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‘I don’t think, I know’: how 5 words from the French president triggered a ruinous run on Morrison’s character

It really started unravelling for Scott Morrison on All Saints Day, November 1 2021, when French President Emmanuel Macron branded him a liar.

Asked by Bevan Shields, who is now editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, whether he thought Morrison had lied to him over the Australian government’s decision to jettison its submarine contract with France, Macron uttered the now immortal words:

I don’t think; I know.

Within 48 hours, the man Morrison replaced as prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said publicly that Morrison had a reputation for telling lies. “He’s lied to me on many occasions,” Turnbull said. “Scott has always had a reputation for telling lies.”

This emboldened the media, for whom the word “liar” raises a red flag. Calling someone a liar is defamatory: it makes ordinary reasonable people think less of the person.

Read more: Is Morrison gaining a reputation for untrustworthiness? The answer could have serious implications for the election

Establishing a defence is complex. It might seem straightforward: either a person told the truth or they didn’t. But in defamation law, it would be necessary to establish that the person intentionally said things they knew to be materially untrue and did so habitually. Plaintiff lawyers can drive a horse and cart through that.

So mostly the media edit it out, using approximations such as “untruth” or “falsehood”.

However, not long after Turnbull’s public accusations, the online news site felt it had become safe to publish a story that began:

Since Crikey published its initial dossier of Scott Morrison’s lies in May 2021, the number of untruths uttered by the prime minister has continued to grow — as has his reputation for mendacity.

The story then outlined the defamation problem:

When Crikey decided to detail Scott Morrison’s habit of lying back in May, there was some concern. Could we really call the prime minister a liar? Lawyers were consulted; the dossier we’d put together was double- and triple-checked.

Six months later, things were very different. It was not merely possible but fashionable to label Morrison a liar, having become the height of chic among the French.

Macron and Turnbull had created a situation in which, when it came to lying, Morrison had no reputation to defend. The defamation laws do not protect a reputation that has not been earned.

These accusations ripped the scab off a festering wound inside the Coalition parties caused by dismay at Morrison’s character more generally.

On February 1 2022, Channel Ten’s political editor and columnist for The Australian, Peter van Onselen, confronted Morrison at a televised National Press Club lunch with what he said were leaked text messages between the former New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, and an unnamed serving cabinet minister.

In this exchange, Berejiklian allegedly described Morrison as “a horrible, horrible person”, adding she did not trust him and that he was more concerned with politics than with people. She later said she did not recollect sending such a text, but did not deny it.

Responding to her, the cabinet minister allegedly described him as a “complete psycho”.

Later the same month, yet another leak revealed that the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, had called Morrison a “hypocrite and a liar” in a text sent on to Brittany Higgins, a month after her allegations of having been raped in the office of the then defence minister, Linda Reynolds, became public.

Speaking of Morrison, Joyce told Higgins:

He is a hypocrite and a liar from my observations and that is over a long time. I have never trusted him and I dislike how he earnestly rearranges the truth to a lie.

He later apologised to Morrison.

Other aspects of Morrison’s character came into focus in late February, when turmoil inside the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party over the pre-selection of candidates for the May 21 election erupted into the open.

The central allegation was that Morrison’s pro-consul on the pre-selection committee, Alex Hawke, was deliberately sabotaging the process by failing to turn up at meetings. This would back the party into a corner, enabling Morrison to impose his own candidates at the last minute in defiance of party rules.

Then in April, Michael Towke, whom Morrison defeated in a highly controversial pre-selection fight for the seat of Cook in 2007, called Morrison a “compulsive liar” and accused him of using a racial slur against Towke’s Lebanese ethnicity as part of manoeuvres that eventually saw Towke’s original 82-8 pre-selection win overturned in favour of Morrison.

Statutory declarations to this effect were also leaked; Morrison denied the allegation of racism.

The impact of this series of events on Morrison’s 2022 election campaign was significant. He no longer found it expedient to say, as he had in 2019, “If you vote for me, you get me.”

Barnaby Joyce apologised for a leaked text referring to Scott Morrison as a ‘hypocrite’ and a ‘liar’. Steven Saphore/AAP

Entering the last week of the campaign, he set about trying to re-invent himself, saying he was “a bit of a bulldozer” and promising to change after the election.

It was clearly a recognition that his deficiencies of character were a drag on his chances of re-election, but it inevitably raised two more questions: who is the real Morrison, and can his promise to change be believed?

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Liberal campaigners believed voter discontent with him was so strong it could sweep the government from office.

The same article quoted one Liberal Party member as saying voters at some early voting centres “hated” Morrison, and another that resentment at him was dragging the government down.

The newspaper also reported that an analysis of the campaign showed Morrison had avoided visiting key electorates where his appearance was reckoned to risk damaging the chances of the Liberal candidates.

These included four seats where moderate Liberals were facing serious challenges from “teal” independents: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong, Tim Wilson in Goldstein, Dave Sharma in Wentworth and Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney. All of those have now either been lost or are likely to be lost. This election has turned on values and responsibility, with key issues including climate, integrity and the treatment of women. In such an election, a notorious liar is not going to do well.

Read more: 'His beating heart is a focus group': what makes Scott Morrison tick?

Plausibility has always been the foundation on which Morrison’s electoral appeal rested. But as has been noted previously, that is very unstable terrain on which to build political success.

The seismic eruptions set off by Macron’s accusation seven months before election day destroyed that foundation and with it any chance the Liberal-National Coalition had of pulling off another miracle win.

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