Prime ministers can take the English language to some intriguing places when they try to dodge a simple question. This week, Scott Morrison effectively reduced himself to the status of bystander in the pandemic; a national leader in name only, who was powerless to stop a rogue socialist state from unleashing the coronavirus on the most vulnerable Australians.
It was a logical nadir of his blame-shifting with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. To insist on his own innocence, Morrison had to plead a form of impotence.
Asked on ABC News Breakfast if the buck for the crisis in aged care stopped with him, Morrison was at pains to draw a distinction between the words “responsibility” and “regulate”, between accepting that mistakes will be made in all jurisdictions, including the Commonwealth’s, and the cry of political victimhood.
“There are shared responsibilities,” he told the ABC’s Michael Rowland on Wednesday. “Public health is a matter for the Victorian government, and the federal government regulates aged care.”
The mild-mannered Rowland replied with the simple fact that aged care is “fundamentally a federal responsibility”.
Morrison would not be deterred: “We regulate aged care, but when there is a public health pandemic then public health, which, whether it gets into aged care, shopping centres, schools or anywhere else, then they are things that are matters for Victoria.”
The twist in this particular buck-pass was the notion that the Commonwealth has no control over the coronavirus in aged care once there is community transmission. But Morrison should have been aware of the absurdity of telling older Australians that they were on their own. In the same interview he rejected the assertion from the counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Aged Care, Peter Rozen, QC, that his government did not have a plan for aged care. There was a plan, he said, and it was based on the best available advice.
The echo of the Black Summer fires was unmistakable. Once again, Morrison came across as too smart by half. He doesn’t hold a hose – or a bedpan.
The difference this time is the Prime Minister understood he had got the tone wrong and promptly hit the reset button. By Friday he was back to where the public expects him to be in a crisis, as a unifying leader chairing the national cabinet.
Morrison is not the first prime minister who prefers the passive-aggressive form of political communication. John Howard spent 11 years in office splitting hairs over the S-word: sorry. He was prepared to express his “deep and sincere regret” for the past treatment of Indigenous Australians, but he would not formally apologise to the Stolen Generations. Yet Howard was willing to compromise and whenever he was forced to change his mind, he wanted voters to know that he had listened to them. Morrison has no reverse gear. He offers his concessions grudgingly.
Morrison remains an enigma, despite his constant presence in our lives since last summer. Charm and stubbornness still run in almost equal measure. He is at ease on talkback radio but can be belligerent on television. He approaches a long-form press conference like a hostile witness in a trial. First he seeks the court’s indulgence to deliver a rambling monologue in his own defence, then he plays word games with the prosecutor. He makes no effort to hide his irritation with journalists, nor his confidence that he will out-talk them.
Morrison is a product of a very unusual political apprenticeship. He is the first prime minister to rise to the office without having to properly explain himself. This is not a criticism but an observation on the structural changes in the media that shaped him. He followed the path of least scrutiny to The Lodge because technology, and the madness of the past decade of leadership turmoil, presented that opportunity to him. He didn’t bend the system to his will; he capitalised on its structural weaknesses.
Morrison became a politician at the very time when the digital revolution allowed governments and oppositions to bypass the press gallery for the comfort of the tribe.
He entered parliament in November 2007, at the last election where the old platforms still dominated the debate, according to the Australian Election Study. Thirty-seven per cent of voters followed Labor’s successful Kevin07 campaign on television, 21 per cent read about it in the newspapers and 19 per cent listened to it on radio. Some voters will have relied on more than one medium. But the future for campaigning was on the internet. Already 7 per cent of voters were following the election online. Nearly a decade earlier, in 1998, the figure was just 1 per cent.
The internet had doubled its share of the market to 14 per cent when the Coalition reclaimed power in September 2013. This is when Morrison first gained national attention as the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. He stopped the boats while refusing to answer questions about “on water” matters. He moved to the social security portfolio at the end of 2014 with a mandate to disarm the landmines of the first Abbott-Hockey budget. Morrison became treasurer after Malcolm Turnbull’s successful challenge to Tony Abbott’s leadership in September 2015. But by then the Coalition had lost whatever appetite it had for reform. Economic policy was stuck on cruise control, relieving Morrison of the burden of selling complex policy.
At the July 2016 election, where the government almost lost its majority to the Bill Shorten-led Labor opposition, only 21 per cent of voters watched the leaders’ debates. By way of comparison, the 1993 debates between Labor prime minister Paul Keating and Liberal leader John Hewson were seen by 71 per cent of voters.
The nation’s leadership didn’t quite fall into Morrison’s lap in August 2018. He put himself in a position to run as a compromise candidate after the Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton launched a quixotic bid for Turnbull’s job. But Australians still had no idea who Morrison really was. He was not central to the operation of the government, as Julia Gillard was when she ousted Kevin Rudd in June 2010, or Paul Keating had been when he tore down Bob Hawke in December 1991.
Internally, Morrison was a polarising figure. In the past when a leadership aspirant found themselves with few friends within the party room, they made their case via the media. Hawke and Rudd on the Labor side and Turnbull and Howard forced their colleagues to accept them because they were more popular than the incumbent. The pitch Morrison made to his colleagues was that he would save them from annihilation under Dutton.
At last year’s election, the forces that made it possible for Morrison to take the prime minister’s job without a strong public profile coalesced to help him secure a third term for the Coalition without an agenda. The internet had replaced television as the dominant carrier of campaign news, with 26 per cent of voters following the election online. TV had been reduced to 22 per cent, radio 12 per cent and newspapers 11 per cent. The leaders’ debates between Morrison and Shorten were seen by just 30 per cent of voters, the second lowest figure on record.
It is easy to overlook what has been hiding in plain sight with Morrison. A leader who rose without having to explain himself, and who was underestimated after each promotion, will be reluctant to change his approach, even for the coronavirus. He won’t see stubbornness as a character flaw to be moderated with experience, but a superpower beyond the comprehension of ordinary political actors.
Premier Andrews seems more comfortable in this retro setting, even though he has to share grim news of the daily caseload and death toll. Morrison is impatient with the process, even though he enjoys the podium. The question now, as the pandemic grinds on, is whether the lack of clarity in his answers will start to grate with the public.
George Megalogenis is a journalist, political commentator and author.