Good government is like a bicycle. It has to keep moving forward or it will fall over.
This is why no prime minister in the past 14 years has survived a single term in office and why Scott Morrison is now no certainty to buck that sorry trend.
The Prime Minister is currently beset by a political firestorm that is every bit as fierce as the literal firestorm he fled in his first colossal cock-up. It took the miracle of an even greater crisis – and his government’s strong handling of it – to reverse his fortunes. No such miracle can be seen on the horizon now.
The problem for Morrison is that his so-called “women problem” is in fact a multitude of problems which are messy, emotional and multi-directional and intercut with judicial, criminal and privacy issues that constrain his ability to act or speak on them. It has not been helped by the fact that almost every time he has acted or spoken on them he has stuffed something up.
This is in sharp contrast to a crisis even of the scale and seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic. At least in that case there was a clear enemy, a clear mission and an army of experts to advise. Morrison was also aided by his admirably soulless pragmatism, which enabled him to chop and change approaches as the need arose, regardless of personal belief or political ideology.
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But on this deeply personal issue there is no pragmatic path he is being offered, and it is clear many of its prosecutors don’t want him to have one. The organisers of the March 4 Justice protests had the chance to sit down with the PM and outline their demands and in his desperation he would have had little choice but to offer substantial commitments.
Yet after initially agreeing, the march leaders quickly rejected the offer. Perhaps they did not have any concrete proposals to put to him. Perhaps they wanted him to be punished more than they wanted their cause to be progressed. Perhaps they realised that if he agreed to what they asked of him they would have nothing left to protest about. I suspect it was a combination of all three.
And this is Morrison’s first problem: The most hard line voices of this otherwise most worthy cause do not actually want him to succeed. They want him gone.
Morrison’s second problem is the women who are on his side but sick of what seems to be some pretty rampant sexism in parts of the Liberal Party and are now using this movement to expose it.
The vast majority of these grievances are no doubt legitimate, even if they are not the fault of Morrison personally. On top of this there also seem to be a couple of political scores that are being settled.
The upshot is that there is no army of women standing behind Morrison – he cannot point to a sisterhood that supports him in reply to the sisterhood that doesn’t.
Morrison’s third problem is a minefield of peripheral scandals that should really be siloed from the issue of sexual harassment and assault in politics, but have nonetheless been lumped in with the whole horrible mud pie.
The most serious one is the historic rape allegation against Christian Porter which he fiercely denies, over which he has launched a massive defamation case and whose most ardent believers even admit can never be proven.
It is a grave disservice to link current victims of assault at Parliament House to a decades-old case with many obvious question marks that may end up being debunked.
It is also a grave disservice to link them to the grotesque but comparatively victimless antics of young gay staffers who defiled MPs’ office furniture. These are gross and clearly sackable acts but they are not in the same stratosphere as sexual assault.
Nor are they evidence of the power imbalance that critics of “the Canberra Bubble” keep going on about. Indeed, given it was staffers perpetuating such acts against their bosses, it seems more the reverse.
Nonetheless, the latter revelations have enabled the Liberals’ conservative wing to wage the mother of all wars on the progressive wing. Thus the puritanical left has given a priceless weapon to the Liberal right to destroy the Liberal left. What a world we live in.
The PM’s fourth problem is that this is not an issue that can be resolved by practical measures alone. As the coronavirus response showed, Morrison is adept at defying Liberal ideology and adopting Labor-like policies if there is a clear practical case for it. His body has no problem going through the motions.
But women on both his and his opponents’ side want more than that. They want empathy.
They want to be assured that he truly understands what they have been through and feels their pain while at the same time never suggesting he could ever truly understand what they have been through or feel their pain.
In matters of human trauma, such conflicted needs are perfectly normal and a great leader would find a way of meeting them, but Morrison is singularly hapless at this sort of gravitas.
The comedian George Burns once famously said the key to success was sincerity: “If you can fake that you’ve got it made.” Morrison can’t even fake it.
And so when he invokes the feelings of his wife and daughters he is accused of not feeling the weight of the issue himself. Then when he chokes back tears and says how much the issue has affected him, he is accused of making it all about himself.
In this sense he is like Donald Trump when the firebrand former president was repeatedly berated for not fully condemning his more extreme supporters. Exasperated, Trump implored: “What do you want me to say?” And then when he dutifully said it he was berated for not saying it properly.
Morrison is a stranger fish – a good Christian boy from the Shire but also a hardened political warrior. In both guises he is desperate to say or do whatever is demanded of him but his enemies aren’t even giving him demands. Instead they insist he must instinctively feel what to say and do.
The problem is he doesn’t, and even if he did it probably still wouldn’t be enough to placate them.
But the biggest problem of all is that while Morrison would give anything to talk about anything else, he doesn’t really have much else to talk about. After his almost note perfect handling of the COVID-19 crisis by adopting everyone else’s policies, it is now once more apparent that he doesn’t have many of his own.
The government’s IR legislation has dissolved in a shambles that it deserved and its signature post-COVID “JobMaker” program has been an almost comic failure.
Then there are the policies Morrison took to the 2019 election and if anybody can name a single one I’ll give them a Mars Bar.
This is why the government now resembles a certain container ship in the Suez Canal. It had no forward motion to prevent it being T-boned by a sudden change in wind direction.
It is just as Rudd was rolled after he declared the greatest moral challenge of our time only to ditch the legislation that was supposed to do something about it, just as Gillard was gone after she flipped Labor’s climate and asylum policies like an omelette, just as Abbott was axed after he publicly promised no cuts to just about anything and then cut just about everything and just as Turnbull was turfed after spending six months on a tax reform proposal that came back with a recommendation to do nothing.
Morrison can never win on this issue and his only option is to try to move on. The problem is he doesn’t have much to move on to.
Any of these five problems might yet prove fatal to the government, but the final one is fatal to all governments.
Do nothing governments do nothing but die.