Dennis Atkins: When Scott Morrison says he’s listening, it’s only to himself

Despite good economic news, Scott Morrison may be one big stuff up away from election oblivion.

Despite good economic news, Scott Morrison may be one big stuff up away from election oblivion.

Once in a while, someone wheels out the “Shane Stone Memo” device in Australian political commentary.

Its time has surfaced again.

In February 2001, then Liberal Party president and former Northern Territory chief minister Shane Stone wrote a note to John Howard after being briefed by terrified Queensland federal MPs following the first of three Peter Beattie landslides in that state.

Stone, who now lives in inner-city Brisbane and turned 70 late last year, said there was a perception the Howard government was, in its most famous phrase, “mean and tricky”.

Howard deflected part of the criticism by letting the suggestion run the memo was aimed at Treasurer Peter Costello, but behind closed doors he swung into crisis management and started a series of policy and political fixes that allowed him to say in July that year the Liberal Party was “back in the game”.

Shane Stone’s tip: If you have to deliver hard news, do it with a smile. Photo: AAP

Indeed they were and, despite the baggage of a very unpopular GST, they stormed to victory later in 2001, with some help from al-Qaeda and the MV Tampa.

After six weeks of crisis and mayhem for the Morrison government, a Stone memo is needed for two reasons.

Behind all of the tabloid shock and awe and the eye-popping headlines, there is a fundamental problem facing Morrison that has echoes from 2001.

This government looks mean and tricky.

They look mean because people – staffers, constituents being trolled online by their local member or the walking innocent caught up in robo-debt – have been treated like political problems that are often slimed or managed.

They look tricky because everything is swamped by Canberra Bubble word-salad where process and middle management blather are used to hide bad behaviour, inaction or cover-up.

The past six weeks have been dominated by one thing the public hates (even those quiet Australians Morrison thinks he can whisper to while anticipating returned affection and obedience).

There has been wall-to-wall politics as usual.

Day in, day out, politics has trumped everything despite the often try-hard efforts of the Prime Minister and senior ministers to over-sell what they’re doing on the pandemic and the economy.

The pathology of prime ministers handling crises is telling.

Kevin Rudd wouldn’t shut up, Julia Gillard tried Zen, Tony Abbott just got nuttier, and Malcolm Turnbull was himself, a complicated mixture of all of the above.

Morrison’s usual operating procedure has been to go to ground. He hides, waiting for the smoke to clear – and it usually has, mainly because he’s had 12 months of a health and economic crisis to use as a weapon and shield.

This past week Morrison’s pathology has changed. He’s been everywhere and he’s in defensive mode.

There’s no doubt Morrison wanted to run down the clock on these last four Parliamentary sitting days. However, his own mean and tricky behaviour in the days leading up to the last week prevented him from doing that.

He’s been a victim of his bravado – boastful, aggressive, taunting, threatening and plain gobbledegook – because by the time Parliament sat pigeons and roosts were getting closer and closer.

So when the big pigeons landed – chief bureaucrat Phil Gaetjens telling the Senate he’d shelved his inquiry into who knew what, when and the Network Ten revelations about the behaviour of parliamentary staff – Morrison panicked on many levels.

He held an early morning news conference in which he got part of it right and then fouled his own nest.

Morrison followed up with daily catch up interviews – a bromance exchange with Ray Hadley on 2GB at one end and a seriously tough interview with Tracy Grimshaw on A Current Affair at the other.

Morrison has never undertaken so many defensive interviews in such a short time. That tells us just how much trouble he is in.

If there was someone who had enough care to write a Shane Stone memo to Morrison, they wouldn’t be listened to – or they’d be told that what they were suggesting was already being done.

After Victorian Liberal MP Russell Broadbent suggested a national gathering of women to chart the way ahead, Morrison said it was already happening, which was news to just about everyone in the Parliament, the Liberal Party and the bureaucracy.

In his hand-on-heart Tuesday news conference Morrison said he wanted to look at introducing quotas for getting women to stand for the Liberals and that this had been his view for some time.

Maybe not.

In an interview on 6PR just after he was elected Liberal leader in August 2018, Morrison was asked whether adopting quotas was the best way to get women into Parliament, and he said “no”.

In 2019, in an address to mark International Women’s Day, Morrison was again asked about getting women into Parliament and he said he supported this but did not “want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse”.

One thing is clear from this last week of scarifying prime ministerial panic.

When Scott Morrison says he’s listening, it’s usually to himself.

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