The minds of defeated prime ministers are rarely pretty. In some cases, they are damnably awful places, where ruins accumulate and dust gathers in wretchedness. Such figures can become, by the admission of former Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, miserable ghosts, cantankerous, bitter and resentful. Then come some, such as Malcolm Fraser, who have healthy revelations. Others just go to seed.
This may well have been the case with Scott Morrison, the accidental of Australia’s prime ministers. In 2019, he won an election deemed unwinnable. In 2022, he lost in the formidable face of a third of voters who preferred to go for alternative parties. Refusing to read the smoke signals from a Liberal heartland worried about political integrity, climate change and violence against women, his party was carved by the stormy arrival of independents and minor parties.
Put out to lean, undernourished pasture, there was little reason to expect him to slide into respectable obscurity. The lecture circuit beckoned, and his debut came in his July 14 address to the Asian Leadership Conference in Seoul. In it, he emerges enlightened, quoting from yet another pop-historical tract from historian Niall Ferguson, this time on pandemics. His account is free of failures and full of praise, much of it for achievements not his own.
On the matter of pandemics, he can only cause others to raise an eyebrow and crease the forehead. An assessment by John Hopkins University is cited, ranking “Australia second in the world in pandemic preparedness.” There is also Bloomberg, ranking Australia as the “world’s fifth most COVID resilient nation.”
He ignores the enormous, unmatched role played by the States and territories, and the half-botched stuttering of his government in the face of crisis, from pandemics to environmental catastrophe. The Commonwealth’s own conspicuous role, throughout the pandemic, was to frustrate the arrival of Australian citizens left stranded overseas and yearning to return to their homeland. Morrison’s famous contribution to the issue of climate change and violence against women was to absent himself from the debate or seek advice from his wife.
One remark stands out. “You must be able to trust and delegate.” Reading between these chosen words is the sense that you must abdicate and defer responsibility as a leader when your role most demands a purpose.
Then came a sermon at the Victory Life Centre, a Pentecostal Church where former Australian tennis champion Margaret Court presides in occasional, reactionary majesty. In his 50-minute address, Morrison did much to express those regressive tendencies that betrayed him as a visionless plodder whose understanding of politics was always confined to snarls and bruising rather than foresight and understanding.
Australians, he suggested, should forget governments and forsake the United Nations in favour of a vengeful Sky God’s blessings. It was almost refreshing to have such deluded frankness, given that, as prime minister, he was always keen to lecture the Chinese on the “rules based international order” and good government.
“We trust in Him,” Morrison stated, after promising with eschatological creepiness that “God’s kingdom will come”. “We don’t trust in governments. We don’t trust in the United Nations, thank goodness.” With such a sentiment, he would have kept company with any aged theocrat sniffing the glue of imminent apocalypse. “We don’t trust in all of these things,” he went on to say, “fine as they might be and as important as the role that they play. Believe me, I’ve worked in it, and they are important.” So, dear voter and citizen, “if you are putting your faith in those things like I put my faith in the Lord, you are making a mistake.”
A few days later, it was confirmed that this man, full of contrived principle and love for the ultimate deity above, had also tried to convince the Australian Border Force to draft and release a media statement about the interception of a boat filled with asylum seekers. The timing was crucial: election day, May 21.
That same day, the New South Wales Liberal Party took advantage of the occasion to bombard thousands of voters with text messages, encouraging them to “keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today”. Bad habits die hard, and in Morrison’s case, they do not die harder than exploiting refugees and asylum seekers for political gain.
A report subsequently prepared by Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo took the scrubbing to ABF personnel and Australian Defence Force by exonerating them. It would have come as no surprise that a self-investigation of public servants by public servants was bound to be sympathetic. The entities concerned had, apparently, acted with “integrity” in refusing to release the statement – at least when initially asked. Labor’s Home Affairs Minister, Clare O’Neil, suggested that the Coalition government had “sabotaged the protocols that protect Operation Sovereign Borders for political gain”.
To the last, even a beastly creation such as Operation Sovereign Borders, very much Morrison’s grotesque political contribution when Immigration Minister, might well be sacrificed if the needs required it.
As a program of secrecy in intercepting vessels on the high seas laden with asylum seekers, it remains Australia’s military grade approach to coping with humanitarian desperation, one lacking accountability and transparency. The fact that O’Neill, now a Labor government minister, is defending it, is no doubt something Australia’s Pentecostal former prime minister will draw much satisfaction from. The rest will be left to the good Lord of his persuasion.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org