News Politics Australian Politics Dennis Atkins: Morrison’s ‘tough guy’ stance on India has backfired badly
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Dennis Atkins: Morrison’s ‘tough guy’ stance on India has backfired badly

The blowback was quicker and more omni-directional than the PM anticipated. Photo: Getty/TND
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On Thursday, September 20 last year, Scott Morrison called into one of his favourite communications channels with the public, Ray Hadley’s 2GB morning show.

He was wracked with anguish over the plight of Sarah Caisip, a 26-year-old Canberra woman who’d been barred from attending the funeral of her father in Brisbane.

Morrison’s target was Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, who had a date with an election six weeks later.

Morrison turned the dial to 11.

“This is a heartbreaking story – it was brought to my attention early this morning,” he said to Hadley.

“And so I rang the Premier this morning and I’ve appealed to her to overrule a decision that would allow Sarah to go to the funeral today.

“And to be honest, it’s not about borders. It’s not about the Federation. It’s not about politicians. It’s not about elections.”

It was a distressing situation for the family involved – one of Sarah’s sister’s later attacked Morrison for using their personal grief to advance his “political agenda” – and Palaszczuk felt it as much as the Prime Minister professed to do on 2GB.

Scott Morrison was accused of politicising a funeral last year. Photo: AAP

The Queensland Premier certainly didn’t appreciate a call from the Prime Minister in which he made demands in a raised voice, according to people who heard Palaszczuk’s account of what occurred. The PM’s office has denied any voices were raised or demands were made.

Expanding on the Caisip family case later that day in September, Morrison said Australia was in danger of “losing its humanity”.

Watching the macho bravado over desperate Australians seeking to return from pandemic ravaged India during the past week, you would be excused for saying of Morrison, spare us the violins and reptilian tears.

In raw political terms, we’ve seen the best and worst of the Morrison Machine this week.

The best was a reminder of its shameless, win-at-any-cost hardball politics. There is little Morrison won’t do to chisel off some votes and cement a reputation as a tough guy.

We saw it in his early ministerial life as the boat stopper, ready to turn around asylum seekers at sea, banish them to Nauru or Manus Island, and punish through the courts and using deportation anyone who challenges the system.

The government deliberately set out to burnish its hardline image on those wanting to get home from India – in the fourth paragraph of a midnight press release the six months jail and $66,000 fine penalties were highlighted.

Cowardly Morrison tried to pretend this didn’t happen six days later by saying it was the media’s fault, but he and his health minister did it. They did it for one reason: to get a tough guy headline, and that mission was accomplished.

Of course, the blowback was quicker and more omni-directional than anyone in the government anticipated.

This was this government at its worst. They don’t think things through at all well, despite a self-promoted reputation for being smarter than the average political bear.

They don’t anticipate – probably a consequence of Morrison’s divine self-belief and obstinate bad temper. They are not, to use a Malcolm Turnbull phrase, nimble or agile.

They might get to a better place in the end but it is often inelegant and unnecessarily difficult.

As Yadu Singh, President of the Federation of Indian Associations of NSW, explained on Radio National’s Breakfast Friday morning, much of the anger and distress among Indian nationals and expatriates would have been avoided if the government had been more open and consultative on the day the decision was made and not four or five days later.

Morrison had to perform the usually difficult invisible backflip – reversing a policy while looking like you’re sticking to the original decision – to get out of his tight spot by the end of the week.

While Morrison aimed for the white bloke aged 35-and-over cohort with this decision – a group he clings to like Linus and his blanket in Peanuts – there were electoral cross-currents which couldn’t be ignored and should have been seen coming.

There’s an Indian diaspora in Australia numbering about 700,000 and the growing total is expected by the Department of Foreign Affairs to exceed that of Australian/Chinese by 2030.

This is about 3 percent of the population and almost 2 percent of those on electoral rolls. No wonder a gaggle of Coalition MPs were expressing degrees of doubts about what the government was doing.

By yesterday afternoon, following another list-ticking National Cabinet meeting (at which the “war-footing” emergency sitting schedule was quietly laid to rest), Morrison was recalibrating his approach. The basic political calculus had him in front.

He maintained his tough guy image by appearing to stick to the harsh measures, despite admitting they’d never be used! He also appeared to be listening and responding by adjusting what he was doing to a more accommodating and responsive position.

It became clear he couldn’t run on the hard man image alone – especially after being caught with an empathy deficit large enough to fill a Kyle Sandilands breakfast show.

In all, he didn’t do anything that required courage, imagination or foresight. Just more crude politics.

Watching Morrison now and reflecting on how he beat up on Labor states last year, one question remains.

Is there any division Morrison wouldn’t force through in a bid to conquer politically? Does anything override his thirst for political salvation?

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