Man does job. That’s the review Scott Morrison should have been given for his underwhelming speech paraded as a launch of the political year.
If that was a launch, Elon Musk’s twice-failed SpaceX Flagship deserves to be called a resounding success.
It might be popular to underpromise and overdeliver but Morrison’s “to do” list outlined at the National Press Club this week was the most immodest example of modesty imaginable.
Just to recap for those who might have nodded off, here are the “priority areas” for Prime Minister Morrison: “suppress the virus and deliver the vaccine; cement our economic recovery to create jobs and more jobs; to continue to guarantee the essential services that Australians rely on; protect and secure Australians’ interests in a challenging world; and, care for our country”.
If this was a Miss World pageant, he would have probably added world peace.
These speeches have been something of a tradition in Australian politics stretching back about two decades – starting with John Howard, who first used the end of January as a time to change the conversation and seek to control the agenda.
Usually, these have worked well as political tactics, but occasionally they’ve gone very wrong – as happened when Julia Gillard announced a September election date on January 30.
Morrison has clearly decided on a “no drama/no surprises” approach to 2021 – part of his election-late -this-year calculus – and his small horizon, small ambition speech filled the bill.
Some columnists thought it was a “governing with the consent of the governed” moment in the spirit of 18th century British political philosopher John Locke, but that’s seeing gold in cheap glitter. It was the speech of someone who doesn’t think deeply and whose vision extends only to the bathroom mirror.
There was, as you’d expect, some old style Detroit-grade marketing. The deployment of the word “preferably” recalled those heady days of the 1950s when car makers at General Motors slapped on tail fins on the previous year’s Cadillac and called it a new vehicle.
By sliding the word ‘preferably’ onto a vague ambition to have net zero emissions by 2050, Morrison was able to make nothing look like something.
It wasn’t even a new “something” – the Prime Minister had used a ‘quickly as possible’ qualifier before Christmas in an address to the UK Policy Exchange.
We were told by one journalist, and then the next, that this incremental process Morrison was playing out before us was akin to boiling a frog – we all know that version of the slippery slope or grain of sand thesis.
What the journalists didn’t let on was that the person peddling the boiling frog story was the Prime Minister himself – the spinner in chief.
He loves this part of his job, and those tail fins were soon flying off the production line.
The other notable sharp notes struck were examples of a favourite political tactic by the Prime Minister. Setting up straw men, when no one within the far horizons has seen them, and then knocking them down. Morrison executes this manoeuvre with the inelegance it deserves but is given a round of applause from the cheap seats.
First, he said he wasn’t into “the politics of envy” when asked if companies should repay JobKeeper cash they’d had pocketed despite profitability, generous executive bonuses and other signs of not needing assistance.
The other, more brazen straw man assassination was to say he wasn’t going to impose a carbon tax or increase the GST when quizzed about having a reform agenda which exceeded the bare essentials he’d outlined.
Apart from some fringe cheering, no one is calling for either of these policy goals.
The other piece of hoodwinking achieved by Morrison was on election timing.
We were told in the most informed and profound terms that Morrison didn’t want an election in 2021 – he was super keen to run the parliament into 2022.
This is hogwash. He wants an election this year – and he will have one unless economic or political circumstances throw tyre spikes across his path.
What he wasn’t saying in this tireless background briefing was that Coalition polling in January turned up public antipathy to talk of an early election. Get on with the job and stop talking about taking advantage of favourable conditions, said the polled few.
This was about managing expectations, trying to get the early election thread out of the public discussion while pushing ahead with plans for a poll in the September/October window.
On that front, nothing has changed.
A final note on the boiling frog story. It’s an urban myth. The curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington was asked about it in 2006 and replied: “Well that’s, may I say, bullshit.”