Missing the point

Appearing in  Australian Spectator magazine, May 2021

How Good Is Scott Morrison? 
By Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington
Hachette, $35, 320 pages, ISBN 9780733645747

Between them, van Onselen and Errington have a wealth of research and writing experience, and their biography of John Howard was both insightful and entertaining. So it is surprising, and rather disappointing, that How Good Is Scott Morrison? leaves a great deal to be desired. In fact, it simply leaves a great deal out, to the point where there is a question of whether it is actually a biography at all.

The book really looks at only a few events: the Liberal leadership change that put Morrison in the big chair, the ‘unwinnable’ election campaign, the 2019 bushfires, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, these are important aspects of Morrison’s tenure as PM, but really there is not much new to say about them. Nikki Savva’s book, Plots and Prayers, on how the Liberals fumbled their way to Morrison becoming leader, and Aaron Patrick’s book on the election, The Surprise Party, were comprehensive and considered. Van Onselen and Errington seem to have mainly sorted through two years’ worth of press clippings, rather than delve deeply into the formation of their subject’s political personality.

There is almost nothing on Morrison’s upbringing and adolescence in the Sydney suburbs, for example. His university days are virtually ignored (he studied economics and geography). The influence of his family is passed over (his father was a local political figure, as an independent). His periods as the head of Tourism Australia, and as director of the Liberal Party in New South Wales, are mentioned but not really examined.

Perhaps the most surprising omission is Morrison’s tenure as Immigration Minister. It was here that he established a reputation for whatever-it-takes determination, and it was here that he first moved into the public eye. But how did he go from stop-the-boats tough guy to daggy-but-likeable ScoMo? That is a big jump, after all, and just brushing it away as a series of marketing manoeuvres tells us nothing.

True, Morrison never had the sense of destiny or the charisma associated with, say, Bob Hawke, or the raw drive and ambition of someone like Tony Abbott. When he saw his chance for leadership by riding through the middle he grabbed it, as would be expected. That’s about it.

Van Onselen and Errington assert that Morrison does not have much in the way of core beliefs, although they also note that ideology does not play particularly well in Australia. He often makes grand pronouncements that are not followed up. He is very good at taking all the credit and shifting all the blame. Well, guys, that’s politics for you.

Yes, Morrison made a thorough mess of handling the 2019 bushfires, leaving the country for a holiday in Hawaii at the worst possible time and, when he eventually returned, looking generally uninterested in the plight of victims. But he seemed to learn the lessons, and when the COVID-19 crisis hit he moved quickly and with personal involvement. Tough decisions had to be made with imperfect and contradictory information but he generally got it right. Any sense of fiscal rectitude went out the window as the government struggled to stop the downturn turning into a collapse. Hypocrisy? Maybe – or maybe the most appropriate response to unprecedented circumstances.

Van Onselen and Errington give all due credit to Morrison, whose pragmatism in this case turned out to be the best path. They go so far as to say that his approach, and the broad public support for it, will make him a sure bet in the next election. Perhaps, although the 2019 election demonstrated how unpredictable campaigns can be.

The issue, they argue, is what he will do after another win. Will he undertake courageous reform or opt for the quiet life of administration? Essentially, they don’t know. Peter, Wayne, here’s a news flash: the point of a biography is to provide informed analysis. Leaving the question hanging makes one wonder about the point of the exercise.

How Good Is Scott Morrison? could have, and should have, been a much better book. Instead, it feels like a rush job, although the publishing timeline suggests it was not. If Morrison wins the next election, maybe Van Onselen and Errington will provide a revised and updated version. Let’s hope they make a better job of it if they do.

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