Wow, that Scott Morrison press conference was just pure pleasure, wasn’t it? Now that he no longer rules us, one could watch without that clench in the stomach that came on every time he did one of these during his premiership. Now you could just sit back and watch a master of casuistry, still at the top of his game.
There was a circus air about it, a strongman coming into the auditorium to have an audience throw darts into his thick hide. The Great Confuso did not disappoint. After a 10-minute speech, he threw it open to questions and, as a storm of noise erupted, said: “Don’t shout; we’ll go right round, we’ve got plenty of time. ”
There was a strong sense that he was enjoying the workout; that he’d missed this, been bored. The same cannot be said for the press, as they tried to pin down, to change and mix the metaphor, this greased, lipsticked pig. ScoMo was at his best worst in the middle, when he had to account for the fact that the only time he used these COVID emergency powers was for the PEP-11 water pollution issue, which had nothing to do with COVID. That was a cat’s cradle of crazed logic.
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To some extent, he did give a workable official rationale for this unprecedented set of decisions: that with COVID we were in uncharted territory, anything was possible, and he needed to be in a position to take charge of certain departments immediately, and that ministers of state are sworn to their departments – you can’t, as prime minister, start directly ordering the Health Department around, even if the Health minister is foaming at the mouth on the floor.
In that sense, Morrison has precedent for the decision: during the first Whitlam government, Whitlam and deputy PM Lance Barnard were sworn in to 27 ministries, before the Labor caucus was in a position to elect a ministry. Morrison justified the secrecy of it by the fact that, unlike Whitlam and Barnard, he wasn’t making ministerial decisions; the offices were dormant until COVID offed his colleagues.
To make it public would have created confusion and panic; to tell his fellow (co-) ministers would have ensured that it leaked. He was safe in confiding it to Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers as they wrote their blow-by-blow COVID book Plaguedbecause those two would have kept schtum if ScoMo had broken down and confessed to being a North Korean agent, planning the nuclear obliteration / improvement of Sydney.
So you can get to a sort of rationality, crabwise. The accusation that Scott Morrison is weirder than Tony Abbott – coming, implicitly, from Tony Abbott – is false. No one is weirder than Sir Onion. But in order for ScoMo’s claimed sense of potential crisis to be real, where would you have to start from?
The answer would be the supposition that COVID would be really, really bad, far worse than the crises – such as World War II – thrown in Morrison’s face. You might well swear in backstop ministers if you were in a situation where people might just start dropping dead any minute. If what you had was a plague. A biblical plague. So that gives you a theory. Actually two theories. The first one’s wrong but really interesting, and I’ll wind up with the second, which is correct.
M’colleague David Hardaker noted yesterday that the press corps still do not understand the degree to which Morrison’s actions were steered by his Pentecostalist Christian faith, and your correspondent was the first to note this, back in 2018, when the Morrison government was only weeks old. They cannot get into the mind of someone who was born into a family headed by a policeman / mayor / Pentecostalist preacher, and raised within it.
People keep looking for a fake: it’s the prosperity gospel, they say, even though there’s very little of that in Morrison’s discourse. It’s a put-on, to win seats. Pentecostalism? Really? No, Morrison’s faith is the real thing. If it appears contradictory – apparent cruelty and deceit mingled with religiosity – that is simply because it’s not your Uniting Church-blue-skivvie-kumbaya sort of thing.
Pentecostalists and others draw a strong line between their faith and the fallen world. For such Christians, trying to make the world behave better is a futile act. Judgment Day is coming, and your job is to bear witness of your faith, proselytise, and, if you’re prime minister of a prominent nation, steer the population to a safer place where they might come to know God.
Did Morrison, having been initially sluggish as regards to COVID, come to believe that the plague was here? To ask if he might have believed it either literally or figuratively is to also impose a secular classification: if you think in mythical terms, then the plague may come clothed in the outer garment of a minor disease. You have to be on the lookout for signs.
Hence the figure of “the ship”, “the shore” and “the tempest”, which Morrison has referred to multiple times over the past days. “I was steering the ship in the tempest, while you were on the shore” – he’s done about four variations of it. Partly, he’s still proselytising; the art of that is to try and get someone when they’re at their most vulnerable, and ready for the word of God, and he may believe that the press corps is so demoralised that anything is possible.
But it’s also a picture of the world of his imagination, the realm of his thoughts. The proximate image is of Jesus walking on the water to rescue his disciples in the tempest. Those standing “on the shore” are the doubters. The miracle occurs just after the feeding of the five thousand, which occurs around the time of the Passover, and is taken as a passage from the salvation promise of the Old Testament to the New. Under Passover only the Jews were saved; under Christ all are saved, both strangers and friends.
The passage (John 6: 17-23) itself recalls other appearances of the tempest in the Old Testament, in Isaiah, Job, and of course the Noah story. The latter is significant because Noah is a steersman, a governor in Latin, or “governor”, as we say, and the rendering of leadership as steersmanship is common across all such cultures.
Having not been keen to acknowledge actual flooding and fires, Morrison appears to have taken to this third plague with the belief that he and only he could understand the challenge that was upon us now. Had he signs and wonders? I’m not even going to point out that all five of his dual ministry appointments were made around the Passover / Easter period (14.3.2020, 30.3.2020, 15.4.2021, 06.05.2021), or that he doubled as his treasurer , Josh Frydenberg, on the day, according to the gospels of the Resurrection, which might damage my credibility a bit.
What one can say is that anyone who was starting from a position of portents and signs of catastrophe, given only to him and obscure to those around him, could not be faulted on the rationality of the subsequent actions Morrison took. The other theory? ScoMo is a completely rational actor to whom keeping a grip on the inner workings of the Liberal Party was more important than running the country.
When COVID came along, it became clear that power would slip from the center to specific ministries. This would be worsened by the creation of the National Cabinet. Factional enemies would hold some of the levers. So the additional secret ministries could act as a “kill switch” if they were needed, to override ministers using the cover of COVID to go rogue. That’s how it rolled. C’mon. Portents in the heavens? ScoMo’s still a politician. Or was, at time of writing.