Opinion: Perhaps the real Scott Morrison just stood up?

Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash
Wednesday 13 January 2021

By Mark Kenny

This article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

For all the violence, the flagrant abuse of presidential power, the hatred and the broken glass, we didn't learn as much about the degenerate character of an unhinged American despot last week as we did about our own infinitely malleable Prime Minister.

To anyone who'd been paying attention, the lethal climax of Donald Trump's scandal-plagued term was not so much the final proof of his unfitness as the playing out of what he'd long telegraphed anyway.

But what of our own PM - eager recipient less than a month ago of the US Legion of Merit, bestowed by the defeated lame duck himself?

At home, Scott Morrison has revelled in his confected persona as a pragmatist with the bead of the people - an ordinary man who can be relied upon to avoid sharp turns and debunk dogma. The Daggy Dad, the Sharkies fan, the "Messiah from the shire".

Mr Dependable, even if he doesn't quite "hold a hose, mate".

Time to reassess.

We now know where Morrison stands on a pretty fundamental question - that of democracy and the rule of law.

How? Well, he's told us ... in so many words. Platitudes, admittedly. A deliberately colourless word cloud devoid of meaning, save for our oneness with the Trump administration, literally, no matter what.

In the hours after the siege, Morrison was asked repeatedly if Trump bore even just "some responsibility" for inciting violence.

His responses inter alia: " ... this is a difficult time for the United States, clearly. They are a great friend of Australia and they're one of the world's greatest democracies."

"Look, I'm not going to offer any more comment ... this is one of the world's greatest democracies."

"I'm not here to offer a running commentary on what should be happening in the United States."

On it went.

Well, if not you, PM, then who? Who speaks plainly for Australia's bedrock values of due process, free and fair elections, the orderly handover of power, respect for courts, multiculturalism?

Still too thorny?

All right, so what about respecting voters' intellects by levelling with us on, say, the sins of Australian MPs for whom you do have direct leadership responsibility? You know, actual members of your majority?

REPORTER: "Prime Minister, after the US election, George Christensen promoted false claims of dodgy extra votes for Joe Biden. I accept you don't want to comment on Trump, but will you condemn conspiracy theories being promoted by members of your own government?"

PM: "You know, Australia is a free country. There's such a thing as freedom of speech in this country and that will continue. OK, well thank you all very much."

No, no PM, thank YOU. Very inspiring, I'm sure.

How tame is Australia, one might ask.

Elsewhere, the grotesque debasement of democracy via a White House-led siege is among contemporary America's lowest points - and thus that of Western democracy itself.

Republican apologists and homegrown fanatics like Liberal Craig Kelly and the LNP's Christensen like to down play the invasion of Congress because it failed to take power.

Just a bit fun, perhaps.

But this is not some trifling gesture, like the outgoing autocrat's bizarre hair - much a "do" above nothing.

Five people died.

If there was any upside to this tawdry hate-fest, it was that in its gim-crackery, the rebellion aped Trump's amateurish administration - overwhelmingly male, intellectually mediocre, and fuelled by a seething victimhood. It was less a popular reform movement than a directionless sycophancy to one man's eggshell ego.

Trump's laughably eponymous administration had already ceded US primacy in the world via his America-first nativism and his contempt for both allies and global norms.

But his explosive final lunge - enabled by a brand of Republicanism which has abandoned democratic means and protection of the constitution - may have permanently eroded American prestige.

Most world leaders were alive to this danger.

The centre-right German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, "deeply regret[ed] that President Trump had not conceded defeat since November, and again refused to do so", accusing him of stoking doubt about the election "which made the events of the night possible".

British PM Boris Johnson, another populist conservative, "unreservedly condemned" Trump, having first Tweeted about "disgraceful scenes in US Congress".

"I think what President Trump has been saying about that [electoral fraud] is completely wrong and I unreservedly condemn encouraging people to behave in the disgraceful way they did in the Capitol."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with probably more to lose than any of them, was blunt: "What we witnessed was an assault on democracy by violent rioters, incited by the current President and other politicians," he said in Ottawa. "Violence has no place in our societies and extremists will not succeed in overruling the will of the people."

But then perhaps geographical proximity allowed Trudeau to see that the valid relationship is with lawmakers, not law breakers.

Ditto Canada's ties with the new, democratically elected Biden administration, not some vainglorious thug, who will soon become the first president to be impeached twice.

"Australia will do what is in our interest, in the global interest, and we will of course continue to support moves to ensure there is a proper independent assessment of what has occurred here," Morrison said in April last year.

But of course, this wasn't his response to democracy-wrecking violence whipped up by the putative leader of the free world, but rather an accounting of Australia's fearless plain speaking on the origins of the coronavirus.

It turns out Morrison is only studiously free of content on American authoritarians.

And it's catching.

ABC host Georgie Tunny on Tuesday: "Shouldn't facts be upheld above all else? What kind of censure is there for party members who may be spreading misinformation?"

Acting PM Michael McCormack: "Facts are sometimes contentious, and what you might think is right, somebody else might think is completely untrue - that is part of living in a democratic country."

Even if he's no Kelly-Anne Conway, we well know where such logic leads.

    Mark Kenny is a professor at the Australian Studies Institute, ANU and hosts the politics podcast Democracy Sausage.

    Updated:  13 January 2021/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager