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The contrasting gospels of Morrison and Shorten

  • 13 August 2019


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.

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