As the parliamentary year limps to a close, there’s a gear shift in Australian politics that we really shouldn’t miss. Scott Morrison is posing a mind-focusing question, one I haven’t seen a prime minister pose before, and the question is this: does parliament matter? Do the institutions and conventions of politics matter?
Our story needs to start with the bubble. Morrison’s deliberate devaluing of his own ecosystem, the vocation of politics, began with creating a crime scene, then distancing himself from it. Donald Trump had the swamp. Morrison invoked the bubble.
Canberra was the bubble. The bubble works, conceptually, as a brand, because a lot of voters believe it exists. Because voters feel alienated by politics, and perceive a lot of what goes on in parliament as either derangement or rank self-indulgence, Morrison can invoke the bad place, plausibly, and style himself as the person to set it right. Bad business, that bubble. Just as well I showed up.
Morrison’s bubble is multipurpose: both sword, shield, and safety deposit box. The bubble is invoked to malign conduct from opponents he finds inconvenient, and to deflect questions he doesn’t want to answer. Anything not to the prime minister’s liking can also be confined to the bubble. That’s a bubble preoccupation. A bubble question. Don’t waste my valuable time. Don’t expect an answer.
You’d laugh at the audacity of all this, it would be a hoot, this jape, except it’s not funny. The bubble language is not invoked constructively, to try and drag a rancid, rotting institution into self-correction and catharsis. It is invoked predominantly to mark people as occupants of various tribes – the pantomime people and the practical people – and pit them against one another.
Apart from divide and conquer, the oldest trope in politics, there’s another dimension to Morrison’s rolling parable of the bubble-dwellers versus everyone else, and it became profoundly obvious during the final two rancorous parliamentary sitting weeks of 2019.
Think about it. If Canberra is a bubble comprised of washed up high school debaters and circus performers, if you can make that reality stick, then none of what happens in that arena matters. Foundational conventions of politics and the parliament get presented as sideshows or cheap power plays, rather than important accountability mechanisms to protect Australian citizens from abuses of power.
In the universe where anything is possible and nothing matters, it doesn’t matter if the prime minister misleads the parliament (which he did on several occasions in this past fortnight). Why worry about nitpickers? Just write a letter to the Speaker cleaning it up, or don’t even bother.
It doesn’t matter if the prime minister phones the New South Wales police commissioner in the middle of an investigation into one of his ministers. (Boutique issue, only troubling the goat’s cheese circle).
It doesn’t matter if Naomi Wolf says categorically she was not at Oxford in 1991 and Angus Taylor tells parliament he absolutely met her and “she began her studies there in the mid-80s and she finished at Oxford only a couple of years ago”. (Close enough, right? Why sweat the small stuff?) If no one is required to be precise, or accurate, then it doesn’t matter if Taylor keeps tripping over himself, again and again, making mistakes ministers should not make, and suffers no apparently penalty, because this is a bubble issue. A kabuki play. Sound and fury signifying nothing.
If it’s all nonsense, then it doesn’t matter if you treat question time as a joke, requiring backbenchers to stand up like a procession of ventriloquist dummies with scripts prefaced with “how great is our strong and stable government, prime minister”, or “how fabulous and confident is Australia with you, sir, oh great one, at the helm” – because that feeds the appearance of pantomime, artifice and spectacle, which reinforces the voter alienation, which creates more opportunity for Morrison validate that frustration, and style himself as the antidote.
The bottom line is this: if you can sit at the pinnacle of your institution, if you can orchestrate this sideshow, while telling onlookers your institution is busted, worthless, and meaningless, you create opportunity and space to write your own rules. There are no guard rails. You can defy gravity. People who line up to ask questions, be they journalists or other political actors, are just irritants to be batted away rather than ramparts in a democratic system.
There are two problems with this. The first is just obvious: why should voters trust a prime minister to write their own rules? I wouldn’t trust any prime minister to do that, whether I respected them or whether I didn’t. Conventions – like the requirement not to mislead the parliament, to answer questions, to insist on ministerial accountability, or to steer clear of police looking at conduct in your government – exist for a reason. They exist to allow power in a democracy to be both exercised and appropriately checked.
Post global financial crisis politics has taught me that democratic institutions are more fragile than they look. It is vitally important that we stand up for our institutions and conventions through this period of realignment in global politics. These things stand between us and chaos. That’s not a hyperventilation on my part, that’s just the reality. Any passing glance at the great democracies of the world will tell you that.
Quite apart from the fundamental belief I have that democracy, and its trappings, is the only thing better than the alternative, there is another danger associated with prime ministers making their own reality, and requiring whole systems to bend to it.
Long term, it’s not in their interests. That way lies hubris. That way lies overreach. That way lies justifying unjustifiable things. That way lies misjudgments. That way lies the thin edge of the wedge.
While it’s obvious this behaviour isn’t desirable, unfortunately it is rational. At one level, the times do suit Morrison’s disdain-the-citadel approach, which is presumably why the prime minister has adopted it. I said a moment ago Morrison is pitching into a crisis of trust in institutions, and I think it was Churchill who said never waste a good crisis. Politicians can both suffer and profit in this environment, depending on their level of dexterity.
It’s also entirely possible that Morrison has chosen to present Canberra as a circus act and a distraction because he can afford to do that. Political parties don’t win elections now because of the pitches that are made at the dispatch box in Canberra, because of impressions that are forged in the parliament – which was how things played out in the television age. In the digital age, elections are won by developing ever more sophisticated ground games and by direct messaging.
What Morrison’s MPs are doing and saying on the ground – combined with this curated derring-do prime ministerial character called Scott that the Liberal party projects through social media like a hologram – is probably more important to the Coalition’s long-term electoral prospects than what is or isn’t happening in Canberra during sitting weeks.
I say probably, because while Morrison and the team around him act like people who think accountability is a speed bump on the superhighway to the dear leader’s permanent prime ministership, I’m not entirely convinced that we’ve entered a consequence-free world.
Perhaps this is the journalist in me, hoping against hope we haven’t entered a consequence-free world, because the consequence-free world means there is no point to my public service. In a consequence-free world, all I’m doing is stoking the cacophony.
But, as they say in the classics, only time will tell.