Martin Luther King used the cadences, phrasing and devices of a Christian Baptist pastor to deliver soaring rhetoric; Scott Morrison took his sky pilot familiarity to the National Press Club on Tuesday for as platitudinous and dulling a sermon as you’re likely to hear.
Along the way he outbid his Defence Minister in moving closer to declaring war on China, wished he had militarised vaccines from the outset, unveiled his weaponry for the election campaign he’s already fighting (the trusty Lee-Enfield .303), threw the Therapeutic Goods Administration under the tank tracks, and was taken down by Laura Tingle PSYOPS – mistaking the surface question for the substance, the standard experience of university psychology experiments.
As the NPC president, Tingle had the first question, a scorcher listing a few of the things that have gone wrong, from Hawaiian holiday to RATs shortage, and inviting Mr Morrison to apologise for his mistakes as Prime Minister.
On the surface, that looked like a potential “gotcha” – saying sorry could mean he had made mistakes, so he didn’t.
Instead: “We’re all terribly sorry for what this pandemic has done to the world and to this country.”
See, it was COVID’s fault. And from there it was into a word salad of deflection.
But that wasn’t the substance of the question. What was really asked was whether Mr Morrison could accept responsibility for mistakes and genuinely apologise for them.
It’s at the core of the increasingly frequent criticism of Mr Morrison that, while he’s happy to declare “I’m the Prime Minister” on occasion, he never owns responsibility for what goes wrong or is wrong.
From #sportsrorts to RATs, it is always someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s fault – or he just lies about it.
For example, on the vaccination program, there was only one apparent regret: “If I had my time over, I would have put it under a military operation from the outset and not later in the year.”
See, nothing to do with not ordering enough doses of the right type, to it not being a race, just civilians not being as good as brass in moving pharmaceuticals.
On RATs: “The rapid antigen tests had only actually been approved for use by the TGA earlier in November” – ah, all the fault of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, blame the TGA, the government has nothing to apologise for.
But that ignores what the TGA was saying back in September, as reported by The Guardian and repeated on these pages before:
Part of the issue has been the slow pace of approvals with the TGA. In September TGA boss John Skerritt admitted that had been deliberate, as the regulator waited for a “signal” from the federal government.
“We’re saying to companies, submit your data, show us, but we can’t formally make an approval decision until we get a signal from the government,” Professor Skerritt said at the time.
“It’s a decision for the government. Firstly, when they feel an appropriate time is to commit such tests. But then secondly, we’ve got to have the tests that are actually ready to go and designed so they can be used by non-professional people.”
That was already well after employers, unions and plenty of health experts started calling for RATs.
And then there is the ongoing aged-care crisis and Mr Morrison’s promise of two $400 “retention” payments for miserably paid aged-care workers.
Samantha Maiden contrasted those payments with what MPs pocket as a Canberra allowance – $291 a night. MPs get more for a three-night stay in Canberra, often in their own home, than the total bonus for over-stretched aged-care workers on not much more than the minimum wage.
Well, it worked last time the government did it, Mr Morrison said. “And it has been done in consultation with the industry” – so it’s the industry’s fault.
It certainly wasn’t done in consultation with the workers.
But for the bigger question of why the government wouldn’t agree with Labor’s suggestion to intervene before the Fair Work Commission and argue for better pay for aged-care workers, Mr Morrison (metaphorically) pulled out his .303, the Empire and Commonwealth rifle through two world wars and Korea: “I’ve noticed the suggestion made by the Leader of the Opposition. I haven’t heard how he proposes to fund that. I don’t know what he estimates the cost of that will be. And how he would work that through. So that’s for him to explain, as to how he can pay for the things he tells Australians he thinks he can do.”
Yes, the old “where’s the money’s coming from” shot. It takes remarkable hide for the trillion-dollar-debt-PM to ask the question, but it’s standard .303 issue.
The “three-oh” had five bullets in its magazine. That shot is naturally followed by the unsubstantiated allegation that the Liberal Party is lower taxing than Labor and the simply nonsensical claim that the Morrison government would “keep downward pressure” on inflation and interest rates. (It’s doing no such thing and wouldn’t want to at present.)
With two shots left, Mr Morrison took aim at China, “a direct threat to Australia’s economic and security interests”, the biggest thing since Nazi Germany preparing for World War II.
Never mind that the new Chinese ambassador had perhaps offered what might have been a leaf from an olive branch, Mr Morrison showed he could warmonger with the best – or worst – in an election campaign.
Anything Peter Dutton can do, it seems Mr Morrison has to try to match.
And finally, the last shot in his speech: “It requires experience … It’s not a time to have an each-way bet on Australia’s future.”
The old “don’t risk it” line, the argument that only the government is safe to be the government.
So with the covering fire of a $16 billion election fund and unprecedented experience in rorting and corrupting grants schemes, Mr Morrison unveiled an election campaign as ancient as the .303.
It was a reliable old weapon, but also limited and no longer fit for purpose.