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How Morrison is using coronavirus to destroy his critics

Aug 3, 2020 • 15m 40s

What drives Scott Morrison? And what can we learn about his ideology from the way he’s governing during this moment? Today, Richard Cooke on how the Prime Minister is using the pandemic to fulfil his political objectives.

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How Morrison is using coronavirus to destroy his critics

278 • Aug 3, 2020

How Morrison is using coronavirus to destroy his critics

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Scott Morrison’s Prime Ministership has been dominated by a series of rolling crises.
But what can we learn about the ideology that drives the PM - and the opportunities he sees for himself in coronavirus?

Today - Richard Cooke on how Scott Morrison is using the pandemic to fulfill his political objectives by stealth.


RUBY:

To start with, how ideologically driven is Scott Morrison? How much does it define him?

RICHARD:

Well, there is a colleague in particular who went unnamed in a Laura Tingle article published not so long ago, and she asked this senior Liberal Party person directly: ‘are we going to see an end to the culture war motives that drove Tony Abbott in government?’

RUBY:

Richard Cooke wrote about the Prime Minister’s ideology in the latest issue of The Monthly.

RICHARD:

And this person said that, if anything, Morrison was more ideologically driven and more driven by hostility to the perceived enemies of the Liberal National Party coalition. It's just he was gonna be more careful about it and that he would bide his time and not sort of throw these flailing haymakers that Tony Abbott did that really didn't connect very well. And that's, I think, what we're starting to see now.

RUBY:

How different is Scott Morrison to, I guess, his ideological predecessor, Tony Abbott, particularly in his approach to the so-called culture wars?

RICHARD:

Well, look, I think that he is quite different. Tony Abbott kind of has a famously combative political...

Archival tape -- Tony Abbott:

“Well I say to the current prime minister for you parties good you should go, for your parties good you should go! For our country good you should go. You should go!”

RICHARD:

He is an opposition leader who made his mark trying to stymie everything that the Labor Party was doing in power. And he was not really able to modulate that very well once he was incumbent in the lodge himself.

Archival tape -- Tony Abbott:

“We are not the Labor party, we are not the Labor party and we are not going to repeat the chaos and instability of the Labor years.”

RICHARD:

I think Scott Morrison is someone who has watched that process take place and has learnt from it, and is also perhaps more temperamentally suited to being conciliatory.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“I have been genuinely heartened by the constructive approach of the employers and employees and business groups and unions working together in the ACTU with the government through this crisis…”

RICHARD:

I think that in some ways we don't associate people like Morrison or John Howard as being populist in this kind of Trumpian or Boris Johnson sense. But they do have...at the core of their political philosophy is the idea that there are some people who deserve government assistance and some people who don't. Here's an idea which has been called ‘welfare chauvinism’. So I think that they're not going to go and start a trade war with China.

Archival tape -- Trump:

“Trade wars aren’t so bad.”

RICHARD:

They are not going to degrade their own medical experts.

Archival tape -- Trump:

“I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients there and I shook hands with everybody there you’ll be pleased to know...”

RICHARD:

they don't have that sort of very crude and elitist aspect of populism. But are they going to make sure that favoured groups receive government assistance in a way that is superficially at odds with free market economics? Absolutely.

RUBY:

And so who are these favoured groups that are benefiting from what you're calling ‘welfare chauvinism’?

RICHARD:

Well, it might be easier to list the groups that aren't. So the groups that aren't are young people, they are people who live in metropolitan areas, they are people without children, they are women, to an extent, and they are non citizens or newly arrived migrants or people who are unemployed. They are people who are seen as kind of breaching this national consensus about who we are and how we should behave.

You know, Joe Hockey had a… I guess a kind of classically Liberal sense of what the government was and what it should do, and that was to get out of the way.

Whereas, you know, the idea that welfare or assistance is contingent on something, the people that that was applicable to for Morrison were not just job creators, that that's really who Hockey had in mind when he was talking about, you know, that that sort of lifters and leaners approach.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

As Australians we should always seek to make a contribution, not to see how if you can take one. We are about lifting everybody up wherever you are in life..opportunity and aspiration for every Australian...

RICHARD:

Scott Morrison has widened the definition of lifters to a group that includes a lot more of the Australian population. Especially a lot more people, you know, in the outer suburbs, in rural and regional areas.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“This is not building school halls and all those sorts of things we saw that were done from big contractors and small contractor not getting the work and that sort of thing.”

RICHARD:

And he's building a voter base amongst those, you know, so-called ‘Howard battlers’ again.

RUBY:

Mm hmm. And so how is all of this playing out at the moment? What do the government's decisions on coronavirus spending tell us about Scott Morrison's ideological agenda?

RICHARD:

If we look at the way that jobs are fetishised - if jobs are lost because of a coal mine closing or a factory closing or some other regional, stereotypically white working class workforce having a change imposed on it, this is seen as almost a kind of national emergency.

You will have an MP, often one from regional Queensland, breathing down the neck of the media to talk about what a tragedy this is. If universities shed hundreds of jobs or the ABC sheds hundreds of jobs, those same people in the media are often quite gleeful about this prospect. You know that there is very little concern.
This is an opportunity to punish critics of the government and sectors where critics of the government originate.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Richard, in The Monthly you wrote about the government’s perceived enemies and how Scott Morrison is using the pandemic to take aim at them. Who exactly are you talking about?

RICHARD:

They could be put under the umbrella of so-called ‘urban elites’. You know, this is the change which started to happen, I guess, in the 1980’s - right-wing parties world over began this emphasis on hostility towards cosmopolitan elites.

In Australia, they comprise the university sector, the government broadcaster and other elements of supposedly leftwing bias, media, and the arts and kind of cultural and human rights law sectors. I mean, they are people who criticise right wing governments.

RUBY:

Right. And I want to pick up on one part of that in particular - universities. How is the government using this crisis to settle a score there?

RICHARD:

Conservatives now deeply, deeply hate universities. I know that's a generalisation, but it is almost invariably true. And part of that is forged in the fires of student politics, which is still a powerful psychological motivator for politicians at the highest federal level. They see universities as essentially ideological apparatuses for taking young people, often from middle class or working families, and making them very left wing. They just have incredible antipathy towards it that can't be overcome by even neoliberal arguments for the economic importance of these sectors. They want to harm them. And the way that they have harmed them this time is by making them ineligible several times over for JobKeeper.

And the exception to that is private universities. If you look at places like Bond or some theology schools, they have been exempted. It is the major group of eight universities that are suffering, and are supposed to be suffering.

So we're seeing now what is clearly an ideological attack on universities play out. It's an attack by omission - they are being excluded from governmental measures that they require to keep them up and running in a covert economy. But Morrison and Frydenberg - who is implementing these policies - aren’t out there, sort of beating a drum, saying that it's great that universities are shedding jobs. They are shedding some crocodile tears over it. They're doing it quietly. And I think that approach is much more effective.

RUBY:

Richard, what kind of Australia is Scott Morrison trying to create here by taking this kind of action, or I suppose it might be more accurate to call it inaction?

RICHARD:

I think that he's trying to make an Australia, which is a completion of John Howard's Australia. He's trying to close off forever the kind of Paul Keating version of an innovative, Asia focussed, outward-looking Australia.
The idea of change, the idea of self-critique, the idea of a knowledge sector, which is a major contributor to Australia, is on the back foot. And the emphasis is on resources and trades - stereotypically masculine professions that involve making things or digging things up, and not too much thinking or self-reflection.

RUBY:

Is it your contention then that Scott Morrison is using the pandemic to fulfill some of these objectives by default?

RICHARD:

Yeah, absolutely. And not paying an electoral penalty for that. He doesn't have to do a Joe Hockey-style Mr Bad Man. He can just let it take its course while at the same time bringing in favoured groups and making sure that they are taken care of.

And it doesn't matter if it's not efficient. It doesn't matter if it looks like another pink batts-style initiative, because those are also groups that Labor are trying to reach and feel bleeding away from them so that the amount of critique from opposition that you can get is limited.

I think if you look at the way that Anthony Albanese's Labor Party has responded to this, they just simply don't know what to do. I think that this is a formidable challenge to the left in Australia. And I think the idea that Morrison is just a kind of clumsy Pentecostal footy guy who doesn't really know what he's doing is wrong.
I think he's got a subtle political touch, which is playing out very effectively.

RUBY:

Richard, thank you so much for your time today.

RICHARD:

Thank you so much.

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RUBY:

Also in the news -

Victorian Premier Dan Andrews has announced the strictest lockdown measures yet, after 671 new cases of Covid were found on Sunday.

Andrews declared a state of disaster and announced Melbourne would move to a stricter lockdown.

As of 6pm last night a curfew now extends across the city. Residents will not be allowed to leave their house between 8pm to 5am with exemptions for work, caregiving, medical and compassionate reasons.

Exercise will be restricted to a maximum of one hour daily within 5km of home, with one other person.

Only one person per household per day will be allowed to shop within 5km of home, or at their nearest supermarket.

Childcare centres will also be closed, and all schools will return to remote learning from Wednesday.

The rules will remain in place for another six weeks.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. Stay safe Melbourne. See you all tomorrow.

Scott Morrison’s Prime Ministership has been dominated by a series of rolling crises, but what can we learn about the ideology that drives him from the way he’s governing at this moment? Today, Richard Cooke on how Scott Morrison is using the pandemic to fulfil his political objectives.

Guest: Writer for The Monthly Richard Cooke.

Background reading:

A unitary theory of cuts in The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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278: How Morrison is using coronavirus to destroy his critics