In 2006 the Australian tourism slogan “Where the bloody hell are you?” became synonymous with hackneyed colloquialisms and large-scale flops. Fourteen years later it’s become a neat metaphor for the leadership troubles of its creator, Prime Minister (and former Tourism Australia head) Scott Morrison. As the world watches the bushfire disaster unfold, they might be wondering: just who is Scott Morrison?
Scott Morrison was the surprise victor of the 2019 Australian federal election. A defier of opinion polls, a runaway hit with Evangelicals, and an out-and-out promoter of the coal industry, Morrison has consistently been likened to Donald Trump, with whom he shares a healthily transactional personal relationship. But despite his populist credentials, his victory in May came against the backdrop of a looming recession, the US-China trade war, and a growing climate emergency. None of this bodes well for his longevity as a leader.
The Revolving Door
Morrison seized control of the Liberal Party — the major partner in Australia’s long-standing right-wing Coalition — and the prime ministership in what most commentators acknowledge was a Machiavellian power move. Internal Liberal Party politics has resembled the Ides of March on repeat: due to internal party coups, no Australian prime minister has served a full term between elections since 2007.
The inner-city millionaire Malcolm Turnbull ousted the far-right Catholic culture warrior Tony Abbott in 2015. In turn, one of Abbott’s loyalists, Boers rights advocate and former policeman Peter Dutton, launched a coup attempt against the new urban sophisticate prime minister in 2018. He lost, but tried again a few days later. With both figures now seen as divisive, Scott Morrison entered the fray as the compromise candidate. He won the internal party room vote and stepped into the highest office in the land. There was much speculation that this had been his plan all along.
This decade of backstabbing and bloodspilling of both major party rooms hasn’t just been for fun. Under pressure from a growing public awareness of climate change, mining industry bosses have thrown their weight enthusiastically behind/against different contenders at various points. The global financial crisis and a looming recession have also put enormous pressure on the major ruling parties to effectively spin their decision to make ordinary people — rather than big business — pay for the contemporary crises of capitalism.
Going to the polls again in 2019, Morrison led the Coalition to victory — against every pollsters’ prediction that this was Labor’s year. His campaign centered around fear of higher taxes and unemployment due to a shift to renewable energy. The Coalition claimed that Labor “will tax you to death!” and cause 167,000 job losses with its energy targets. The message seemed to resonate. But due to its unexpectedness, their victory was overstated by almost everyone. Both the major parties lost votes in the election. The government just lost less.
Speaking in Tongues
Morrison has been called “Trump-lite,” a comparison that in some ways illuminates, in others obscures. Like Trump, Morrison attacks “globalists” and punishes media outlets that he thinks have wronged him. Unlike Trump, Morrison is a party man through and through: he led the New South Wales Liberal Party administration from 2000–4. Like Trump, Morrison is a roaring success with Evangelical movements across the country. Unlike Trump, this is because he actually is one.
Morrison belongs to Horizon, a Pentecostal church based in Sydney that encourages practices like speaking in tongues. For the first time in deeply secular Australia, the prime minister sings, claps, and holds his arms up in ecstatic praise of the Lord. We know because he invited the cameras into his church in the lead-up to the election and showed us so.
In Morrison the religious right has found its champion. Furious at the pro-same-sex marriage plebiscite result in 2017, they have been out for revenge ever since. Morrison hasn’t disappointed. He personally intervened to change gender-neutral bathroom signs at Parliament House, and his proposed religious freedom bill will, among other things, allow medical professionals to refuse service to LGBT people and overturn the ban on conversion therapy.
But unlike Trump, he has been keenly aware of not completely alienating a group he’s labeled the “Quiet Australians” — a sensible working-class majority supposedly averse to ideology. When a prominent rugby player — whose sacking for homophobia was ostensibly the catalyst for Morrison’s religious freedom bill — blamed recent catastrophic bushfires on same-sex marriage and abortion rights, Morrison quickly threw him under the bus.
Morrison embraces the kind of vile race-baiting that has come to define the Trump presidency and other populist leaders around the globe. As immigration minister he oversaw and intensified Australia’s draconian offshore mandatory detention center regime, which demonizes asylum seekers as queue jumpers, welfare chasers, and job stealers. Morrison famously keeps a model refugee boat emblazoned with the words “I stopped these” on his desk.
In 2014 whistle-blowers revealed a litany of sexual abuses of asylum seekers by the private security guards policing the islands. Morrison used the incident to initiate an official investigation into the NGO Save the Children, banning many of the organization’s staff from the island prisons. Appealing to the Quiet Australians’ supposed hatred of inner-city elites, Morrison argued that workers in the detention centers are “employed to do a job, not to be political activists.” The investigation soon collapsed, and the worker whistle-blowers were vindicated. Morrison simply denied he had ever insinuated anything, a Trump-like tactic he has put to good use throughout his career.
A Faltering Triangulation
Morrison is willing to be nuanced on race in the name of political expediency. In 2019, revelations emerged that the Chinese government was attempting to influence federal politics, and that a Liberal Party MP Morrison had championed, Gladys Liu, had belonged to Chinese government organizations.
The opposition opportunistically raised concerns that national security had been compromised. Morrison suddenly declared dog-whistling to be abhorrent and declared the opposition racist and anti-feminist, arguing that “just because someone was born in China doesn’t make them disloyal . . . . [Labor] might want to dress it up as national security, but I think 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage get the point.”
The Chinese government lauded Morrison’s response to the Gladys Liu scandal. In general, however, his actions have done nothing but draw the ire of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Morrison has made it clear that in its increasingly wobbly balancing act between its military ally (the United States) and its biggest trading partner (China), Australia leans toward the former.
Much has been made of Morrison’s fawning jaunts to the Trump White House. But it is more serious gestures, like his contribution of troops, planes, and warships to the US-led mission in the Strait of Hormuz in August, that demonstrate which way the prime minister is betting. This military commitment sends a clear message to the CCP about where Australia might fit in any potential military misadventure against Iran, or even in the South China Sea.
Prime Minister for Coal
It is on coal that Morrison and Trump’s similarities come most clearly to the fore. In a theatrical flourish that has come back to haunt him, Morrison brought a lump of coal into Parliament in 2017 and waved it around while taunting the opposition. “This is coal. Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared,” he laughed, passing the prop around to his guffawing colleagues for effect.
Morrison personally called Narendra Modi to congratulate him on his election win and assure him that the proposed Adani coal mine in Queensland — a controversial Indian-owned mega-polluter — would go ahead. With environmental concerns threatening delays he offered a stern directive to all players involved: “Get on with it.”
Beyond Australia’s fossil-fuel export partners, Morrison’s standing is less positive. Last month, he and his government copped endless criticism at the COP25 meeting in Madrid for using so-called carryover credits to essentially cook the books, which would reduce Australia’s carbon reduction efforts by 50 percent.
And it is due to this most Trump-like affinity for coal that Morrison’s triumphant early period as prime minister might be ending. Just as Australian public opinion is shifting in favor of climate action in the face of mass strikes by high school students — the biggest protests in the country since the anti–Iraq War demonstrations — a series of utterly catastrophic bushfires is sweeping the continent.
In spectacularly poor timing, Morrison went on holiday to Hawaii with his family just as the crisis broke out. As the furor grew, Morrison was forced to return home and survey the ongoing damage. But far from a victory tour among the Quiet Australians, Morrison has committed gaffe after gaffe in a series of angry, desperate, burnt-out towns.
Morrison’s ministers — backed up by the Murdoch media empire and an army of trolls and bots — have done their best to spin the crisis as either “normal for Australia” or a result of (nonexistent) ecological red tape implemented by the Greens. This has certainly spread some confusion. The widespread impression, however, is that the federal government has mismanaged the crisis and made it worse by not taking more serious action on climate change. It seems clear that Morrison incorrectly read his election victory as support for his denialist theatrics, when in fact almost every electorate has well and truly tired of this sneering approach.
In his maiden parliamentary speech in 2008, Morrison quoted Bono: “When the history books are written, our age will be remembered for . . . what we did — or did not do to put the fire out…” As the honeymoon period draws to a close for this most suburban of right-wing populists, he might be regretting his choice of quote.