Exploiting death: Scott Morrison, Pellegrini’s and Sisto Malaspina

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Remembering Sisto Malaspina (Image via YouTube)

The tragic death of Sisto Malaspina was seized as a publicity opportunity by Scott Morrison, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

IT DID NOT TAKE LONG for the vultures of opportunity to circle and feed. Co-owner of Melbourne’s Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, Sisto Malaspina, was dead — felled by the blade of Somali-born Hassan Khalif Shire Ali after he crashed his vehicle, packed with gas bottles, in the Melbourne CBD on Friday. The vehicle, having exploded, drew a concerned Malaspina to it, keen to offer assistance. But the blade-wielding assailant, unhinged, unwell and aggrieved, struck. Two others would also be injured and the assailant would die of wounds inflicted by police.

Tributes of solemn grace and deep reflection have been heaped upon Pellegrini’s entrance, snaking their way around the building. It was Pellegrini’s that gave Melbourne its first abode of reliable espresso coffee; it was Sisto who preserved that coarse charm that has seemed ageless after taking over the business in 1974.

Letters to the Herald Sun and The Age have been plentiful, respectful and reflective on Malaspina’s life. The note from Pellegrini’s staff spoke of a comforting, family air.

‘You always looked after us like family. You always said to have fun at work because we all worked so hard.’

Physical tributes have also followed. A convoy of Vespas organised by Julie Pond of the Vespa Club Melbourne stood out, as did the solemn tribute from a violinist playing before the establishment.

The same cannot be said about those enterprising vultures. With the body still warm, Prime Minister Scott Morrison swooped in with a failed advertiser’s zeal as the doors reopened. By his side was a desperate Liberal opposition leader, Matthew Guy, keen to make gains ahead of the 24 November state vote in Victoria. Both men were also accompanied by a phalanx of television crews, photographers and reporters — a true frenzy. Nothing quite sells like tragedy, especially if it is the tragedy of someone else, suffered in brutal circumstances.

Morrison feigned a forced familiarity. He spoke of finding “our Sisto smiles”, of being humbled “to be here, just listening to the stories of Sisto”. This was a life celebrated, one “well lived regardless of how violently and terribly it was taken”.

The political oozing and straining continued to the scribbled condolences. ‘Dear Sisto, thank you for your wonderful gift to our nation and the people of Melbourne,’ he penned in the condolence book. ‘You will always be loved and missed.’

Then came the inserted moment of reflection, a political patch typical of the “way of life” school of exploitation.

‘We will live each day thankful for the freedom and love of life you always demonstrated with your smile and laughter and service.’

(Again, that squeezed word — freedom.)

Guy had little to add, merely writing that:

‘Sisto loved Melbourne and Melbourne loved Sisto. Rest in Peace.’

At Pellegrini’s, Morrison was the advertiser-turned-electioneer, always denying he was.

“I’m here to pay my respects and talk to the very issues that took place right here in this street.” 

He was hoping to reach the Melbourne heart bruised by the events of last Friday. To that end, the response to Malaspina’s death had been “inspirational… This is an amazing place. It’s got such a heart to it, such a soul, and Sisto captured that spirit and that soul in a way that it would be hard to replicate.” The non-electioneering, non-politicising Morrison insisted, on being asked about the prospects of his Liberal colleague for the elections, that he had “a vision for Victoria as a lifelong Melburnian — the heart and soul of Melbourne beats in him as well”. The campaign had been Sisto-sized.

The lead-laden clichés filled Morrison’s reflections. He spoke of the building hands of the Sistos of Melbourne” who “built this city”. “They were the honest people.” (Don’t dishonest people also have a share in creating city culture?) “They looked after each other. They were caring. They were compassionate.”

Morrison’s technique here is simplistic in its dunderheaded quality. Sophistication and nuance must be avoided. Elevate the standing of the slain common man; berate the state of the corrupted accused. Shire Ali’s mental health was of little consequence to finding a suitably political description for him, one that could be marketed. “Of course issues of mental health and all these other things are important,” he told Network Ten, but the assailant “was a terrorist” with the blood of Islamic State coursing through him. “He was a radical extremist terrorist who took a knife to another Australian because he had been radicalised in this country.”

As if on brilliant cue, Shire Ali, like Malaspina, had been a blessing, giving Morrison a chance to scold imams into a greater state of vigilance, even as he extolled the inner Melburnian spirit. 

The Australian National Imams Council secretary, Sheikh Moustapha, took issue with that stance, telling ABC Radio Melbourne that:

“We’ve been doing whatever we can in our capacity to eradicate extreme thoughts and potential acts of terror.”

It also gave Guy a chance to ramble about the law-and-order matter.

“We’ll make sure those who commit crime are appropriately punished; that first responders, who are protecting us, have every method at their disposal to keep us safe.”  

Nothing there about improved mental health services.

Mental health is a matter of notorious sensitivity and disruption. Ostracised communities, the estranged and the excluded are marked candidates for poorer, rather than richer health.

Clarke Jones of the Research School of Psychology at the Australian National University ponders:

‘If we blame Muslim communities or cultural minorities as responsible for acts of terrorism, we are likely to continue to alienate at-risk individuals and communities that support them. This can, in itself, lead to mental health problems.’

The lure of the ballot box, however, is intoxicating. It rejects and repudiates delicacy. It dismisses the calm and the measured and treats careful consideration as the meditation of an egghead. 

A Morrison Government, to survive, has embraced an emetic, contrived dagginess, a faux folksiness that can turn nasty when required. It is hungry for gain and survival. The deaths and injuries inflicted last Friday on Bourke Street showed that other side of the ScoMo turn, one ugly in its desperation. Perversely, both Malaspina and Shire Ali found themselves exploited from opposite ends for a common purpose: electoral reward.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @bkampmark.

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