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MUNGO MACCALLUM: Morrison maintains his position of power

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Scott Morrison has a stranglehold over the Liberal Party (screenshot via YouTube).

Newspoll has emerged from its grotto and Scott Morrison’s troops are cheering. The honeymoon has kicked in.

Their messiah has given them a convincing cushion, one that should maintain them in comfort for many months, if not years. Forget those constant predictions of doom and gloom that their bible warned of in the past ⁠— those were all wrong. This time the truth has been revealed. Break out the bubbly.

Well, they may be right ⁠— there is little doubt that the election has put the Coalition on top, and Morrison at the very summit. Whether the punters are really celebrating, or simply relieved that the whole ghastly business is over for three years (barring, of course, deaths, defections and by-elections) may be questioned, but who cares.

The point is that their man has assumed an unlikely dominance, an authority to do just about anything he likes. It’s just a pity that he actually does not want to do anything much except gloat, sloganeer, and create wedges for his opponents.

A serious politician – dare one suggest a statesman – would use the opportunity for a real agenda of reform. He could transform the tax system rather than simply handing out loot for his mates.

He could move on energy, finally merging economics and science in genuine action on both power prices and climate change. He could fix the health system, ending the death spiral of private insurance to provide an effective national system.

He could move decisively to end the cruelty Peter Dutton inflicts on Nauru and Manus. He could even embrace the Uluru Statement from the Heart and take a decisive step towards the great goal of reconciliation. And those are just for starters.

That would be the approach of a real prime minister with guts and vision — a Gough Whitlam, a Bob Hawke, a Paul Keating, even a John Gorton. But of course Morrison won’t, because he is not a real prime minister. He is a failed tourism marketer who ended up as a political apparatchik as second best and then schemed and manoeuvred himself to become what even he tacitly admitted was an accidental leader.

He is the apex – or rather the nadir – of a process by which Australian politics have collapsed to its lowest ebb in living memory, a power game devoid of principle and concentrated solely on winning at all costs — what Graham Richardson called “whatever it takes.”

It was not always thus. There was a time not all that long ago when the vast majority of candidates for office stood because they really believed they could serve the national interest. Many if not most were genuinely idealists, hoping their high-minded ideas could lead to policies that could enhance the well-being of a country they cherished.

Inevitably, the hard slog of realpolitik chewed up and spat up a large number; the long climb up the greasy totem pole from branch meetings to cabinet rank turned them world-weary and cynical — playing the game became an end in itself.

But the survivors were men and women of substance. And they survived at least partly because they had wider horizons than their party rooms. They did not see themselves as cradle to grave politicians — people who had dabbled in other jobs designed primarily to advance their own interests. They worried about policy more than politics.

It is worth remembering that the founder of the modern Liberal Party, the sainted Robert Menzies, was acutely aware of the distinction between the elected members of the parliament and the backroom machine men. Indeed, he made it a cardinal rule to block pre-selection from those who sought to breach the divide. In the cricketing parlance he loved, there were the gentlemen – the amateurs willing to face the risks and rewards office – and the players, the professionals who staffed the organizational wing.

But when he left, the walls were broken down — nowadays a year or two in the backroom is considered the norm, a step towards the leather benches in Canberra rather than an impediment. And so we have ended up with Scott John Morrison, the ultimate hollow man.

Of course we can’t go back to the Menzies era and only the terminally nostalgic and delusional would want to. But political progress needs to be tempered with caution and wisdom if it is not to be swamped by what is now known euphemistically as unforeseen consequences and collateral damage.

The most obvious of these have been not the internet, the social media that have become a convenient scapegoat for just about everything, but the rise of the leeches and parasites who rode on the back of the changed environment – the pollsters, the spinners, the touts and spivs who thrive on one-liners, gotcha moments and gutter-trawling masquerading as research to offer what they call revelations of character – usually hopelessly out of context and invariably long out of date.

This has demeaned not only Australian politics but the basis of elected government to the extent that a growing section of the population is querying the worth of democracy itself. And as the demands for a strong leader to cut through the checks and balance of the Westminster system increase, mountebank politicians like Morrison and Dutton respond with enthusiasm.

They revel in the idea that they can bypass the Cabinet, the Party, the Parliament itself. They force through authoritarian measures in the name of the catch-all of national security and assume untrammelled power in their personal fiefdoms. And all of this to a well-orchestrated chorus from the backbench of “on the side of Australians” — a trope so derisory that even The Australian found it risible.

And in this case, Newspoll is part of the problem. And of course it is utterly meaningless. Asking the punters who they would vote for next week when they are still getting over the last election can only elicit the response, come back and ask us in 2022.

The only thing that can be elicited from last week’s figures is that most people have not yet had time to get pissed off with Morrison and either don’t know or don’t care about Anthony Albanese.

That is, if the polling is even believable — a highly dubious proposition after the fiasco of May 18. And making it headline news in the national daily only demonstrates what a travesty our democracy has become. Australian politics is no longer a contest of ideas — it is a game show.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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