Books

Sean Kelly
The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison

At least half the nation face-palmed when Prime Minister Scott Morrison explained to journalists that his wife told him that he should think about Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations “as a father first”. He said that Jenny had prompted, “What would you want to happen if it were our girls?” A reporter shot back: “Shouldn’t you have thought about it as a human being? And what happens if men don’t have a wife and children? Would you… do they reach the same compassionate conclusion?”

Discussing this incident in the chapter of The Game on “Violence”, Sean Kelly points out that the answer Morrison gave to this journalist’s question, though little noted in the uproar around the original comment, is even more revealing: “Well, look, in my own experience, being a husband and a father is central to me, my human being. So I just can’t follow the question you’re putting.” Morrison, Kelly observes, accidentally revealed “the limits of his own imagination”.

That Morrison couldn’t even “follow the question” speaks to a central theme of this uncommonly incisive political portrait. It is that Morrison so thoroughly identifies with a particular brand of Australianness – heteronormative, family-oriented, suburban, rugby league-supporting (“Go Sharks!”) and superficially but non-threateningly diverse (Sri Lankan curry on the barbie) – that he struggles to see anything from a less privileged, or even simply from a different, perspective.

Perhaps “struggles” is the wrong word. Morrison, who loudly proclaims his Christian faith, frequently exhibits a startling indifference to the suffering of those who don’t fit the brand, whether they are refugees, Indigenous communities or even women in his own party dealing with the misogyny and violence of male peers. He can’t seem to “follow” any question that requires him to step outside his native sphere of reference, his neatly ordered concept of the world. No matter that it is a highly constructed world: Morrison spent most of his life in inner-city Bronte and, like most private schoolboys, once preferred rugby union. But Morrison the person has played ScoMo the politician for so long that he probably can’t tell the difference himself anymore.

Besides, Morrison is a savvy marketing man. He knows that if you repeat something often enough it becomes true, or at least, it appears to be. His constant, performative referencing of the Sharks and curry, his frequent descriptions of himself as “authentic” and “pragmatic”, shape the story, amplified by compliant media, of the “daggy dad” who serves Australia by virtue of his very Australianness. He has made himself, Kelly observes, into what novelists call a “flat character”, readily identifiable by his quirks and catchphrases. It’s tempting to write off his typically platitudinous and vague public utterances as boring and banal. They’re worse than that, Kelly argues: they’re “asymptotic to meaning, sidling right up to the edge of being comprehensible, or resembling ordinary human communication, before sliding away again”.

Yet they provide a key to the “odd hollowness at the centre of Morrison’s prime ministership”. In Morrison’s maiden speech – his “best attempt at considered thought” – he acknowledges that in Australia’s history “there is much for us all to be sorry for” before going on to blow up the word “sorry” by continuing: “Sadly, those who will be most sorry are the children growing up in Indigenous communities today”. Ongoing disadvantage isn’t due to “any one act” but to such things as “shared ignorance”. Maybe they’re not trying hard enough. After all, in Morrison’s evangelical world view, God rewards those who “have a go”. Structural disadvantage? Can’t follow the question.

Shit happens, but no one needs to shoulder the blame. Even the circumstances that led to him becoming prime minister he described as a “confusing and bewildering series of events, and not ones that I had any part in”. It’s all part of God’s plan. Responsibility is beside the point, as are substantive policies. Political fixes will do, especially those that soothe people’s anxieties, inflate their national pride and deny the need for either shame or action. Discussing the climate crisis upsets the children, so don’t. Questions aren’t for answering, the record is for denying and everything else is an “on-water matter”.

The Game relates a telling anecdote from Nick Xenophon. The former independent senator once suggested to Morrison they have a coffee. There was no agenda, it would just be a catch-up. Morrison knocked him back: “No mate, I’m purely transactional.” This brings us to the concept of  “the game”, the organising idea in a book brimming with them. Morrison succeeds at the game of politics, Kelly contends, not because he’s a strategic genius, but because he’s mastered a set of winning techniques. He appears not to understand, or perhaps care, that the game of politics has real consequences – for women, for Indigenous Australians, for bushfire victims who don’t want to shake his hand but do want to talk about the climate crisis, for all those outside the imaginary team of  “quiet Australians” for whom he plays.

Kelly notes that Robert Menzies’ concern for the “forgotten people” was a reminder that no one should be forgotten, whereas Morrison’s “quiet Australians” privileges his “chosen people” over others. Yet we are all implicated in this aspect of the game: “the most important fact to understand about our country” is that “we are always splitting ourselves in two, then ignoring the half that discomfits us”.

How good is Australia?

Linda Jaivin

Black Inc, 304pp, $32.99

Black Inc is a Schwartz company

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, Sean Kelly".

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Reviewer: Linda Jaivin