Opinion: Miracle to merde: Morrison's reverse Midas touch

Image by sunil kargwal from Pixabay
Saturday 15 January 2022

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

All governments reach a point when everything they grasp turns to ... well, let's be kind and say "politics".

The Coalition has probably been in this self-consumptive phase for a while, its errors camouflaged by a pandemic challenge to which it has risen patchily.

In normal times, its collapse might easily have come under the cumulative weight of the failures piling up in recent years.

Think robodebt, sports rorts, vaccine incompetence, ham-fistery with China, Leppington Triangle, secret political donors in a "blind trust" ... you get the picture.

To that litany we can add the now gaping failure to source RATs - a mystifying piece of negligence that replays the vaccine procurement debacle of 2020.

Comparatively speaking, the Djokovic melodrama is small beer but slots neatly into this conga line of cock-ups.

Scott Morrison, who smugly asserts each U-turn as if you are dim-witted for not keeping up, seems to have based his premiership on the Hogan's Heroes character Colonel Crittendon - imperviously claiming a spotless record while leaving a trail of disasters in his wake.

Morrison may be the most determinedly confident failure to hold down the job, managing to fool his colleagues from whom no error of judgment or backflip brings even mild censure.

In that spirit, Crittendon, (sorry, Morrison) boldly pitched himself into Novak Djokovic's on-court/in-court Omicron shambles by declaring with characteristic ebullience that "rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders".

Yet only one day before, he had been equally abrupt about who was responsible - or rather, why he wasn't.

Asked how the unvaccinated No.1 had gained entry papers, he responded with his usual generosity: "Well, that is a matter for the Victorian government. They [sic] have provided him with an exemption to come to Australia, and so we then act in accordance with that decision ... that's how it works. States provide exemptions for people to enter on those bases, and that's been happening for the last two years. So there's no change to that arrangement."

Within hours, though, we learnt it wasn't actually Tennis Australia nor Victoria who had the final say.

Having gauged public disquiet, Morrison belatedly remembered who actually runs the international border.

A prejudicial overnight interrogation of the Serb ended with his visa being summarily withdrawn.

The slogan for the next Tourism Australia campaign almost writes itself: "Come Down Under. Visa'd one minute, vetoed the next."

This is how we do things "the Australian way". Apparently.

Federal Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly, however, wondered aloud what more Djokovic could have done to satisfy entry requirements (er, get vaccinated, perhaps?)

Initially happy to leave Victoria in charge, the federal government had been caught out playing itself into a process it had previously outsourced.

Internationally, the country's hard-won reputation as a free, open, and orderly rule-of-law democracy took a blow.

In recent years, the world has seen a version of Australia that hardly fits this liberal-modernist idyll.

In its place has emerged a country whose word is no longer its bond, whose leaders breezily deceive friends, whose strategic policy is set with Washington, and whose coercive powers are used (often against the most vulnerable) for domestic popular advantage.

Vladimir Putin would have no trouble operating on such lines.

And who can forget Donald Trump's gushing incredulity at hearing the full rigidity of mandatory offshore detention for seaborne asylum seekers - their papers marked, never to enter Australia?

"That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am," the American enthused to Malcolm Turnbull in 2017.

Reasonable Australians took the compliment like a dagger to the heart.

The Canberra lawyer Bernard Collaery knows all about this callous Australian streak, as do the people of Timor-Leste. Collaery is being needlessly pursued for having represented a whistleblower who exposed Australia's mid-2000s bugging of that tiny nation's cabinet offices.

The eavesdropping was approved so as to more comprehensively fleece one of the world's youngest and poorest economies out of its rightful bounty from undersea oil and gas reserves.

The ongoing attempt to ruin the 77-year-old Collaery compounds that moral atrocity. It cloaks churlish, hateful politics in the implied objectivity of government policy.

It tells Timor-Leste that Australia feels no remorse for conducting commercial espionage against a friend, and would do it again in a heartbeat. And it tells anyone else in the Commonwealth public service or intelligence community to park their conscience or face lifelong punishment.

In hindsight, Australia's Timor deceit, which went to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, should have had our French partners more prepared for Australia's double-cross over the submarines contract. Especially given our US fealty and our current PM's malleable loyalties.

Some have likened the Djokovic intervention to John Howard's Tampa moment - seeing it as a pre-election attempt (however feeble) to reinflate Howard's "we will decide who comes to this country" nationalism.

If so, it didn't work too well. A humiliation at home and an embarrassment abroad.

Perhaps, though, there is an upside to this teetering overreach into jingoistic politics.

Might it not also be the moment at which Morrison's ersatz leadership mistakenly hung a lantern over the dark recesses of Australia's refugee policy?

A moral descent which sharpened 20 years ago with repudiating the Tampa (in breach of common decency, and some say international maritime law) and which has been politically exploited by Morrison ever since?

As a devoted follower of a selfless man who challenged capricious power and died for it at just 33, Morrison might pause to think of the 33 men dying slowly in the same airless hotel into which Djokovic was briefly banished.

But fessing up to Australia's normalised persecution of the powerless? That calls for a whole new miracle.

Mark Kenny is a political analyst for The Canberra Times. He is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast. 

Updated:  27 January 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager