Bully for you

Finally there is confirmation of what has long seemed obvious: Scott Morrison is a bully. Behind that smirk-set jaw is a pure and startling rage. He is gripped by the indignation of certainty.

Julia Banks describes Morrison as  “menacing, controlling wallpaper”. From the time he realised she would not contest the 2019 election, he wanted her silence. “He wanted me to be quiet, he wanted me out of the parliament,” she says. “I mean, he wanted me out of the country … His response was to sort of drag me through this sexist spectrum narrative: that I was this weak, overemotional woman, to the bully bitch.”

Morrison backgrounded against her. He telephoned her and made angry offers. He reminded her he was the prime minister. “It was the three months of Morrison’s leadership … it was definitely the most gut-wrenching, distressing period of my entire career.”

Character is central to politics, although it is often absent. A few make it the core of their appeal. Most others hide it. Morrison in particular is wary of being himself. He relies instead on persona: the netball dad who barracks hard for his football team; the bashful dag who’ll cook a curry to give his missus the night off.

The bully is always there, however, cunning and ineluctable. This is the bully of Morrison’s time at the New Zealand tourism office, ambitious and truncated. It is the bully of his ugly, recontested preselection for the seat of Cook. The bully shows himself at press conferences, only just contained, a tightness in his eyes and at the corners of his mouth.

In politics, character makes or it undoes. In 2001, a secret memo leaked from the Liberal Party’s then federal president, Shane Stone, saying the Howard government was perceived as being “mean and tricky”. It took six years for this reality to finally unseat John Howard, but it was this inescapable flaw of his character that defined and ultimately destroyed him.

Julia Gillard failed because she could never become herself and others fail the moment they do. Kevin Rudd’s leadership fell apart after the biographer David Marr saw into him. The reality was too much. “Face to face, it’s so clear,” Marr wrote in his Quarterly Essay. “Rudd is driven by anger. It’s the juice in the machine … He’s a politician with rage at his core, impatient rage. He finishes, leans over the table, shakes my hand and strides inside, walking straight past the boys waiting so patiently for their photograph.”

This week, Morrison leaned over the table. The masked slipped and the bully was there, even if only in Banks’s retelling. So shocked was Morrison that for five days he hid from view entirely. The polls slowly are confirming the person.

Politics is full of bullies. The difference with Morrison is the pettiness of it. The man who telephoned Julia Banks was not a prime minister, despite telling her he was; the man on that call was a party president locked in the small and vengeful battles of internal division.

Morrison is not a bully like Bob Hawke or Paul Keating, forcing his vision on the nation. He’s a bully like Chris in middle management, forcing his will on the cubicles around him. Having seen his character catch up with him, the question for Morrison is whether he can again outrun himself, whether he can get away from the smallness that defines him.

He has spent the past few years making the country the right size for his leadership. What is clearer now is the kind of person required to undertake such a base project.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 10, 2021 as "Bully for you".

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