We all know Scott Morrison is a marketing guy. He’s happy with a slogan and he relishes repetition. These are not habits he’s dropped because he and the country are deep in a health and economic crisis.
In one of his rallying speeches, replete with Team Australia references, Morrison told a story about marine architect Ben Lexcen, his famed winged keel and the Australia II victory in the America’s Cup yacht race.
Morrison quoted Lexcen as saying: “Whatever you do, whether you’re making the smallest part for the boat, whether you’re crew or designing a winged keel, everything you do, every moment of time you spend on the project needs to make the boat go faster.”
Morrison was using the story to inspire a national effort to get through the COVID-19 twin crises, but most of the Prime Minister’s political colleagues in Canberra had heard the anecdote before.
It featured in Morrison’s acceptance speech after he became Prime Minister in the tumultuous week of Liberal leadership chaos in September, 2018, as recorded by former Liberal minister Christopher Pyne’s memoir, The Insider, published this week.
Pyne recalls Morrison as following the story with a call to colleagues to not just make the boat go faster but to never do anything to make it go slower.
Don’t do anything to harm our chances of winning the election in 2019,” Pyne quotes Morrison as saying.
This doesn’t just remind us that Morrison loves nothing more than a handy anecdote to drive home a political point. Pyne also recalls how Morrison was never swayed from his mantra throughout the 2019 election – the contest was about the leadership choice between himself and Bill Shorten, nothing else.
The grand sweep of events this year sometimes deflects from the fact we have an intensely political prime minister – driven by strategy, tactical manoeuvring and the never ending horse race of the great game.That’s why the prime response to whatever Morrison does is to look for political angle – and not just the immediate cost or benefit but what might be in play months or even years down the track.
This week Morrison had a headline making policy announcement on defence (“ScoMo Goes Ballistic”, screamed The Daily Telegraph), some dog whistling on alleged job snobs lazing around after pocketing the JobSeeker payments and engaged in some political rock throwing at premiers over border closures.
The defence story was as dramatic as the yarn weavers in the Prime Minister’s Office could pull together. It had a big dollar spend ($270 billion, even though little had changed from the 2016 defence industrial capability plan) and frightening images of ballistic missiles shooting across the skies.
While the details were being debated in the defence think tank complex, most casual observers could be excused for thinking we were either about to be attacked by China (the country everyone was talking about but never naming) or join military action aimed at China.
It was genuine shoot-’em-up, scare-’em stuff.
With a squeaky tight byelection being fought in Eden-Monaro, offering yourself as a strong, muscular leader in uncertain times might just be enough to sway a few hundred votes your way – something which could be pivotal in this weekend’s contest.
The JobSeeker story prompted a “Jobless opt for dole over work” headline in the national daily and fits with a trope that’s been popular on the conservative side of politics since Malcolm Fraser attacked dole bludgers more than 40 years ago.
Morrison and his minister had little evidence beyond “many anecdotes from small and big business” but they were obviously keen to make the supplemented and rebadged Newstart payment look too generous and prosecute an argument against further assistance and direct stimulus.
The border wars exposed Morrison’s determination to never take his eye off the politics of the time. He has been sniping at Annastacia Palaszczuk for more than six weeks over her determination to be cautious and careful when considering reopening her state’s borders to the rest of Australia, despite the Queensland Premier having overwhelming support for her stand.
With an election in Queensland at the end of October and the need to maintain robust approval ratings in the state, Morrison has been willing to risk a backlash by attacking Palaszczuk directly while handling states keeping their borders shut with muted criticism.
Palaszczuk fired up when she announced a lifting of the border closures – with a remaining exemption for Victoria.
“These border wars have got to stop,” she said. “I think a national leader should have been able to bring all of the states and territories together. Frankly, I’m a bit sick that Queensland has been singled out as opposed to South Australia, and Tasmania, just to name a few.”
Morrison responded with a “I’m not surprised” shrug, pointing out there as an election soon in Queensland. Listening to the Prime Minister you’d think it was the first time he had realised there was an election on the horizon.
Morrison has known all along the election is on the calendar which is why he’s been aiming his political messages at the Palaszczuk Labor Government. He isn’t about to do anything that will make the Queensland LNP’s boat go any slower.