Words To Vote By

The seemingly transparent yet rather enigmatic prime minister of Australia.

The first thing we can say about the man: what a marvellous chameleon he is.

An economics graduate, Pentecostal, with the brass of a car salesman polished during a brief but revealing career in marketing, Scott Morrison exudes an aura of the ordinary family man, the fair dinkum dad next door, the plain-speaking friend of both boss and worker.

He looks, sounds, perhaps even smells like the average Australian bloke. A good cove. If he tore his sleeves off and carried a big knife (we’ve seen him use one) he’d pass as an overweight, over-talkative Mick Dundee. If he could wrangle crocs he’d pass for Steve Irwin.

And if you take him at face value and aren’t into politics then you are probably in the crowd who consistently rate him preferred prime minister in numbers double that of the last few ALP leaders. For three years the polls find him bathed in admiration.

Yet Morrison is accident prone and regularly fails to read the room. If his numbers take a hit, the dip is so slight relative to the mishap that Teflon could be involved.

The upcoming election, after eight years of LNP rule, looks as if it’s the government’s to lose. As Albo shirks beneath a giant Akubra, the stench of fear emanates from the ALP’s atheistic supporters, because Morrison’s impossible victory in 2019 might indeed have been assisted by The Lord. His May 2019 victory speech boasted that he “had always believed in miracles.” Well now Labor does too, and they’re praying for one.

An ordinary man would leap from bed the day after such an improbable election win, look in the mirror and tell the reflection “you lucky, lucky bastard.” Scott Morrison, we imagine, nonchalantly adjusts necktie, balances his iconic rimless on that snub nose, and hums to himself “Say a little prayer for meeeee, doo-dum dee-dum.”

Slogans for Bogans

All political parties, forever, think slogans are an effective way to sway vast herds of people who don’t care enough about politics to, you know, read the news. Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, reigned over a withering output of these mind-numbing inanities. He created the hilarious character Jobson Groath, a person unidentified until a bemused public was told in no uncertain terms that he meant Jobs and Growth.

Redneck colleague, Nationals leader (wait – yes, no, yes, no… yes!) Barnaby Joyce, held the nation perplexed for some days after alluding to a terrorist group “The Weatherboard 9” that was wreaking havoc around the place for a cause indeterminate. And, yes, we were actually disappointed to learn it was just his mastery of strine deliciously operating on the phrase “the weatherboard and iron.”

But Scotty from Marketing is in a class of his own. He’s not only a certified master of slogans – he’s an embodiment of one.

His eloquence emerges during the press conference. After an extended bloviation in the guise of a briefing, he initially fields questions in a spirit of enthusiastic derring-do. But when an ink-slinger strikes a note of discord, Morrison’s body language engages a set of jaw, curve of mouth, and deep furrow of brow. Too pertinent a probe moves the prime minister to DEFCON 2 (clenched fists and bared teeth) in which he disagrees “with the premise of your question” with the high probability of a walk out.

If, however, the prime minister is in high spirits and thinks he’s got this, he sallies forth, which is where the rhetorical ground shifts to quicksand and the only way back is to invoke Scotty from Newspeak. It’s a measure of the man’s overconfidence that he thinks he’s a cool hand at managing perceptions unrehearsed. Professionals in semantic priming wouldn’t dare try it live, but Scotty dives right in.

His replies become a mix of rearranged slogans, repetition, and repeat repetition, made worse by an apparent fear of silence, so he keeps on talking. And seems quite proud of the result.

Word Salad

To his detractors, Morrison’s greatest flaw (apart from lying, bullying, secrecy, arrogance, bluster, petulance, and no compassion – but they could be biased) is word salad. To his supporters, well, more on that much further below.

When he goes off script it’s not pretty. And that happens on cue after each briefing when the press mongrels insist on detail. Morrison is most in peril when the pack gets a bit feisty and queries in a tone that remotely implies criticism. Marketing Man kicks in, and too many words with too little syntax ensue.

Intelligentsia will scoff mirthfully into their Twitter bubble, assured that all those rusted (nay, welded) on voters will be so dismayed by the man’s drivel that a Labor landslide is sure to ensue. But Morrison knows what he’s doing. He might be doing it poorly, or overdoing it, but he’s wielding a well-honed tool: verbal carpet bombing.

This strategy is covered by its own slogan – “bluster, bully, and bullshit” – and that reminds me of an ebbing Twitter hashtag, #ShoutyMcShoutface. That’s our man.

Instead of drawing breath, pausing for effect, or gathering thoughts, our guy fills the milliseconds with incoherent oral spakfilla. These “fillers” from an August 2021 presser:

The economy comes back strongly. And so the sooner we achieve that, the sooner that’s realised. And that should address the very issue that you’ve raised. That’s why it’s so important that we maintain this pace on…

But as soon as we’re able to release those, that’s why the national plan, that’s why getting the 70 per cent and 80 per cent and following through with a national plan and the confidence that national plan gives, I think, to businesses to look ahead and plan…

But what I do know is I have great faith in Australians that they know what they need to do and, you know, they are doing it…

But we will find, we will find our own way of dealing with those issues and we’ll continue to work through, you know, the international commitments that we have and work those through…

That ABC Interview

The truest measure of the man emerges from one-on-one interviews – with him gaffer-taped to the guest’s chair. Case in point, an interview with ABC’s Leigh Sales on the 7:30 Report.

Ms Sales took heavy criticism for being unable to wring sense out of the prime minister, let alone shut him the eff up. As if it were her fault that he will not simply, honestly, clearly, ever answer a question how we imagine a rational human would. Morrison Scotty-bombed Sales’ first question, and when his opening salvo failed to come near to answering it, she tried “pointing out.”

Big mistake:

PRIME MINISTER: We’ve got to keep doing what works, Leigh, and that’s why this Budget is a plan to secure Australia’s recovery… yada …So this Budget is about securing that recovery, that is already under way, but it’s about moving from the emergency response measures like JobKeeper and the cash flow support and all of this which has got us to this point, and now moving into the next phase of recovery …

SALES: But as I point out …

PRIME MINISTER: … which is the incentives for taxation, the incentives for skills development, and putting the investment through businesses that creates those jobs into the future …

SALES: But as I point out, Prime Minister …

PRIME MINISTER: … The Federal Government is stepping up to ensure that we can secure this recovery, as we go ahead.

SALES: As I point out, Prime Minister, …

At this “point out,” all except the true believers realised a train wreck interview was underway.

Ms Sales then poked the dragon as it delivered a string of eye-glazing hypothetical dependencies:

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is ideal. But what would be necessary in that environment is there would need to be a tolerance in this country, particularly at state and territory levels, that where you were getting cases in this country, because if you start to open up, if you start to have those controls relaxed, then you can expect to see large numbers of cases in this country, even with the vaccination program [inaudible]. In the United States right now, Leigh, there’s …

SALES: Well a lot of comparison, Prime Minister, sorry …

PRIME MINISTER: Sorry, you’re interrupting. I’ll let you go.

It would have gone downhill from there, except we were already below sea level, so it continued in this vein as she tried valiantly but futilely to rein in his stream of consciousness:

But understand this, Leigh … Well, it’s impossible for me to say at this point, Leigh. I think, we need to understand … … which is why, Leigh, Well, Leigh, in the Budget, …  That’s to 2,000 places, Leigh … Well, Leigh, what we’ve got, I’ve just told you … Well, no, I’m sorry, they are state public health orders. That’s what they are, Leigh,

And while Ms Sales nicked out to make herself a coffee, he droned away with some minor chronicle, lost in the mists of immateriality:

Well, this is a five-year plan we’re rolling out as a result of what we’ve announced last night, and this is a five-year plan to address the last 30 years and more… And so what we’ve announced last night in response to the Royal Commission, Leigh, that I initiated, that I called, because I wanted to know, because I want Australians in this country to age with dignity and with respect… I believe will take us down that path as it needs to. And I suspect there will be more things we will need to do as we roll out this plan…. I have no doubt, I have worked on many complex problems in government, Leigh, and you never finish. You’re always working at it. You’re always learning but you have got to remain committed to that outcome and that is ageing with dignity and respect in this country.

When Ms Sales, revitalised by her coffee, dared list the issues most prominently proclaimed by his critics, the prime minister feinted unperturbed dismissiveness, then went off like a cracker:

SALES: You’ve been the Prime Minister now for nearly three years and so Australians have had a chance to observe how you’ve responded to various things. When it comes to taking responsibility, they’ve seen vaccine stumbles, not your fault, it’s a supply issue. Quarantine, that’s mostly a problem for the states. Bushfires, I don’t hold a hose. Brittany Higgins, I was in the dark. COVID deaths in aged care, mostly the fault of state governments for not controlling virus spread, Christian Porter, don’t need to drill into the particulars. Minister’s breaching standards, I reject that anybody ever has. Doesn’t all that taken together add up to a tendency to blame shift and duck responsibility wherever possible?

PRIME MINISTER: That’s your narrative, Leigh, but that’s not one that I share—

SALES: I’ve just, I’ve spelt out the facts there.

PRIME MINISTER: I’ll tell you what the narrative is, Leigh. I’ll tell you what’s happened over the last …  (a great deal of yada) … So I’ll get on with my job and I’ll let you get on with yours.

So it was good night from her and good night from him.

Surely it’s not all bad

Throsby knows this article has been on the critical side so far, and yet 40% of Australians are supporters of Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party and would applaud his performance in each of the preceding dialogues.

Polling shows a far greater number prefers him as prime minister than are LNP voters. It’s a little counter-intuitive that even now (late 2021) with LNP and Labor tied, the prime minister has an approval of 50%, (earlier this year it was 70%) while opposition leader Albanese hovers around 30%.

How can this be explained, if the parties are drawing equal support?

The answer might lie with the “don’t knowers” whose total added to Albanese’s would bring his preferred status to 50%. Also, it’s common for opposition leaders to rate poorly, more so for untested ones, and more again when the party is still in a policy vacuum. Labor has voted with much government legislation that is odious to its supporters, and that quite likely adds further to Albanese’s disapproval in his own flock.

Although I inhabit the political left of centre and object to antisocial aspects of government policy, and generally dislike the public persona of Scott Morrison, I’ve little doubt if he was my next door neighbour we would have amiable conversations over the back fence and make good company at family gatherings. Intelligent and thoughtful people can do that despite their political differences. And he’s certainly smarter than I am.

My father hated Bob Hawke. He was a house painter who employed a small team of workers for 30 years, effectively a small businessman. Our family were technically upper-working class but aspired to bourgeoisie. He hated Hawke because of his union firebrand reputation. Silver Tongue, aka Pig Iron Bob (Menzies) had worked his magic over my father, who spent those decades convinced the nation was in good hands, and that it would slide to ruin if those Commie union rats got into power.

One of my sisters thinks Morrison is a great guy, and she would ex-communicate me if she learnt of my political musings. Yet we were born together into poverty, had similar upbringings, went to the same schools, and generally prospered in the egalitarian socialist paradise this country tended towards last century. She even thinks Trump is an OK dude. What IS she thinking? But here we are.

So there you have it, and cannot avoid it: we are a nation of 26 million inexplicably bizarre opinions.

Tribal nationalism

The tribal Throsby cannot resist pillorying Scott Morrison. And he cannot resist being a big easy target. So we’re good, yes?

Tribalism is narrowly defined as membership or loyalty to a group, while nationalism says similarly to a nation, and even extended to pan-national-isms, such as Communism, Fascism, Conservatism, and even religions, for example, political Catholicism.

But nationalism as defined has the additional characteristics of exaggerated, passionate, or fanatical devotion to a nation. Nationalists are obsessive, and thereby suffer an indifference to reality and facts. Such traits are validly applied to tribalism, and tribalism is a term already used to describe the intractability of those “rusted on” people who support a leader or political party no matter what. A nationalist will claim “my nation all good, enemy nation all bad, and only the enemy commits atrocities.” The tribal nationalist voter thinks similarly of her political party and its leader.

This is par for the course in politics because it’s simply easier for most people, absorbed and busy with their lives, or trying to survive, or who dislike the entire social discussion, to just stick with their tribe and vote accordingly. To consider politicians of the opposing team, or their supporters, of having any redeeming characteristics or commonality of purpose is just too hard for 90% of voters.

It’s a miracle that 5% of us actually swing and vote after careful appraisal of the issues, and then choose which politicians are best for the country.

Not just a win for our tribe.