Hand-to-hand combat

Scott Morrison wears a lot of make-up. He understands cameras: not how they work but what they do. In front of the press he never stops moving. They are small moves, back and forth, to make sure everyone has the shot. He understands politics is obligation and opportunity and that his skill is the latter.

The American entertainer W. C. Fields refused to work with animals or children. Morrison prefers them above all else. He will spend half a morning signing his name on skateboards or bike helmets. He will read his daughter’s poetry at official gatherings, stumbling along through the classroom syntax: “My land called Australia. My heart soiled in loving grace. My cherished home filled with love and ancient dreaming …”

Morrison’s is a politics of distraction, performed for a shallow media and a disconnected electorate. For the very reasons Fields warned against performing with children, he adores them. They pull focus.

When Morrison saw Grace Tame at The Lodge this week, he saw another photo opportunity. He has a tendency to mistake people for possibilities. He called her name twice before she walked over. “Grace,” he said. “Hello Grace.” The patter started before he shook her hand. He seemed surprised she wasn’t smiling. “How are you going? Congratulations on the… on the engagement.”

The energy was familiar. Two years ago he tried to shake a firefighter’s hand in front of cameras in Cobargo, New South Wales. The man refused. Morrison picked up his left hand and shook it instead. In the same burnt-out town he forced a pregnant woman to shake hands with him. “I’m only shaking your hand if you give more funding to our RFS,” she said, her voice starting to break. “So many people have lost their homes ... We need more help.”

Scott Morrison has said that when he touches a person he is laying hands on them. This work is spiritual. “I’ve been in evacuation centres where people thought I was just giving someone a hug and I was praying and putting my hands on people … laying hands on them and praying in various situations,” he says. “God has, I believe, been using us in those moments to be able to provide some relief and comfort and just some reassurance.”

Morrison believes in the physical. As well as being religious he is tactile. His hands are bigger than you expect. His shake is dry and firm. It carries something a few beats short of sincerity, as if a handshake is an agreement and if he can get one he’s done the deal. Morrison claims to be purely transactional and nowhere else is this more simple or more clear.

When Tame looked at Morrison and refused to smile, refused to mask, refused to play along, she was reminding him of something that should already have been obvious: if anyone has disrespected the office, it is him. Tame was not being impertinent but the opposite. She was showing Morrison what he fails to see is true.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Hand-to-hand combat".

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