Grattan on Friday: Scott Morrison fails the ‘character’ test posed by his Warringah candidate
For months there has been a great deal of debate about Scott Morrison’s “character”.
Now, in the controversy over Katherine Deves, the Liberal candidate for Warringah who Morrison refused to dump despite a string of offensive social media posts, we have seen the prime minister fail a significant character test.
Ignoring the public and private calls by Liberals – not all of them moderates – for Deves to be disendorsed, Morrison said on Thursday, the day nominations closed, “I’ve been in contact with Katherine again today, encouraging her”.
Morrison has not only refused to budge, but tried to turn the argument back on his critics.
He condemned “those who are seeking to cancel Katherine, simply because she has a different view on the issue of women and girls in sport”, and attacked the “pile on”.
In a revealing comment he also said, “I think Australians are getting pretty fed up with having to walk on eggshells every day because they may or may not say something one day that’s going to upset someone”.
This reminded those with long memories of remarks by John Howard in the wake of the maiden speech of Pauline Hanson, who had been disendorsed by the Liberals for the 1996 election over racist remarks but won anyway.
“One of the great changes that have come over Australia in the last six months is that people do feel able to speak a little more freely and openly about how they feel. In a sense, a pall of censorship on certain issues has been lifted,” Howard said.
Howard was trying to tap into a backlash against “political correctness” – although later he had to change his tune, partly because of the feeling in urban Liberal seats. Morrison’s target is “cancel culture”.
Deves was Morrison’s pick. In one of the long-delayed preselections in the NSW Liberal party she was chosen by a committee of three including NSW premier Dominic Perrottet and former Liberal party federal president Chris McDiven. Morrison wanted women in as many of these seats as possible. He later said he wasn’t aware of Deves’ transphobic posts, which is extraordinary given they were recent, numerous, rumoured within the party, and basic vetting would have found them.
One theory has been Morrison believes Deves’ views on keeping women and girls from having to compete against transgender people in sport will resonate in certain seats. The flip side would be that he is dismissing the possible cost of her offensive tweets in “teal” seats where Liberal incumbent face high profile independents.
If he does think she brings wider advantage, it would be an appallingly cynical calculation, and a risky political judgement.
In his defence of Deves, Morrison is framing the issue in a misleading way on several fronts. It is not a case of critics wanting to “cancel” her. It is a question of whether she is a suitable candidate for the Liberals.
People have the right to express all sorts of unsavoury views. But to be accepted as a candidate by a major party, a person should have to pass a much higher test, because by endorsing them the party is telling the electorate their values align with its own.
Morrison also tries to frame Deves’ tweets as “insensitive”. They went way beyond “insensitive” – they were downright offensive.
He suggests she was expressing herself badly on her issue of protection women and girls in sport. But in fact her tweets go far wider.
As the days pass, more and more posts emerge. Sam Maiden this week on news.com.au reported Deves’ posting in 2021: “Surrogacy is a human rights violation. Women’s bodies are not vehicles for a vanity project.”
In another post reported by Maiden, Deves said of people who didn’t fight moves towards gender fluidity, “I have no doubt these people would imagine themselves to be part of the French Resistance in WWII – but no, they are the villagers who watched the trains go by, ignored the clouds of soot and smoke and joined the Party to get good jobs. They are complicit.’’
Morrison says Deves apologised for her posts. But was that the easy way out? It’s a bit hard to see this as a major change of heart, given the posts were multiple and recent.
The row over Deves could have major implications in particular for the fights in two Liberal Sydney seats, North Sydney (Trent Zimmerman) and Wentworth (Dave Sharma), where there are high profile “teal” candidates. Deves came up in the debate between Sharma and teal independent Allegra Spender on Thursday.
Also, it’s hard to see how she can campaign effectively in Warringah, held by independent Zali Steggall. The Liberals were never expected to have much chance of dislodging Steggall – now she is considered a shoo-in.
It is instructive to compare Morrison’s obduracy over Deves and his reaction when he came under attack after Wednesday’s “people’s forum” over saying he and Jenny had been “blessed” to have children that did not have autism.
He was answering a question about the NDIS from the mother of an autistic child.
His remark got a strong reaction on social media, including from Dylan Alcott, disability advocate and Australian of the Year. “Woke up this morning feeling very blessed to be disabled – I reckon my parents are pretty happy about it too,” Alcott tweeted.
Morrison swung into action with a public apology, and was in contact with Alcott.
“I meant no offence by what I said last night, but I accept that it has caused offence to people,” he said.
He said he had been simply saying it was tough and these were hardships he and Jenny hadn’t had to deal with.
That indeed, was the interpretation many people would have taken from Morrison’s remarks (especially as he has often spoken of his brother-in-law, who has a disability). Others would see the line as insensitive and out of touch, especially in today’s context of how we discuss disability.