Murdoch media is helping hide the callous Scott Morrison by favouring his public relations creation, the daggy dad, ScoMo, writes Paul Begley.
*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape
THE MORE that is seen and heard from Australia’s Prime Minister, the more Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) comes to mind along with the maxim that the enemy of your enemy can be your friend.
FDR’s enemy was ostensibly Joseph Stalin, the Russian despot, who became his friend and ally in the war against a mutual enemy, Adolph Hitler. Roosevelt knew that Stalin was a cold-hearted murderous thug but wanted that information hidden from the American people so he could present a united front – with the British Prime Minister at the time Winston Churchill and Stalin – against the German Führer.
To ensure the alliance worked, FDR conducted a public relations (PR) campaign that made passing references to homely and friendly "Uncle Joe" as part of the war effort. It was a PR campaign sponsored by the U.S. President to sell the fake virtues of a problematic leader to the American people.
The present Australian leadership strategy comes across in a similar way, as a PR exercise to achieve two things: one, to project the image of a fake-friendly ScoMo to the Australian people and, two, to hide the real Scott Morrison from public view. The key difference is that the Australian strategy lacks a higher purpose.
There are those who say Scott Morrison defines himself by what he is not. We know, for example, that Morrison’s Government is not like the Government of Myanmar.
When thousands of women protested around Australia in March 2021 about the prevalence of a rampant rape and sexual assault culture among LNP men within the parliament, the PM menacingly reminded those women of their good fortune because his Government was not going to meet them with bullets.
We know, famously, that he has established himself as someone who does not "hold a hose". We know also that Morrison is okay with multi-national retailer Harvey Norman keeping $22 million of JobKeeper money despite making bumper pandemic profits because the PM is "not into the politics of envy".
And we now know that the attitude to his glacial vaccine rollout has been seriously flawed because he took the view that it was "not a race".
It’s fair to say Australians know precious little about the Prime Minister they elected in May 2019. They didn’t get much of a chance to do so after he bobbed up as leader of the Liberal Party following an internal party spill in 2018.
Morrison wasn’t the challenger during that spill but, like former speed skater and Olympian Steven Bradbury, he came from nowhere and won. Unlike Bradbury, one might have reason to suspect that he planned to betray the trust of the departing Malcolm Turnbull as well as the challenger, Peter Dutton, in order to emerge the winner. It doesn't appear to have happened by chance.
To fill the vacuum of what could become a tricky narrative, Morrison’s PR people have created "ScoMo" and they helpfully tell us what ScoMo is and what he does.
We know, for example, that he has two young daughters and that he is their dutiful father, so dutiful in fact that he spends his precious time making cubby houses and cooking curries for them. He also spends time photographing the output of his homely projects. On top of that, the pictures are posted on multiple social media outlets.
In addition, Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily Telegraph obligingly prints pictures accompanied by heart-warming stories about our daggy dad PM for the benefit of its 453,000 daily print readers. To those numbers can be added Melbourne's Herald Sun readership of 563,000, Brisbane's The Courier-Mail's 273,000 and Adelaide's The Advertiser's 229,000 readers. Those stories go a long way towards taking care of the domestic feminine credits on Morrison’s public profile ledger.
On matters touching gender, we know that ScoMo responded with apparent gravity to the revelation in February 2021 about a 2019 allegation by LNP staffer Brittany Higgins being raped by a colleague in the Defence Minister’s office just before the election of that year.
ScoMo was so concerned by the account – which was apparently news to him two years later – that he solemnly told the Australian people he consulted his good wife Jenny who offered him wise counsel. He was to think of the matter as if it were his own daughters, she advised him. She seemingly refrained from mentioning that rape is a serious criminal offence but instead asked him to ponder on the matter simply as a dutiful father.
One day, someone might ask Jenny Morrison whether any of that ever happened and we will then know more, but for those who believe ScoMo’s story, he comes out of it looking like a good husband who respectfully consults his good wife on matters of great moment — and listens to her advice so conscientiously that he recited it at a press conference to the nation.
Flawed as the advice was on analysis, the story hit the PR mark in that it confirmed ScoMo is not merely a model father but also an attentive husband. And to add icing to the cake, he had declared that the "welfare of Brittany" was his primary concern.
To the many Australian voters inclined to believe him, ScoMo’s story was doubtless a PR masterstroke. When "Brittany" complained that the Prime Minister’s office was briefing The Daily Telegraph journalists with stories that were damaging her partner and her family, that complaint was undermined by an element of inferred sluttishness about her original allegation. The subliminal inference is that Brittany was drunk. She was dressed enticingly. She was therefore looking to be raped and should stop whinging about it.
It recalls the matters raised by former Liberal MP Julia Banks who left the Liberal Party in 2018 after Malcolm Turnbull was defeated in the spill because she refused to serve under Morrison.
When the PM pleaded with her to delay announcing her departure, her agreement was followed immediately by her learning of journalists briefed about "the poor petal Julia" having had a breakdown and being unable to cope with the cut and thrust of politics. At the same time, Morrison was saying publicly that he only had "Julia’s welfare" in mind.
Both Brittany Higgins and Julia Banks have reason to consider with considerable clarity that the nice friendly ScoMo was in reality the sinister scheming Morrison.
On the masculine side, we know that ScoMo claims to support the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks rugby league team, that he likes a beer with the boys, that he’s tough on illegal migrants and that he puts great store by men’s right to tow their boats and pull their trailers unimpeded by government wokeness.
We know about these credit entries on the male ledger because they are also posted on multiple social media outlets and The Daily Telegraph is invited to print pictures supplied and to accompany them with stories about an ordinary knockabout bloke who is just paying off a mortgage like any other knockabout family man. Murdoch’s other capital city outlets amplify the same ScoMo narrative across the nation.
If the Prime Minister’s PR people are projecting a fake Uncle ScoMo, who then is the Morrison they want to hide?
When he suddenly became Prime Minister in 2018, most Australians who don’t follow politics would not have known who Morrison was. Had they known a few things about his career trajectory, however, they would have realised his success in that spill contest was entirely in character.
It demonstrated that while he was slow to get that vaccinations are a race, he understood the critical importance of a race when it touched on his personal career prospects — his election to parliament being very much a case in point. It required a capacity for calculated planning, duplicity, betrayal, shamelessness and secrecy. The little that is known about Morrison’s past shows he possesses those personality attributes in abundance.
Immediately following his sudden and mysterious dismissal as executive director of Tourism Australia in 2006 – a subject he refuses to discuss as "it’s in the past" – Morrison put himself forward in 2007 for Liberal preselection in the relatively safe Sydney seat of Cook.
He lost the preselection bid 82 votes to eight against local Cook member Michael Towke.
Towke is a lawyer of Lebanese extraction. Following quickly on that result, Towke became the centre of scandalous stories circulated by unknown parties to Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph newspaper. The stories greatly damaged the standing of the preselected candidate, whose candidature was promptly terminated.
Towke subsequently won a defamation payout from The Daily Telegraph when the allegations against him were proven to be without foundation. However, that came too late to recover his preselection for Cook because Morrison had swiftly put himself forward and won it in a hasty second ballot.
It was a race against the clock and Morrison was up to winning it. To my knowledge, he has not been subject to a police interview or any other questioning on what role he may have played, if any, in the slanderous stories that led to Towke’s loss of face and disendorsement.
Morrison went into the 2019 election as Prime Minister with opinion polls predicting a humiliating loss to Bill Shorten’s Labor Party. Unlike Labor, Morrison went to the voters with no platform and a parade of departing former ministers. One of the departing members was former Justice Minister Michael Keenan from the WA seat of Stirling, who embellished his departure with the information that he would not serve under Morrison, apparently calling him an “absolute arsehole”.
That character assessment aside, all Morrison had going for him in 2019 were some public relations bits and pieces around his wife and daughters, the Sharks football team, his support for coal, his opposition to electric cars, and his happy-clapper Horizon Church connections.
And critically, he had Murdoch’s capital city tabloids, all of which amplified any positive PR messages to their readers. In the absence of a policy platform, Morrison’s campaign manager and former Senator Arthur Sinodinos acknowledged that ScoMo’s profile, such as it was, resonated with outer-suburban voters — unlike Turnbull whose voter appeal lay in the inner suburbs of the capital cities.
In addition, ScoMo was not Bill Shorten who had become demonised through the Murdoch tabloids as standing for socialism, electric vehicles, death taxes and the end of negative gearing.
Australians who follow politics knew Morrison as a fierce opponent of settling refugees from war-torn parts of the world, especially those who came by boat. As Immigration Shadow Minister in Tony Abbott’s opposition Liberal Party, Morrison took great pleasure in noting with shouty enthusiasm the boats that crashed into rocks on Australia’s west coast. He listed them one by one on a macabre public scoreboard he and Abbott methodically updated, looking for all the world as though they had just high-fived as they added another number to the tally.
Once in power after the Rudd Government fell in 2013, Morrison took credit for Abbott’s "stop the boats" slogan and introduced the practice of silence thenceforth about all “on-water matters”, cementing a habit of flouting Australia’s international treaty obligations, along with a lasting predilection for secrecy as an operational imperative.
From that point, he prevailed over a merciless incarceration of boat arrivals on Manus Island and Nauru, who had committed no offence other than arriving in Australia at the wrong time — the present legacy of which was his public incarceration of the Tamil Murugappan family from the Queensland town of Biloela in 2018.
The Murugappans were a much-loved family in Biloela, who (on the outside) mirrored the Morrison family dynamic of mother, father and two young daughters. Unlike the many thousands of people each year who overstay their visas, the Murugappans were singled out as a poster family for Morrison to demonstrate tough love the Australian way. The mother of the Australian-born girls, Priya, had fled to Australia after watching her fiance brutally incinerated alive by the Sri Lankan authorities, but Morrison nevertheless wanted her to go back to that place.
Australian brutality took the form of re-opening Christmas Island detention centre to house this family. This form of vindictiveness was performed as a vote-winning exercise in 2019, complete with Morrison-media photo ops at the detention centre on Christmas Island. To date, detaining the family on Christmas Island has cost taxpayers approximately $6.7 million, according to the Department of Home Affairs.
ScoMo’s one-seat Bradbury win in 2019 was sold to the Australian public as a "miracle" by a speaking-in-tongues, laying-on-of-hands Christian who flaunted his religiosity and Trump-like, saw merit in the proposition that he was chosen by God to occupy the highest office in the land.
It has since become apparent through government audits that the miracle was greatly aided by the misallocation of a $660 million car-park grants scheme and a $102.5 million sports grants scheme directed at coalition and marginal seats immediately prior to the election.
Since being elected, ScoMo has been tested by a number of events that have risked the daggy dad being revealed as the callous Morrison. His careless neglect was on show during the bushfires that engulfed the nation during 2019-20 when his office lied about him holidaying in Hawaii. The bushfires had nothing to do with him. ScoMo doesn’t hold a hose. And the fires had little to do with climate change — Morrison insisted that was not a discussion for the time.
In the one-and-a-half years since the fires, Morrison and his ministers have displayed a cavalier disregard for convention and the law.
In 2020 the Federal Court declared illegal the Robodebt scheme that demanded payments from impoverished welfare recipients. An estimated 2,000 suicides possibly resulted from that policy and the Government was required to settle a lawsuit brought by Robodebt victims to the tune of $1.2 billion paid from taxpayer revenue.
Federally regulated aged care homes were the subject of scandalous revelations at a Royal Commission into the area where private profiteering prevailed over care. The pandemic showed in stark relief that residents in those homes were exposed to the dangers of poorly paid staff working multiple jobs and infecting them at increasingly high rates. In Victoria alone, 655 residents died from COVID-19 during 2020 in those homes.
Water rights were purchased for $80 million by the Government on a property without water, a property allegedly connected to Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor.
An amount of $29.8 million was paid by the Government for land that an audit revealed was valued at $3 million. With the exception of Senator Bridget McKenzie, ministers connected to the incompetence and potential corruption entailed in these policy disasters and dubious transactions have kept their jobs and no inquires into their conduct have been held.
The successive ministers who had carriage of Robodebt (Scott Morrison, Stuart Robert and Alan Tudge) had been warned it was legally problematic but they persisted with it regardless.
Murdoch news outlets paid little or no attention to reporting on these matters. Retired Australian politician and convicted criminal Eddie Obeid might wonder how unlucky he was. A compliant media that kept matters of that order quiet would have suited his corrupt behaviour to perfection.
ScoMo has been challenged more recently by the historical allegations of rape against his former Attorney-General Christian Porter. Given that he has declared Porter innocent, Morrison is no doubt relieved that Porter has dropped his defamation suit against the ABC which otherwise would have dragged on into 2022 election territory.
That said, while the Brittany Higgins matter has gone quiet, Malcolm Turnbull has said it was "very, very, very hard to believe" that the PM's office would not have known about the Higgins rape allegation in 2019 with an election imminent.
If that is true, the issue of destruction of potential evidence presents itself because the office where the rape allegedly happened was cleaned at the time instead of being designated an alleged crime scene — and that would be a matter within the criminal jurisdiction. Other highly motivated lawyers are bringing private criminal prosecutions against Porter for the alleged rape. These will be ongoing landmine issues that Morrison will find difficulty in handpassing to ScoMo.
Similarly, the incompetence surrounding Australia’s lamentable vaccine rollout in a Delta-variant world, will not be matters that ScoMo can deal with much longer.
He has done some encouraging work in the past with assurances that "we don’t have to fear this virus" and developing vaccines"is not a race". They have met with mixed success but he has not entirely given up and is working on making sure his Government claims credit for the hard work done by state premiers. In a flagrant abuse of first-person plural pronouns, the most recent Federal Government talking point is that "we are a victim of our own success".
ScoMo is clearly happy with that narrative, though it’s becoming increasingly apparent to more voters that the vaccine rollout stuff-up is a Federal failure just as the purpose-built quarantine issue was a Federal failure — hotel quarantine increasingly being seen for what it is: a flawed stop-gap state solution to Federal inadequacy.
Whether Australia sees more of ScoMo and less of Morrison heading into the next election is an open question. It will partly depend on how far the Murdoch press is prepared to go in hiding Scott Morrison and promoting ScoMo.
If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online.
Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.
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