Last Wednesday, the parliament censured Scott Morrison. Reading the former PM’s defence of his actions in the multiple-ministries affair, I felt a little sad for him. In his mind, he had defended Australia from a pandemic – the results were there for all to see. He had been criticised before for failing to prepare. To be formally rebuked for taking what he says were further precautions must have seemed to him Kafka-esque: he was baffled.

Examining my own reaction, I was surprised. Having written a book about the man, I am more familiar than most with the various ways he finds to justify himself; and know, too, how well-practised he is at it. I should have been above persuasion. But then I don’t think I was, in fact, persuaded. It was, rather, his bafflement that I found oddly moving: like all of us at times, Morrison was caught in his own subjectivity, unable to see out. In other words, I was stuck, at least briefly, between my own clear reaction to the principle of the thing (Morrison was wrong, the parliament was right) and my somewhat muddier reaction to the personal experience of an individual.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Not that I should have felt too bad for him: his party, for the most part, stood by him as the vote was taken. But some of those same Liberals had also very publicly turned away from Morrison, mostly in the pages of Niki Savva’s new book, Bulldozed. Stuart Robert, a former frontbencher best-known for having to repay $38,000 in home internet bills, carries no weight in discussions of accountability. He is, however, Morrison’s closest ally. Instead of defending Morrison, he said the plan was “nuts”, and others should have “hauled him back”. This wasn’t the most brutal part. Robert and Morrison have been described as friends. The two have often prayed together, and Robert owes much of his success to Morrison.

Here is Savva: “‘Scotty’s a friend, as much as one can have a friend in politics’, Robert told me. ‘We are still reasonably close in that regard.’ Twice during an hour-long conversation, after I had asked him if they were still friends, he laughed and quoted the old maxim: ‘If you want a friend in politics, get a dog’.”

Recently I read an extract from Katharine Murphy’s new essay on Anthony Albanese. I tweeted about one passage I thought interesting, in which Albanese talks about his youth, and always having to plan to make sure he and his mother had money for rent and food. As a result, he says, he has never run out of a single thing at home. “Milk. Frozen food. Coffee. Toilet paper. Food for Toto.”

The tweet was met, broadly, with three responses. The first was to say that of course journalists were fascinated by this, as most of them grew up comfortable. The second – by far the most common – was emphatic understanding: yes, I do that too, said person after person, if you grow up poor it never goes away. The third was this: who cares what Albo’s life was like, he’s fine now and the only thing that matters is what he does about poverty as PM.

Illustration: Jim PavlidisCredit:

These differing replies seem to me to sum up a dilemma that should confront all who engage with politics, journalists and voters alike: what place to give the personal? Perhaps it would be nice to be dispassionate; but then it would also be inhuman. Of course the characters interest us, just as nobody is above gossip of one sort or another.

Character details can also reveal important things (as, I believe, the Albanese quotation does). That said, what is interesting is not always the same as it being important. The distinction has been on my mind lately, as we all watch Peter Dutton’s continuing attempt to reinvent himself as a warm and modern leader. It feels, at times, a lot like history is repeating itself: specifically, Scott Morrison’s history. In a profile published in this paper yesterday, Dutton explains away his hardman image as a product of being immigration minister (as did Morrison), his attitude to China and his time as a police officer. And, he joked, perhaps it is a result of his baldness. As the profile noted, the public perceptions are also the result of Dutton’s own actions.

When Morrison became leader, he was allowed to shrug off much of what he’d done before. It wasn’t, it seemed, really who he was. In the end, it turned out to be exactly who he was. So it is important to ask: how many of Dutton’s previous actions does he now disavow? What actions has he taken – as opposed to interviews given and words spoken – to demonstrate he is different from who he’s always seemed to be? Or to put this another way: at a certain point, if you’ve seemed to be somebody for long enough, isn’t that who you really are? What leaders are “really like”, and our personal reactions to them, are too often a distraction from what matters.

What, then, to make of my recent reaction to Morrison? Whenever I find myself feeling sympathy for a politician an internal alarm sounds, as it should. In a few weeks, Morrison will appear at the Royal Commission into robodebt. That automated system, initiated under Morrison as minister, promoted by him as treasurer and defended by him as prime minister, ruined lives and cut off those with no power at all. “Upset by injustice and completely baffled at how that injustice had come about” would be the very mildest way to describe what its victims suffered. What clearer demonstration could there be that our sympathies should remain with the powerless, not the powerful?

That said, the ideal is not, I think, to shut ourselves off from sympathy with politicians; nor to close ourselves to what we may learn from their lives. The point is not to avoid feeling these things; the point is knowing how much importance to give to those feelings. For the second time in a week, then, I am surprised at finding wisdom in Stuart Robert’s approach: perhaps we should all learn to see politicians the way they see each other. They may feel the usual human sympathies, but they do not let that cloud their judgment. They know that other politicians are not their friends; rather, they are people with power, and when assessing them that should always be the first consideration and the last.

The Opinion newsletter is a weekly wrap of views that will challenge, champion and inform your own. Sign up here.

An anxious nation: Mortgage stress, COVID burnout, extreme weather and the cost of living crisis - no wonder Australia’s status as the “lifestyle superpower of the world” is under threat - Nick Bryant

The future of democracy: Australia must learn from America’s descent into extreme inequality, which has led to deep discontent. It must also do more to civilise “social” media - the great amplifier of hate - Peter Hartcher

Behind the interview: Shane Warne may have been the greatest bowler legendary interviewer and cricket lover Michael Parkinson has ever seen, but he’s not his favourite interview - Peter FitzSimons

QOSHE - When I found myself feeling sorry for Scott Morrison, alarm bells sounded - Sean Kelly
We use cookies to provide some features and experiences in QOSHE

More information  .  Close
Aa Aa Aa
- A +

When I found myself feeling sorry for Scott Morrison, alarm bells sounded

10 0 0
04.12.2022

Last Wednesday, the parliament censured Scott Morrison. Reading the former PM’s defence of his actions in the multiple-ministries affair, I felt a little sad for him. In his mind, he had defended Australia from a pandemic – the results were there for all to see. He had been criticised before for failing to prepare. To be formally rebuked for taking what he says were further precautions must have seemed to him Kafka-esque: he was baffled.

Examining my own reaction, I was surprised. Having written a book about the man, I am more familiar than most with the various ways he finds to justify himself; and know, too, how well-practised he is at it. I should have been above persuasion. But then I don’t think I was, in fact, persuaded. It was, rather, his bafflement that I found oddly moving: like all of us at times, Morrison was caught in his own subjectivity, unable to see out. In other words, I was stuck, at least briefly, between my own clear reaction to the principle of the thing (Morrison was wrong, the parliament was right) and my somewhat muddier reaction to the personal experience of an individual.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Not that I should have felt too bad for him: his party, for the most part, stood by him as the vote was taken. But some of those same Liberals had also very publicly turned away from Morrison, mostly in the pages of Niki Savva’s new book, Bulldozed. Stuart Robert, a former frontbencher best-known for having to repay $38,000 in home internet bills, carries no weight in discussions of accountability. He is, however, Morrison’s closest ally. Instead of defending Morrison, he said the plan was “nuts”, and others should have “hauled him back”. This wasn’t the most........

© WA Today


Get it on Google Play