Sliding towards zero

The quality that makes Scott Morrison uniquely equipped to lead Australia in 2021 is his preternatural inability to feel shame.

There were hints of this early on – in the treasurer who held aloft a lump of coal in parliament, the Immigration minister with an almost absurd commitment to the phrase “on-water matters” – but since his elevation to the prime ministership, it has become the defining feature of his government.

Scandals ignored slide off Morrison, and his ministers. Promises made are quickly forgotten. It has garnered comparison to Trumpism, but it is less chaotic, breezier.

“We may live in secular times,” Sean Kelly wrote in The Monthly for his 2018 profile of the member for Cook, “but there is a remnant of anointment in the ascension of prime ministers, the erasure of the past and the chance to start anew.”

For Morrison, though, every day is a chance to start anew, unburdened by history and, often, facts.

And in his political amnesia, there is hope.

Here is a prime minister who could tomorrow shrug off without a second thought the shame of the past decade’s climate wars and his own party’s wretched record, call a press conference and announce a target for net zero emissions by 2050.

Who could, with a straight face, declare his government a world leader on climate action – as he has been saying for the past two years without any policy.

On climate change, the tide has turned.

Even The Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, can see this. “As a pragmatist Scott Morrison, sooner or later, must make the critical yet increasingly obvious decision and commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” he wrote this week, “in recognition of the inexorable momentum of global and local politics.”

There are a number of truths in this sentence, first among them that Morrison is a pragmatist – he isn’t a conviction politician in the mould of Tony Abbott or John Howard. He doesn’t want to be the last man clinging to the rock. He wants to be in the pool, he wants to be at the footy, he wants to be loved.

His handling of the year’s pandemic has shown this to be true. Should public opinion allow it, enemies can become allies, surpluses record deficits. Everything is negotiable. And so it is that in 2021 taking action on climate change can become the natural cause of the Australian conservative. As though it was always that way.

All the prime minister need do is loosen his grip, let the wave carry him out towards net zero. There would be no real cost to the economy and clearly no psychic toll for him. He could be the leader of a country once more embraced, instead of languishing as a pariah on the world stage.

As it was at the last election, standing for nothing is the prime minister’s greatest gift.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 19, 2020 as "Sliding towards zero".

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