Reviewed by Gerard Healy
They say a week is a long time in politics, but what about five months?
Authors Wayne Errington and Peter Van Onselen finished this account of Prime Minister Scott Morrison towards the end of 2020. At that stage, they had him virtually unbeatable at the next federal election, due mainly to his successful handling of the pandemic and his amazing come-from-behind 2019 win.
Then came Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame, Christian Porter, Linda Reynolds, Andrew Laming, the Women’s March and so on and Morrison’s remarkably inept responses to these events. It’s a big if, but if published opinion polls are to be believed, then Morrison appears to have lost ground with voters and the two major parties are now neck and neck.
In an often-critical look at Morrison’s style, which they think is characterised by a PR dominated approach and a blame-shifting response to mistakes, they note his penchant for talking announcements up and then, if something goes wrong – it’s someone else’s fault. So we’ve had age-care muck-ups, hotel quarantine slip-ups, border lockdowns and closures.
His 2019 win gave him great authority inside the government and his more pragmatic, less ideological, approach to policies gives him room to change direction. On this issue of substance, they think “there are question marks over (his) reforming credentials” (2). They wonder if, longer term, he’ll be compared to Malcolm Fraser: electorally successful but seen as having missed opportunities to transform the country. Time will tell, of course.
The authors look at Morrison’s alleged personality traits of stubbornness, bullying and ‘ordinariness’- sometimes known as his ‘daggy dad’ persona.
Another less than flattering trait they suspect the PM has shown, is his tendency to reward “friends” and punish “enemies”. In the initial, rushed roll-out of the massive Government spending last year business was favoured. But in subsequent aid packages to flailing sectors, Morrison’s Government spent less on the Arts, Universities and the ABC, which the authors believe are seen generally as less friendly towards the Coalition.
Then there’s the different treatment that Labor and Liberal Premiers received publicly. Labor premiers like Dan Andrews and Anastasia Palaszczuk were chided for border closures and/or failure to grant medical exemptions, while similar actions by Liberal premiers weren’t mentioned.
Another worrying example was the budget cut of $14 million to the Australian National Audit Office, which had highlighted the Sports rorts issue. It looked like pay-back. Finally, the contrast between Morrison’s attack on Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate over her gifts of expensive watches to staff (about $20 000 in total) and his silence over far larger spending blow-outs was drawn.
An interesting and probably little understood aspect of the PM that was touched on was his religious beliefs. Morrison and his wife Jenny have publicly thanked their Lord for the IVF treatment they undertook successfully and we were given a glimpse of their church attendance in the run-up to the last election. Perhaps not as well known was that their ill-timed holiday to Hawaii during the bushfire crises was partly a church social event as well. Then there is the inner confidence that flows from the belief that God rewards success, according to the Pentecostal world-view.
One weakness of the book is the repeating of previously mentioned stories or themes. Thus the same idea/topic is revisited several times at different lengths at different parts of the book. This made me wonder if it was an issue of co-ordination between two authors. A small whinge I have, is that some of the criticisms seemed petty to me, such as Brendan Murphy shaking hands before a TV appearance in March. Or the inner core of trusted advisors being called the ‘magnificent seven’-all blokes as it turned out.
Of greater import is the question of balance. Do they give enough credit to Morrison and the government for Australia’s very good response to the pandemic? Looking around the world, arguably not, and while personally I’m not a fan of the PM, we owe him credit where it’s due. He led the country in probably the most difficult time since WW2 and the Great Depression.
I would recommend this book to readers interested in contemporary Australian politics.
Wayne Errington is an Associate Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Adelaide. He is the co-author with Peter Van Onselen of John Winston Howard: The Definitive Biography (2007).
Peter Van Onselen is Professor of Politics at Griffith Uni and the University of West Australia. He is also Network Ten’s political editor and a media commentator. He has written several books on politics.
How Good is Scott Morrison?
by Wayne Errington and Peter Van Onselen
336 pp; $34.99