Using an old theatrical saying, Canberra author, academic, historian and commentator Chris Wallace remarks that “action is character”.
She uses the phrase to analyse the failure of Bill Shorten and the mastery of Scott Morrison in her incisive book, How to Win an Election.
One of Wallace’s first maxims in a series of 10 is that all parties need to select leaders who can do the substance and the theatre of politics.
When it comes to the theatrical side of the dark political arts, Australia has seldom seen someone as acutely attuned to the task and able to spin on a sixpence while delivering Gold Logie performances than the current Prime Minister.
It was there this week on the main stage of national politics, Parliament’s Question Time.
Morrison used feigned outrage coupled with indignant bluster to roll out humbuggery and populist “look over there” distractions.
Three instances stand out from Morrison’s appearances in the political big top.
First, the dodgy deals of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s old partner Daryl Maguire revived debate about a national anti-corruption body – something promised more than two years but motionless despite still-secret draft laws finalised almost 12 months ago.
The government ducked and weaved, saying they were diverted by the rolling crises of drought, bushfires and COVID-19.
Morrison sought to use his authority to dampen this awkward debate, turning to his dog-eared “don’t you know there’s a pandemic going on” folder.
“I was not going to have one public servant diverted from the task [of managing the pandemic to deal with ICAC],” thundered Morrison in a statement which deserves space in a political dictionary under ‘humbug’.
Next, Morrison floated a loosely worded defence of giving a job with the Bushfire Defence Agency to an old John Howard associate, Peter Crone.
According to the Prime Minister, Crone was a well-credentialed economist who earned any position he was given
“On this side of the house, if you’re good at your job, you’ll get a job,” said Morrison. “That’s how it works.”
This kind of one-liner can haunt politicians.
Paul Keating’s behind-the-hand “go and get a job” admonishment to protesting students and John Howard’s boast in 2007 that “working families have never had it so good” for example – which is why Morrison moved quickly to appear grievously hurt.
He claimed he was misquoted, that his words were misconstrued.
Assuming the look of a wounded schoolboy, Morrison said Labor’s interpretation of his quote was a “rather ugly misrepresentation”, adding a comprehensive denial that he had said any such thing.
“That is not what I said, Mr Speaker,” Mr Morrison told Parliament.
Even casual students of Morrison’s use of political deflection, diversion and denial recognised this “sorry, but black is white” tactic.
Finally, Morrison’s enthusiasm to come out swinging against the foolish indulgence of Australia Post executives by CEO Christine Holgate and the company’s board was a textbook example of the “squirrel” move in politics when someone points to a scurrying animal and shouts.
Morrison and his ministers spent the week surrounded by a swamp of policy and political failures.
Starting with the extraordinary land deal which saw property owned by Liberal donors sold to the Commonwealth for an amount 10 times its valuation, another stinging assessment of failure in aged care handed to the Royal Commission into the sector and possible federal connections with former NSW politician Daryl Maguire.
When Australia Post added to that sorry scorecard with news that four executives were each awarded $3000 Cartier watches, Morrison saw a scandal he could jump on without responsibility or backwash.
He demanded Holgate stand aside – adding that if she didn’t want to that “she can go” – and told of his fury. “(I was) appalled, it’s disgraceful and it’s not on,” thundered Morrison.
Given the many other scandals that have swirled around the Coalition before and during Morrison’s time at the top, a few high-end watches looked like loose change.
Which is the point.
It allows Morrison to vent with fury, express outrage at apparent out-of-touch behaviour and look like he is taking action.
As Wallace reminds us in her book, action is character and Morrison is the ultimate “doing” politician, even when his frenetic activity is more talk than something producing genuine outcomes.
As Wallace notes about Morrison during the 2019 election campaign: “(He) interacted enthusiastically with every ordinary voter in sight, left no sizzled sausage voraciously uneaten, and radiated palpable energy through the media coverage of those interactions to voters not there.”
It’s a skill that Morrison deploys with ease and practices relentlessly.
As long as he continues to do it almost unchallenged, his political supremacy will prevail.