When I found myself feeling sorry for Scott Morrison, alarm bells sounded

Last Wednesday, the parliament censured Scott Morrison. Reading the former PM’s defense of his actions in the multiple-ministries affair, I felt a little sad for him. In his mind, he had defended Australia from a pandemic – the results were there for all to see. He had been criticized before for failing to prepare. To be formally rebuked for taking what he says were further precautions must have seemed to him Kafka-esque: he was baffled.

Examining my own reaction, I was surprised. Having written a book about the man, I am more familiar than most with the various ways he finds to justify himself; and know, too, how well-practiced he is at it. I should have been above persuasion. But then I don’t think I was, in fact, persuaded. It was, rather, his bafflement that I found oddly moving: like all of us at times, Morrison was caught in his own subjectivity, unable to see out. In other words, I was stuck, at least briefly, between my own clear reaction to the principle of the thing (Morrison was wrong, the parliament was right) and my somewhat muddier reaction to the personal experience of an individual.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Not that I should have felt too bad for him: his party, for the most part, stood by him as the vote was taken. But some of those same Liberals had also very publicly turned away from Morrison, mostly in the pages of Niki Savva’s new book, Bulldozed. Stuart Robert, a former frontbencher best-known for having to repay $38,000 in home internet bills, carries no weight in discussions of accountability. He is, however, Morrison’s closest ally. Instead of defending Morrison, he said the plan was “nuts”, and others should have “hauled him back”. This wasn’t the most brutal part. Robert and Morrison have been described as friends. The two have often prayed together, and Robert owes much of his success to Morrison.

Here is Savva: “‘Scotty’s a friend, as much as one can have a friend in politics’, Robert told me. “We are still reasonably close in that regard.” Twice during an hour-long conversation, after I had asked him if they were still friends, he laughed and quoted the old maxim: ‘If you want a friend in politics, get a dog’.”

Recently I read an extract from Katharine Murphy’s new essay on Anthony Albanese. I tweeted about one passage I thought interesting, in which Albanese talks about his youth, and always having to plan to make sure he and his mother had money for rent and food. As a result, he says, he has never run out of a single thing at home. “Milk. Frozen food. Coffee. Toilet paper. Food for Toto.”

The tweet was met, broadly, with three responses. The first was to say that of course journalists were fascinated by this, as most of them grew up comfortable. The second – by far the most common – was emphatic understanding: yes, I do that too, said person after person, if you grow up poor it never goes away. The third was this: who cares what Albo’s life was like, he’s fine now and the only thing that matters is what he does about poverty as PM.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim PavlidisCredit:

These differing replies seem to me to sum up a dilemma that should confront all who engage with politics, journalists and voters alike: what place to give the personal? Perhaps it would be nice to be dispassionate; but then it would also be inhuman. Of course the characters interest us, just as nobody is above gossip of one sort or another.

Character details can also reveal important things (as, I believe, the Albanian quotation does). That said, what is interesting is not always the same as being important. The distinction has been on my mind lately, as we all watch Peter Dutton’s continuing attempt to reinvent himself as a warm and modern leader. It feels, at times, a lot like history is repeating itself: specifically, Scott Morrison’s history. In a profile published in this paper yesterday, Dutton explains away his hardman image as a product of being immigration minister (as did Morrison), his attitude to China and his time as a police officer. And, he joked, perhaps it is a result of his baldness. As the profile noted, public perceptions are also the result of Dutton’s own actions.

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