The gospel of Scott Morrison is his most poisonous legacy
The former prime minister has engraved his moral nihilism and will-to-power politics on the heart of the Liberal Party. And it could have consequences for decades to come.
Maeve McGregor asserts that even with the long march of time, Scott Morrison’s compulsion for lying and utter shamelessness remains both unmoved and spectacularly obvious; there’s simply no escaping the poverty of the man’s essence.
And so it was unsurprising to watch the former prime minister emerge, embittered and self-consumed, from the miasma of his failed overseas job interviews and the robodebt report on Monday, to deliver yet another round of national gaslighting in what may or may not pass for primitive signs of sentient life.
Labor’s criticism of him over robodebt was, he told a sparsely populated Parliament, an attempt to “discredit” him and his “service to our country during one of the most difficult periods our country has faced since the Second World War” — apparently overlooking the fact the illegal scheme was discontinued before the onset of the pandemic.
But it didn’t matter. None of it did. Morrison’s always had a thorny relationship with the truth. Ceaseless lying is what he does; it was his will to power — the more brazen or lazy the lie, the better. After all, for all the “daggy dad, everybody’s bloke” swagger of the man, he’s never been one to content himself with the slippery, poll-tested patois and spin of garden-variety politicians. On the contrary, the default setting of this moral degenerate is to wallpaper the nation with lies and unreality at each and every opportunity, whatever the occasion.
To that extent, it was almost surprising his rambling monologue to Parliament didn’t go big and deploy his reputation for mendacity in answer to the royal commission’s chief finding against him that he misled cabinet. In what ways, he could have asked, can a known pathological liar be guilty of misleading anyone? Sadly, though, that winning argument wasn’t to be; partly because it would have involved some semblance of twisted honesty on his part, and partly because it would have summoned an earnest capacity for self-reflection where none exists.
Instead, Morrison opted for geysers of personal grievance and misdirection, relying on his proven aptitude to assault reality at every turn. He complained of “political lynching”, warning he’d fallen victim to a “transparently partisan campaign”. He spoke of “unintended consequences”, omitting any specific mention of suicides, financial ruin or trauma and stress, much less his knowing the illegality of the scheme. And he gravitated towards lines from The Australian, troubled at the “weaponisation of a quasi-legal process”.
But amid all the meandering and asides, he synthesised his central complaint with the deftness of a preacher’s cadence, painting himself as the persecuted martyr or the wrongly accused, someone who’d only ever followed the rules and conventions of cabinet to the letter. Contrary to the royal commission’s findings (or the cabinet handbook), he intoned, he was “constitutionally and legally entitled” to rely on the advice of his cadre of public servants, including all those he had so consciously pressed and bent into a “yes, minister” mould.
Naturally, the suggestion that this “menacing, controlling wallpaper” was anything but obsessively domineering as a minister, whatever his portfolio, is fanciful. It’s both removed from reality and at odds with Morrison’s character, as others have pointed out. And indeed, one of the most dangerous governing concepts to emerge from his disgraced period in office was the realisation that basic norms and conventions can be glossed over or ignored as optional extras.
Hence Morrison’s dishonest oral evidence to the commission that he’d been advised in “verbal briefings” that income averaging was “established practice”, his faith in the certainty of which had been downgraded to a “reasonable likelihood” by Monday afternoon. And so too his insistence that his involvement in the illegal scheme ceased the moment he was elevated from social services to treasurer and, later, the office of prime minister. Never mind the seniority of those positions arguably deepened, as opposed to lessened, the dead hand of his crushing failures as a minister.
That Morrison sees no wrong in his reckless norm-torching should, of course, surprise no one. He lives in a world devoid of moral rules, with no space for quaint emotions like shame or empathy but ample room for righteous self-delusion and crippling self-pity.
Bearing this out with precision was his haughty and utterly insensible complaint on Monday that the commission had effectively reversed the “onus of proof” against him, leaving Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten to proclaim the death of satire. None of the hundreds of thousands of robodebt victims were, after all, afforded access to taxpayer-funded lawyers, and much less were they spared the unfairness visited by a retrospectively fitted reverse onus of proof.
As Shorten spoke, Morrison was observed shaking his head and muttering “here we go”, to which Shorten said: “I can see the member for Cook lip-synching something. Well, let’s be very clear. The victims of robodebt never had their legal costs paid for, never had the chance to see the evidence that was put against them. The member for Cook is a bottomless well of self-pity with not a drop of mercy for the real victims of robodebt.”
The crowning pièce de resistance of Morrison’s “very Morrison” rendition of moral desolation on Monday, however, was his refusal to apologise. He expressed “regret”, yes, even “deep regret”, but much like his “I would apologise” statement in June 2020, this fell short of a true apology.
Perhaps apologising would have been one lie too many for Morrison. Perhaps there are, in spite of the weight of evidence to the contrary, limits to his implacable shamelessness, or hints of a moral compass, however deformed. But no, the better view is he feels no compunction to apologise because, as he’s previously said, he’s one of God’s chosen few. Apologising would mean forfeiting that moon-shot vibe you’d expect from anyone who courts the greatness of God. And besides, if this was anyone’s fault, surely it was God’s. Morrison was just doing what comes naturally.
It’s this hubris, this deranged fusion of populism with a mangled Christian faith that detests the poor and sees truth as malleable, which paints Morrison, in his eyes, as the real victim here. It’s for the same reasons no-one can take seriously his claim that the consequences of robodebt were “unintended”. Cruelty was, by design, made into a sacrament; misery among the poor and the vulnerable was the whole point of robodebt. All of which lends Morrison’s claims of hero-like status as the prime minister who oversaw the illegal scheme’s end an added layer of insult.
Robodebt was not, as he now claims, discontinued when the “issues and unintended consequences first arose”, but only following the solicitor-general’s advice in late 2019, and only after efforts to “double down” with the scheme — suicides, complaints, hundreds of adverse AAT ruling and thousands of media reports notwithstanding.
And so there it is: the dishonour of Morrison is, on any view, indelible; his narcissism, boundless. But for all that, he still continues to inspire loyalty in Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who on Monday told 7.30 that Morrison has a “very strong case” and that he was “right to put it in Parliament and right to serve in Parliament”.
The reasons for this stance, of course, are obvious. For one, it’s difficult for the party to condemn Morrison for a policy they so vigorously and ideologically supported.
For another, Dutton is himself now seeking to rely on classic Morrisonian blame-shifting in response to the Department of Home Affairs scandal. Namely, that it was not incumbent upon him to act on information a Nauruan politician was suspected of corruption because, so he claims, he should have been able to rely on his public servants to ensure all procurement arrangements for offshore processing on the island were above board.
He also claimed, in further Morrisonian fashion, that the controversy was descending into a political witch-hunt, with “many commentators — particularly from the ABC and The Guardian”, in his view, ethically compromised or otherwise “frothy at the prospect of there being a way to attack offshore processing”.
It’s in such ways that “to do a Morrison” or “Morrisonian” will in time come to mean more than a pejorative translated into Hansard as “institutional arson”, “habitually telling lies”, or “blame-shifting”. It’s set to also become a shorthand for the ideology or strain of reactionary politics the Liberal Party continues to champion. One that attaches no value to norms and conventions, and one that summons the might of the state against the most vulnerable people in the community, including asylum seekers and Indigenous peoples.
And so even if Shorten does complete his “kill list” — even if the soaring music finally rises and the credits roll on the worst prime minister in the nation’s history — Morrison’s stench will live on in all the colleagues he has recast in his image.
Morrisonism, in other words, will outlive Morrison. And it could prove one of the most consequential developments for Australian democracy this century.
Public affairs correspondent
Maeve McGregor is the public affairs correspondent for Crikey, with a special interest in law and government integrity issues. Prior to this, she was a lawyer.
This article was originally published by Crikey