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