Dear progressives, it’s time for ScoMo to stop living rent-free in your heads

by Guy Rundle
Why is the former PM still such a focal point for progressives? Probably because Labor continues to fail to live up to long-held political fantasies.

Scott Morrison strikes one as the type who thinks paying rent is always wasted money. No slacker period living in a wrecked weatherboard with failed musos and chronic-fatigued PhD students for him. No, you and your young wife live with your folks until you can afford a mini-Mc in the new Whispering Pines development between the airport and the Woolies. Rent is paying someone else’s mortgage.

So ScoMo must be loving living free in the heads of progressives this past week or so. He’s gone, his government is gone… but he lingers on. His speech/sermon/tongue-speak to a Perth church, in which he advocated trusting in God, not government, set things, well, aflame, and this was followed by the revelations about his government’s “Saturday surprise”, the shock discovery of an “illegal vessel” heading towards us blah blah blah. We all knew this was true desperation, based on the faint hope the vote might be close. It wasn’t, and the recent report has made clear just how ruthlessly, wantonly mendacious the Morrison government could be. Finally, there was a fresh burst at ScoMo for announcing he won’t turn up to this week’s parliamentary session. We sure do love to hate this bloke. 

With Labor now clarifying, reneging, or simply not doing what it said it wouldn’t do but some thought it might, progressives are entering a period of sustained dissatisfaction, able to direct neither hate nor love at Labor, trapped in the purgatory of ambivalence. Grabbing a last chance to hate on ScoMo is too good to resist. 

Yet it seems to me that most of the charges against him in recent days are either mere repetition of earlier malfeasance, or an active misconstruction of what he has said and done. So he’s going to skip the opening of a Parliament run by a government and crossbench who crushed him. So what? So he’s giving a quick bucks speech in Tokyo, and probably dissembling about it. Really, so what? The election day pseudo-emergency “on the water”? The report has confirmed, in stark terms, what we all pretty much knew. It deserved to be covered, but it’s no real revelation. 

Finally, and with most substance, there was that speech at Margaret Court’s Victory Life Church, in which he was said to have said that “we don’t trust government or the United Nations”. As Christians, they put their trust in God and the eternal. This was treated not only as a revelation, but as a logical conundrum, a long lie. How could you be in government and not trust it? He was playing us all along. 

But let’s look at the fuller context of what he said:

“God’s kingdom will come. It’s in his hands. We trust in him. We don’t trust in governments. We don’t trust in the United Nations, thank goodness. We don’t trust in all these things, fine as they may be and as important as the role that they play. Believe me, I’ve worked in it and they are important. But as someone who’s been in it, if you are putting your faith in those things as I put my faith in the lord, you’re making a mistake. They are earthly, they are fallible. I’m so glad we have a bigger hope.”

Well, there’s a lot of ways to interpret ‘God’s kingdom’ and I bet ScoMo’s is pretty literal. But the rest of it is simply standard liberal conservatism with a religious side, the sort of politics that would characterise the beliefs of just about every UK and Commonwealth prime minister from the 19th century to now, with only a few recent exceptions from the progressive side. Morrison’s position is one that would be recognised by Burke, Bagehot, John Macmurray, Hayek, Paul Tillich and any number of founding figures of modern belief you might want to cite.

The incomprehension that greeted this position was a new low in the very low standard of Australian political commentary. The anti-acme was a discussion between Patricia Karvelas, Samantha Maiden and David Speers on RN Breakfast last Friday, in which all three — in flagship positions in Australian political commentary — seemed incapable of understanding this proposition that you could govern while holding government to be fallible. Listening to it was like watching three apes handle a Sèvres vase. Maiden suggested, gigglingly, that it was “bat… rhymes with ‘it’ “. So we were back to Lucille Ball-ism — anything outside the impossibly narrow intellectual world of the Australian MSM political world is craaaaaaaazy. Pathetic and embarrassing, at a national level. M’colleague Keane’s account was far more cogent, but I disagree with his slotting of ScoMo’s beliefs into neoliberalism. In this instance, it’s consistent liberal-conservatism.

Look, there’s no doubt that throughout office Morrison has held his religion close, and has steered his actions by it — in a disguised fashion. Indeed, your correspondent was the first to remark on this. In 2018, I had initially thought Morrison a “convenience Christian”, using God as a comforter while doing whatever bastardry he needed. But then: 

“But as the evidence rolls in, I’m wondering if I was mistaken. Is ScoMo the other type of evangelical, the true believer, who got the faith young and hard, and who sees it as the central organising principle of his life? In that case, for ScoMo, the tragicomedy of politics is just the business of the fallen world, through which one moves, looking for opportunities to witness. ScoMo’s assertion that he would pray for rain to end the drought, and a glimpse of him praying, has strengthened the sense that this is a big deal for him.

“But what really caught my eye was his remarks on the night of the prime minister’s awards for science ceremony last week. It’s an acid trip of a speech, but here’s the kicker: “I have no doubt that as you do that, you think it might be there, you suspect it might be. You turn it into a theory, then you follow the rulebook, but it all begins with something you believe …”

The full speech clearly revealed that he was using this official engagement to subtly proselytise. Morrison didn’t “reveal” himself at the Victory Life Church four years later, he simply kept on being who he was. In the early months of his premiership, his religiosity was overt, and disconcerting. I suspect his advisers then consciously toned it down into a generic religious hum. In the 2019 campaign, he and they came up with the theme of “the promise of Australia”, which secularised the religious impulse, stole back the “light on the hill” from Labor, and helped ensure victory against the latter’s cluelessly empty effort. 

So we were led by a religious subversive — and, as David Hardaker’s reporting revealed, something of a gnostic. Morrison and his family were bound up to some degree with QAnon followers, pursuers of the secret knowledge. But I have to dissent from my colleagues in seeing the Morrison governments as theocracies. This isn’t very accurate. It is absolutely possible that Morrison’s literalism includes a fatalism — and that that played a role in his actions, or lack thereof, during the floods and fires. Absolutely, and pretty full-on to think of as dictating some day-to-day government conduct. But as far as structural change to Australia, there’s really been not much at all. 

We live in a secular society with a welfare state, socialised medicine, the steady inclusion of First Nations culture in our sense of self, readily available abortion, and same-sex marriage voted up by acclaim. When we get a Christian theocracy, you’ll know it. In Texas at the moment, a 1925 law is being reintroduced which would make it a felony to drive someone to an out-of-state clinic to get an abortion — for a pregnancy they got in part because sex education and any books about it are banned at their school. The Supreme Court may well validate this. Gilead has arrived there, but nowhere near here.

During his premiership, Morrison did show a basic distrust of state extension, which may have had a religious basis. His slowness to act on JobKeeper etc during the pandemic may have been founded in both a politically liberal and religiously conservative apprehension that once you expand the state’s responsibility to mitigate collective misfortune, you won’t be able to wind it back — as the Albanese government discovered with COVID isolation payments. But really, he presided for a term-and-a-bit over the sort of government that is about 80% of what Bernie Sanders wants for the US, so let’s keep a sense of perspective about where we are.

Morrison has been chased from power over everything except the imagination of progressives, whose dreams he stalks. Why do so many find it difficult to let go? Because with Labor and the Greens’ electoral success, progressivism has been deprived of its fantasies of a new order. Everyone knew it was a fantasy, but that doesn’t really matter where fantasies are concerned. The reality — a government already backtracking from several of its modest promises, and reaffirming the things many progressives dreamed it might only be bluffing about — leaves you with nothing to believe. And secular progressivism, without a revolutionary fire in its belly, has an emptiness at its core. It must define itself against a fearsome, unified right. And that right has just been shown to be a hopeless rabble.

The paradoxes in all this are pretty clearly indicated by the reaction to Bill Shorten’s withdrawal of Medicare forms, which used the term “birthing parent” instead of “mother”. The obvious point about this is that if the Morrison government had been on any sort of real culture war footing, these forms would never have been issued — or issued, and then used to create a preelection culture war. The second point is that by asserting the traditional and grounded term of “mother”, Shorten affirmed to progressives that Labor had made a decisive break with the “full progressive” package (and rightly so, in my opinion). 

There were howls about this, but Labor had made it clear that it was tracking in this direction in the second election debate, when Anthony Albanese answered the question “What is a woman?” by answering “a human female”. It had taken Labor six years of talking about getting “back to the suburbs” for it to actually reorient its cultural values and do it. Doing so was a vital part of winning its narrow majority; deprived of that culture war (which is really a “being” war, a dispute about the most fundamental, transcultural features of human existence), the Coalition could only make the Katherine Deves stuff a lame-duck thing about free thought, which no one cared about.

So much of the hatred of Morrison is displaced anger that progressives do not have the Labor government they want: the last Whitlam government, in effect. With those signal moves on the sex/gender issue, Labor is finally a post-Whitlam entity. It took a long time and a lot of wasted years for Labor to get there. Had Labor and progressives been able to examine their own politics with a cold eye in this respect, they might well have been able to return to power in 2016 and win the post-Howard era. Progressives’ blindness to the fact that most people are rather closer to Morrison’s worldview (with much less Christian literalness) than theirs led them into two defeats. Labor’s narcissistic obsession with simultaneously minimising the Greens and winning the ‘burbs cost it two elections.

So forget ScoMo. He wasn’t a great prime minister; he wasn’t a terrible one either. He strikes one as a standard literal Christian with some minor hypocrisies, and a few neuroses which have clearly stunned him into inaction and magical thinking in key moments through his adult life, from his career disasters in the tourism industry to his inadequate response to the challenges of COVID-era government. Praise be to God for his bountiful gifts as far as that goes, because with a clear-eyed right-wing atheist in that spot, the Coalition could have turned the result into an unholy mess, from which it might have emerged narrowly victorious. 

Morrison continued the reign of a right-wing formation with no real idea of how to reconstruct the country for the challenges ahead, and he did so with the help of a monolithic right-wing mainstream media, a mainstream press corps not worth a bucket of spit, and a decade of global easy money. Nothing ScoMo does post-politically in terms of cashing in is likely to be worse than numerous Labor figures taking their expertise — earned from decades of support by the labour movement — and selling it to the banking, gaming, defence and resources industries to teach them how to get around the feeble taxes and regulations that Labor tries to put in their way. 

The last decade of right-wing misrule needs to be prosecuted, as I have said, for the next three years, in inquiry after inquiry. But the purpose of that is to show that right-wing politics as a whole is institutionally and ideologically corrupt, not that one bad preacher man led us all astray. Meanwhile, we now have a Labor government committed to new coal and gas projects, to an unchanging defence establishment taking us towards war over Taiwan, to no change to the starvation penury that benefits are set at, to no change to the black gulag this country is running, especially across the north and west of this continent, to moving against land clearing slow enough for farmers to get it all done before legislation comes in, to no real change to the neoliberal Fair Work Commission established by the Gillard government to exclude workers from the industrial relations process, and on and on. 

There is thus plenty for progressives to work on, but only as tough, unsatisfying politics of ideas and policy waged against our own side. For us “left materialists” that will include supporting Labor on its move to the cultural centre against progressivist open-ended demands. With all those lovely fights to have, forget Morrison. Time to give him notice from the inside of your head for banging too many nails into the wall. Not for his sake, but for the sake of our own project and the hope of getting something done in the next three years.