is not a better way to make their contribution to a fairer and more equitable society.

Rather than photos of self-satisfied CEOs posing next to their pieces of cardboard, it would be far more heartening to hear what they are doing to stamp out the scourge of homelessness. What programs do their companies have in place to rehabilitate, employ and skill the most marginalised people in our community? What contribution are they making to social housing and access to education and training? What financial and practical support are they providing for budding entrepreneurs and future community leaders?

Tell us about that – and some enlightened companies do have such stories to tell – and spare us the the hollow theatre of “sleeping rough” for one night. Nobody cares that you slept on a piece of cardboard, least of all those Australians who have to do so every night. This writer for one would much rather hear from business leaders about how they are sharing their acumen and good fortune to build a better, fairer society.

Anything else is just a lucky country cop-out

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Sexual assault in minister’s suite: just another day at the prime minister’s office

Scott Morrison approaches politics like the medicine-show spruikers of old. The key to survival for those wily peddlers of miracle elixirs was to keep moving, staying one step ahead of outraged villagers, going on to transfix the gullible of some other unsuspecting locale with their bogus claims, half-truths and practised patter.

For the very best of these charlatans, such was their mesmerising charm, so fickle were their audiences, that even the angriest and most cynical denizens were willing to forgive and forget the next time the medicine-show caravan showed up.

That was the secret to the longevity of the medicine-show flim-flam men: just keep moving.

Scott Morrison has made a career of moving on, whether it’s flitting from one job to another, leaving behind him a detritus of failure and unmet expectations, or as prime minister, mastering the art of deflection, denial and distraction. Morrison routinely resorts to denunciation to silence or mock critics. He uses announcements, slogans and photo ops to beguile his audiences. With breathtaking opportunism he adjusts his persona to suit the occasion or objective and he is without shame in his resort to homespun platitudes, clichés and cant when called on to demonstrate empathy.

Morrison is a salesman of the showman variety. He is a marketing man who believes it’s all about the sizzle. It has defined his working life and it has certainly defined his prime ministership.

And he has been getting away with it, much to the apoplectic rage of his detractors who cannot understand how his flim-flammery is overlooked, and worse, rewarded. The Morrison government is the most scandal-prone federal government since the Whitlam government, but without its vision or achievements.

It’s unlikely that most Australians – diehard Liberals aside – can’t see through Scott Morrison. The true puzzle is why they are so willing to excuse his inauthenticity and dissembling.

But as our American friends would say, the jig may be up for Scott Morrison.

Text-book Morrison

And the catalyst is the harrowing and damning story of Brittany Higgins, the young Liberal party ministerial staffer who alleges that in March 2019 she was raped by a senior colleague on the couch of a minister’s Parliament House office – the office of their employer, the then-minister for Defence Industry Linda Reynolds, who is now Defence minister. Higgins was 24 at the time.

The PM’s initial response was text-book Morrison when he explained at a press conference:

“Jenny and I spoke last night and she said to me, ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’ Jenny has a way of clarifying things.”

There is nothing untoward about government leaders privately discussing matters of moment with their spouses and even to be influenced or guided by those discussions.

But was it really necessary to publicly frame his empathy in the context of his fireside chat with Jenny or to explain his understanding of the horror endured by Brittany Higgins by referencing the fact that he has daughters?

Kudos to 10 News political reporter Tegan George who took Morrison to task at that press conference: “Shouldn’t you have thought about it as a human being? What happens if men don’t have a wife and children?”

In typical fashion, Morrison batted away the reporter’s question with “I can’t follow the question you’re putting”.

Morrison’s concerned-father shtick – not the first time it has been employed by Morrison – was part homily but also a calculated gambit to place himself above the fray of a political shitstorm about to engulf his government.

At the heart of that approaching maelstrom was whether Scott Morrison’s office – and indeed Morrison himself – was aware of the alleged rape of two years ago. Until Brittany Higgins publicly revealed the alleged assault nothing had been done about it, ostensibly because the incident was a closely guarded secret and that Ms Higgins herself had opted not to pursue her initial complaint to the Australian Federal Police.

‘Wake-up call’

To the extent that the incident was “handled” it was done so atrociously. Ms Higgins recalls that in a meeting with Reynolds – conducted in the very room in which the alleged assault took place – the “options” available to Ms Higgins were discussed. The upshot of that meeting was that Ms Higgins felt that she was forced to choose between pursuing her complaint to police or keeping her “dream job” of just a few weeks. She chose the latter.

Reynolds has apologised for her mishandling of her employee’s complaint, noting that she was not aware that the meeting had taken place in the room that was the scene of the alleged crime.

Following the disclosure of the alleged assault in February, Morrison told a Coalition party-room meeting that this was a “wake-up call” about the treatment of women in federal parliament.

This was a hollow declaration. The toxic environment that women staffers have to endure in Parliament House was well known. It occasioned the introduction of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s 2018 “bonk ban”, an edict banning ministers from having sexual relationships with staffers following then-Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s affair with media adviser Vikki Campion.

More recently, in November 2020, ABC TV’s Four Corners program revealed allegations of inappropriate conduct involving staff members by ministers Christian Porter and Alan Tudge. At the time, Morrison was apparently not moved to consult with Jenny about his response. Morrison chose not to discipline Porter and Tudge because the program canvassed behaviour that took place during Turnbull’s prime ministership. But neither did the ABC’s revelations constitute a “wake up call” to warrant a review of the prevailing culture at Parliament House. Far from it. Communications minister Paul Fletcher sent ABC chair Ita Buttrose a “please explain” letter so affronted was he by the intrusions into the “personal lives” of his ministerial colleagues.

The secret everyone knew

The assertion that it took Brittany Higgins’ revelations to provide the wake-up call is disingenuous. Morrison claims he was “advised” by his office that it only became aware of the Higgins allegations on Friday 12 February and that he was not informed until the following Monday. (No point spoiling the hard-working PM’s weekend over such trifles.)

The idea that the Prime Minister’s Office would be kept in the dark about such an incident is laughable.

It especially enters the realm of the inconceivable given that there was a Department of Parliamentary Services internal inquiry in the immediate aftermath of the incident following concerns expressed by security guards, an inquiry Speaker Tony Smith and Senate President Scott Ryan were aware of, as reportedly were several Coalition and Labor senators.

We also know that a flurry of texts from as early as April 2019 have come to light indicating that members of the PMO were aware of the incident.

Ms Higgins has also claimed that Morrison’s principal private secretary contacted her to “check in” around the time of the Four Corners program, a claim which has been denied.

Morrison claims to be mystified by claims that his office had long known of the incident contrary to their advice that they only recently became aware. He has instituted a Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet review to “test that advice”.

Political apparatchiks being what they are they will gladly take a bullet for their PM and wear it as a badge of honour. Scott Morrison may be personally in the clear when it comes to his knowledge of the alleged rape, but this is only made possible by a culture of “plausible deniability” that keeps the boss ignorant of details while minions beaver away at resolving potentially damaging problems.

The evidence that is emerging is that the PMO treated the alleged rape of Ms Higgins as a political problem to be managed, not as yet another instance of the corrosive working culture for women at Parliament House.

A second woman, a former Liberal staffer, who has come forward to allege she was sexually assaulted late last year by the same former Morrison government adviser accused of raping Brittany Higgins condemned the government’s inaction in 2019.

“If this had been properly dealt with by the government in 2019 this would not have happened to me,’’ she said.

Morrison must ultimately bear responsibility for a cold-hearted culture within his office that reduces rape to a political problem. Clearly Morrison’s self-proclaimed humanity has not rubbed off on his advisers.

We now have four inquires under way or promised: into the prime minister’s office, into the process of making workplace complaints at Parliament House, into complaints handling processes within the Coalition and an independent review of the workplace culture at Parliament House.

Whether those inquiries will amount to anything while Scott Morrison remains prime minister is another matter. More than likely the caravan will simply move on.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

The flim-flam men: it’s no surprise that Scott Morrison refuses to condemn Donald Trump

Scott Morison’s insipid response to the storming of the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump, having been incited to do so by Trump himself, was an excruciating embarrassment for Australia. But then, so is Scott Morrison.

Whether for his climate-change inaction, the indefinite detention of refugees, the witless antagonising of China or the abandonment of Julian Assange Morrison stands on the edges of the world stage as a leader recognised for just one principal ambition: to be liked by Donald Trump.

So it would have surprised no one that Morrison, while finding the riots in Washington “terribly concerning”, pointedly refrained from criticising Trump for his role in the insurrection.

The leaders of the UK, Germany, France and Canada – traditional allies of the US – showed no such reticence. They unambiguously condemned Trump. When the US President deliberately foments violence in a bid to retain power denied him by voters, there is no room for diplomatic diffidence and every responsibility to speak out.

This was not a mere matter of “internal politics” from which outsiders should abstain.

Donald Trump was not only an affront to American norms but to the norms of those nations that subscribe to democratic values and rule of law. For world leaders to have tolerated Trump’s abhorrent behaviour would have been to debase everything the world’s great democracies stand for. Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau understood that allowing Trump’s demagoguery to pass without censure would have been cowardly, irresponsible and hypocritical.

But not Scott Morrison who confined himself to tut-tutting the Washington riots. While the world condemned Trump – even members of his own party – Morrison batted away questions from reporters who asked if Trump bore any responsibility for the attempted insurrection.

“It’s not for me to offer commentary on other leaders,” Morrison explained. 

Even when that leader is the President of the United States and he flagrantly and defiantly incites supporters to overthrow the nation’s democratic processes?

Morrison’s silence spoke with abundant and disturbing clarity.

Scott Morrison is a Trump man, and like Trump’s most rabid supporters, including in Australia, Morrison believes his orange hero can do no wrong.

Morrison and Trump are cut from the same cloth.

Corrosive credo

Both men believe that substance has no role in success, that substance is for losers. Anyone fool enough to stand for something is only going to get torn down, usually by the likes of Trump and Morrison. Every flim-flam man knows that spin is king and detail is death. Announcements are an end in themselves; a lie repeated often enough becomes truth; and anyone who disagrees with you is the enemy, to be belittled, discredited and harangued. Theirs is a corrosive credo: never explain, never apologise, deny everything and embellish at every turn.

Trump is almost certainly not a billionaire, but he repeatedly boasts that he is and he has always lived like one, or at least like a comic-book caricature of a billionaire. Likewise, there is nothing in Trump’s history that sets him apart as an astute businessman – quite the reverse in fact – but the persona of a successful tycoon took him all the way to the White House.

With relentless PR, an entourage of sycophants and a media too willing to look the other way, Trump got away with the billionaire tycoon charade. And it sticks to this day despite his clownish incompetence as president and the ignominy of the dying days of his presidency. History may not be kind to Trump, but his loyal fan base probably will be, and that includes Scott Morrison.

Morrison knows all about appearances. His cunning and chutzpah disguise a pedestrian intellect; he is not especially diligent and detail is not his strong suit but he is garrulous, in the way people with nothing to say often are, and a constant stream of announcements and re-announcements give the impression of a PM hard at work; and while his CV prior to entering politics suggests high attainment his career is murky and his successes over-stated.

Morrison may not have been a very good marketing man, but he has a marketing man’s instincts. His prime ministership has been all about positioning: the daggy-dad persona, the backyard-dad photo ops, the faux candid moments captured by his taxpayer-funded personal photographer; the exaggerated elbow bumps and bonhomie in public gatherings. Morrison spends more time portraying himself as Prime Minister than actually being Prime Minister.

Trump would understand where his antipodean protégé is coming from. Both men are “products”. All politicians are to a certain extent, but in the case of Trump and Morrison, that’s all they are.

Bread-and-circuses shtick

Trump is infamous for his transparently fake props when making solemn announcements (such as the table of manila folders at his press conference as president-elect to discuss future arrangements for the running of his business interests); the cringeworthy expressions of fealty and gratitude from members of Trump’s cabinet; the bible-in-hand photo op in front of St John’s church.

Trump may be more vulgar and boorish than Morrison, but they share the same bread-and-circuses shtick. Their heroes and role models are not Washington and Churchill but Barnum and Bailey.

Morrison is loath to criticise Trump – even with the disgraced president being impeached for an historic second time – because they are so similar. Both believe that power is its own reward; that having gained it their every effort and connivance must be geared to the sole task of retaining it. They do this not by good or worthy governance but through manipulation, artifice and sophistry.

But there is more to Morrison’s refusal to directly criticise Trump than fraternal love.

Morrison believes that, like Trump, he has a base, a conservative base that is sympathetic to Trump and his ideals (such as they are); a base that feels alienated, misunderstood and disenfranchised. Morrison believes there are votes in not criticising Trump.

Likewise, when Morrison insists that it is not for him to “censor” government backbenchers George Christensen and Craig Kelly for their crackpot theories about the US election and, of more consequence, COVID-19, he is more to the point saying that he is not going to risk alienating voters who agree with their discredited fantasies.

As a leader Morrison is entitled to assert his aversion to censorship, but as leader Morrison is also obliged to squash and discredit wild claims made by his MPs. Morrison is quick to defend MPs’ “freedom of speech”, but he is conspicuously reluctant to correct and distance himself from their misguided assertions.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Deputy PM Michael McCormack have also taken the freedom-of-speech high ground, apparently agreeing with their boss that it’s better to let misinformation flourish than to potentially upset voters by denouncing it.

This is Scott Morrison’s Australia, where leadership takes a distant second place to expediency, where the politics of three-card tricks and self-preservation have reduced government to its lowest and most cynical ebb.

It’s not clear why Morrison retains the trust of most Australians. Is it apathy, indifference? Perhaps an exhausted populace is hibernating until the next election before they turn their attention to Canberra.

Whatever the case, as of right now it appears that Scotty from Marketing has the next election in the bag. Australia has been flim-flammed.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

The emperor with no pants thinks it’s all about him

Scott Morrison considers himself first and foremost a marketing man. Unfortunately for him, and Australia, he’s not a very good one.

His entire approach to government is based on the premise that he is a “brand” and that policies and government decisions are marketing exercises whose single aim is to support and enhance the brand. There is no national interest in such an approach, only self-interest.

When Morrison government ministers are revealed to be philanderers, crooks or incompetents – and as is frequently the case, all of the above – the prime minister’s first and only consideration is to protect the brand. Whatever the charge levelled at him, his government or his ministers the default reaction is to stonewall, deny and deflect.

It’s a simple proposition – simple as in puerile: that to admit to any deficiency is to place at risk the reputation of the brand. Quite apart from being a doubtful marketing strategy, such vacuity is the antithesis of good government.

Because the brand – not the good government of Australia – is Scott Morrison’s number-one priority, all the conventions and norms that define and protect our democracy have been jettisoned with trademark arrogance and contempt. (The comparisons with fellow salesman and flim-flam man Donald Trump make themselves.)

With breathtaking audacity Morrison has ditched any notion of ministerial standards and propriety, let alone observance of the law. He doesn’t even pretend.

The Prime Brand of Australia

Under Morrison’s government-by-marketing mandate the brand is sacrosanct so anyone daring to question a government decision or failing is ignored, belittled or fed an incompressible word-salad response that drips with condescension and indignation. Never has an Australian prime minister considered media enquiry with such scorn; Morrison considers it a personal affront to be held to account by journalists.

When Morrison treats media enquiry with such disdain he is treating the Australian public no differently. He is of the view that the public’s right to know – or the public’s entitlement to expect certain standards of behaviour – is secondary to the greater good, of which he is the sole arbiter. It is an attitude he practises, one might observe, with pentecostal fervour.

Morrison conducts government from the pulpit and expects his congregation to be compliant and adoring.

And because marketing is a religion of sorts, its deity being the brand, Morrison, the Prime Brand of Australia, has made self-aggrandisement at the centre of his prime ministership.

His prime ministership began as the cringeworthy cult of the Daggy Dad – all baseball caps and thumbs-up bonhomie – and after a sojourn away from the limelight, Daggy Dad is back with a vomitous vengeance.

There were the recent photos of Backyard Daggy Dad building a cubby house and a chicken coop, but the most egregious has to be the latest staged photo, taken by his official photographer: Scott Morrison in his Zoom ensemble, besuited upper half, baggy shorts and thongs below.

The spectacle demeaned his office

The occasion was the aftermath of a tele-press conference conducted while the prime minister is in “iso” at the Lodge – that’s man-of-the-people speak for isolation – following his somewhat gratuitous trip to Japan.

Frankly, if Morrison had kept his wardrobe secrets to himself, perhaps to surface years later in his memoirs, the matter could stand unremarked. But what marketing man worth his salt could give up such an opportunity? Certainly not Scotty from Marketing.

The spectacle demeaned his office – particularly at such a grave time when the Brereton war-crimes report hangs over Australia, a topic he addressed at the press conference – and confirmed his attitude that Australians are mere children to be entertained.

What other prime minister would have authorised publication of such a photo? Perhaps Bob Hawke, but at least that would have been an accurate reflection of a genuinely larrikin personality, although it’s to be questioned whether even Hawke the iconoclast would have exposed the office of PM to such ridicule. Certainly not John Howard, Paul Keating or, setting aside irony for the moment, Malcolm Fraser.

The photo of Scott Morrison sans trousers rankles most of all because it perfectly sums up the man: tin-eared, self-absorbed and utterly convinced that running the country is all about PR and marketing. Even worse, that it’s all about him.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Anthony Albanese comes out of the shadows but budget reply is just the beginning of the challenge ahead

Anthony Albanese’s budget-in-reply speech, his first as opposition leader, has at last staked his claim as Australia’s alternative prime minister. Until now, Albanese’s leadership of the Labor party has been lost in a haze of bipartisanship and national emergency.

Fortune has not favoured Albanese since becoming federal Labor leader and leader of the opposition in May last year. The devastating Black Summer bushfires, promptly followed by the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic, has for the most part placed the “national interest” above the political fray and reduced Albanese to a political cipher.

There have been moments of political heat applied to the teflon-coated Morrison government – the “sports rorts affair” was a rare win of sorts for the opposition – but the Labor leader has gone out of his way to be conciliatory and even-handed with Scott Morrison, particularly during the worst of the pandemic. Morrison has returned the courtesy with trademark contempt, whether in the form of pointedly excluding Albanese from his national cabinet or routinely turning his back on him in parliament.

Albanese’s budget-in-reply marked the re-emergence of Labor from its self-imposed exile. It has at last reconciled itself with the unexpected loss of last year’s election and it has resolved to present an alternative vision for the nation and give voice to those sections of the community that are overlooked or disadvantaged by this government.

On Thursday night Albanese provided a glimpse of what Australia under his stewardship would look like.

Unlike the Seinfeldian Morrison government – a government about nothing – Albanese’s manifesto was about making a difference.

It was always clear that the Morrison government had no interest in exploiting the clean slate presented by the pandemic to reimagine Australia as a fairer, kinder and more equitable society. Scott Morrison couldn’t be less interested in such an Australia. His only interest is in a return to the hidebound conservatism of pre-COVID Australia – a conservatism he has prosecuted with uncompromising vigour.

White-picket fence PM

As I have previously written: “The returned Morrison government, full of Pentecostal vigour and conviction, was intent not only on preserving [John Howard’s] white-picket fences in the suburbs, it was going to build a white-picket fence around Australia.”

For now Scott Morrison has made do with building cubby houses and chicken coops in his backyard, but he has never lost sight of the white-picket fence.

Whether it’s the anti-intellectualism of his higher education “reforms”, plans to introduce an English-language requirement for partner visa applicants, a renewed commitment to water down welfare support for Australia’s most disadvantaged and a determination to make permanent pandemic measures allowing employers increased flexibility to change employment conditions, the signs could not be clearer that Morrison’s conservatism is set in stone…if not the stone age.

Morrison’s conservatism does not extend to an embrace of the values and conventions of the Westminster system of government.

It is hard to imagine an Australian prime minister with less interest in the proprieties of government and a more brazen determination to protect compromised, ineffective or incompetent ministers from scrutiny, let alone accountability.

When considering the list of ministers deserving the sack, censure or demotion – Richard Colbeck, Stuart Robert, Michael Sukkar, Angus Taylor and Alan Tudge come readily to mind – one can only speculate on just what it would take to raise the ire of Scott Morrison.

The recent announcement that Employment Minister Michaelia Cash will be promoted to deputy leader of the government in the senate at the end of the year illustrates the calibre of minister favoured by Morrison.

Albanese’s budget-in-reply was refreshing not just because of its policy content but because it offered the promise of a very different Australia.

Labor’s headline policy announcement, the overhaul of the childcare system – the centrepiece of which is the introduction of a universal 90 per cent childcare subsidy – does what the government’s budget did not: provide genuine stimulus to female workforce participation. The $6.2 billion plan (over three years starting 1 July 2022) not only acknowledges the disproportionate burden carried by women during the pandemic it also recognises the fundamental role of childcare in society and the economy.

Labor should be under no illusion

“The current system of caps and subsidies and thresholds isn’t just confusing and costly; it actually penalises the families it’s meant to help. It’s working mums who cop the worst of it,” Albanese said.

“Women are the key to kick-starting our economy again. In the worst recession in 100 years, we have to make sure women aren’t forced to choose between their family and their jobs.”

Albanese also unveiled Labor’s $20 billion nation-building project to modernise the national electricity grid and ensure that Australia has the infrastructure to become a “renewable energy superpower”. The 10-year project, to be overseen by a new government-owned entity, the Rewiring the Nation Corporation, would revitalise traditional industries such as steel and aluminium, create “thousands” of construction jobs, and drive growth in new sectors such as hydrogen and battery production.

Albanese’s budget-in-reply was a refreshing departure from the hectoring politics of the Morrison government.

But Labor should be under no illusion. Australians may not like Scott Morrison, and they might not be entirely comfortable with his corrosive conservatism, but there remains a prevailing view that he is a safer pair of hands. Australians have closed their minds to the flaws of this government because they cannot embrace the possibility of Labor in power. Australians are rejecting the impulses of their better selves because the Morrison government has convinced them that “mean and tricky” will always deliver better government than “well-meaning and altruistic”.

Anthony Albanese has at last come out of the shadows and his challenge now is to convince a nervous and battered populace that it should too.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

COVID-19 provides Scott Morrison with a clean slate and an opportunity to reboot Australia

It has been said many times in recent weeks that things won’t be the same when we get to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s probably right. What hasn’t been said is that the eventual defeat of COVID-19 will present Australia, and the world, with a clean slate, which is infinitely more exciting.

The society we live in today is not the result of a master plan, nor the fruits of a grand vision or epic struggle. It is a haphazard melange of outcomes good and bad.

A clean slate presents a rare opportunity to start over: an opportunity to right past wrongs, to repair the unintended consequences of globalisation, to create a fairer and kinder society.

Simply shrugging that things are going to change, more as a function of dumb circumstance than deliberate agency, is the kind of apathy that gave us the bloated, selfish and unsustainable way of life that has brought our planet to the brink.

Beginning with the corrosive Howard government Australia has continued its lurch to the right. Paul Keating, sensing defeat in the 1996 federal election, was on the money when he warned: “When the government changes, the country changes.”

The Howard years changed Australia into a country that was less tolerant and more self-centred, a country whose overt racism was reawakened and given license by a government that knew no shame – Tampa, Children overboard, “We will decide who comes to this country…” – a country whose people still parroted jingoistic ideals of the fair go and mateship but who had become self-absorbed and heartless, a country whose economy had, like the US, baked in a permanent and growing underclass that was vilified for bludging off the rest of the nation. Howard embraced a scorched-earth brand of globalisation in which the drive for “global competitiveness” and a quasi-religious faith in “the market” would supposedly ensure the commonweal. What poverty could not be alleviated by globalisation was deemed the fault off the poor. Howard super-charged traditional Liberal antipathies by demonising the unemployed and trade unions.

After 11 years voters grew weary of the “mean and tricky” Howard government and in 2007 booted the government from office and Howard from parliament. But while voters were attracted to the optimism and vibrancy of Kevin Rudd’s Labor, we remained Howard’s Australia.

Voters went off Howard – the cranky old coot in the tracksuit – but they weren’t prepared to hand in their white picket fences. Howard orthodoxies still coursed through the electorate and continue to do so. Labor’s dilemma became how to be progressive without alienating Howard’s conservative battlers.

John Howard hasn’t quite left the building

In the post-Howard years poverty and homelessness became more entrenched, the unemployed and disadvantaged remained marginalised, the mantra that “work is the best welfare” continued to inform government policy, the harsh treatment of asylum seekers continued and – Rudd’s historic Sorry notwithstanding – the grievances of indigenous Australians went unanswered. It says everything about Australia’s political climate that in the 2019 federal election Labor could not bring itself to promise an increase to the Newstart allowance, committing itself only to a review.

The Liberal party has remained Howard’s Liberal party, and then some. The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments venerated Howard and practised his hard-C brand of conservatism – even if Malcolm Turnbull was an unwilling acolyte.

The returned Morrison government, full of Pentecostal vigour and conviction, was intent not only on preserving white-picket fences in the suburbs, it was going to build a white-picket fence around Australia.

Morrison shared Howard’s conservatism but, unlike Howard, he was inarticulate and tin-eared, was a weak policy thinker, tended to shoot from the hip, was almost comically sensitive to criticism and enquiry, and, to put it bluntly, often seemed out of his depth. Morrison surrounded himself with ministers who shared similar attributes and he frequently overlooked and defended blatant ministerial incompetence and malfeasance. The national bushfire emergency marked the beginning of 2020 and never had an Australian prime minister been found so wanting in a moment of crisis.

We can only speculate on the course and fortunes of the frazzled Morrison government had the coronavirus not intervened. For a time, as the global health emergency unfolded, it seemed that Morrison was again out of his depth, proudly declaring that he was off to the footy even as he foreshadowed a ban on large gatherings. His early public statements on the virus were rushed and confused and verged on incoherent.

And then something changed, not least the prime minister himself. He overcame his distaste for Rudd-style economic stimulus, casting aside firmly held ideological verities about big government. What changed? Morrison was not known for changing his mind or accepting unpalatable advice. We can only assume that once he accepted the enormity of the threat posed by the pandemic the policy options recommended themselves. Morrison is not known for nuanced policy formulation, so again we must assume that this time he followed advice from inside and outside government.

An opportunity to reimagine Australia

Unlike the Rudd government’s response to the GFC the Morrison government’s response to COVID-19 is not designed to stave off recession. That there will be a recession is a given. But at least the blow to Australia, both economic and social, will be cushioned. The government’s $320 billion (16.4% of GDP) in economic support for the Australian financial system, businesses, households and individuals affected by the coronavirus will ensure that come the other side of the pandemic Australia will not have been reduced to rubble.

Morrison’s thinking is very likely that once the coronavirus is defeated Australia (that is, the Coalition government) will resume “responsible” economic policy.

But the “defeat” of the coronavirus is unlikely to be total and in any case it’s unrealistic to assume that Australia can bounce back as if 2020 was a self-contained event. The economic impact of COVID-19 is likely to linger for years, which will necessitate extraordinary policy settings and “new normals”.

In many respects, the Morrison government has let the big-government genie out of the bottle; it’s going to take some doing to get that genie back in there. (Scott Morrison will become the new Major Anthony Nelson.)

So why not use COVID-19 as an opportunity to reimagine Australian society?

The Liberal ideal of small government is just that, an ideal, an ideal wrapped in mythology. Australia has never had small government. Small government ended with colonisation. Since 1788, government has loomed large in the lives of Australians, and especially in the lives of the original inhabitants.

Instead of an unattainable – and ultimately dishonest – quest for small government, Australians should be clamouring for better government. Australians already want that; they have simply stopped believing that it is possible. This may be our chance.

We have the opportunity to reset Australia, to be true to the values we claim to hold dear, to strive for a fairer society rather than accept that progress cannot co-exist with equity. As Barack Obama recently observed, the pandemic has underlined the importance of government and, more to the point, the importance of good government.

Hopefully the coronavirus emergency will make people more vocal in insisting on honest and accountable government in future. Australians might realise that their tacit acceptance of mediocrity in government has been at their expense.

The Morrison government has an opportunity to anticipate the demand for better, more enlightened and more relevant government by making some fundamental changes.

It should use its clean slate to reconsider its ambivalence to climate change; it can overcome its ideological myopia to consider whether some of its “wartime” measures should become permanent features, free childcare being a case in point.

It can reconsider its kneejerk opposition to wage rises for our lowest paid and give meaning to its rhetoric about the importance of shelf-stackers, service workers and the many and varied invisible workers that make society tick, particularly casual workers. (State governments can put taxpayers’ money where their mouths are and properly reward healthcare workers, teachers and first responders.)

It can use some of the empathy gained during the pandemic to devise an asylum seeker policy that restores human dignity to the world’s most vulnerable people and it can get serious about making a meaningful peace with our own most vulnerable, Australia’s dispossessed First Peoples. It can also call off its ideological vendetta against Australians on welfare.

The Morrison government has a once-in-a-century window to reset Australia, to banish the corrosive ideologies that have been permitted to fuse themselves into Australian society, to channel New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and place kindness at the centre of its deliberations, to act with its new-found compassion in the interests of all Australians. And it can use the reset to clean up its own back yard.

If Scott Morrison thinks his job is to restore Australia to business as usual post-coronavirus then he hasn’t learned a thing.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

 

Bob Gottliebsen is right: Scott Morrison is out of his depth as PM

Bob Gottliebsen made an especially interesting comment in his column for The Australian today. Commenting on the Morrison government’s first coronavirus rescue package, which was generally felt to have missed its mark, Bob slipped in an observation that might easily have gone through to the ‘keeper.

Bob wrote: “The world saw our first ‘rescue attempt’, where [the government] thought we could overcome the problem with higher depreciation allowances and giving more money to the elderly and welfare recipients, as not only crazy but as confirmation we had a government which was out of its depth.”

One reason it may not have raised an eyebrow is that the observation that Morrison is incompetent is made often enough on social media.

But it’s something else again when Australia’s most respected business columnist matter-of-factly dismisses a government – and by logical extension the head of that government – as not just misguided or mistaken but “out of its depth”.

Love or hate our prime ministers, agree or disagree with them, there is generally an assumption in the electorate that anyone who makes it to the top must be competent, able and smart.

The last time Australians thought otherwise was the prime-ministership of William McMahon (1971-2). McMahon served as a minister in the Menzies, Holt and Gorton governments, occasionally with distinction, and was external (foreign) affairs minister when he deposed John Gorton to become PM. But the position of prime minister was a step too far for the ambitious and scheming McMahon: he seemed overwhelmed by the job, an anachronism in the new decade and had become the plaything of the magisterial Gough Whitlam who swept to power in 1972. McMahon was conspicuously out of his depth.

What about Tony Abbott you ask? It’s true, he had no business being prime minister. But Abbott was an aberration, a terrible mistake, which the electorate understood the moment he was sworn in. When he was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, the nation breathed a sigh of relief and it was understood that this was something never to be spoken of again.

As for Turnbull, he looked and sounded the part and was obviously bright, but the nation was deprived of the “best Malcolm” when he retired “angry Malcolm”. Bob Hawke gave up the grog when he became PM, but he was still Hawkie. Turnbull without the fire in the belly became strangely one-dimensional. There was no Keating electricity and spontaneity, none of Whitlam’s crash-through-or-crash, no hint of Fraser’s authority.

That peculiar brand of Christian mongrel

Australians knew Turnbull was stymied by his party’s right, but for this he received neither sympathy nor allowance. People expected him to stiffen his spine and take on the recalcitrants, to put principle before internal politics, to fight for what he believed in. Turnbull called it pragmatism, the electorate saw it as appeasement. There was no dancing in the street when Turnbull was toppled; nobody wanted him to go that way. But was he missed? People were missing Turnbull even when he was PM.

And so to Scott Morrison. A man of some attainment before entering parliament, in a LinkedIn kind of way. Lots of fancy job titles, but always a nagging suspicion that something was not quite right.

As Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and later Minister for Social Services Morrison got to demonstrate that peculiar brand of Christian mongrel that presents itself as tough love. As the nation’s underwhelming Treasurer Morrison gave the distinct impression that all in all he’d rather be in Philadelphia. Whatever a BSc in economic geography is, neither it nor his experience as a senior minister prepared him for the Treasurer’s job, so better to chuck that in and go for the boss’s job (once again setting off that LinkedIn vibe).

When he became PM in 2018 he mysteriously took on the cringeworthy persona of the daggy-dad prime minister, complete with baseball cap, goofy smile and backyard-barbecue bonhomie. Once elected PM in his own right the character disappeared.

Scotty from Marketing had simply created a temporary brand in the lead up to the 2019 federal election: the dufus-daryl persona was meant to assure the electorate that he was not a back-room assassin of prime ministers and to lull Labor into a false sense of security.

Morrison is not very bright. But he is wily, or as an outback philosopher might prefer, “cunning as a shithouse rat”.

Once he was unexpectedly returned to office – Morrison proving a better campaigner than Bill Shorten – the Gomer Pyle persona disappeared. In its place the electorate was treated to more of that bitter, hard-faced preacher that preceded the man in the baseball cap. The goofy smile became a thin-lipped scowl and the happy eyes became lifeless lumps of coal. When Morrison forgets himself he takes on the look that will be familiar to anyone who has been to a Catholic school: the half-crazed, half-nutter priest, volatile and totally unpredictable. (Imagine Morrison in a cassock and amaze yourself at how easily the image comes to mind.)

Deny, dissemble and divert

Of course, looks are neither here nor there when competence is what most voters look for in their leaders. Malcolm Fraser as prime minister was no cuddle-bunny but that didn’t stop him from winning three successive elections.

But Morrison? He has no redeeming features as prime minister. None.

His first response to criticism or ministerial scandal is to deny, dissemble and divert, even when he does not know the facts, and worse, when he does. Once it is clear that he has denied the undeniable he will maintain his position to the death. He resents being questioned by journalists or by the opposition in Question Time and will point blank refuse to answer a question not to his liking. When he does deign to “answer” a question he treats his interlocutor to a steaming torrent of word vomit.

Under Morrison, Question Time is a bigger joke than usual, ministerial standards and ministerial responsibility have been essentially jettisoned, the public service has been compromised and to quote policy wonk Kevin Rudd, Morrison is “showing himself to be an abject failure in the engine room of public policy”.

Delays in the formulation of policy in response to fast-moving events are explained away as methodical and considered deliberation. The responses to the national bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic were nothing of the kind. They were slow, misdirected and inadequate.

Even before these events, the Australian economy was showing signs of distress. Despite blather about an “economic plan”, the government was armed with nothing more than its delusional budget surplus.

Morrison is super-sensitive to criticism. Rather than being seen to submit to the opposition’s charges of a flailing economy the government stubbornly maintained that everything was going to plan. When the pandemic struck, Morrison and his successor as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg insisted that the promised surplus was inviolate. A position only reluctantly dropped.

Morrison’s biggest concern was that his stimulus measures were not compared with the Rudd government’s stimulus package following the GFC. Morrison harbours a visceral loathing of Rudd and his former Treasurer Wayne Swan, which extends to their stimulus package. The objectives of Morrison’s response to the coronavirus was to deliver a stimulus package that was seen as the antithesis of the Rudd-Swan program: methodical, considered and proportionate.

Scott Morrison is petty-minded, petulant and peevish. Australians have seen this time and time again. One has only to think of the scandals engulfing Angus Taylor and Bridget McKenzie and Morrison’s unblinking defence of the indefensible.

These are not attributes that ensure a level-headed and intelligent response to policy challenges and national emergencies.

For anyone who retained any doubt about Morrison’s competence, his handling of the coronavirus emergency should remove any such doubt. Bob is right. Morrison is out of his depth.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is just as unforgiving on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

 

The scramble for toilet paper was just the first surprise of the COVID-19 outbreak…why weren’t we better prepared?

If the coronavirus were to be considered a test for humankind we would all be feeling pretty nervous about the result right now. An F-minus seems in order. And one imagines we haven’t even got to the hard part of the test yet.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has revealed much more than our predilection for toilet paper. But even that deserves a moment’s reflection.

The scramble for toilet paper in the nation’s supermarkets reveals a hitherto little seen aspect of the Australian fundament, and more is the pity that it did not stay out of sight. And if you are wondering, either definition of fundament will suffice.

Here are the three stages of the Great Australian Toilet-paper Stampede: initially a quaint unexpected consequence of the developing coronavirus contagion, then mildly disturbing as supermarkets took to assigning security guards in the toilet-paper aisle, and finally a sense of despair that neither calls for calm nor public shaming could arrest the irrational mania for paper products.

Oh, for the days when the paper wars referred to circulation battles between The Age, the Herald Sun and The Australian. (Readers in other cities insert your own mastheads.)

The good news for Australia’s daily newspapers is that for critics who have long maintained that newspapers were only good for toilet paper, the rush for actual toilet paper suggests otherwise.

It’s difficult to attribute this behaviour to the “great unwashed”, for clearly these are people of impeccable hygiene.

Why then this collective conclusion that stockpiling toilet paper somehow outsmarts the coronavirus? Especially as the virus, little troubled by borders, perforated or otherwise, is now criss-crossing the globe with contemptuous abandon. For now, there is little clue as to when and how the warehoused toilet paper will make its mark.

The impact of the coronavirus has way outstripped the initial mealy-mouthed assurances of calm and calls for perspective from politicians and grandees such as Alexander Downer.

Downer tweeted a few days ago: “So far this year 4,000 people have died from covid19, 92,000 from flu, 320,000 from HIV/AIDS, 256,000 from road accidents. Perspective!”

As of this morning federal finance minister Mathias Cormann was inclined to agree with Downer. Cormann told breakfast radio that he was still contemplating a visit to the Melbourne Grand Prix even as the Victorian government and Formula 1 organisers were preparing to shut down the event. Perhaps Cormann was sanguine about the effect of the coronavirus because he has adequate provisions of toilet paper.

Much more than a nasty cold

By the end of the day, even the ponderous Morrison government finally understood that the coronavirus is much more than a nasty cold and that it is spreading more rapidly than was initially held.

The historic cancellation of the Melbourne Grand Prix has cast doubts about the start of the AFL season next week – with the prospect of matches taking place without spectators under consideration – and the NRL season, which commenced this week, is a week by week proposition. In the meantime, Cricket Australia has banned crowds from the Sydney Cricket Ground for tonight’s Australia-New Zealand game.

These are conversations that would have been considered unthinkable a year ago. However, with the Morrison government today accepting the advice of national, state and territory chief medical officers to ban gatherings of more than 500 people, many more of these unthinkable conversations will be taking place around Australia.

While we’re at it, another conversation worth having is why it has taken more than two months since the first report of the outbreak on 31 December 2019 for such crowd bans to be considered. Instead, even as the number of coronavirus cases increased around the world, authorities and organisers of large cultural events in Australia insisted their events were safe, with plenty of free hand-wash to be made available. It is only a matter of good luck that Australia has not had serious breakouts of the virus.

Similarly, the Morrison government took its time before announcing its $17.6 billion economic stimulus package. This is supposed to assure Australians that the government was being methodical, considered and proportionate – blah, blah, blah. This was a government that placed cosmetics ahead of what was important for Australia. It was more concerned with not appearing to “rush” its response, as the Rudd government allegedly did in response to the global financial crisis, and with being more “targeted”, again, unlike the Rudd government’s supposed haphazard approach to stimulating the economy. (Scott Morrison’s visceral, not to say un-Christian, hatred of Kevin Rudd and former Treasurer Wayne Swan has been something to behold.)

$750 handout is laughable

If we think the cultural impacts of the coronavirus are going to be significant – and they will be – they will be dwarfed by the economic hits. The Morrison government has at last publicly given up on its spurious budget surplus, but is not yet moved to prepare the community for a recession. (A technical recession, that is; many Australians have been living in recessionary conditions for some time.)

It seems absurd that it’s even a matter of debate whether Australia will go into recession. It almost certainly was going to anyway; the coronavirus pandemic simply seals it.

Government one-off-payments of $750 to six million Australians from 31 March might soften the blow of a weak economy belted by the coronavirus, but even that’s a best-case scenario. The coronavirus is going to expose all those households that have been teetering on the edge for the past decade. The idea that $750 is going to make a difference to anyone is laughable; it won’t even touch the sides of most household debt, which is where most of it will go.

COVID-19 has been revealing in so many ways.

Here we are, humankind in the 21st century – enlightened, beneficiaries of scientific breakthroughs, holders of unprecedented knowledge, enjoying record good health, wealth and peace – and we’re fumbling around in the dark, unprepared, displaying wholesale panic, fear, greed and stupidity.

A noticeable feature of the coronavirus pandemic has been the lack of international co-operation between governments. So much for that top-secret World Government that was supposed to be pulling the strings behind the scenes. Instead, it’s every government for itself, every government, with a few notable exceptions, apparently run by Laurel & Hardy. (With apologies to Laurel & Hardy.)

Of our response to COVID-19 it can be concluded that we have learned nothing from the past and the future is a place for which we are ill-prepared.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is just as pessimistic on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher