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After years in public life, Scott Morrison can still seem hollow and one-dimensional. According to his biographer, this is deliberate. But with the election now running, Morrison faces one of the strange truisms of politics: that what helped him win last time could be what costs him victory this time.

The Vote: Who is Scott Morrison?

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After years in public life, Scott Morrison can still seem hollow and one-dimensional. According to his biographer, this is deliberate. But with the election now running, Morrison faces one of the strange truisms of politics: that what helped him win last time could be what costs him victory this time. Sean Kelly, author of The Game: A portrait of Scott Morrison, on what we know about the prime minister and what that tells us about the kind of campaign he will run.


Guest: Author of The Game Sean Kelly.

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[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Yesterday, Scott Morrison called the election for Saturday, the 21st of May.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“This election and this campaign is incredibly important….”

“...This election is a choice, it’s a choice between a strong economy and a Labor opposition that would weaken it.”

RUBY:
This is the first episode in a special series we will be bringing you, called The Vote.

It’s a profile of Scott Morrison - a man who after years in public life can still seem hollow and one-dimensional. According to his biographer, this is deliberate.

But with the election now running, what helped Scott Morrison win last time could now be the very thing that costs him victory. 

Today, Sean Kelly, author of The Game: A portrait of Scott Morrison, on what we know about the Prime Minister and what that tells us about the kind of campaign we will see him run. 

It’s Monday, April 11.

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Sean, it occurred to me while I was preparing for this interview that there's actually very little that I know about Scott Morrison's early years, about his childhood. The details of his life seem kind of bare. And that is unusual who has been prime minister, that is at this stage of their career that he is. So I just wonder what your thoughts on why that is, why there seems to be this scarcity to his story.

SEAN:
Well, I think there's a particular thing about Scott Morrison, which is that he operates in images. 

 

When he created the ad for those are Where the Bloody Hell Are You? Campaign a Tourism Australia. 

 

Archival Tape -- Tourism Australia Ad:
“We bought you a beer”

 

SEAN:

It didn't tell a story like a lot of ads tell a story. There was no narrative. There was no punchline. It was a series of sharp images of stereotypical senses of Australia. 

 

Archival Tape -- Tourism Australia Ad:
“So where the bloody hell are you?” 

 

SEAN:
And that's what you always get from Scott Morrison. 

 

There is a sense of this free floating image of this daggy dad without some really solid past that might explain him to us. And I think in some senses that that has meant he's inexplicable, but also he's this quite quite simple character for most Australians. 

 

I think there is a deliberateness to that. 

RUBY:
Hmm. And, you know, despite that, he does obviously have a past Sean. And so what do we actually know about his early life and the way that he was brought up, what he was like up until the time that he decided to enter politics?

SEAN:
We know he was brought up in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. He has been at pains to emphasise that that was not quite as ritzy an upbringing as it might sound to people today. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“I used to row it when I was at school, but being at the beach, hanging out with mates, you know, great Sydney Summers it was a lot of fun”

SEAN:
It was a Presbyterian household.  

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“My parents laid the foundation for my life. They demonstrated through their actions their Christian faith and the value they placed on public and community service in our family.”

SEAN:
His father was a policeman and a local councillor. 

So his parents expected certain standards. They were very busy, and because they were very busy, their family tended to spend time together doing things, taking part in communal activities. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“My parents were big into musical theatre, and that sort of thing starred in all sorts of productions. They dragged me into them when I was young as well.”

SEAN:
And Scott Morrison tells the story of the whole family being draughted to act in a production of Oliver and Scott Morrison and played the young, very skilled pickpocket the Artful Dodger 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“I was in Oliver. I was the artful dodger on more than one occasion..it was fun thing to do with your parents…”

SEAN:
while his father played Fagin, and that then led into a kind of mini acting career. Scott Morrison was a child actor. His mother got him an agent. He did a number of ads. There's always been debate about exactly which ads. He did a little bit of work for Vicks Vapour rubs.  

Archival Tape -- Vick Vapur Rub Ad - “The Love Rub”

SEAN:
And it's important to say that religion was a big part of Scott Morrison's upbringing. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“I made a commitment to my faith at an early age and have been greatly assisted by the pastoral work of many dedicated … So what values do I derive from my faith? Loving kindness, justness and righteousness.” 

SEAN:
He speaks very forcefully about the way that he discovered God, a camp that he gave his life to the Lord on January 11, 1981, when he was 12. 

And it's important to say that because he almost went to theology school in Canada,

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Jenny's dad... He grew up in the eastern suburbs, and he used to come over to a church each each Sunday night, which was my local church... And that's where I met Jen.”

SEAN:
But he'd recently married Jenny.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“We got together. I was 16. She was 17, just 17. So we've been together virtually all of our lives. You know, the classic, you know, school kids’ romance”

SEAN:

And so his father  apparently arranged secretly for Scott Morrison to get a job in Sydney so that he could stay and work. 

So he began working at the Property Council, which lobbied for developers. And then not too long after that, he moved into tourism. And what's curious is that he's managed to leave every single one of those jobs under a little bit of a cloud. 

So there's this odd sense, I guess, of Scott Morrison being quite capable on on one level, but also kind of failing upwards on another and in between two of those tourism jobs he becomes state director of the New South Wales Liberal Party. And he runs the New South Wales campaign during the 2001 election - Tampa campaign, that John Howard campaigned so successfully and so, so horribly around refugees - and I think it's safe to say that Scott Morrison took some pretty strong lessons from that into his future political career.

RUBY:
Right, well lets talk about Scott Morrison’s political career then Sean. He enters politics in 2007, what kind of immediate impression does he give, what kind of politician emerges, right from the very beginning?  

SEAN:
There is almost immediately a very strong sense of Scott Morrison being hugely ambitious, and that ambition does take him places fairly quickly. He ends up being shadow immigration minister, and he is a very, very prominent shadow immigration minister and a very, very aggressive shadow immigration minister.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“I wonder about what the government's position is on this. Is it easier to see that contention that they are just going to let the boats keep coming, so it's our policy to stop them?”

SEAN:
And then he becomes, in government, immigration spokesman. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“My name is Scott Morrison, and I am the new minister for Immigration and Border Protection in the new Australian government, led by Prime Minister Abbott.”

SEAN:
And I guess there are two things to note about this. The first is that the boats do largely stop under his tenure. This is probably his, you know, in his eyes and certainly in his telling one of his most significant political achievements. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“You have been brought to this place here because you have sought to illegally enter Australia by boat. The new Australian government will not be putting up with those sorts of arrivals.”

SEAN:
The second thing is that reluctance to engage with the media that secrecy really comes into its own when he is immigration minister, he decides that he won't answer questions about what he calls on water matters,

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Well, again, I'm not going to go into on water operations of what other potential partners have been engaged with.  So we can we can go around this for a lot longer, but that is the position.” 

SEAN:
Which, when you're a minister involved in refugees arriving by boat, is a huge swathe of your portfolio. 

Then he moves into social services, and this is a huge opportunity for Scott Morrison to soften  his image, and he really uses that. So he's kind of rebranding his previous tenure as a hardline immigration spokesperson, as as a problem fixer, as a pragmatic man. 

And you see this word pragmatic and practical start to be used quite a lot by Scott Morrison in the coming years. And its a real way of framing often quite negative decisions in a very positive light. And it's very impressive the way Scott Morrison managed to place that frame on himself and kind of offer it up to journalists to be used.

RUBY:
And so those are - I guess - the aspects of Scott Morrison’s character we know of before he becomes prime minister. How do they help him become prime minister?

SEAN:
I think it's important to differentiate between two halves of Scott Morrison's career. 

There is the period up to 2015 while his immigration minister and before that when essentially he does not answer questions about himself. 

And then after 2015, he learns very much that he has to shape a narrative about himself. He is going to attract a lot of attention. He can't bat questions away forever. And that's when you really start to hear him talk a lot about cooking curries 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“We are doing a curry today - we’re doing a Sri Lankan seafood curry, which is pretty simple, even I can do it”

SEAN:
and start to talk a lot about the football and the Cronulla Sharks. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“…Big Sharks fan and and the Sharks have been tremendous to me too…”

SEAN:
And you can see Scott Morrison kind of preparing himself for entry into the public domain at that point. 

In that first week as prime minister, he holds a press conference where he's holding a rugby league ball. It gives his first TV interview, you know, not to not to Leigh sales but to a rugby former rugby league star. 

Archival Tape -- Rugby guy:
“But what a wonderful honour this is today for me. I'm here at Shark Park and I'm here with the prime minister, who is Australia's only Shark supporter, prime minister.” 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“So I think it's great to be here.” 

Archival Tape -- Rugby guy:
“It's lovely to see you. Congratulations” 

SEAN:
And I think that that performance, that daggy dad performance was absolutely enough to take Scott Morrison through to the 2019 election. But over the last three years, there has been this test of whether it could last longer than that, and especially whether it could survive real world crises. 

And my strong sense is that that model of politics has crumbled quite a lot in the last three years. I think that that kind of empty performance doesn't really stand up very well against real world crises with dramatic consequences. 

But - I am very far from saying that the election is over. There's still quite a way to go.

RUBY:
We’ll be back in a moment. 

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RUBY:
Sean the big difference between this election and the last one is that we do know a lot more about Scott Morrison than we did in 2019. So can you tell me a bit about what has become clear to you about his character during his time in office?

SEAN:
Well, I think there are two things that have become clear to many Australians. 

One is this sense of using the same tricks again and again, and once you have seen the tricks that Morrison pulls, once you have seen them, you can't unsee them. And that means that every time that he stands up and decides to pretend to be a welder or decides to wash someone's hair for that, for the cameras, people are no longer kind of reading that in history. They're saying it is, Oh, there's there's the marketing guy doing his marketing thing again. And I think that's tremendously damaging because it's very hard to shift because it's it's an opinion that's formed over quite some time. So how does Scott Morrison change that very quickly in the lead up to the election? I'm not really  sure. 

The second thing is the sense that the government hasn't really tried to do very much beyond the management of Covid. And you know, a lot of people make this argument that, well, Covid, of course, derailed the government, the government makes this argument as well. But what's important to remember is between the election in 2019, the onset of the pandemic in 2020, there were a good nine or 10 months. And those nine or 10 months, the government did very, very, very little. 

And we've never got a sense since that time of the government having made preparations then for any, you know, huge agenda that they're only now getting to. There has been no government agenda. 

And what's interesting about that, I think, is that it's not just a frustration of people you might expect to criticise a liberal government. It's immensely frustrating to many conservatives as well. I think that's been really interesting to see because I wouldn't necessarily have expected that.

RUBY:
Mm-Hmm. And is there a moment that you would point to when the public perception of Scott Morrison did begin to shift?

SEAN:
I think suspicions about Scott Morrison's political character had been building for some time. The vaccines mess in particular was fairly disastrous for him. But then I think a real turning point in public perceptions of Scott Morrison came, surprisingly, with the verdict of French President and French President Emmanuel Macron 

Archival Tape -- Journalist:
“Do you think he lied to you?”

Archival Tape -- French President Emmanuel Macron:  
“I don’t think, I know”

SEAN:
And that was a devastating character assessment. It was devastating because I think it gave people permission to confirm something they already suspected. And that comment from another world leader really added fuel to that fire. 

RUBY:
Hmm. What's also become clear is what some of his colleagues have been saying about him privately. I'm thinking here about the leaked text messages, and I wonder if you can talk to me about them in the kind of picture that they paint of Scott Morrison.

SEAN:
I mean, there were a few around the same time. We found out about a text message from Barnaby Joyce in which he said, I've never trusted him, and I dislike how earnestly he rearranges the truth to a lie.

And then you had reporting from Peter van Onselen about text messages 

Archival Tape -- Peter van Onselen:
“I've been provided with a text message exchange between the former New South Wales premier and a current Liberal cabinet minister.” 

SEAN:
between a government minister and the New South Wales premier at that time, Gladys Berejiklian, in which she said the PM was a horrible person.

Archival Tape -- Peter van Onselen:
“The minister is even more scathing, describing you as a fraud and quote a complete psycho.” 

SEAN:
So these are internal character assessments by fellow members of the liberal and national parties. And I think mean, it points to something we've known for a while, which is that Scott Morrison doesn't have a lot of very solid internal support. 

Archival Tape -- Concetta Fierravanti-Wells:
“By now, you might be getting the picture that Morrison is not interested in the rules based order. It is his way or the highway, an autocrat, a bully who has no moral compass”

SEAN:
And I think it also points to something that will be very interesting to watch unfold in the aftermath of the election, which is that if Scott Morrison does lose, I think we are going to see a great outpouring of attacks on him from within the party.

Archival Tape -- Concetta Fierravanti-Wells:
“There is a very appropriate saying here - ‘the fish stinks from the head’. Morrison and Hawke have ruined the Liberal party in NSW”

SEAN:
His authority, the need to win the election, the sense that he comes down very hard on people who, who attack him - I think he's kept a lot of people quiet, and I think we will see a bit of an explosion if he loses the election. 

RUBY:
So just finally, Sean, how would you assess Scott Morrison in comparison to Anthony Albanese? And to what extent does the contest specifically with Albanese, define what this election will look like 

SEAN:
Well politicians learn from each other and politicians learn from the victories of other politicians. And so in a sense, what we're really seeing now is a contest between two very reactive politicians. Each of them kind of ushering the other through the door first. You know, you go first. No, you go first. Each of them is waiting for the other one to, you know, announce something or do something that they can then pounce on and run a negative campaign around. So I think that is that's really the state of the campaign. 

Now that said, there are there are differences between the two men. Albanese is less good at the image game than Scott Morrison. He is a less polished political performer now. I would have said some time ago that that was a potential weakness and it could be a weakness. It could hurt him because Scott Morrison is very good at commanding a press conference, very good at commanding a set of photo opportunities. 

But at a time when Scott Morrison's addiction to images has become a little bit of a weakness, a bit of an albatross around his neck. There is the potential for Albanese's contrasting sense of being a little bit less polished, a little bit less marketing driven, to ironically help him. 

And this is what always happens in politics: somebody's strengths always end up becoming their weaknesses. You know, if you are a big ideas person, you will end up being seen as too grandiose somebody who promises more than you can deliver. If you are a details person seen as a competent manager, you will end up being seen as vision less without a big plan for the country. And Scott Morrison's case, if you are image driven and that helps you win an election, you will end up being seen as superficial and slick. 

I think the the the hope that we should all have for this campaign is that one of the parties seizes the opportunity presented by the vacuum that is currently there  and they actually take the lead in the campaign by announcing policy, by creating a clear debate. I think that's what we should all hope for from our politicians and from an election campaign. Whether we'll get that I’m a little bit more sceptical.

RUBY:
Sean, thank you so much for your time.

SEAN:
Thanks very much for having me, Ruby.

RUBY:
Sean Kelly’s book on Scott Morrison is called The Game. He has also written about the prime minister for The Monthly magazine.

Tomorrow, we will bring you part two of this package, a profile of Labor Leader Anthony Albanese with his biographer, Karen Middleton.

And we will be back in your feed shortly with more episodes of 7am - The Vote, including interviews with key politicians, panel discussions to explain the latest events, and in-depth feature episodes looking at the most important issues to you as the country prepares to vote. 

I’m Ruby Jones. See you then.

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RUBY:
Also in the news,

 

The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made a surprise trip to Kyiv, walking the streets of the Ukrainian capital with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

 

Johnson promised more military aid for Ukraine, in anticipation of Russian forces focusing their offensive on the South and East of the country.

 

The UK will deliver anti-ship missiles to Ukraine, which could be used against the Russian navy in the black sea.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers.

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