The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison
by Sean Kelly
Published November 2021
During the devastating bushfires of 2020, a few seconds of footage became emblematic of the limitations of the Australian Prime Minister. In The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, Sean Kelly recounts the moment: Morrison was visiting a bushfire-afflicted town and approached a firefighter who told him, ‘I don’t really want to shake your hand.’ ‘Morrison moved his hand to the man’s left hand and grabbed it, appearing to move it slightly, then walked on to the next person.’ This apparent Morrisonian malfunction was shocking as an instance of thoughtless disrespect, but it was, Kelly believes, congruent with his approach to public life. More recently, Australian of the Year Grace Tame was subjected to Morrison’s strategic obliviousness, when her pained expression, as the Prime Minister shook her hand and posed for a photograph at a pre-Australia Day event, was made only more conspicuous by his resolutely blank grin, the face of a man unequipped to acknowledge or negotiate anything other than total compliance. Morrison behaves like this because he takes his task to be the arranging of images that will be seen by millions of potential voters, with every action in service of selling himself to that public. Therefore, the individual before him, the firefighter or the advocate for survivors of sexual assault, is erased.
The Game, Kelly’s first book, traces our Prime Minister’s ascent by paying close attention to what he has said, mostly in public life, and how what he has done and said has been reported. Kelly’s ultimate thesis is persuasive: Morrison owes his success to his capacity to treat politics as a game, but is consequently restricted by being ‘incapable of understanding it as anything other than a game’.
Kelly brings to bear on his subject the tools of psychoanalysis and literary criticism, citing James Wood, Eve Sedgwick, E. M. Forster, and Janet Malcolm, among others, with the assumption that the public’s evaluation of politicians tends to be conducted on intimate grounds (or grounds that reproduce the conditions of intimacy). And Kelly would know. He was once a political advisor to Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, contributes regularly to The Monthly, and writes a weekly column on Australian politics for the Nine newspapers.
On Malcolm Turnbull’s failure to recognise Morrison as a potential usurper, Kelly notes that there was ‘something about Morrison that deflected the attentive gaze’. The project of this book is to subject the Prime Minister to such a gaze, and to understand how Morrison’s defenses against sustained attention have been so successfully arrayed. ‘In truth,’ Kelly claims,
we are bored by Scott Morrison not because we know enough about him, but for the opposite reason: we know nothing important about Morrison the man at all. We know nothing of his inner self, nothing about his beliefs, and the few things he says that indicate emotion are almost impossible to square with what he has actually done.
The Game distinguishes itself because Kelly’s response to this dilemma is to reject the notion that personhood is best understood in terms of a surface-depth model. In fact, Kelly is perpetually suspicious of the view that politicians (or people) consist of two divisible parts – a performance and a private self to which the performance obliquely refers.
This philosophy underpins Kelly’s approach, subjecting Morrison to description rather than inference, and plays out in the way Kelly addresses the reader, particularly in his use of first-person plural pronouns. In the paragraph quoted above, Kelly makes a series of claims in which he presumes a readerly disposition, a series of assertions about what ‘we’ experience, what ‘we’ share. Throughout the book, Kelly’s analysis of Morrison is intercut with sequences like this, where he attributes a way of seeing and feeling to a collective in which he includes himself. The reader can then respond with a sense of recognition and agreement, or, otherwise, note some difference between the vision being articulated and their own experience. The significance of this rhetorical move is clarified by the book’s final sentence, a warning in which Kelly again includes himself: ‘If [Morrison] loses, we will likely tell ourselves that his failures as Prime Minister were his own, and that they have nothing at all to say about the rest of us.’
To speak of ‘we’ or ‘us’ is to assume another’s point of view, to gamble on shared ground. While this language can be interpreted as prescriptive, I read it as an invitation to respond, following Toril Moi:
I just said ‘we’. The word has a bad reputation, for it is often taken to be inherently ‘exclusionary’. But ‘we’ can be used in myriad ways, and only a few of those ways are objectionable. Ordinary language philosophy often talks about ‘what we should say.’ The usual rejoinder is to reject the ‘we’ as normative, as an attempt to tell others what they must say. But this ‘we’ is neither an order nor an empirical claim. It is, rather, an invitation to the reader to test something for herself, to see if she can see what I see. If she can’t, we can try to figure out why.
I quote this at length because it usefully delineates an important aspect of Kelly’s strategy.
In the anecdotes he relates, we repeatedly see Morrison dramatically failing to forge an inclusive community. Kelly points out that much of Morrison’s behaviour isn’t simply unpleasant (threatening a journalist to consider their own organisation’s standards in response to being questioned about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins) or juvenile (holding aloft a lump of coal in parliament and telling those across the aisle, ‘don’t be scared’), it is relentlessly odd. We notice this in the encounters with the firefighter and Grace Tame. The oddness, Kelly argues, is the outcome of a personality squeezed and distorted to be nothing but optimally compatible with ever-oversimplified media narratives.
For Morrison, there is no story; events are not joined. His perception of the world is like that ad for Australia he once helped create: a series of crisp images, each separate from the next. This is the way he speaks, which is very possibly the way he thinks.
Morrison appears to organise his world according to what can be best captured by slogans, and is able to so successfully do this because he sincerely believes his own slogans. This belief allows him to undertake his public life performances with a vigour that authenticates them. Consequently, Morrison cannot countenance any kind of conversation that would complicate or contradict a slogan to which he is attached. If a person were to take seriously Margaret Thatcher’s famous edict that ‘there’s no such thing as society,’ this is how they would behave.
Kelly’s effort to invite the reader to test their ideas against his provides a political and social alternative. Against Morrison’s exclusionary rhetoric (honed during his time as Immigration Minister, where he became known for the brutal fervour with which he advertised Australia’s exclusivity), Kelly attempts an inclusionary ‘we’. Such an invitation risks rejection, but by providing a contrast with Morrison (who refuses the possibility of rejection), The Game becomes both a structural and substantive critique of the Prime Minister and the Australia he wishes to shape.
On May 18, 2019, I was gifted six unopened bottles of wine. I had spent the evening in a wealthy Sydney suburb, at an election party held by parents of a friend. There were dozens of attendees – from media workers to management consultants, mostly middle aged and older – all, as far as I could tell, Labor-supporting, some with Labor party connections, who hoped to celebrate a resounding Bill Shorten victory.
As the sun set, the excitement built, but, after the count began and the LNP, against, expectations, notched up seat after seat, the mood sobered. By 9.30pm, when a Coalition victory was predicted, the guests began to make for the exit. The disappointment felt that night seemed to manifest not simply as a crisis of politics but a crisis of communal identity.
‘What are we to do,’ I heard one guest ask, ‘if these people continue to vote against their own interests?’
‘Who could possibly,’ someone else wondered, ‘vote for that man?’
At around 10pm, I was the last to leave. A Labor triumph had been catered for, but had not eventuated, and I was offered as many bottles as I could carry.
There are people whose lives and livelihoods rest on the results of elections. I cannot say for sure, but I hazard that this was not the case for anyone attending this party. And yet, there was a general sense of humiliation: the kind one sees in sports fans wearing face paint and uniforms, wanly staggering home from a stadium, defeated by proxy. The pain of political loss has both to do with social reality, but also the personal investment: the fate of your country is on the line, and so is your judgment.
Among democracy’s attractions is the permission the system grants to abandon enthusiastically any pretences of non-judgment, transforming our desire to condemn or endorse the beliefs and lives of others into a civic virtue. What follows is a kind of strategic gossip, whereby we voters convince ourselves (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) that our time is well-spent discussing what we know about those who represent or wish to represent us. This discussion, in turn, offers a way to stabilise our own personality, as we shore up our place in the world by aligning ourselves, our preferences and commitments with or against politicians. The process of politics helps us work out who we are and who others are.
The flourishing of social media, in conjunction with the increasingly dominant 24-hour news cycle, has provided every voter the opportunity to take up punditry. Character, therefore, has become politics’ central concern, the factor upon which every other variable – the ability to maintain popularity, legislate, hold and use power – is dependent. That countries are led by figureheads – individuals whom we can take, more or less, to be finally responsible for the direction and substance of the nation over which they preside – suggests an emotional arrangement rather than a practical one. We need a person to whom we can attach our love or loathing, because when we first learn to love and loathe we do so in relation to people (rather than, say, institutions), beginning with our parents, then with those we encounter across reality and fiction.
The social task of establishing whether we like or dislike someone, whether we want to spend time with them, is dramatised in the political realm, because we are mostly exposed to politicians when they are performing for an audience, participating in public life, with the goal of winning that audience over. (This accounts for the illicit thrill of hearing secretly recorded conversations in venues such as ICAC, or learning salacious details of a politician’s private life.) And yet they can seem as present in our lives as the people we know, or, as Kelly points out, as characters in books. In this way, political commentary mystifies the otherwise ordinary task of knowing, revering the ability to identify a politician’s true motivations as a second sight available exclusively to the gifted and canny.
Kelly, however, recognises the danger in believing that a foundational task of political commentary is the application of x-ray vision, examining a politician’s behaviour not on its own terms, but as a set of clues that will help us identify the concealed motivating drive. The risk is that we expend so much effort attempting to see through political performance that the individuals themselves turn invisible. When we watch politicians, Kelly writes,
We see an elaborate and insincere performance. This is an alibi too, because we allow ourselves to believe that whatever our politicians do in our name, it is not entirely meant: it is just a part of the game they are playing. Their actions, and the consequences of their actions, vanish.
Morrison is an ideal subject through which to contemplate this process of watching and performing, because to a greater extent than most his strategies, triumphs, and failures have depended on style over substance. We are used to asking of politicians ‘Do they really mean it?’ But Morrison makes a nonsense of this question.
A former press secretary, Kelly understands the media’s role in perpetuating this way of seeing. The busy journalist, who must craft compelling and digestible narratives, will happily adopt the language of a politician who does that crafting for them. In the case of the Cronulla Sharks-supporting, curry-cooking, how-good-is-Australia-asking Morrison, Kelly illustrates how these traits became lore through repetition, ostensibly non-ideological hooks on which to hang our notions of the man.
Kelly explains, for example, how Morrison, by repeatedly describing himself as ‘pragmatic’, ‘practical’, and ‘a pragmatist’, was able to induce many in the media to accept this as his primary trait, despite a lack of evidence. (Shortly after Morrison became PM, David Speers described him as ‘a more pragmatic leader than his two immediate predecessors’; Sharri Markson referred to him as ‘practical, not ideological’, and Paul Kelly pronounced him to be ‘a practical “can-do” Treasurer who refuses to be intimidated by interests, ideology, or orthodoxy.’) Many journalists and commentators continue to deploy this descriptor without question. Such characterisations of Morrison, however, are empty of content (Kelly calls them ‘vacuous’), reductive shortcuts, giving a sense of solidity and depth to Morrison, and implying the person analysing him possesses a working understanding of his character, while allowing them to project an air of distanced objectivity.
This kind of reporting has facilitated Morrison’s dogged efforts to develop and promote a personality that comprises only a handful of memorable features. Morrison once followed AFL and Rugby Union. Both are recorded as interests in a 2006 Nikki Savva column, and in 2009 and 2010 he tweeted support for his AFL team, the Western Bulldogs. But in 2019, an avowed Cronulla Sharks supporter, Morrison told Melbourne radio that he didn’t have an AFL team, insisting that he didn’t want to pretend to be ‘someone I am not. I’m not going to be inauthentic. What you see is what you get.’
To understand Morrison’s surprisingly adamant defensiveness in this instance, Kelly takes up E. M. Forster’s concept of ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters. While round characters are complex and nuanced, flat characters are caricatures, reducible to a single idea. ‘One of the advantages of flat characters, Forster said, was that they never needed reintroducing, because they were so easily recognised.’ For Kelly, this encapsulates Morrison and Morrison’s strategy, the ruthless creation of ScoMo. In the leadup to the 2019 federal election, Morrison made sure that he was known as a flat character, a daggy suburban, sports-loving family man. This way, the electorate would feel as if they knew Morrison because they knew his type, and that sense of knowing would win him votes.
In her book on Robert Menzies, Judith Brett writes:
Political language faces two ways: outwards to the audience being addressed and the support being wooed; inwards to the politician’s own emotions and biographical experience. The challenge for the reader of political language is to find the connections between the two, the chains of private meaning and association which link the politician’s personal history and experience with the public political language, the points through which personal emotions and desires can flow through into the public ideological forms of the day.
What’s remarkable about Morrison is that these internal chains of meaning are not simply difficult to recognise, but their very existence is up for debate.
Yeats asked, ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ Kelly appreciates that applying such a question to Morrison, trying to separate the man from the performance, would be fruitless. Instead, by taking Morrison as he is, Kelly is able to fix his gaze on the man’s strangeness, a feature often overlooked because it is presumed to be a front. Attention paid to others is traditionally rewarded, if not with final answers, with at least a glimpse of their irreducible complexity. Because he is known to Australia as a ‘flat character’, Morrison’s persona refuses such satisfaction. But, Kelly shows, performance does not necessarily equal disguise.
If the image Morrison constantly seeks to portray is false, this implies that there must be some true Morrison he has hidden from us, lurking out of sight. Across so long a period in public life, one would expect this alternative persona to slip out at some point – but this is, to a very large extent, not the case.
Kelly wonders whether ‘there is much left of Morrison’s private self at all’. The Game, therefore, is interested not so much in what Morrison’s public image conceals, but in what it reveals, treating Morrison’s performance not as an impersonal armour, but as the content of his character.
In Freudian terms, we often picture the mind as if it were the earth depicted on one of those diagrams hanging in primary school classrooms: the conscious the earth’s crust, the unconscious its inner core. But the task of psychoanalysis is not to dig, necessarily, but simply to listen attentively to what the analysand says. According to philosopher Jonathan Lear,
in trying to understand the unconscious it is a mistake to conceive of ourselves as searching for a second mind – one that is split off from the conscious mind, yet having a rationality of its own. And while there may indeed be thoughts and wishes that are unconscious, our first priority should not be to seek thought-contents hidden somewhere in the mind, but rather to discover elemental forms of mental activity that dominate one’s life.
We are well aware of the elemental forms of our PM’s mental activity; he perpetually repeats them for our edification. So what if we stop looking for the true Morrison, and pay attention to these patterns? Instead of conceptualising Morrison as all surface and no depth, it is more fruitful to think of him as being invested in simplicity over complexity, because simplicity is easier to sell.
So why does our failure to feel like we know Scott Morrison – the absence of behaviour from which we can extract evidence of a complex or coherent inner life – so frustrating, even frightening? If we were to trace the motivations that led him to possess a small sculpture of a boat engraved with the words ‘I Stopped These’, commemorating his championing of Australia’s inhumane asylum seeker policy, would that leave us feeling any better, more nourished or enriched? Would it provide any useful information that could be used to more accurately judge him?
Kelly, drawing on literary theorist Eve Sedgwick’s reflection on paranoid and suspicious reading, wonders what it might mean if we were to uncover Morrison’s hidden depths. ‘We are ignoring what is happening in favour of some secret story just behind it,’ he concludes. If we are looking for reasons to justify or explain Morrison’s actions, rather than simply interpreting his actions as evidence for his character, ‘it must be either because we don’t want to know or because we don’t care.’ Sedgwick was suggesting that speculation as to whether Ronald Reagan was committing a deliberate genocide via the spreading of AIDS was pointless. Regardless of intention or conspiracy, people were dying and Reagan was culpable.
Morrison’s politics permit his amorphousness. Brett summarises political historian Peter Loveday’s views on the incoherence of the Australian Liberal Party’s binding position, put forth in 1979 yet still fresh:
There are a few linking notions – individual, bureaucracy, socialism – but the main themes are vague, allowing the politician without any particular philosophical skill to use them as the political occasion demands. The party’s philosophy, he concludes, is integrated, not by a few fundamental propositions or concepts, as a philosophical system would be, but by its anti-Labor rhetoric.
In place of offering a vision for a better Australia, Morrison sketches himself as an anodyne character from a white suburban barbecue, erects a series of flat rhetorical monuments to the way things are or were, and barriers to defend against anyone who suggests that Australia as it is might be in some way insufficient. He cannot consider the proposition that imprisoning refugees in abhorrent conditions is unacceptable, that catastrophic bushfires constitute evidence in favour of transitioning to clean energy, that Covid’s ravaging of aged care homes make clear the necessity for a transformation of the sector, or of anything else that might damage his electoral prospects. His consistency on these matters leaves nothing obscure.
If Morrison has a characteristic that suggests a hidden life, it is his Christianity. He has not made an effort to brand himself as Christian in the way that he has branded himself as an adherent to the Sharks, but his Christianity is well known. So, onlookers suspect that, where he is otherwise mysterious, the nature of his faith might be revealing. How, they wonder, does he reconcile his Christian values with his cold-hearted politics?
During a 2012 interview with Jane Cadzow that Kelly quotes from frequently, Morrison, then Immigration Minister, was asked if he included asylum seekers in his prayers.
‘Of course I do,’ he says. ‘I think that’s part of any Christian’s practice.’ A pause. ‘I’m not saying I do it every day. I’m not saying I do it every month.’
Morrison is no enigma. If we wish to know him we need only look and see.