Journalism has long been described as the first draft of history and that’s certainly the case with Katharine Murphy’s latest Quarterly Essay The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics. The arrangements for the Quarterly Essays are usually locked in a year ahead of time, and Katharine Murphy thought at first that she would be writing a profile of Australia’s unexpected Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. But in this Year of Madness, events overtook her and instead of writing an essay based solely on his personality, she interweaves it with a chronology of the unfolding of the COVID pandemic and the politics it has engendered.
No matter where she stopped this essay, things would have continued to change. As it is, her essay starts with her interview with Scott Morrison during “some of the last hours in which Morrison hoped the second wave in Victoria could be avoided”. Events have moved on since then, and so too the civility that marked the for-public-consumption ‘unity’ of Morrison’s National Cabinet of Prime Minister and Premiers, which has sidelined Parliament, the Opposition and the usual cabinet processes. The gloves are off now. Since she wrote this essay, Victoria’s second wave has quite rightly come in for criticism, but Morrison is now cheerleader for opening borders and patting the head of Liberal-run NSW, suggesting that deep down Morrison really is Prime Minister for New South Wales. She doesn’t mention the COVID Commission Advisory Board, headed by none other than resources businessman Nev Power, and its championing of a gas-led recovery.
If her aim was to paint a portrait of Scott Morrison, even she would admit that she has not been particularly successful. The emphasis on the pandemic has pushed any further consideration of Morrison’s character offstage. I have learned nothing about his education, his life before politics, or his position in the party. His route to the Prime Ministership is left unexamined. Apart from his Pentecostal faith, which is off-limits for reporters, the Morrison she portrays is a pragmatic and transactional shape shifter. He learned from his much-criticized inertia with the bushfires, where he couldn’t actually do anything. He’s certainly into doing now, but curiously absent when things go wrong.
So much has changed for us in the last nine months that it’s hard to keep track of the trajectory, and her tracing through of the early response to news of Wuhan is valuable as history. But her essay ends, as the title suggests, in an uncertain way. Pragmatism, in the absence of anything else, is amorphous.
Murphy doesn’t say this, but I suspect that Morrison is more ideological than she suggests, and I think that we will see it in the budget that awaits us. But for that, and for any real sense of how this pandemic has changed us, we will just have to wait.
My rating: 7/10
Sourced from: my Quarterly Essay subscription.
I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.