“How can you tell if a politician is lying?” It is a favourite joke of my grandfather’s, and the punchline is all too obvious: “His mouth will be moving.”
The joke gives succinct expression to a cynicism that has shaped Australian politics since the introduction of self-government in the 1850s. The implication, of both the joke and the culture informing it, is that the politician’s lies reflect solely on their kind and reveal nothing about the rest of us.
In his newly published profile of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Sean Kelly flips this way of thinking on its head. The Game offers many powerful and revealing insights into Morrison’s career and the tricky political tactics that have characterised it. But the most important revelations in this book are about the society that created our prime minister, and the structures and cultures that facilitated his path to the Lodge.
Kelly explains, for example, that Morrison worked hard to be a “blank canvas” in the public eye until perhaps 2015, at which point he became the more recognisable suburban “good bloke down the road”.
This persona, replete with the “ScoMo” nickname, has characterised his public performances ever since. But the performance only matters because it finds in the Australian community “a willing audience” who, recently at least, like to have what novelist E.M. Forster called “flat characters” (or instantly recognisable “types”) in their newspapers and their parliaments.
Formerly a self-described “spin doctor” for both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Kelly studies Morrison’s public persona not just with the eye of a Canberra insider, but also with the lens of a cultural critic. In this “land of extremes”, he says, Australians are
always splitting ourselves in two, then ignoring the half that discomfits us.
For Kelly, this mentality explains why the so-called “quiet Australians” have indulged “the game” that Morrison plays, while the others have rejected him entirely (“I am completely different”).
Given Kelly’s Labor connections, cynics might expect a partisan hit-job on the prime minister. This portrait is no hit-job, but it is, unsurprisingly, unflattering.
Kelly gives Morrison the benefit of the doubt with respect to the early stages of the pandemic, “a situation unlike anything those involved had dealt with before”. There is recognition, too, of the burdens that Jenny Morrison and her daughters have borne in service of public life. But the portrait of Morrison himself is a study of duplicity and hollowness.
There are criticisms of Morrison’s more tone-deaf and morally dubious performances, none more so than the forced handshakes with reluctant bushfire survivors and firefighters during that black summer of 2019-20.
But the most important conclusion about Morrison in this book relates to the way he thinks. Kelly suggests Morrison’s mind does not think in narratives, but only in images or snapshots (think of the punchline of the tourism ad he commissioned, “Where the bloody hell are ya?”). This, Kelly reasons, is why he can say one thing with such apparent conviction today, and the opposite with equal fervour tomorrow.
For a public figure, this inconsistency would be impossible “if it were not a central aspect of their experience of the world”. The psychological analysis here is sweeping, its inferences devastating.
There are many praiseworthy qualities in Kelly’s study. Serious issues, from asylum-seeker policy to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine roll-out, are given ample coverage. But this is no traditional biography, and these debates are not its central concern.
The main subject of this book is the performance of politics itself, and the narratives that mediate the public’s relationship with its representatives. The idea of “performance” seems resurgent in political theory and history, and its capacity for revelation is rich.
In some ways, Kelly’s book builds on an older tradition of political profiles that took performance as their main subject. Graham Little’s Strong Leadership (1988) and Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People (1992) stand tall in that tradition, using psychosocial theory to unpack the hearts and minds of Australian liberals from Menzies to Malcolm Fraser. Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002) is equally important, part-memoir, part-meditation and part-psychological study of Paul Keating as prime minister, written from the intimate perspective of a prime ministerial speechwriter.
In each case, the biographer’s goal was to explain not just who the prime minister was, but how their way of thinking engaged with the world around them.
Kelly does not try to discover the “real” Scott Morrison, a task rendered almost impossible by the vacuousness of the prime minister’s performances and the role of the media in presenting him to us.
Instead, he evokes the divided community to whom Morrison performs, and the social and cultural processes that allow those performances to take place and, at least sometimes, hit their mark. Kelly’s method is to home in on public speech, its sounds and cadences, as well as the often elusive messages and impressions that Morrison seeks to convey with his words.
The chief limitation of The Game is that, relying largely on public material, it cannot take us into the institutions that empower Morrison, other than the media.
We don’t learn much about the Prime Minister’s Office, other than that it failed to respond to Brittany Higgins’s alleged rape in Parliament House in an appropriate fashion.
Parliament itself is a stage here, but scarcely recognisable as an institution that makes laws. The public service is invisible. National Cabinet is, according to Kelly, little more than an “aesthetic change” from the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) that preceded it.
It says something about the condition of contemporary politics that it is hard to say whether these absences are a flaw in the author’s approach, or inevitable given the style of leadership it so astutely anatomises.
In the end, The Game invites us to look toward the next election. That poll will, Kelly implies, reveal something more of ourselves, or at least those “quiet” Australians who are supposed to have voted for Morrison in 2019. Like most of us, Kelly is unsure who will have the last laugh.