A Government Falling Apart

Australia's Government In Shambles

You're leading a government of a country that has mostly achieved COVID Zero, that has fans in sports stadiums and has a better economic recovery than most of the rest of the world. You should be cruising to reelection, no?

Ah, well, you've seen four of your State and Territorial governments go to an election since the pandemic, and all four of them won - with oppositions going backwards in 3 of them, and in the most recent one, the opposition got wiped off the map. Oh, and two of the four jurisdictions that haven't gone for an election since are either viewed as a foregone conclusion when the election comes in 2022 or one where the Premier is considering an early election because he thinks he can lock in a win. So, again, you should be fine, right?

In the one competitive by-election of the Parliament, you got a swing to you, a not uncommon, but also not all that common, occurrence at an Australian by-election. The polls have been pretty good for you, and the opposition hasn't had a lead on you all Parliament. Oh, and across the ditch, Jacinda Ardern won a majority in a PR voting system, so you really should be fine, right?

Somehow, Scott Morrison is not fine, and is staring down the barrel of losing an election he has no business losing. How has he managed to put his government at risk? By treating moral abominations as political problems.

In 2019, Brittany Higgins was raped in a Ministerial office in Parliament House by a Senior Male Colleague, as she described her attacker in an interview on The Project. Higgins worked in the office of Linda Reynolds, and in the weeks before the 2019 election, she was attacked after a Friday night drinks event with her colleagues. She was sharing a cab with said colleague, and they returned to Parliament House supposedly so he could just grab something, and basically the next thing she knows she's been attacked on a couch.

I'm not using the word allegedly for a reason - as far as I'm concerned, it happened. I've watched the interview on The Project, I've seen all the subsequent reporting which confirms her story, including contemporaneous texts to friends of hers, and the fact that the Government has not denied the timeline that Higgins laid out for her conversations with her bosses, both political staff and politicians. It is a fucking tragedy, and if you want to argue with me about that part, you are fucking terrible.

Now, there's no real reason why Scott Morrison should be punished politically for the act of a staffer, but his reaction to those events has been chaotic at best and offensive at worst. He has claimed he didn't know about the allegations against the victim until the morning the allegations were published, despite his office getting a heads up 72 hours before. He has claimed he didn't know despite the Chief Of Staff to Linda Reynolds at the time being on secondment from the Prime Minister's Office, who has since returned. He claimed he didn't know despite his chief fixer texting Higgins when Four Corners was doing a deep dive into other allegations of sexual impropriety in Parliament and amongst Ministers and staff. He claims he didn't know despite 3 ministers - Reynolds, Higgins' next boss Michaela Cash, and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton knowing before the PM allegedly knew.

The Prime Minister's Office backgrounded supposedly damaging information about Higgins' partner in an attempt to… honestly, I'm not even sure what the point was, but it predictably failed. Morrison was accused by Higgins of victim blaming, and more broadly of not listening to women. He needed a lesson in empathy with a rape victim from his wife, who told him some version "what if it was one of our daughters," as if that's the only reason this is bad.

That story, and his reaction to it, rocked the Government for a couple of weeks, before a historical rape allegation against a current Cabinet Minister surfaced in media reports from when that Minister was 18 years old. The alleged victim has since passed away, but the cloud over the government forced Christian Porter to reveal himself as the man facing allegation, and is expected to be moved out of his perch as Attorney General for it. But, instead of any remorse for the alleged victim, Morrison stood behind his Minister, and again failed to stand for women or victims.

And now, this week, as more questions were raised, Morrison tried to do a song and dance about this being unacceptable, but it only came after his government took a polling hit, and his tear jerker moment at his press conference this week wasn't about expressing sympathy for the victims of a culture that defends dangerous men, but in how important the women in his life are. And then, at the same presser, Scott Morrison decided to invent an allegation against Sky News to say that people should not throw stones about sexual harassment and assault from glass houses. And, as despicable as that is, I just started laughing when I saw the Sky News denial of the Prime Minister's statement, because this is a man who has lost control.

Morrison's never been the sharpest political communicator, despite his previous title as an ad man for Tourism Australia. This is a man who was on vacation in Hawaii during the 2019-2020 bushfires and his brilliant response was "I don't hold a hose, mate," in defending his sunbathing as his country burned. Morrison was an accidental Prime Minister, winning the leadership because Malcolm Turnbull miscalculated on his gamble to end leadership instability in 2018, and then winning an election nobody thought he would in 2019. And now he's here, and he's losing control of his party, his Parliament, and his chances of victory.

His slim majority has meant he had to indulge the anti-vax, pro-hydroxychloroquine musings of Craig Kelly, and even that failed, with Kelly leaving for the crossbench. He came out firmly against the heavy lockdown that Victoria imposed last year, which turned out to be both mathematically necessary to suppress the virus, economically beneficial, and politically popular. His instincts aren't great, and this crisis has been showing it in spades. And now, Newspoll has him down 48/52.

How does he solve the problem? Fundamentally, by being a different person than he has shown in the month and a half of crisis he's been in. It's a disgrace that he is so unable to do anything to solve his problems, but Morrison is trying so hard to not admit he's ever done anything wrong that he's losing whatever credibility he has. Think about this not just as a political question, but a more fundamentally human one. If someone refuses to ever accept they've done anything wrong, even on small or inconsequential things, you have no reason to expect them to be able to deal with big problems. And fundamentally, elections are about judgment - who do you trust in a crisis, that fundamental elections question, comes down to trust in judgment. Morrison's pissing that away every single time he speaks.

The voters most likely to be turned off by this are the voters who Morrison is in risk of losing anyways - urban and suburban socially liberal whites in the capital cities, voters who swung heavily against him in 2019 in seats like Kooyong and Higgins, wealthy enclaves like the ones that are swinging left everywhere in the world. It's a disaster for the government if they cannot claw this back, and Morrison is in danger of losing government over it. The best thing he could do is stop treating the issue of women's lived experience in male dominated world as a political problem to be handled, and deal with it as a moral problem to be solved, and that would start by accepting some blame, appointing an independent review of everything, and otherwise shutting the fuck up. Otherwise, their political problem will cost them government.