There is no surprise that Prime Minister Scott Morrison should be Donald Trump’s new bestie. Both are flim-flam men who will say whatever it takes to divert, obfuscate and deceive. Both are embodiments of the Peter Principle, obtaining high office way above their competency. And both are seemingly oblivious to the chaos, embarrassment and bewilderment that occasions their every decision and pronouncement.
Morrison will be familiar to anyone working in a large corporation. He is the bumbling middle manager, bereft of any obvious skills, who somehow keeps getting promoted.
His one notable skill, an entirely self-serving skill, is that he knows how to game the system.
Sometimes it’s the happy facility to be the last man standing – the Steven Bradbury Effect – although it’s not always clear if this is by design or circumstance. One might argue that either is not without a measure of wile.
At other times there is clear agency.
For some beneficiaries of the Peter Principle it’s a one off, a career highlight on an otherwise desultory CV. But others, like Morrison, can make a handsome career of it.
One reason the Peter Principle can be the inadequacy that keeps on giving is that not everyone is aware at the same time that the bumbling fool in their midst is not who his CV says he is.
Beneficiaries of the principle are either smart enough to move on before their incompetence is discovered, or they are quietly moved on by a board too embarrassed to ever reveal that they were taken in by a flim-flam man. And so it is that a fool can flit from one high station to another with impunity, one step ahead of the mayhem left in his wake.
Scott Morrison made a reasonable career for himself as a tourism industry executive: Deputy CEO of the Australian Tourism Task Force (1995-96), General Manager of the Tourism Council (1996-98), Director of the NZ Office of Tourism and Sport (1998-2000) and Managing Director of Tourism Australia (2004-06), before taking a well-earned break as a self-employed consultant and then into federal Parliament in 2007.
If there were any achievements in the advancement of tourism, or even as an administrator, they must pass unremarked as the tourism industry has been struck dumb on the subject.
Morrison’s most obvious achievement as a tourism industry executive was his CV.
From 2007, when he became the member for the NSW seat of Cook, Morrison has shown his adeptness for constructing a formidable CV while snaking his way to the highest political office in the land.
A panoply of shadow ministries (2008-13) – housing and development, immigration and citizenship, productivity and population, but notably not tourism – suggests a parliamentary party that did not quite have a handle on Morrison.
Enter Morrison the “compassionate conservative”
Once in government there was a recognition of Morrison’s “compassionate conservatism”, first in his appointment as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection (2013-14) and then as Minister for Social Services (2014-15). While Morrison was philosophically and/or temperamentally equal to the requirements of these portfolios, there was nothing to suggest that here was a future prime minister, despite his totally unmerited appointment as Treasurer in 2015 (an appointment Malcolm Turnbull has no doubt reflected upon).
Here was the Peter Principle at work once again. Morrison distinguished himself as the most illequipped and underwhelming Treasurer since…well, since his predecessor Joe Hockey. (The Peter Principle has scored a hat-trick with Josh Frydenberg as Treasurer.)
Although the Treasurer’s job is normally the office held by putative prime ministers Morrison’s tenure as Treasurer should have made clear that this was not a man of substance or even parliamentary verve. When he spoke at the despatch box he did not electrify the backbench in the way that Paul Keating or Peter Costello did. Shouty, incoherent, excitable, wayward diction, rapid-fire delivery and confounding non sequiturs: that was Morrison on a good day. His budgets had even less to recommend them.
When he became Prime Minister at the expense of Malcolm Turnbull – the man he was ostensibly ambitious for – in 2018 Morrison was dubbed the accidental prime minister. His goofy, dufus-dad persona was both cringeworthy and disarming. After all, Labor was going to romp it home at the next election. Morrison was surely destined to be a political footnote.
The 2019 election changed everything. Morrison proved to be an able campaigner. After all, if he was nothing else, he was a salesman. (Just like Trump.) Morrison convinced the electorate that his government was an able economic manager (false), that under the Coalition government the economy was strong and destined for even greater times (false), that the government had a plan (false), that pensioners were on Labor’s hit list (false), that the alternative to Morrison as PM was Bill Shorten (devastatingly true).
Graduates of the Peter Principle Academy are without peer when it comes to applying for jobs. Actual performance in those jobs is something else again.
As an elected Prime Minister, Morrison is no less avuncular when it suits him, but the mark of the man is now on full display: incompetent, erratic, disingenuous, wily, unprincipled, tin-eared and a mean streak a mile long.
Treating voters like mugs
His defence of the indefensible, whether it’s to defend suspect Ministers (Angus Taylor) and MPs (Gladys Liu), ideologically driven policies (climate-change inaction) and blatant double standards (the treatment accorded au pairs versus asylum-seeker families), comes naturally. It is based on a simple modus operandi: tough it out on the working assumption that Australians are mugs with short attention spans.
Morrison’s recalcitrance on climate change has made Australia an international pariah. His address before the United Nations in which he chided nations for not recognising Australia’s record as an environmental champion was a high point in chutzpah and one of the most excruciating and humiliating performances on the world stage by an Australian prime minister.
His fawning adoration of Donald Trump is even more deflating. His UN speech on climate change, along with his dismissal of Greta Thunberg, is at least in part intended to impress Trump. His ham-fisted, tactless and unsophisticated approach to the US-China trade war seems to be based on the binary US Good/China Bad, placing Australian relations with China at a 50-year low. Australia’s obeisance to the US on Iran, irrespective of assurances that Australia will not be drawn into a military conflict in Iran, is unlikely to end well. As for Australia’s preparedness to assist the Trump administration in its underhand campaign to discredit the Mueller inquiry goes well beyond the bounds of being a dependable ally. Morrison’s concurrence was at best naïve and at worst a blatant complicity with the tawdry politics of Trump’s bid for re-election.
Morrison’s failure as a regional leader, meanwhile, is another low point in Australian diplomacy. The contempt Morrison has displayed for Pacific nations on the question of climate change is nothing short of a disgrace and should mortify every Australian.
And yet, despite this being a manifestly appalling government and its head a bumbling, incompetent and disingenuous ideologue, the only response from the wider electorate is an unedifying imitation of crickets.
As to how this can be: either the electorate is not engaging, has taken a dramatic turn to the right, or is quietly biding its time until the next election in the guilty knowledge that they handed the keys to The Lodge to a flim-flam man.
Time will tell.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher