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The Morrison clown show goes on

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison is more of a clown than an effective head of government (Image by Dan Jensen)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues his parliamentary circus and perpetuates his reputation as the nation's clown, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

REMEMBER THE MOMENT in Tender is the Night, the F Scott Fitzgerald masterpiece, when the wife of Dick’s partner utters her realisation that he is “no longer a serious man”? It was a turning point for the fashionable psychiatrist. All those around him were coming to think the same thing. It turned the mind of his partner, he was dumped, his decline accelerated.

The connection with Prime Minister Scott Morrison should be obvious, except for the destruction part, for now.

How many people – not just political people, Liberal Party people, readers-of-Fitzgerald people, but real people in the electorate going about non-political lives – are obtaining such a realisation about the national clown who is the Prime Minister.

Stuffing it up

The man cannot govern, does not deliver, stuffs things up, but goes on putting up a show.

A major show has attended a patchwork allocation of money for women’s health, announced on Mothers' Day with more spending on breast and cervical cancer screening, mental health for expectant parents, treating problems with in vitro fertilisation (IVF), eating disorders and endometriosis — the painful condition affecting the pelvis.

There is no doubting the need, nor the sincerity, of health organisations whose leaders were lined up to give thanks after a media conference by Health Minister Greg Hunt. If those came over as party front organisations, it may have been to do with the likely prompting they received, scripting help readily available from the army of now-famous ministerial staffers who craft our daily propaganda intake.

One of the worthies might have been encouraged in such a way to make her call for “matching funds” from the states, a device where the programs might be shucked off later with state governments expected to take on the ongoing cost.

Along with that vision of innocents, the good doctors and other carers stepping around in a snake pit and along with the Mothers' Day theme, wet enough in itself, the show was to somehow make up for this year’s bad handling by the Federal Government of abuse of women, bad handling not least by Morrison himself.

Is the government to be believed?

It cannot now be bold for reasonable Australians to feel sceptical and question the spending largesse: first, whether its motivation is not so much statecraft as an urgent need to try and patch over a political problem; second, whether this government will actually go on to do as it says — spend the money effectively from its own budget in a timely way.

The Labor Opposition has been emboldened to cast doubt on every initiative these days, because of a now established government track record for sending out the clowns, the one clown in particular, but not getting it together to govern the country.

The Opposition women’s spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, said be careful and read the fine print on the Mothers' Day announcement.

Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers focused on the lack of main programs, “political patch and paint jobs” instead — and the issue of incompetence.

Back-flipping by Morrison on the return of Australian citizens from India was one more indicator:

“Let’s put the big pieces right with the vaccinations and quarantine. Let’s make sure that Australians have got a safe way to return home. If the Prime Minister had not stuffed up those two things, he wouldn’t be in this position.”

The India fiasco

The repatriation of Australian citizens from India has to be seen as a stuff-up and once again shows up the dichotomy: a loud show announcing an initiative, then failure on the serious side — running effective government.

The Government announced in a media release on 1 May that it had made it a crime for Australians to come back directly from India, punishable by five years imprisonment and/or a $66,000 fine, until further notice.

What is the motivation for that?

The reason given was the seriousness of the pandemic crisis in India and, said Morrison:

“...I am going to take decisions that I believe will protect Australia from a third wave...”

He also pointed to the unreadiness of the quarantine system in Australia to take a rush — and there was Jim Chalmers asking whose fault that was.

Was there also maybe an element of “children overboard” motivating the India shutdown, a reload of the Tampa affair that set up an anti-immigration issue and election win for the Liberal Government in 2001? There has been plenty of anti-Indian commentary on the theme of the Indians “bringing it on themselves”, much banging-on about the ritual mass bathing, huge weddings, roasting dead bodies in the open, their Prime Minister unmasking himself Trump-style at mass rallies and so on.     

This time, though, the “children overboard” phenomenon is looking thin. The show has certainly gone wrong, with the unexpected revolt across the board against suspension of an always-assumed right, that if you had an Australian passport you could always come home. It might be the Indian Australians now, but who next?

What kind of a mess is this?

The ingredients for a real mess are strong: those voters prone to racial prejudice who would have applauded the “Indians” being locked out will now be sour and many worried about getting infected. There will be questions about the airlift from India, how quickly it will go, and how safe. Among other questions, why not an airlift for all the other Australians stranded overseas, in Europe or North America? How about more reception centres, so far refused by the Morrison Administration?

The backflipping Prime Minister now bumbling over the Indian airlift was still far from free of his problem with women, even as they rolled out the Mothers' Day manifesto.

He was not long out of the one-to-one meeting on 30 April, deftly demanded and obtained by Brittany Higgins, the ministerial staffer who publicly reported on her rape by one of her colleagues on the Minister’s couch.

Reports that they’d had a robust and frank chat revived the ongoing impression of trouble in the ranks and some kind of partisan rabble from the Liberal Party running things behind the scenes: maybe alright at manipulating the news and putting on a show, maybe no good at the “hard” subjects like providing actual good government.

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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