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The ascent of Scott Morrison, from Trump’s mini-me to national leader

When he visited Trump in September and joined him on stage in front of an adoring crowd of 1500 in Ohio at what soon looked like a rally, the Australian commentator Michelle Grattan said it was “beyond awkward” for a self-respecting Australian prime minister.

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But Morrison was proud to embrace Trump: “We do share a lot of the same views.” And the embrace was mutual: “I want to thank Prime Minister Morrison for being my friend,” said the US President.

In Australia, Morrison was branded variously “Trump’s mini-me”, an “Aussie Trump” and “Trump lite”.

This was a winning formula, according to Gideon Rozner of Australia’s Institute for Public Affairs:
“He is following the @realDonaldTrump playbook: Engage the base, deliver for the middle and ignore the bleating of people who will never, ever vote for you.”

Morrison carried this approach all the way through 2019, into bushfire season and early 2020.

He persisted with his Trumpist tribalism even in the face of a savage national disaster. He emoted over some fire victims, resisted any role in managing the crisis, and rejected the need for more active climate change policy in response.

“I’m angry about the Prime Minister’s response,” said the former fire chief Greg Mullins. “It reminds me of President Trump when there’s multiple shootings, saying it’s nothing to do with guns.”

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John ShakespeareCredit:

A central truth of Trump’s divisive populism is that it’s not principally about problem solving in the real world. It’s about political posturing. It’s a style of politicking, not suited to governing.

There are many definitions of populism. My preferred definition is that it’s a style of politics offering unworkably simple solutions to complex problems. And when it’s carried from campaigning into government, it leads to disaster. As Trump is now modelling for the world. A country with 155,000 deaths, mostly avoidable.

When Al Qaeda terrorists killed some 3000 Americans on 9/11, George W. Bush launched two wars. When 50 times more died, Donald Trump refused to put on a face mask.

Eventually, a few days ago, he changed tack and put on a mask in public. But not because more of his citizens had died than in World War I but because his poll numbers were falling.

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Morrison is not Trump’s pathetic understudy any longer. After Australia’s visceral frustration with him during the fires, Morrison reconsidered. And when the pandemic hit, an entirely different Prime Minister emerged to confront it. Instead of a divisive populist avoiding real crises while fomenting fake ones, we saw a unifying leader confronting the disaster.

“What’s interesting,” says the political psychologist James Walter, “is the pragmatism that came to the fore during the pandemic. He did do well with the national cabinet and the early treatment of the pandemic, the willingness to listen to expert advice instead of the usual nonsense.”

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim PavlidisCredit:

Walter, Monash University professor emeritus and co-author of a two-volume study of Australian prime ministers and leadership, says: “I think he’s a better politician and more clever than Donald Trump. He has a healthy ego but he’s not as narcissistic as Trump. The thing about Trump and [Brazilian President] Jair Bolsonaro is the magical thinking they both engage in.

“I don’t think you get that from Morrison, despite his belief that God’s on his side.”

The reborn Morrison continued to evolve this week. We saw three notable developments. One was the emergence of friction between the federal and Victorian governments over the pandemic’s resurgence in that state. Victoria’s Premier, Daniel Andrews, sought to deflect blame by attacking the quality of private sector aged care homes, which are regulated by the federal government, not the state.

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“Some of the stories we’ve seen are unacceptable and I wouldn’t want my mum in some of those places,” said Andrews. He’s right. That state of Australia’s aged care homes is deplorable for a prosperous, modern country. That’s why Morrison had launched a royal commission into the system two years ago.

But because something is true does not necessarily commend it to be spoken by a leader during a crisis. Andrews’ intention was not constructive – he was putting the blame on Canberra.

The federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, responded with crafty evasiveness. He chose to interpret Andrews’ critique as an attack not on federal competence but on the aged care staff: “They are wonderful human beings and I will not hear a word against them.”

This fracturing between Canberra and Melbourne got a lot of media play. Conflict is the very stuff of news. But when reporters repeatedly asked, invited and almost urged Morrison to attack Andrews, the Prime Minister declined.

Morrison emphasised unity over division: “This is an Australian plan, based on Australian values, based on Australian challenges and Australian solutions and that will continue to guide our efforts, practically dealing with the problems that we face, bringing the best minds together, bringing the country together.”

Donald Trump has fomented ugly division between the federal government and state and city governments. He ordered unwanted teams of armed federal agents into Democrat-controlled cities in the past couple of weeks.

In the face of opposition from state governors and city mayors, Trump sent hundreds of officers to break up protests and remove demonstrators from public places. Some were summarily detained without due process. Local leaders were outraged.

What would Morrison be doing now if he were still in “Aussie Trump” mode? We can only speculate. But he certainly wouldn’t be doing what he is actually doing: While Trump orders federal agents into states to divide, Morrison sends federal agents into states to unite.

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The Prime Minister has offered troops, health officials and other support to any state that wanted it. Including Victoria. Which, belatedly, has welcomed the help. Together with Andrews, Morrison co-ordinated a federal intervention for crisis management of the stricken Victorian aged care industry this week.

Has it been perfect? No. But it’s been co-operative, helpful and ultimately must be an improvement. This is real effort to confront a real crisis, the very antithesis of Trumpism.

The second notable development was Morrison’s willingness to reconsider a decision. The federal position was not to offer paid pandemic leave to workers. But the Fair Work Commission decided otherwise. It granted two weeks’ paid pandemic leave to aged care workers, including casuals on condition that they’re employed regularly.

Fair Work noted that “there is a real risk that employees who do not have access to leave entitlements might not report COVID-19 symptoms which might require them to self-isolate, but rather seek to attend for work out of financial need,” which constituted “a significant risk to infection control measures”.

In the face of demands to widen this entitlement to paid pandemic leave, Morrison has signalled a willingness to rethink his position and change his mind. Would a “Trump mini-me” listen to reason, admit the possibility of error and reconsider? More likely he’d tell workers to inject themselves with bleach and get on with it. Or give similarly helpful advice.

Third was this week’s meeting of the Morrison government and the Trump administration. Morrison’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Marise Payne, and Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, went to Washington to meet their US counterparts, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, for the annual Ausmin session.

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In his phase as Trump understudy, we can only imagine the sycophancy that Morrison would have ordered his ministers to perform in Washington. Instead, Payne and Reynolds conducted themselves professionally, secured practical new co-operation with the US and calmly avoided Pompeo’s invitation to entanglement in Trump’s re-election campaign.

So at the end of a week where a panicking Trump was toying with the idea of delaying the US election, Morrison continues his evolution from Trumpian tribal warrior to unifying national leader. Which is, needless to say, a supreme relief for Australia’s national interest.

Which Morrison will emerge post-pandemic? There is an old stand-by for journalists who have to report on an unfinished event: only time will tell.

Peter Hartcher is political editor.

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