War games

Scott Morrison struggles to differentiate between the national interest and his own. This is not because the two are closely linked.

Morrison, perhaps more than any previous prime minister, is obsessed with elections. They are his perfect forum. He was a state party director before he was a politician and his footing always is for a campaign.

All prime ministers are focused to some degree on being returned to office, but for Morrison it is everything. The time between polling days is a nowhere space to him. There are no great, animating policy issues; there is just winning.

It is through this blinkeredness that we might understand Morrison’s approach to China. It is not just naivety or brashness. It is a fundamental disjunct of scales: Morrison’s seats and margins, calculated as if for a board game, against the seismic force of global tensions.

As with everything for Morrison, it is a failure of imagination. He cannot picture what might happen and so cannot see the terrifying folly of what is happening. He doesn’t understand the risk in his escalations.

As Hugh White writes in today’s edition: “The danger of war is very real, so this is no longer a hypothetical question … The consequences for Australia, the region and the world would be devastating and it would fail to achieve the objective of preserving US leadership in Asia. On the contrary, it would destroy America’s position in Asia.”

The Morrison government will not force China to abandon its ambitions. It is not clear what tools it thinks it may have to do this. We cannot rely on the United States. Yet we have no real might of our own.

When Peter Dutton says Australia is “already under attack” the rhetoric is the same he used to militarise the immigration system. It worked against a small and imagined enemy. The difference, however, which the Defence minister cannot appreciate, is that this time it would be a real war, fought with guns and missiles, not with the lives of refugees.

When Mike Pezzullo talks about the curse of war, he does so still in the realm of dress-ups. In charge of uniformed customs officials, the secretary of Home Affairs reaches for grandeur. He intones on the “only prudent, if sorrowful, course – to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight the nation’s wars”.

Borrowing from history, he forgives Europe its sorrow but mourns its failure to “heed the drums of war which beat through the 1930s”. He says: “War might well be folly, but the greater folly is to wish away the curse by refusing to give it thought and attention, as if in so doing, war might leave us be, forgetting us perhaps.”

The link between these three men is more than politics; it is the panto fashion in which they practise it. When Morrison and Dutton talk of war footings, they think of the battle to win seats. Real war is not like that.

Political campaigns are rarely grand, strategic triumphs. More often, they are petty and small, won on tricks and schemes. Numbers are eked out at the margins, corflutes defaced or pamphlets snatched from letterboxes.

The reality Morrison now flirts with is quite different: large, uncertain and possibly nuclear. One dearly hopes he realises what is at stake.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 8, 2021 as "War games".

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