The man who wasn’t there
It is as if Scott Morrison is getting smaller. With each passing week, the member for Cook shrinks into his leadership.
His government has lost its majority. It intends hardly to sit next year. Its early budget seems to promise a May election, and on all accounts Morrison will likely lose it. His prime ministership is set to last no more than nine months.
Ordinarily, there is a moment in which a person becomes prime minister – a moment beyond the swearing in, when events transform a person into the office.
For John Howard, it was in the furnace of his gun reform. For Kevin Rudd, it was the gravity of the apology to the Stolen Generations. For Julia Gillard, it was myriad small acts that will cohere in popular memory around her royal commission into child abuse.
Tony Abbott never had his moment. He never experienced the alchemy of circumstances and action that transmute a person into statesmanship. Likely, Malcolm Turnbull missed his. No bold actions, no signature policy. He points to marriage equality and hopes history will misrecord him as its architect.
Morrison, on current projections, will be remembered for sending an empty bus across Queensland. He is not looking for the moment that transforms him: he is looking down camera, squinting, in a hat Mick Fanning’s mum gave him.
The Australia he communes with is an Australia of the past, a faded travel commercial about a country unafraid to be simple. It is as if he was never sacked at Tourism Australia and instead the country was winnowed down into its remit.
The longer Morrison tries at this, the more inauthentic he becomes. His signature has changed to trace out a nickname: Scomo. His language is overburdened with ingratiating ockerisms. His whole presence carries the anxiety of a man waiting to be found out.
Without that moment of transformation – even with it – the office tends to reveal the falseness of its holder. Gillard addressed it explicitly, announcing when her “real” self had arrived. Turnbull governed without his convictions and the polls consistently reminded him of this. Rudd mangled his way through ordinariness. You could see where the personality had been fitted to him: the seams in the latex stretched over the robot.
More and more, Morrison looks like a man without a purpose. He makes hollow appeals to race and the economy. He goads Labor with divisive cant: “Don’t get me started on 50,000 illegal arrivals and blowing the Budget.”
He stubbornly refuses the realities of climate change. When a progressive agenda is overwhelmingly endorsed in the Victorian election, he sends the returned premier a text message. He sees no lessons in it.
A fair criticism of Malcolm Turnbull was that he didn’t stand for anything. The worrying reality for Scott Morrison is that he stands for even less.
Often, it seems as if he is holding his eyes closed – like he is counting in a game of hide and seek. It is not clear what he is seeking, or what is being hidden, but the announcement of next year’s sitting calendar gets him closer to the point when he will have to open them.
It remains to be seen if anything will be different, or if he will ever become prime minister.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 1, 2018 as "The man who wasn’t there". Subscribe here.