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Scott Morrison's political motives have turned against him

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The Prime Minister's myopic approach to solving problems and his focus on himself is only making matters worse, writes Matthew Butera.

WHAT DOES Scott Morrison stand for? When you think of key political issues that fire Scott Morrison up, what comes to mind?

As Prime Minister, Morrison has lacked the clear, values-driven guiding light that voters can associate him with. Hawke and Keating delivered nation-shaping economic and social reforms, such as introducing super and establishing Medicare. John Howard was a political beast, waging policy-war on matters as broad as industrial relations, Indigenous affairs and nation-defining tax reform alongside then Treasurer Peter Costello by introducing the GST. Kevin Rudd was driven by climate change action, resisting Howard's WorkChoices and making the National Apology to the Stolen Generations. Julia Gillard delivered the NDIS and priced carbon. Tony Abbott’s “blood oath” was the repeal of the carbon price and Malcolm Turnbull was somewhere in between.

Morrison, meanwhile, has come to be defined as a pragmatist, a cunning political operator who has largely avoided the political dogfights that made and broke his predecessors. These dogfights are where the voters can glean what matters most to their prime minister and the absence of such for “Scotty from Marketing” has bred the ambiguity surrounding our PM’s core convictions.

However, there is one outstanding cause that Morrison is devoted to above all else. His sole political ballast — politics itself. Scott Morrison's guiding mission, his primary objective, is to continue as Prime Minister and maintain the Coalition's role as Australia's governing party.

One’s ability to achieve an objective is generally determined by the effectiveness of the strategy underlying it. If we accept that Scott Morrison’s sole focus is electoral outcomes, then we must accept that all activities he engages in are in pursuit of that goal. The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy articulated this beautifully, equating Morrison’s approach to leading the country as that of a campaign director. The guiding philosophy is political management. Every decision taken is a political one.

How does this play out in policy? Well, you get a prime minister who is really neither here nor there on most issues. Scott Morrison’s view on reducing carbon emissions, the poisoned chalice of numerous PMs in the last 15 years, is suitably unclear. We need to get to net-zero “as soon as possible and preferably by 2050”. The rhetorical tool here being to afford the PM flexibility to change his position based on political expediency if and when the time comes.

In industrial relations, the PM wanted to avoid an election “fight”, eventually pulling the controversial legislation altogether in March. On Indigenous Affairs, the Prime Minister has ruled out a constitutionally enshrined voice to Parliament, instead pushing for a legislative solution which The Conversation's Megan Davis has deemed ‘not able to deliver the transformative change communities so desperately need’.

Our Prime Minister's approach intends to be inoffensive and level-headed. Generally, issues like industrial relations and climate policy are abstract and unimportant for politically unengaged Australians. However, certain issues snatch the attention of even the most disengaged Australians. Under Scott Morrison's Prime Ministership, the Black Summer bushfires and the recent focus on the treatment of women in Parliament and society are two such issues.

What is it about these two issues and how Scott Morrison has so badly bungled them both? I argue it is the incompatibility between these problems and our PM’s brand-driven, media-cycle dependent problem-solving approach.

Issues like industrial relations, climate, even immigration and health policy, all of those issues largely remain in what I call the “abstract” category. When discussed or when decisions are made, these are issues whose impacts are not felt immediately by most Australians. This does not mean they are unimportant or that many people are not interested. But for the majority of Australians, emotionally and practically, they are not felt. They do not take precedence over the stresses and challenges of daily life.

But, when Middle Australia thinks about the bushfires, or they see the cover-up and complete abrogation of responsibility surrounding Brittany Higgins’ rape accusation, the response changes. The issues transcend from the abstract, their emotional ripple deep and tangible. They demand a more substantive response because they capture the average Australian's attention and emotion, manifesting in raw, human feelings of anger, sadness, grief and trauma.

This explains the national fury when, during the most significant national emergency since World War II, our Prime Minister was in Hawaii, throwing up shakas before returning and touring bushfire ravaged towns searching for a photo-op, only to be brutally repudiated by devastated bushfire victim, Zoey Salucci-McDermott.

This explains the national fury when, after accusations of rape in a minister’s office from a Liberal staffer, the associated cover-up and gaslighting, allegations of rape against the Attorney-General or by taking no decisive action against an MP who verbally abused and photographed female constituents without their consent, that people are angry.

Thus, this is a problem of the PM’s own making. His myopic, political approach to running the country has led him down the wrong alley. The incompatibility between his single-geared method and the multifaceted, delicate challenges facing his government is apparent.

Equally clear is the solution. The Prime Minister is being urged to show leadership and demonstrate his commitment to principles that reflect a changed attitude towards how women should be treated in Parliament and across society. By demonstrating zero tolerance for breaches of that principle, such as standing down the Attorney-General during the conducting of an independent investigation, or by publicly requesting Andrew Laming leave the Liberal Party, the Prime Minister would be shifting his stripes. His actions would shift from political to substantive, ambiguous to decisive and provide a clear signal that he and his team appreciate the seriousness of the matter before them.

Morrison would be addressing tangible problems with tangible solutions. Unfortunately for Australian women and the Prime Minister himself, form would suggest he is either unwilling or incapable of such a response.

Matthew Butera is a Master of Public Policy student at the University of Melbourne and works in professional services.

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