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The Chosen Ones

The formal announcement of the result of the British Conservative leadership ballot last month was pre-empted by Private Eye, whose new issue was released some hours earlier with a cover showing Boris Johnson about to enter 10 Downing Street under the headline ‘Loon Landing.’ Dialogue balloons on either side of the image carried the messages ‘One small step for man’ and ‘One giant leap in the dark for mankind’. It was an empty boast. America had taken this step already, claiming a first in the loon race. Australia came second, so Boris took third place.

For poll-watchers on Twitter, it was ‘a trifecta of buffoonery’. Trump, Morrison and Johnson were portrayed as the three stooges, or a clown troupe. How could this have happened? As Johnson stepped up to the microphone to accept his new role, The Guardian reported that ‘the world’s largest gathering of psychoanalysts’ was occupying the room upstairs. The irony was palpable. While sociological and economic factors are at issue in any election, this was a situation calling out for psychological – and, yes, perhaps even psychoanalytic – explanation. Apparently the electorates in some of the world’s leading democracies are having a Freudian moment.

Two recent publications offer insights into the personal and psychological aspects of Scott Morrison’s unforeseen elevation. Niki Savva’s Plots and Prayers tracks the days, hours and minutes leading up to the ballot that saw him chosen as Prime Minister. Morrison’s next coup, as the unexpected victor in the general election that followed, is the subject of Erik Jensen’s Quarterly Essay The Prosperity Gospel. Both dwell on the almost preternatural level of self-belief underpinning the double victory.

For Jensen, Morrison’s evangelical self-confidence is thrown into stark relief by Bill Shorten’s radical insecurity. The essay sets up a dramaturgy through which the election becomes a bipolar contest of personality types and leadership styles. He writes in what grammarians call the ‘dramatic present,’ evoking scenes on the campaign trail as if they are unfolding in real time, often cutting into the midst of a situation as he switches attention from a scene in the opposing camp.

Morrison lets the cameras in for one song. He puts his hand into the air and lets it wash over him. The lights tint his shirt a misty lavender. His face goes cerise. It is Easter Sunday and the Horizon Church is full. His eyes close as he sings.

This verbal snapshot tells us so much about the psychology of his subject: the control over camera access, the stagey gestures, the performative euphoria. When Jensen offers comments, they are economical, almost cursory. ‘God gives Morrison’s politics its certainty.’

Morrison declined to be interviewed for the essay, but Shorten talked at length, allowing Jensen into the inner circle around him so that he is captured in vignettes that are more random and intimate.

It is a cold, early day and the sky has the character of painted china. The election is two weeks from being called. At the takeaway across the road from his office, Bill Shorten asked the woman serving if anything on the menu is good. He says he doesn’t like to speak in the first person. ‘I hate using the ‘I’ word.’

And yet he does, constantly. He talks about his ideas of leadership, his principles, and what he is up against with the Morrison campaign. He draws a family tree and talks about his childhood, dominated as it was by an alcoholic father and a mother who battled against the odds. ‘I got a lot of history in me,’ he says.

Jensen gives us the private Shorten and the public Morrison. This is a necessary consequence of the different kinds of access he had, and although the counter-positioning is at times illuminating, it is overworked. How would the contrasting narrative lines look now if the election results had been the reverse? The colouring of hindsight accentuates Morrison’s ebullience, and the downbeat aspects of Shorten’s persona.

In a talk given at the Wheeler Centre in 2014, Jensen spoke about living with the spectre of failure – ‘a huge and inevitable boulder in front of which I’m always running’ – and speculated on whether ‘we’re living through a vogue for failure.’ His own preoccupations may have come into play when he read Shorten as a case of failure waiting to happen, and Morrison as an ineluctable winner. Curiously, though, his essay does not link the wider notion of a vogue for failure with the success of ‘the prosperity gospel’ amongst the electorate.

The Morrison slogan ‘have a go to get a go’ invites the question of what happens if you have a go and fail. Or if you do not get a fair chance at all, no matter how bravely you persist. The similarities between Morrison, Johnson and Trump reflect commonalities between the political directions taken in the three nations: all are run on neoliberal principles that are steering the economy deep into austerity. Recent statistics from the Social Metrics Commission in Britain record more than four million people trapped in deep poverty and seven million in ‘persistent poverty.’ A recent University of Melbourne study shows poverty is on the increase here, with over 10 per cent of Australians living below the poverty line. Professor Roger Wilkins, co-author of the Melbourne report, links the rise in poverty to welfare changes. In the US, it is a similar picture, with reports that workers are getting poorer while working harder.

In a neoliberal economy, the citizen is envisaged as a competitive individual in a society of winners and losers, lifters and leaners. Jensen finished his talk on failure with the poet Robert Browning’s phrase, ‘a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.’ That’s a strangely inappropriate axiom for a failed leader of the opposition, and even more so for a struggling worker unable to feed his or her family. A punitive welfare system, insecure work, low pay, rising rents and house prices and increased household debt add up to a picture of the average citizen in an embattled position.

Surely, then, there is something radically counter-intuitive about the choice of a leader and a party offering to address some of these things over one who offered nothing more than a meaningless slogan. Morrison’s primary achievement, if one can call it such, was to convince a majority of voters that the very policies promising to improve their circumstances were a threat to their economic survival.

This is not a paradox Jensen’s essay sets out to tackle. Its focus is on the contrasting presentation techniques of the two candidates, which are observed brilliantly. In the event, voters turned away from the one who engaged with them in extended town-hall meetings, and toward the one who stood on the stage with eyes closed and hands raised, ‘a conduit for the nation as a priest is for god.’ We are left with a provocative suggestion about the attractions of self-belief and the aversion to self-doubt in public response to a national leader, but there is no substantive discussion about why this should be the case.

Scott Morrison had to be chosen by his colleagues before he got to face the public. Niki Savva’s account, based on a formidable log of conversations and interviews with the key players and witnesses, also leaves us with some unresolved speculation as to the whys and wherefores. One government insider admits that most of his cabinet colleagues don’t know what to make of Morrison. Savva herself, for all her forensic investigations of the internecine power play, seems to find him an enigma. ‘Getting to Know Scomo,’ the penultimate chapter in her book, doesn’t leave us much the wiser.

Turnbull, Dutton and the Iago figure of Mathias Cormann are the central players in the drama she chronicles, and each makes a curious study in contradictions. Dutton’s public image as the expressionless hitman is countered by colleagues who claim him as a loyal friend and testify to his capacity for personal warmth. Cormann, who to this point had been characterised by the press gallery as the class act of the Turnbull cabinet – the true professional whose judgement would be a guide amidst the unfolding chaos – turns out to have been one of the most subversive influences in the whole affair. And Turnbull himself, who in Savva’s words ‘exuded intellectual superiority’ is seen to make one strategic blunder after another.

Meanwhile, Morrison weaves his own path through the turmoil. Whereas Turnbull is blinded by vanity and Dutton by delusion, ‘Scomo’ has the opportunist’s instinct for looking about him, and it seems he doesn’t miss much, at least where political advantage is concerned. Savva refers to him several times as ‘cunning.’ The few other character notes we are given are vague and rather obvious. He has a bad temper (don’t they all?); his faith is the dominant influence in his life; he has little interest in policy, but strong convictions as a social conservative. Savva offers a resonant summery of the impressions she has gained: ‘a decent, ‘big boofy guy’ with a big, boofy personality to match, who fills a room, and bounds around hugging and back-slapping, looking natural and in touch, but with an ego that can bruise people or topple furniture.’

What to make of the plots and the prayers remains an open question. Morrison’s circle met for weekly prayer meetings. The last thing he did on the night before the final leadership ballot was to pray in his office with Stuart Robert, one of his closest associates. ‘We prayed that righteousness would exalt the nation,’ Robert told Savva. Righteousness, he added, would mean the right person won. As a trusted confidant herself, Savva is wary of forthright comment on this, though she does venture the suggestion that ‘those who pray together always plot together.’

But then, everyone plots. They plot over expensive dinners in Canberra restaurants, over take-away pizzas in their offices at night, over whiskies in the Prime Minister’s suite. Plots and Prayers is the quintessential insider’s tale, packed with verbatim details of conversation and behaviour. The whole debacle presents itself as a cross between the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and a Jacobean revenge drama, except that there’s no one in it who can come up with a witty comment or make a decent speech.

Ambition in twenty-first-century politics has none of the depths of field it acquired in the writings of Shakespeare or Webster. There’s something utterly banal about it, and about those who manage to fight their way to the top of the heap. In the words of one cabinet colleague, Morrison is ‘the sort of guy you would get to do your books, not make Prime Minister.’

The one thing Morrison seems to have grasped that his colleagues missed is that politics is not essentially about what goes on in the corridors of Parliament House. It is about the people. He embarked on the campaign with an unerring instinct for the need to make himself the missing interface between them and ‘the Canberra bubble.’ The term is one of his better coinages. Aside from its connotations of incestuous dealings, it signals a canny awareness that the public in general are disconnected from the concerns of parliament and politicians. The lack of trust so frequently alluded to by journalists is not just suspicion about the politicians themselves, it is a lack of trust in what they do. The complexities of policy and the decision-making processes through which it must be steered leave most people with a sense of hopelessness about what governments can actually achieve.

Laura Tingle’s 2018 Quarterly Essay Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman’ offers some perspectives on this. She quotes Francis Fukuyama’s view that the sense of powerlessness and frustration in the electorate is a response to a state of paralysis in government. Parliament can’t make decisions; policies do not get implemented. In these circumstances, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the strongman leader who promises to crash or crash through, ‘to break the system, or drain the swamp.’ The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, it is worth remembering, is a scene in which the Hatter and his two companions are frozen in time, perpetually moving around the empty places at a large table set for tea that never arrives.

We may feel caught in a stagnant political environment, but it is also, like the world Alice finds herself in, one of rising hysteria. While in France and Hong Kong, the people have spilled onto the streets, inspired with a determination to take their destiny into their own hands, in Australia, the United States and Britain, no such groundswell is manifesting. It is as if all the self-determination required is being projected onto the single figure of the maverick leader.

Projection is a concept that brings us back to the domain of psychoanalysis. Tingle’s focus on the strongman model is perceptive, but it is not just strength that is being projected. It is also an inflated sense of self. In Trump, Johnson and Morrison we have three different models of the narcissist.

Michael Maccoby, a specialist in the psychoanalytic study of leadership, sketched a profile of the narcissistic leader in a widely influential essay first published in Harvard Business Review in 2000. His focus was on new trends in business leadership emerging in electronics companies, and his assessment was largely optimistic. A technological revolution was under way, and in times of great turbulence and transition, some Napoleonic qualities were called for in order to ‘change the very rules of the game.’

Trump is a manifestation he could not have foreseen, but even in more recent commentary Maccoby does not see narcissism in exclusively pejorative terms. In his view, the ‘productive narcissist’ has played an important role in the history of successful nations and peoples. Such leaders are filled with aggressive energy, have a bias for action and are not easily steered off-course. They will not be intimidated. But their impact is double-edged. Because they are self-involved, they are poor listeners and typically can’t take advice, so are prone to delusion. Criticism enrages them. The recklessness that can break through an impasse can also lead to disaster. In the final accounting, Maccoby warns, both the credit and the blame for what they do must be sheeted home to those who follow them.

To put it another way, citizens of a democratic nation cannot outsource their responsibility for its political direction. The warning signs are always there. Another quality of narcissists is a lack of caution in what they say, so they themselves may issue the alerts.

Michael Gove, recently removed from his position as Secretary of State in Boris Johnson’s inaugural cabinet purge, recalls some of the more pungent statements he heard from Johnson during their undergraduate years. At that time already testing his own potential as a future Prime Minister, Johnson offered some campaign advice to other student politicians. They would need ‘a disciplined and deluded collection of stooges’ to get out the vote. Lonely girls and male sycophants were easy to lure. The stooge, he explained, is someone who ‘wants so much to believe that his relationship with the candidate is special that he shuts out the truth. The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge.’ The same, of course, applies to the voters.

If we – as in ‘We the People,’ the great amorphous body of the electorate – are mere willing stooges, projecting our quashed self-belief onto these overblown representatives, what does this say about us? Morrison evokes us as ‘the quiet Australians,’ citizens who just want to get on with our lives, leaving any tussles over the state of the world to the higher powers he promises to channel as he ‘burns’ for us. Trump claims to speak for ‘the forgotten men and women in our society,’ who ‘are angry at so much on so many levels.’

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Johnson struck a bolder note: ‘…like some slumbering giant, we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity.’ There are echoes here, too, of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy world. Alice finally breaks out of the madhouse in which she is trapped by growing to an immense size, causing the surrounding structures of bogus authority to break up and fly in all directions. Of course, the waking giant in Johnson’s scenario will not be the British people, but rather a compensatory projection through which he himself will come to stand for the expansive determinations they lack.

Morrison would have us see ourselves as an extension of the giant Hillsong congregation. Eyes closed, hands raised, we may join him in invoking direction from above and feel we are all made great again. Perhaps the question we the people need to confront most urgently is that of why we have shrunk. How did we become ‘the little people?’

The shrinking citizen, competing for an ever-diminishing place in the economy in an environment of ever-decreasing communal resources and public amenities, is a product of the neoliberal agenda. The last thing any of our trifecta of narcissistic leaders want is to encourage the citizenry to enlarge its claims on the economic terrain. The role of the chosen ones is to play the game of breaking out and crashing through, in order to keep us in our place.