Richard Nixon’s administration had Spiro Agnew, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s bovver boy was Norman Tebbit, President George W. Bush gave us Dick Cheney and I can’t tell you the number of times I turned a decorous dinner party into a Don’s Party redux by simply observing during a lull in conversation: ‘By the way, isn’t that Philip Ruddock doing a terrific job?’ I’ll leave the psychobabblers to explain why people of my leftish persuasion need a conservative bogeyman to execrate, but it is undeniably deep in our DNA.
The arrival of Tony Abbott’s coalition government has spurred the need to find a villain du jour. Step forward Scott Morrison, aka ‘The Brigadier’. He is not afraid of our demonology; the Minister for Immigration appears to thrive on it. Laying waste to moaning Minnies, tired Tims, bleeding hearts, legalistic pedants and hand wringers is his favourite sport and in return we loathe him. Gone are the days when the ultra-sensitive immigration portfolio was guided by benign Liberal grandees such as Harold Holt, Hubert Opperman, Sir Alexander Downer, Michael MacKellar and Ian Macphee.
Morrison has introduced a regime of despotic authority and unflinching moral certainty. He is the son of a Sydney policeman, the Presbyterian manse and the Boys’ Brigade, a 19th century Christian youth organisation founded in Glasgow to ‘advance Christ’s kingdom among boys and promote habits of Obedience, Reverence, Discipline, Self-respect and all that tends towards a true Christian manliness.’
Now 45, Morrison has evolved into a devout Pentecostal worshipping with other evangelicals at Shirelive in his southern Sydney electorate of Cook. It’s Chicago School Christianity with a triple-A rating. Because Morrison is so robust about his religious beliefs, his own ministerial decisions deserve to be tested against them.
In opposition he gleefully shouted about every boat that arrived off the northern coastline, but now they are hidden under claims of operational security. His weekly media briefings have been replaced by ‘needs only’ appearances. Nauru’s puppet administration has suddenly raised the price of a journalist’s visa application from $200 to a prohibitive, non-refundable $8,000. Each day brings more disturbing developments: Australian warships inadvertently breaching Indonesia’s territorial waters; allegations that asylum seekers were mistreated when steered back to Indonesia by Australian Navy personnel; some of the 1,000 children still in detention being abused; the camps on Nauru and Manus Islands rapidly becoming overcrowded hellholes of seething discontent; and the minister seeking to criminalise asylum seekers by giving them a new title — ‘illegals’.
Other charges should be taken into consideration, Your Worship, including these: the defendant Morrison has trashed the traditional independence of the armed forces by handpicking Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell to manage Coalition policy on immigration and border protection; vandalised decades of diplomatic, defence and intelligence relations between Canberra and Jakarta; damaged Australia’s standing in Asian and Pacific capitals by blowhard politics and bungled policies.
I was embedded in the NSW parliamentary press gallery in 2002 when I first met Morrison, then the Liberal party’s fledging NSW State Director. We lunched occasionally at the chic restaurant at Hyde Park Barracks, built in 1819 to incarcerate convict men and boys and re-educate them with the lash. The purpose of such lunches is to gather fat while giving away some lean. But truth to tell the roles were usually reversed with Morrison. He walked away with the majority of fat and I was left with a skerrick of lean. He was an unknown quantity in the Liberal party appearing from nowhere to head the NSW division by studying and adopting the ‘whatever-it-takes’ modus operandi of the ALP’s Sussex Street machine. Today there isn’t a senior member of the National Press Gallery who hasn’t dined at Manuka’s eating precinct with the Immigration Minister as he follows the media manipulation techniques perfected 20 years earlier by Richo, aka ‘Richelieu’.
During his term as the Liberal state director Morrison presented himself as non-factional, neither wet nor dry but appealingly moist. However, when he quit the job in 2004, the ‘Left’ was split and the Right, led by Upper House MP David Clarke, was on the ascendancy. At the 2007 federal election he replaced the monsoonally ‘wet’ Bruce Baird in a memorably vicious pre-selection battle fought through the media. Afterwards, the left celebrated ‘their’ candidate’s victory but so did the right. Morrison became noticed.
Australia is now at war. I know because I’ve been following frontline reports delivered from the situation room of Operation Sovereign Borders. (Who invented the title? Give that man an Australian Service Medal.) The war briefings are conducted amid martial atmospherics with ‘Brigadier’ Morrison flanked by Lieutenant-General Campbell wearing full military uniform and decorations. The Scott & Angus Show started as serious drama but has quickly descended into Hibernian vaudeville. Laurie Oakes, doyen of the National Press Gallery, has complained that ‘sometimes when he fronts the Fourth Estate, Scott Morrison’s arrogance can be little short of breathtaking. Abbott should have a word in his ear.’ But the only message he gave Morrison was to soldier on because polling is positive and the minister’s sheer bastardry is taking the heat off the PM.
Morrison’s chief tactic is to embarrass Bill Shorten by wedging Labor. He hasn’t grasped the essential fact that the Coalition is now in government and that its purpose has fundamentally altered from destroy to build and from divide to unite. He also appears to have forgotten the First Law of Holes propounded by the British politician Denis Healey: ‘If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.’
Meanwhile, the damage inflicted on the nation is incalculable. While Morrison is driven by God and the Holy Bible to inflict misery on desperate human beings to achieve a Greater Good, Australian society is inescapably brutalised by this process of institutional punishment. That’s why we don’t like him. Mind you, I took a similar view of Bob Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, John Howard and Tony Abbott and look what happened to them.
Alex Mitchell is former NSW state political editor of the Sun-Herald.
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