Opinion

John Hewson
Scott Morrison and the truth

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

 “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

 “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

– Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass

 

There are many theories as to the identity of Humpty Dumpty. Possibly the nursery rhyme was referencing Richard III, falling off his horse in battle. Or possibly it was a cannon destroyed during the siege of Colchester. Possibly it refers to our own prime minister, Scott Morrison, or at least his spin doctor.

The quote from the fragile egg certainly encapsulates Morrison’s approach to the management of Covid-19. By any assessment it has been a massive failure of governance, which has had very significant economic and social consequences, divided our nation, and increased uncertainty and insecurity, especially as to the way forward.

The pandemic has tested Morrison’s capacity for leadership, and he has been found seriously wanting. He simply hasn’t been able to rise above base politics, nor beyond what he considers to be clever marketing. Like Humpty, he has relied on words to suit each occasion, even if they contradict each other from one moment to the next.

Recall the early boasting words that we were “leading the world” in the containment of the virus, ignoring the significance of our capacity to effectively close the border to our island, and ignoring just how difficult it would be to open up.

Recall all the words ignoring the significance of leaks from hotel quarantine, and used to duck his government’s responsibility to provide and manage purpose-built quarantine facilities beyond capital cities.

Recall the hubris and boasting words towards the end of last year, about how we were again “leading the world” in preparation for the vaccine rollout. As circumstances have unfolded, there were no specific deals, no commitments to delivery, and we have been very much exposed to further virus outbreaks.

Most importantly, recall the failure to meet specific vaccination commitments for the end of March, particularly commitments to fully vaccinate aged- and disability-care workers. Four months later this has still not been achieved.

Recall, as an extension of this, how the government continues to fail to give any specific details of vaccine stocks and timetables, and deliberately obfuscates the issue with rolling claims such as “The Eagle Has Landed” or “Government obtains an additional 85 million Pfizer doses”. Recall then the words mocking Kevin Rudd and others who highlighted the unprofessionalism and immaturity of the government’s approach to vaccine supply negotiations.

Recall the confusion created by the mixed messaging over the applicability of the AstraZeneca vaccine – initially to be confined to the over 50s, then over 60s, then, under the pressure of the recent breakouts and in the absence of significant supplies of alternatives such as Pfizer, for anyone – please just line up and get it.

Some of this confusion is directly the result of Morrison’s kneejerk reactions to questions, and then, more recently, from his attempt to “direct” the government’s vaccine advisory group. Much of the vaccine hesitancy can be attributed to this mess of words.

Overall, recall the drone of words attempting to blame the states, the Europeans, even the vaccine advisory group for the rollout stuff-up. Recall Morrison’s dramatic shift in words from “lockdowns are a last resort” to “vaccines are not a substitute for lockdowns”. What is the public to make of this sudden and extravagant shift in the prime minister’s words? It is almost the opposite of what he said in defence of Gladys Berejiklian in late June, praising her world-class contact-tracing system, which he believed would mean Sydney would not go into lockdown.

How can Morrison be trusted? How can he be considered a “leader”? Especially as he goes on pretending nothing has changed?

Finally, recall all the words about economic “bounceback or snapback”, about “reset” and “recovery strategies”. Yet our economy has been left exposed to rolling lockdowns that could have been avoided, or at least minimised, by an accelerated vaccine rollout.

This bewilderment of words is the outcome of Morrison’s daily political strategy, which focuses on the Stunt or the Big Announcement in an attempt to control the narrative. It is picked up, often without question or scrutiny, by the media – and tomorrow a different issue, often in a different location and probably with different words, will be offered.

Morrison’s sole focus is to win the next election but, rather than being played out against a longer-term political strategy, this is very much day-to-day. In these terms, words are specific to the day, probably to be changed in coming days.

Not surprisingly, Morrison has found it very difficult to accept responsibility, to show humility, and to be sorry. Sure, he did use the word “sorry” last week, under some duress, but that was just another word, not a genuine sentiment or sign of remorse. It was well short of an admission that he had lied about vaccine deals and supply, or had any sympathy for the consequent pain and confusion of the botched rollout and lockdowns that may have been avoided.

Morrison’s reluctance to be contrite carries strong echoes of his mentor John Howard’s refusal to say sorry to the Stolen Generations, because he didn’t see why he should feel sorry. Howard was also concerned it might be seen as a sign of weakness. This intransigence was a major reason why he lost both his seat and government.

It is a defining feature of Morrison’s character that he shirks responsibility and simply doesn’t admit to mistakes – after all, don’t we know that he is the prime minister, and that he shouldn’t be distracted by such pettiness?

I was most concerned at Morrison’s dismissal of a question about two Australians who died after taking the AstraZeneca vaccine. He said, simply: “We are all responsible for our own health.”

Similarly, he shows very little genuine understanding or empathy for those households and businesses struggling in lockdowns. Again, plenty of words and dollars quoted, but little clarity on whether the money will be there for the people who need it.

Perhaps the most disturbing outcome of Morrison’s failure of governance has been the loss of national focus and significance. Instead a blame game has gathered momentum, both between his government and the states, and state versus state. The accelerating fragmentation of our Federation is a very significant backwards step at a time when the need to develop a national approach and, in particular, national resilience has been paramount.

Of course, Morrison would want to claim credit for the national cabinet process, and the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, but again this is more words than substance – some co-ordination, sure, but the states have had to do most of the work, compounded by Morrison’s government ducking its responsibility for aged care, which has been particularly exposed to the virus, and its constitutional responsibility for quarantine.

The issue of state and federal financial responsibility has always been divisive but it is further complicated on this issue by debates about which state has been doing the heavy economic lifting and what the federal government owes. Moreover, states that would share resources during bushfires or floods have refused to do so in dealing with the virus. Border closures have been very disruptive and have compounded the economic and social pain. At its most ridiculous, Queensland claimed its hospitals were only for Queenslanders.

Our nation will pay dearly if this concept takes further hold, especially when the national interest, in a very challenging global environment, requires us to operate as a more effective Federation, with a much greater sense of national purpose.

Morrison sees himself as a “clever” politician with superior marketing skills. He sees being prime minister as a “calling from God”, delivered to him by a “miracle win”. However, the polls have recently moved against Morrison. Newspoll has shifted against his government 53-47.

The most recent Essential poll on “leader attributes” reveals Morrison has slipped on every measure since mid-March – more out of touch with ordinary people, more likely to avoid responsibility, less in control of his team, less trustworthy, less honest than most politicians and less visionary. His arrogance, assessment of self-worth and sense of entitlement are further disadvantages.

Morrison simply doesn’t understand leadership. It involves strategic thinking, being proactive, and acceptance of responsibility with integrity and accountability. It is finely balanced on trust and confidence. It certainly can’t be brushed aside with a rush of three-word slogans.

Morrison has lost control of the virus and vaccine narrative. He is losing control of the economic narrative as we now risk a double-dip recession.

He has accepted Barnaby Joyce back with no conditions – indeed, let him start to dictate climate and other policy. He has failed to deal effectively with claims of rape, bullying and harassment in Parliament House; has normalised pork-barrelling, corruption and wasteful expenditure; denies responsibility; is quick to blame others; and ignores the need for reform in response to the great social challenges of Indigenous recognition, child- and aged-care, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, mental illness and domestic violence.

However, Morrison still seems to believe he can stand above all this. His election strategy is to finally catch up with the vaccine rollout, hoping that voters have short memories. He will then be in a position to use more words, this time about a possible opening of our international border, without actually opening it, and the promise of a return to “normalcy” if he is kept in office.

As I recall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. In the end, for all his words and his arrogance about their meaning, he couldn’t be put back together again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 31, 2021 as "Why Scott Morrison can’t tell the truth".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.