The contrasting gospels of Morrison and Shorten

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Erik Jensen's Quarterly Essay, 'The Prosperity Gospel: How Scott Morrison Won and Bill Shorten Lost', largely comes down to a question of which politician did a better job last May of selling themselves — contradictions and all — to Australians.

Cartoon by Chris Johnston has Scott Morrison campaigning like n extravert and Bill Shorten campaigning like an introvert.Jensen's piercing, often witty observations were made 'on the campaign trail with Bill Shorten and Scott Morrison'. He expresses gratitude 'to their staffs and to Bill Shorten for his candour in answering my questions', while noting 'Scott Morrison refused to be interviewed'. He also draws on the profiles of Morrison by Jane Cadzow and Deborah Snow.

'The Prosperity Gospel' is 25,000 words of rapid fire perceptions, framed around the truly surreal game that is electioneering, and set against the backdrop of the nation's economic, societal and spiritual divides. While Jensen's subtitle may sound like a cut and dried statement of events, art imitates life in this essay, and Jensen compels the reader to see the two aspiring PMs as radically different creatures.

One is a small chap 'whose pants hang a little', whose 'confidence comes and then leaves him'. The other is brash, overweight, a seemingly unthinking yob who paradoxically possesses 'a gift for strategy'; a daggy dad, accidental PM who signs skateboards and crawls into igloos with kids for photo shoots rather than answer questions.

There is a methodical, perhaps unintentionally cruel pinning down of the former Labor leader's humanity. Shorten is presented as unprecedentedly running a policy-based campaign; an insecure yet empowering man who pushes a solid team of colleagues. Shorten fails to paper over the inherent contradictions of his party's environmental stances, and fails to cut through the tranches of his adversary's soundbites.

However, this essay's difficulty lies in depicting the unknown depths — uncharted, unreported, unplumbed — of Scott Morrison. While the PM is depicted as a hungry, blithely unquestioning car salesman, a walking advertisement who reduces complexity to caricature and leverages his faith as a marketing tool, we don't receive the same harrowing measure of the man. This is not a failing on Jensen's part: it is a reflection of the PM's modus operandi.

What insights we do receive (generally cast in sharp, if not bifurcated contrast) come from Jensen's colouring in. Governing Australia is a game, if a brutal contest with high stakes, and Shorten's game is cards: 'Shorten loved cards because he loves to win. Occasionally he plays his staff. He recalls the last game and at the memory of it throws both hands in the air like a boxer ... "I won," he says. "I was the champion."'

 

"For readers concerned with fanciful notions like justice and equity, Morrison lurches out of Jensen's prose as a nebulous void."

 

Contrastingly, 'Morrison's love is rugby: first union, now league ... When he was younger, he was a front-row forward. He is a great barracker. Sometimes, he will finish press conferences by saying, "Go Sharkies." [Cronulla Sharks].'

Shorten is presented as a thinking, sometimes authentic person, with the 'large pleading eyes of a child left alone in his cot'; a man with an 'extraordinary need to be liked [who] cares hugely'. Jensen quotes a Shorten ally who sees his then-boss as having 'Phar Lap's heart beating in the body of an aardvark'. Ouch.

For readers concerned with fanciful notions like justice and equity, however, Morrison lurches out of Jensen's prose as a nebulous void. God has blessings to give to the wealthy, who deserve them. It's a self-generating truism: If you have money you are in God's good books. If not, then you suck in contemporary Australia, as the PM 'fuses prosperity with virtue'.

While Shorten expresses honest doubt and cites Christ's golden rule, care of his Jesuit educators, Morrison indulges in a marathon of spiritual self-indulgence. His losses at debates notwithstanding, Morrison masterfully works right-wing media outlets, or is worked by them (Jensen has a bob both ways), with Alan Jones leading the PM through a radio interview 'like Simpson led his donkey'.

As well as the milestones and millstones of the campaign, the dropped candidates, the controversies and scandals, the glancing references to Clive and Rupert, the reader is confronted by the cultural weirdness of a prime minister who described his wife as a 'love machine', who 'extends God's blessings to Shorten and Shorten's family' with words that do not match actions.

Fear campaigns, misrepresentations, character flaws and the ambiguity of a hidden personality — these are the foci around which Jensen weaves his observational web. This should be compulsory reading for any Australian who casts a vote.

 

 

Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Scott Morrison, Bill Shorten, election 2019, Erik Jensen

 

 

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Existing comments

Sometimes in political analysis it helps to be a few years behind the times. I've not long finished reading an excerpt from David Marr's Quarterly Essay "Faction Man: Bill Shorten's Path to Power". Marr presents Shorten as a factional warrior, a man who mastered a system. Shorten gave the last election his best shot and he didn't prevail, that's politics. I'm not sure I agree with Barry's character assessment of Morrison as a "hidden personality". On the contrary, he openly presents his flaws (which are numerous) and gives the Australian public this message: this is me, warts and all. In the absence of greatness on either side, Australia voted for the daggy dad.
Pam | 16 August 2019


Anyone who abandons rugby union in favour of rugby league has a massive perceptive problem. A wallaby has a much prettier face and more elegant locomotion than a kangaroo.
john frawley | 16 August 2019


Netflix's 'The Family' would seem to have a lot of relevance here...
Bernadette Reeders | 19 August 2019


Thank you for this Barry. Scott Morrison is increasingly revealing himself to be a man of few words and lacking empathy. He is uncaring of the future harsh to the poor and wants only to exploit Pacific Islanders. He was a cruel Immigration Minister and ruthless treasurer. I hope his reign is short.
Lyn Bender | 20 August 2019


I normally vote Labor and did so at the 2019 Federal election. However, Labor's campaign strategies and tactics were absolutely dreadful with a senior Labor frontbencher appearing on Q&A just 2 weeks before polling day showing zero compassion or commitment to lifting a stingy Centrelink payment by a meagre amount per week and talking and acting like a Liberal Federal Treasurer. As for Shorten being allowed to make a complete and utter fool of himself with his daily jogging efforts being seen on every idiot box across the country at least 3 times a day for weeks, the person who authorised this suicidal stupidity should never be allowed near any future ALP election campaign.
Chris Begley | 20 August 2019


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