The running man

The story of Scott Morrison’s life is of events almost catching up with him. His career has been spent a few steps in front of calamity. This election is the first time his actions have pulled up parallel with his intentions. Morrison is in the find out phase.

Probably it was Chaucer who first recorded in print the idea of deeds coming home to roost: as a bryd that retorneth agayn to his owene nest. The phrase perfectly describes the campaign.

The division on climate change that gave Scott Morrison the leadership was never healed. The scabby promise taken to Glasgow was always provisional. It was obvious in the decision not to legislate the commitment.

The Coalition has no credible policy to reduce emissions because it cannot agree on one. Its carbon market is a sham. Its investment in carbon capture and storage is fanciful. When ministers warn that Labor will introduce a carbon tax, they are warning against the only sensible route to net zero. It doesn’t matter if Matt Canavan says “the net zero thing is all sort of dead anyway” – the government has no plan to get there because they are not genuinely engaged in climate action.

We do not know why Morrison was sacked at Tourism Australia. We know that there were serious concerns about its governance and that after he left the auditor-general found information was kept from the board and procurement guidelines were gratuitously breached.

When Morrison left the New Zealand Office of Tourism and Sport, his departure was never explained either. Again, an audit report was hugely critical of decision-making and processes during his time there.

We did not know until April how Morrison had managed to win preselection in 2007, after losing the first vote 82 votes to eight. Statutory declarations revealed a campaign of ethnic slurs. It was that week that the catching up began. The past was never dead. Since then, this has been a campaign of reckonings.

The China pact with Solomon Islands is part of the same return. It comes after a decade of neglect, of cuts to foreign aid, the dismantling of soft power and the government’s perilous indifference to climate change. The cheap opportunism that has defined Morrison’s rhetoric on China has started to catch up, too. The hallmarks of his career – the cunning and petty manipulation – do not work at this scale. They were designed for cubicled offices not global conflicts.

This might be the first job Morrison has held that he wants to keep. It is not clear what he will do if he loses this election. As with Tony Abbott after politics, there is doubt the boardrooms of Australia would open to him. If he were to stay in parliament, he would be in the middle of a terrible fight started by his attempt to wrest control of the New South Wales Liberal Party. In the words of one player, it would be a bloodbath.

One reason this election has been so grim is because it is not about what happens next. It is about what happens when you stop and the whole past clatters into you. It is less a vision and more a comeuppance.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "The running man".

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