Not Nostrums, but Normalcy

A Letter from Australia

In 1956, Anthony Eden found himself graced with the porcine presence of the visiting Nikita Khrushchev. Many hoped that Evelyn Waugh—who, after all, had subjected Marshal Tito to one of the most murderous philippics that 20th-century English literature can boast—would unleash similar invective against the Soviet Union’s strongman. Waugh rejected all newspaper entreaties to unleash it. He justified his refusal by emphasizing an obvious difference between Tito and Khrushchev: that whereas the former hypocritically pretended to be a gallant ally of the West, the latter pretended no such thing. As Waugh himself put it: “There [is] nothing unchivalrous about dining with open enemies.”

So should Australian conservatives, if they have any sense, judge the prime ministerial tenure of Anthony Albanese, as the first anniversary of his May 21 electoral victory approaches. He has never presumed to think like a conservative or to talk like one. What conceivable purpose would be served by denouncing him for not being Germany’s Konrad Adenauer or Italy’s Alcide De Gasperi?

No intelligent observer wanted any more from Albanese and his team than a little solid competence; this we have been, to date, accorded. Horrified though the prime minister would be by comparisons with Warren G. Harding, he is carrying out the program which the 29th president articulated: “Not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution but restoration; not agitation but adjustment; not surgery but serenity.”

Any temptation to undervalue this medicinal approach should be dispelled by memories of the years from 2010 to 2019, which inspired the BBC to describe Canberra as “the coup capital of the democratic world.” That decade began with the deposition of the increasingly erratic, foul-tempered Kevin Rudd by the militant feminist Julia Gillard; it continued with Gillard’s deposition by Rudd, then Rudd’s electoral defeat at the hands of brain-damaged Catholic ex-boxer Tony Abbott, then Abbott’s overthrow by sleazy investment banker Malcolm Turnbull, then finally Turnbull’s 2018 overthrow by pentecostal fantasist Scott Morrison.

Although the poll-defying electoral victory that Morrison snatched in 2019 seemed at first to promise a more peaceful epoch, its results were as disastrous for the country in general as they were for Morrison himself. This, be it noted, when COVID was still a Wuhan cloud no bigger than a bat’s hand.

The hypothesis that Morrison turned, while prime minister, into Walter Mitty and believed his own phantasms is the kindest explanation for his uselessness after 2019. Such uselessness is the subject of Bulldozed: Scott Morrison’s Fall and Anthony Albanese’s Rise, the latest chronicle by Niki Savva, Canberra press-gallery doyenne.

Savva, a former media secretary to Peter Costello—treasurer in John Howard’s 1996-2007 administration—and subsequently a staffer in the office of Howard himself, has given journalistic coverage to every Australian prime minister since Gough Whitlam (1972-75), and she has always operated at a slight angle to most other local mass-media pundits. No Australian demographic screams louder than these pundits about the need for ethnic diversity; no Australian demographic, in practice, more obviously exemplifies Joe Sobran’s description of American liberals: “In their mating and migratory habits, [they] are indistinguishable from members of the Ku Klux Klan.”

When, after less than three years, contentious vice-regal action aborted Whitlam’s prime ministerial term in November 1975, Savva marveled (not without gratitude) at how little public hysteria manifested itself. She knew that if Whitlam’s dismissal had occurred in Nicosia instead of Canberra, riot police would have been out patrolling every street. Instead, antipodean city-dwellers registered the dismissal without a single cop administering a single bloody nose. Besides, at the general election a month afterwards, Whitlam’s Australian Labor Party (ALP) suffered what remains its worst defeat since World War II.

Born in 1963, Albanese is the first national ALP boss to have no adult—or even teenage—memories of Whitlam’s rule. Albanese entered the federal parliament, in 1996, at the same time that the 13-year Labor tenure of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating ended in John Howard’s triumph. Unlike Hawke, Keating, and Whitlam himself, Albanese experienced grinding poverty in boyhood. Once it had become certain that he had won the May 2022 election, he spoke to the crowd that had assembled outside his modest Sydney suburban home:

It says a lot about our great country that a son of a single mother who was a disability pensioner and grew up in public housing … can stand before you tonight as Australia’s prime minister.

How bizarre: a working-class political party with, for the first time since the 1960s, a working-class federal leader.

Nevertheless, if one thing emerges with punitive clarity from Savva’s chronicle, it is that fundamentally, Albanese did not win the 2022 election. Rather, Morrison lost it. Except for the maniacal self-confidence with which Morrison greeted every disaster, save the last, we could be pardoned for concluding that he had a death wish.

In the summer of 2019-2020, Australia suffered some of the most devastating bushfires that it had ever endured. With vast tracts of the nation in flames (the blazes eventually killed 34 people and left 94,000 square miles of territory in ashes), Morrison considered it an opportune moment—cometh the hour, cometh the man—to go vacationing in Hawaii. This he did without bothering to inform Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack that the latter had thereby become acting prime minister. Nor did he inform McCormack—or anyone else—whither he was going. Rumor and imprudently disseminated social-media selfies eventually gave away Morrison’s location, whereupon he laboriously explained to an interviewer that he saw no need to return home amid the fires because “I don’t hold a hose, mate.”

H. L. Mencken once bemoaned Theodore Dreiser’s “incurable antipathy to the mot juste.” That Morrison shared this antipathy in heightened form would soon become obvious to the long-suffering Australian electorate. Goodness knows how long he would have vegetated on Hawaiian soil if pandemic considerations had not forced him back onto Australian soil within weeks.

COVID, disastrous in so many other respects, ensured for Morrison the glory of another berth in books of political aphorisms. Questioned at a March 2021 press conference over why the vaccine rollout had proceeded so sluggishly, Morrison responded: “It’s not a race.” Oh, wasn’t it just? One wonders why many a Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Adelaide triage nurse thought it was.

Morrison later wailed, as irresponsible speakers will, about how his words had been taken out of context. Since the context consisted of nothing but similar inanities, it is hard to bestow on him much compassion. Particularly when he repeated his “it’s not a race” insight half a dozen times, on the evidence of his own prime ministerial web page.

Elsewhere, Morrison deflected questioning about asylum-seeking refugees by saying, “It’s not my job to be an ethical theologian.” (As opposed to being an unethical one, perhaps?) Indeed, almost every conceivable topic, when the fourth estate broached it, elicited from Morrison the assurance that “It’s not my job.” This assurance’s repetition, week after tiresome week, moved the Sydney-based correspondent Nadine von Cohen, in April 2021, to ask sarcastically in The Shot: “How doesn’t he find the time?”

But not even a Morrison can achieve this level of fatuity 24/7, and for the first month of COVID, he actually gave the appearance of capable determination. That he did so through a fiscal squandermania, which made the proverbial drunken sailor seem positively Rothbardian, assumed a secondary importance to most. But not to Mark McGowan, sardonic ALP premier of Western Australia, who once (Savva reveals) greeted Morrison at an intergovernmental meeting with the words, “Hello comrade! You have taken over a factory, nationalized hospitals, and put in place the biggest social wage in Australian history.”

McGowan would go on to win the most lop-sided electoral contest Australia has ever seen: his party now controls 53 of the state legislature’s 59 seats, helped, it must be stressed—the initial Morrison-McGowan bromance having proved evanescent—by Morrison’s public description of McGowan and the Western Australian voters as “cave-dwellers.”

Part of the problem with Morrison involved that good old antipathy-to-the-mot-juste again. When a prime minister proclaims, as Morrison did at a Feb. 26, 2020 news conference, that “there is no need for us to be moving towards not having mass gatherings of people,” the sheer exhaustion of working through the double negative would itself weaken any hearer’s power of resistance against viruses.

Still, Morrison could achieve near-perfect lucidity when he wanted. Savva discloses that the immediate trigger for his “cave-dwellers” complaint about his insufficiently deferential Western Australian subjects was, on his own admission, exposure to an animated film called … The Croods. But of course. Lesser apparatchiks might derive their views of government from Locke or Burke or Montesquieu. Morrison alone derived them from a cartoon movie. According to Savva, “Former Labor cabinet minister Gerry Hand was fond of saying that all prime ministers go mad after a while.” Hand’s verdict loses none of its merit through contemplation of Morrison’s apotheosis.

When Morrison arrives at the Great Political Science Symposium in the Sky, elementary historiographical justice will require his gravestone to bear the inscription, “Scotty from Marketing.” Those three words, by now familiar to the point of cliché among Australians, summed up his pre-parliamentary career: a triumph of Madison Avenue over prudence and, for the most part, basic manners.

Whenever Morrison had employment that could be lost through nonperformance, he lost it: most conspicuously at Tourism Australia, then run by Fran Bailey (herself a former Howard cabinet minister), who deplored Morrison’s “supreme belief that only he can do a job.” He would never have become a parliamentarian in the first place but for the 2007 marketing pitch with which he thwarted Michael Towke, his rival for the southern Sydney constituency of Cook. Towke was and is a Maronite Christian of Lebanese background; Morrison, in the presence of sworn witnesses, unctuously accused Towke of being a secret Muslim. Towke has since called Morrison “a compulsive liar.”

One New South Wales ex-senator and fellow Liberal, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, called Morrison an “autocrat and bully with no moral compass.” These character references, mind you, surfaced well before it emerged that Morrison secretly had himself sworn into a handful of different cabinet ministries—aided by Governor-General David Hurley—without bothering to tell most of the actual ministers concerned.

Before 2021 had ended, Morrison’s mendacity even impinged upon the Elysée Palace’s occupant. When The Sydney Morning Herald Editor Bevan Shields asked Emmanuel Macron if he thought that the Australian prime minister had been lying to him over the junking of a $90-billion submarine construction contract with France, Macron calmly retorted on-camera: “I don’t think; I know.”

Normally Australia’s defamation laws are so strict that the merest suggestion of charging a public figure with having uttered intentional falsehoods suffices almost to give in-house attorneys aneurysms. Not with Morrison. He has become, as a British judge once said of Aleister Crowley, “a man impossible to libel.” Melbourne-based news e-zine Crikey explained:

When Crikey decided to detail Scott Morrison’s habit of lying back in May [2021], there was some concern. … Lawyers were consulted; the dossier we’d put together was double- and triple-checked. Six months later, things were very different. It was not merely possible but fashionable to label Morrison a liar, having become the height of chic among the French.

Morrison’s worldview is a textbook case of (as Gertrude Stein would have put it) there being no there there. Any fantasy novelist outré enough to invent a prime minister who, like Morrison, outraged MeToo sensibilities by washing in a salon the tresses of a complete female stranger and who compounded this obtuseness by publicly performing on the ukulele—as if Hawaii had not already been embarrassing enough for him—would be ordered to abandon all attempts at literary political portraiture and stick instead to little green men from Mars.

But the ultimate vacuum (or, in more polite terms, mystery) within Morrison’s worldview concerns his religion. Although he has tried to distance himself from former ties to the Hillsong cult (best known nowadays for its homosexually pedophile founder Frank Houston and for Frank’s heterosexually priapic son Brian), Savva cites interviewee after interviewee willing to vouch for Morrison’s sense of divine favor. During his time in office, he would regale cabinet colleagues with assertions that “God wants this” and “God has chosen me to be prime minister.”

Morrison attributed his 2019 victory to last-minute providential mediation; less messianic analysts tended to place responsibility for this success upon the deep, justified public loathing for Bill Shorten, Albanese’s predecessor in the ALP leadership. Nowhere did Morrison show himself less attuned to Australian customs than in his American-style weaponizing of his Pentecostal allegiance. If Morrison has ever read a book or harbored a single adult thought on religious issues, Savva furnishes no evidence of it. Beside Morrison, California pastor and author Rick Warren looks and sounds like a veritable Aquinas.

In any event, as Christopher Marlowe made his Maltese protagonist observe, “That was in another country.” After Watergate, came the beatific banality of Gerald Ford, reminding the planet that America’s is “a government of laws and not of men.” In like fashion, after Morrison and the preceding 12 years of Rudd-Gillard-Abbott-Turnbull chaos, came Albanese.

Here, the mail continues to get delivered. Trains run more or less on time. You can still drink the water. And even the Jacobin thugs in charge of Victoria’s state government since 2014 (re-elected, sad to relate, just after Savva’s tome hit the bookstores) cannot actually kill you for being a Catholic or an “elitist,” much though they would relish any pretext for so doing that.

Opinion polls from 2022 indicate that Albanese, far from suffering a downturn in popularity with the wear and tear of office, is better liked by voters now than he was at election time. Back then, his approval rating was 42 percent; by year’s end, it was around 60 percent. (The approval rating of Peter Dutton, Morrison’s successor as Liberal leader, was hovering around 25 percent.) Were an election to be held now, it is likely that the ALP would gain an increase of about 4 percent on its May 2022 vote.

Both Albanese and his party have been immeasurably helped by the collapse of the non-Labor coalition at all levels. March 25 witnessed the shambolic New South Wales government, led by Liberal Dominic Perrottet, losing office to a resurgent Labor Party, and since that date, for the first time ever, the ALP has controlled every federal, state, and territorial legislature on the Australian mainland. Only Tasmania—under the leadership of Liberal Premier Jeremy Rockliff—now holds out against the Labor tide. No landslide took place in the last elections, but the pattern of Liberal electoral hopelessness endures. In the memorable pediatric metaphor of Tony Barry, a Liberal strategist: “It is difficult to admit you have an ugly baby.”

Inflation might yet wreck Albanese’s hopes of a second term, just as inflation ultimately destroyed much of Whitlam’s agenda. But in Whitlam’s day, few local voters knew much about how the 1973 oil shock had ravaged other lands’ economies as well. In consequence, they ascribed to Australia’s own inflation a unique perniciousness. The internet has killed off—probably forever—such electoral provincialism. Rising prices in Australia’s supermarkets are a worry, but one that most people here take in stride, without exhibiting any of the anti-incumbent fury that Rishi Sunak and Joe Biden must face.

It would be captious not to wish Albanese well as he tries to clean up his precursors’ messes.

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