One thing all the recent media attention on the behaviour of MPs and their staff in Parliament House has not done is derail the Morrison government’s policy reform agenda – because there isn’t one.
Like nature, the Canberra press gallery abhors a vacuum. In the age of identity politics, anything to do with gender and power was always going to gain the attention of the media and elite opinion, particularly because it involves the conservative side of politics.
That is the problem for Scott Morrison. Even if he can satisfactorily resolve the issues around particular allegations and specific instances of misbehaviour, the demands for some sort of “structural” and “systemic” change will not go away. The demand is now to change the culture of politics in Australia.
Morrison has often said he has no interest in the so-called “culture wars”. While he might not want to fight the culture wars, its warriors want to fight him. The Prime Minister prides himself on his pragmatism.
After the recent defeat in the Senate of the Coalition’s modest proposals for industrial relations reforms, Morrison made no promise to try again and he merely said “I am a practical person”.
Indeed he is. Morrison doesn’t do culture, philosophy, or ideology. In 2017 he notoriously said freedom of speech “doesn’t create one job”. (To which the reply could be made – “nor does the presumption of innocence”.)
What the recent media attention on the behaviour of MPs and their staff in Parliament House has not done is derail the Morrison government’s policy reform agenda – because there isn’t one.
Presumably the reason the Prime Minister has been silent about the handcuffing and arrest in her home by the Victoria Police of a pregnant mother following her social media protest supporting an anti-lockdown protest, is because he regards the maintenance of the rule of law in the country as falling into the “culture wars” category.
A few weeks ago Morrison was asked on Melbourne radio “[whether] we are too woke and that’s affecting democracy and debate, do you think we are too woke?“.
Morrison replied: “I think there’s a lot of talk about all this. But you know what? Right now, what people care about, and what I care about is their health and their jobs.”
The challenges the Coalition faces can’t be overcome by the application of the Prime Minister’s pragmatism.
Morrison has a tendency to personalise policy and draw on his personal and family experiences when talking about the government. All politicians do it, but Morrison does it more than most. For example, when he announced the royal commission into the disability sector he talked about his family.
Using empathy to frame questions of policy can be very powerful indeed, but it does mean that when empathy appears to be lacking the result is particularly stark, such as when in response to a question about the federal government’s management of bushfires, Morrison answered: “I don’t hold a hose, mate.” That’s a true statement, but not one that’s empathetic.
Whether to select a person to represent the Liberal Party not on the basis of their ability, but according to their gender or ethnicity or some other aspect of their identity is a question of principle, not practicality.
Contrary to what might have been expected, the pandemic hasn’t paused the culture wars, it has accelerated them. For at least some people the suffering they endured during the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown of their lives has prompted a search for non-material outcomes that are different from what went before.
From the migration of the Black Lives Matter from the United States to Australia, to the toppling of statues associated with slavery or colonialism, to the debate about the date of Australia Day, the culture wars show no signs of abating.
The empathy and understanding the public demand of their leaders in the current political climate isn’t a product of practicalities or pragmatism.
Avoiding any talk about the country’s culture is a strategy that might have worked for Morrison at the last election. He is probably the only conservative politician who could have won the 2019 federal election, albeit narrowly. The persona of a daggy dad focused obsessively on the hip-pocket nerve suited the times of two years ago perfectly. Plus, Morrison wasn’t Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten.
But the zeitgeist of 2021 is different from 2019.