Winning ugly

It makes sense once you appreciate that this is no longer about governing. The one constant in politics – holding power – has been cast aside. With it go the orthodoxies of logic and reason.

This is about ideology. This is about giving up on the country, on what it wants, because a stubborn few cannot give up on coal and traditional values. The Coalition would sooner forsake electoral success than reckon with the realities of climate science or engage with the leadership asked for by multiculturalism.

Scott Morrison is prime minister not because he has a better chance than Malcolm Turnbull of winning the next election. He is prime minister because he is willing to govern against the desires of the electorate.

There are little concessions. There is rugby league on the television in the prime minister’s office, his old one, before he moved into the suites. There is a signed football and a model aeroplane, the promise of his polo-shirted ordinariness. “If we win today,” he says to his treasurer, cameras spluttering, “we’ll go into the top four.”

There is the Australian flag pin he fixes to his lapel, like a travel agent or an accountant at a conference overseas. He has given one to each of his ministers.

“I’ve been wearing this now for many, many years. I can’t remember when I started doing this,” he said at their first cabinet meeting.

“The reason I wear it is because it reminds me every single day whose side I’m on. I’m on the side of the Australian people, that’s what I’m saying to myself, that’s who I think about first.”

These are small gestures, the politics of Lilliput. They are a sop to an imagined base. But the Liberal Party can’t be serious if it thinks this is about the electorate, that replacing their most popular figure with a man who couldn’t sell a budget was about any kind of future.

The circus rolls on. Tony Abbott is given a position as special envoy on Indigenous affairs, as if it is a lucky door prize. Peter Dutton gives humanitarian aid to a string of au pairs. It is 1950 again and the two biggest issues in the country are drought and electricity prices.

The polls are sceptical. Of course they are. The calamity of the past fortnight was never about votes. Better the party decide what it is not than stumble forward into what it might be.

Imagination is a scarce resource in politics. As is the twin quality of hopefulness. Morrison had long imagined himself prime minister, but his party spent no time in imagining what sort of country he would lead. And so we are here.

Morrison’s team, the Cronulla Sharks, beat the Newcastle Knights on Sunday. No doubt, he is keen to succeed as prime minister. But the party that destroyed his predecessor has no credible plan for his own tenure. It is unlikely there is any intention of making one, either. This was never about winning, and so the country loses.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2018 as "Winning ugly".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.