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.
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.
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