Scott of the autarchic

Towards the end of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership, Malcolm Turnbull’s staff began referring to Abbott’s office as the “Führer’s bunker”. There was a general sense he had gone mad. He had fallen out of conversation with the public and was barricading himself in the suite.

At the time, Abbott seemed to be the worst prime minister in Australia’s history. That was because Scott Morrison hadn’t had a go yet. Abbott lied constantly. He was oafish and unimaginative. He used the office to prosecute petty vendettas and indulge antique fantasies.

Yet Morrison’s time as prime minister made Abbott’s look principled and even diligent. We now know that Morrison used the pandemic to build a shadow government of which he was the only member. He vested in himself extraordinary powers, giving himself ministerial fiat over Treasury, Home Affairs, Health, Finance and Resources.

“I understand the offence that some of my colleagues particularly have felt about this. I understand that and I have apologised to them,” Morrison said this week.

“But equally, as prime minister, only I could really understand the weight of responsibility that was on my shoulders and on no one else. You are standing on the shore after the fact: I was steering the ship in the middle of the tempest.”

Morrison’s contempt for process is famous. He lives without contrition. He will say whatever he thinks he can get away with saying. It is strange that a man so fundamentally unserious could so seriously rig and bend the political system.

There is history to this. No one knows exactly why Morrison left tourism jobs in Australia and New Zealand. Inquiries found unusual breaks with procedure and a vast, grasping desire for power. What was unsuitable there became his modus operandi in government. Finally, he got away with it.

The question for Morrison always is, why? Why did he want to be prime minister when he had no ideas for what to do with the office? Why did he start amassing secret, unused powers? Why didn’t he tell his colleagues? Why didn’t he tell the public?

There is no real point in asking these questions. He is impervious to them. Every query slides off him in a slick of smirking and self-pity. He is a man without a why, an empty man inside of whom lives only the desire that makes true all the aphorisms about power.

You might as well ask why a monkey steals a nut, why a scorpion stings a frog. It is their nature. Morrison is confusing not because he is complex but the opposite. We cannot fathom how a man of his plodding inconsequence could have wielded such power and done nothing with it. The answer will never be satisfying, because there is not enough person in Morrison to make it satisfying. He just is.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "Scott of the autarchic".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription