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Morrison and the border closure distress opportunity

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Queensland Premier Anastacia Palaszczuk and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Screenshots via YouTube)

There is no doubt that the PM saw a political opportunity in the case of Caisip but this does not excuse blaming the victim, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

IT HAS BEEN quite the experience these last couple of weeks, witnessing the Right go full bleeding heart over repercussions of the Queensland border closure on families facing illness and bereavement.

Compassion from the Coalition turns the established order disconcertingly on its head, even when that compassion is performative.

They don’t usually even bother with the performance.

So Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s emotionally manipulative attacks on Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk –who refused to allow Canberra nurse Sarah Caisip an exemption to attend her father’s funeral – were, to say the least, surprising, given his long track record of not giving a fig about the dead or their relatives.

That Morrison came close to tears in an interview with broadcaster Ray Hadley is also remarkable and does prompt one to ponder why Caisip’s situation found its way to the Prime Ministerial heart, when the distress of countless others has failed to penetrate his Pentecostal armour?

A realist might conclude that the imminent Queensland election plays a role in the PM’s sudden susceptibility to sad stories. That Ms Caisip also wrote a grief-stricken letter to the Queensland Labor Premier, roundly condemning her for perceived heartlessness, played right into the Prime Minister’s “Get Palaszczuk” strategy. It also offered a short respite from the LNP’s long-running “Get Andrews” campaign, that has seen their sights set unrelentingly on the destruction of the Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews.

One of the non-medical side effects of the coronavirus pandemic appears to be a flight to the imagined security of tribalism and partisanship. This is understandable, we are living through highly uncertain times and many of us are looking for comfort and the reassurance of the familiar. Politicians recognise and exploit this anxiety. Some do this by presenting an implacable determination that signifies strength and reliability, others by demonstrating a corresponding commitment to tearing down a perceived societal enemy.

It’s fair to say that, currently, Labor leaders are adopting the former stance while those from the Coalition are deeply engaged in the latter. The circumstances of the pandemic bring political differences into high relief and they are easily distilled into who cares about your life and the lives of your family and who doesn’t.

What Scott Morrison has been assiduously working towards is the deflection of Liberal heartlessness, introduced into their core ideology by former Prime Minister John Howard, onto Labor. He’s been focused on this for some time, particularly with regard to the controversial border closure between Queensland and NSW. This situation lends itself to a narrative of callous disregard, given the dependence of northern NSW on Queensland medical facilities and the very real difficulties this has presented to residents in border communities.   

In no universe would this writer argue that Morrison actually cares about these difficulties and the suffering they cause. Morrison is the ultimate pragmatist. He is entirely dedicated to the furtherment of Morrison and, if that demands performative concern, he will oblige.

However, this is not to deny the hardships experienced by people confronted with border prohibitions. This is where things get tricky and the baby can get thrown out with the bathwater. When Morrison gets hold of your story and uses it for his own ends, your story might not survive. You might find yourself the subject of hostility and judgement because your tragedy has been co-opted to make a Labor premier look bad.

And this is exactly what has happened to Sarah Caisip on social media. Instead of the focus being on Morrison’s manipulation and exploitation, questions were asked about Caisip’s religious and political affiliations. Why her family didn’t delay the funeral until she was out of quarantine, was a popular criticism. As if when a funeral is held is anybody’s business other than that of the family concerned.

That Caisip couldn’t have written her letter without help because it’s too political, was another charge levelled against her — an extraordinary put down of a woman of colour.

Why did she speak out when I have kept quiet? was another popular expression of resentment — one that fails to acknowledge that the decision to speak and the decision to keep silent are both valid personal decisions that nobody is obliged to explain.

The point here is that under the influence of partisanship and tribalism it is all too easy to lose sight of the issue and the human beings at the centre of the issue. It’s an example of victim-blaming by the Left because the victim in this instance criticised a Labor leader.

Caisip had every right to send a letter to Palaszczuk, who she believes is the cause of her considerable distress. This is in no way remarkable. People do it all the time. That Morrison saw an opportunity and seized it is not Caisip’s responsibility, and we can’t stay silent because somebody else might use our words as weapons in their own war.

It shouldn’t be necessary to resort to blaming and denigrating victims of a situation in order to defend and support your own side of politics.

If it is, perhaps Morrison’s deflection is, sadly, not without some substance.  

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and academic. You can follow her on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep. 

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