Scott Morrison is a man ahead of his time, because at some point in the not-too-distant future, expertise in spin and cruelty will be far more useful than competence, writes Chris Graham.
As I’ve watched the horror unfold the last few weeks, I’ve been repeatedly reminded of a story New Matilda broke a few years back. And for clarity, I’m not referring to the horror of the bushfires. I watched that unfold with something quite a bit more than horror. I’m referring to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response to it all.
To put it plainly, I’ve never seen a worse performance by a prime minister, particularly at a more important moment in our history. Which feels ridiculous to say, because Tony Abbott was once prime minister, and, well… you know.
Yet as Morrison fumbled just about every opportunity to show leadership, and humanity, Abbott himself was out fighting the actual fires, at one point running into a building wearing a breathing apparatus to check people weren’t still inside.
Of course, this was just a few days after an Israeli radio station played an interview with Abbott, who suggested carbon was not driving climate change, and that the world was in the “grips of a climate cult”. So sure, Abbott is an idiot, but at least he’s a brave one.
By contrast, if you know anything about Morrison’s history in politics, you’ll know that bravery is something he’ll never be accused of.
Which brings me back to the story I’ve been repeatedly reminded of. In 2014, Morrison recorded a three-and-a-half minute video to play to the asylum seekers he had jailed on Manus Island and Nauru, telling them they would never be released into Australia, and would spend the rest of their lives in detention unless they chose to return home, or were housed by another country.
Of course, Morrison didn’t just play the video to asylum seekers – there’s no advantage in demonising some of the world’s most vulnerable people if the Australian electorate don’t know you’re doing it. So Morrison released the video to media as well.
In the 48 hours after it was released, a wave of asylum seekers self-harmed and attempted suicide. The Abbott Government responded by sacking 10 ‘Save the Children’ workers who were contracted to provide services on Nauru, claiming they were encouraging detainees to hurt themselves, to gain entry to Australia.
In other words, asylum seekers were self-harming because government contracted workers were telling them too, not because Morrison was being deliberately cruel, and then doing public victory laps to celebrate and promote it.
At the same time, the Abbott Government also launched a review, the Moss Inquiry headed by former Integrity Commissioner Philip Moss, which would, among other things, probe the alleged behaviour of the Save The Children workers. It promptly blew up in the government’s face.
Moss not only found no misconduct on the part of ‘Save The Children’ workers, but he also found that the deliberately harsh conditions in detention contributed to the harm caused to detainees.
Something else emerged from the Moss Inquiry, although it never appeared in the final report. Transcripts of Moss’s interviews with senior government officials were leaked to New Matilda, and one in particular – an interview with senior immigration official Mark Cormack – was especially illuminating.
Cormack told the Inquiry that Morrison’s “looseness” was to blame for media misreporting over the death of asylum seeker Reza Berati, despite Morrison later blaming the error on flawed departmental advice. Cormack also revealed that the 10 Save The Children workers ordered off Nauru by the department may not have been “the right 10 people”.
Most significantly, Cormack revealed that in the days immediately after the release of his video, Morrison became “shit worried” that he’d gone too far, and that the situation on Nauru could escalate to “a scale much worse than Manus”, which had been the scene of widespread violence and several deaths.
New Matilda’s story of Morrison’s deliberate cruelty, and his subsequent ‘shit worriedness’, went around the world, sparking widespread outrage that a government could so transparently and cynically design policies specifically aimed at harming refugees, and then brag about it… no wait, sorry, I’m thinking of this story about the government introducing legislation to grab Australian’s metadata.
Our story was actually ignored by mainstream media. We had to run a fundraiser to boost the post on Facebook and get it out to a wider audience. In the end, it cost $2,000 to get the story read by about 50,000 people, or about 0.2 per cent of the Australian population. People are busy, it’s a big country etc etc….
Speaking of which, as I began writing this story, I was on a flight from Brisbane to Adelaide. The flight takes you down through central and western NSW, where the fire emergency is far less severe. Regardless, there was smoke everywhere. Right from take-off, Brisbane is enveloped by a bleak haze. On an almost cloudless day, for virtually the rest of the flight, visibility from 25,000ft was down to a few kilometres at best. Sometimes, you couldn’t even see the ground.
I was on my way to Kangaroo Island in South Australia, more than a third of which has been torched by a series of massive fires. Scott Morrison was there last week, telling the community he was grateful there had been “no deaths”.
In fact, two people had died. When a local replied, “Two. We’ve lost two,” Morrison responded, “Two. Yes two, that’s quite right. I was thinking about firefighters firstly.”
The two men who died – Dick Lang, and his son Clayton – were part of the Kangaroo Island ‘Farm Units’, a collection of farmers, residents and property owners who work independently of authorities to help put out the fires.
In any event, to get to the airport, I caught an Uber. My driver was a man named Abdul. He’s from Kabul, Afghanistan, and is living in Australia on a protection visa, while his wife and children remain in Afghanistan, in perpetual danger.
But I didn’t know any of this about Abdul yet, because our conversation started with me asking him if he’d been following the media coverage on the unfolding bushfire crisis.
“Yes,” he said. “I watch video of Mr Morrison. He did a Facebook Live . I wrote in comments, ‘Why don’t you ask refugees to volunteer?’
“We want to help. We want to work for volunteer. If we cannot help fight the fires, we can help the animals. We can bring someone to a safe place. We are happy to volunteer for Australia.”
Abdul added, there are “30,000 young refugees. They have a lot of energy Why isn’t [Scott Morrison] using them?”
It’s a very good question, although I didn’t explain to Abdul that I thought I might know the answer.
Obviously, Scott Morrison knows more about refugees than most politicians, and unbeknown to Morrison he played a key part in Abdul life’s. Abdul did a stint on Christmas Island, and it was Scott Morrison who sent him there.
Morrison designed the ‘devil in the detail’ that made our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers like Abdul so heinous, but Morrison was also the chief architect of the media strategy that sells these sorts of policies to a gullible, and sometimes wilfully mendacious nation.
The number one part of that strategy – the single most important ingredient – is to dehumanise refugees, to portray them as the sort of people who, rather than stand in the orderly (non-existent) queue for asylum and wait patiently like everybody else, would instead ‘throw their children into the sea’, just to get a headstart on an Aussie visa.
But can you imagine what would happen if Scott Morrison acted on Abdul’s advice? Can you imagine what would happen if our Prime Minister publicly called on refugees to pitch in, to volunteer en masse, to become the ‘lifters’ not the ‘leaners’?
The answer is obvious: they would. They would turn out in droves. Indeed despite what this nation has done to them, many of them likely already have. Victoria’s Hazara community – one of the most oppressed minorities on earth – raised $160,000 and donated it directly to bushfire relief.
In one fell swoop, two decades of hard work rebranding refugees as ‘the problem’ and ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘criminal scum’ would be undone. ‘Scotty from Marketing’s’ lifge work would be undone.
It’s worth remembering, it was actually Scott Morrison who oversaw the Liberal’s 2001 election campaign – the ‘Tampa election – replete with its slogan, “We’ll decide who comes to this country and circumstances under which they come.”
Morrison would have to explain to a confused nation how refugees are not really ‘unpeople’ after all, that they are, in fact, human. That’s actually a line I stole from Abdul, who also told me in the car on the way to the airport:
“By volunteering, [the government]might think we want to bring for us PR for our family (when Abdul says PR, he’s referring to ‘permanent residency’, not ‘public relations’, which is what Morrison thinks the initials stand for). But that’s not true. We just want to help. We are human too.”
Indeed they are. But in Scott Morrison’s world of political spin and marketing, some people are more human than others. And some political issues are more easily exploitable than others.
And others are not, as it turns out.
Response to a disaster
As is now well known, Morrison has found himself in serious trouble trying to spin his government’s response – and his repeated stuff-ups – to the ongoing bushfire crisis.
It began with his ill-timed Hawaiian ‘smoko’ and escalated with his office lying about where he was. He’s blundered along ever since, with Morrison forcing himself on bushfire victims on the South Coast of NSW, neglecting to tell the NSW Government he was rolling out the Army Reserves, and made worse by carelessness like that on show on Kangaroo Island.
A poll out yesterday showed his personal support had crashed to 37 per cent in the wake of the disaster.
So it turns out he can spin on the issue of refugees to his advantage, but he can’t spin on the issue of the bushfire disaster, which is deeply ironic when you think about it, because the two issues, are inextricably linked.
As the planet warms, while rich nations like Australia fiddle the books and the response, the number of people seeking asylum – the ‘climate refugees’ – will increase. Exponentially.
Experts believe that the most ‘dangerous’ part of climate change will be the dislocation of people as their crops fail, their water sources dry up (or are flooded), and their communities become uninhabitable. The inevitable competition for resources that will ensue will lead to wars, which creates more refugees, and on and on it will go.
Of course, many people will die from the ‘actual effects’ of climate change, like the two dozen who have died in the Australian fires so far, or like the woman who got off a plane on the tarmac in Canberra recently, and died as a result of the smoke haze. But many more people will die trying to escape the effects of climate change in poorer countries, and many of those, obviously, will try to come to Australia.
As it is, the world already has its first climate refugees. Australia does as well. But globally, the number of people seeking safety will obviously continue to increase as low-lying nations like Bangladesh become the first to have large areas of their landmass wiped out.
Think about what that actually means. We all saw the chaos in Europe several years back when refugees began fleeing the wars we mostly helped start in the Middle East. That was from the dislocation of around five million people.
Bangladesh has a population of around 165 million, and that’s just one country that will be affected.
A wave of new refugees to our shores assumes, of course, that Australia will be liveable into the future. Obviously, Scott Morrison won’t be around then to find out, but that might help the most cynical among us realize that maybe Morrison is misunderstood, maybe he’s actually a man ahead of his time.
He’s clearly not the man to lead this nation through a national disaster, nor is the man to lead us to a coherent and effective policy on climate change.
But when nations like Bangladesh fall – and they will – we’re definitely going to need someone in charge who is prepared to get in and torture and demonise people seeking asylum. We’re going to need a cruel, ruthless, heartless ‘Scotty from Marketing’.
Otherwise, all of us are going to have to live amongst more and more people like Abdul… the sort of person who was specifically, deliberately tortured on a faraway island so that the rest of us could live lives free from the inconvenience of human rights law.
And the sort of person who, at his first opportunity to directly address the Torturer-In-Chief, asked not what this country could do for him, but what he could do to help the man and the country that tortured him.
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