Cartoon characters

Perhaps it is intended as a form of reassurance. Perhaps the ineptitude is supposed to make the public feel comfortable, to remind us that if this man can be prime minister then the country must be genuinely robust.

A staffer transposes new shoes onto an official photograph of Scott Morrison and it is confirmation that Australia can probably run itself. Morrison stumbles through the announcement of a “re-enactment” of James Cook’s voyage, seeming to suggest the Endeavour circumnavigated Australia, and it is proof we are living through farce. Earlier, deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie wrongly named January 26, 1788, as the day “Captain Cook stepped ashore”.

Gore Vidal once said of Gough Whitlam that it was “an unusual experiment for Australia to choose as its prime minister its most intelligent man”. He feared such a folly would not be repeated. It hasn’t been.

Morrison governs in a sitcom with too few writers. It’s depressing to watch. The strongest jokes now are from the wardrobe department. The plot is bromidic and there is a sense in every scene of the inevitable cancellation, that it is only playing on because the network is hostage to contracts.

“For years – decades – we have had political correctness in this country, which I fear is raising kids in our country today to despise our history, to despise how we have grown as a nation,” Morrison said this week, “and I am disappointed that Bill Shorten would want to feed into that.”

Morrison’s answer is to force councils to hold citizenship ceremonies and to ban board shorts at them. “I’m a prime minister for standards,” he says. It is hard to see who else he is governing for.

Some in his party suggest legislation to enshrine the date of Australia Day, a cosmetic change but one that would serve to remind First Nations people who has the power in this country. Shorten also rules out moving the holiday.

Morrison is concerned children are being taught to despise our history, but what he really fears is they are being taught it at all. His politics is dependent on an ahistorical vision of colonisation. To him, it doesn’t matter where Cook sailed or what actually happened on January 26. What matters is that the story remains simple and the power structures built from it do not change.

“The thing about Cook is I think we need to rediscover him a bit because he gets a bit of a bad show from some of those who like to sort of talk down our history,” Morrison said on Tuesday. “It’s very trendy to talk down James Cook and all that sort of stuff, but this guy was an enlightened man for his generation and his time.”

Politics in this country often looks like a cartoon. There is a reason for that: white Australia has so avoided an honest depiction of its history that it can no longer draw itself in anything but blockish outlines. In Morrison, this simplification is complete. He is a man with no memory of the past and no plan for the future.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 26, 2019 as "Cartoon characters".

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