What Was The Point Of That?

It’s impossible to imagine how Scott Morrison could have handled the events of the past week worse than he did.

An eight-year-old article which alleged that Morrison had raised the prospect of exploiting anti-Muslim sentiment in the Australian community re-emerged over the weekend. There were a handful of things the prime minister could have done in response. He could have ignored it, and it likely would have disappeared into the ether. He could have apologised for his reported remarks, and promised to do better.

What he did instead was explode into a panic, call everyone involved in the reporting and spread of the piece liars, and implicitly threaten to pursue defamation action against The Project. After that daring strategy fell to pieces almost instantly, Scotty agreed to a half hour interview with Waleed Aly with no ad breaks, presumably as a means of clearing the air and getting himself back in the nation’s good books. Anyone with half a brain would have realised that it would be near impossible for Scotty to control the narrative in such an interview, let alone come out looking good.

But as Samantha Maiden writes over at The New Daily, the prime minister is a man deeply wounded by claims that he sought to exploit prejudice towards Australians of Muslim faith and he simply cannot let it go.”

As a result, what we got was thirty minutes of Scott Morrison being dunked on with easy questions he should have been able to pre-empt. Waleed Aly is a great and pointed interviewer, but let’s be honest here: anyone could savage Morrison on the topic of Islamophobia, because he doesn’t have anything approaching a coherent response to the allegation.

This was Scott Morrison’s response, after some wrangling from Waleed, to the fairly straightforward question: “Does the Coalition have an Islamophobia problem?”

It’s important for all of us and today is Harmony Day. Harmony Day is an opportunity for us to better understand difference. The classic wisdom of ‘seek first to understand before you’re understood’. And I think that is one of the important lessons of Harmony Day. The problem I have is that we don’t do a lot of seeking to understand first. We often jump to conclusions about others. In politics I think it’s important that we have disagreements, but I wish we could disagree better. And I wish if we did disagree; that we always didn’t leap to assuming other people’s motives. And I think that’s important. You and I can disagree – and we’ve interviewed, you’ve interviewed me before on radio years ago. And we’ve disagreed. But I think it’s really important in Australia if we want a better society that we’ve got to disagree better and respect each other more and the motives of others and not leap to prejudice conclusions about others.

I mean, c’mon: what the hell is that? The question was about material, ideologised Islamophobia. Not a failure of understanding, but a specific belief system centred around hate and enacted into public policy. Only people like Scott Morrison profit from muddying the waters on those very distinct things.

It’s also plainly not a response to the thrust of the interview, which is that Scott Morrison himself attempted to stoke and harness anti-Muslim sentiment for craven political gain. On that point, Morrison oscillated between repeating his public denial that the cabinet conversation never happened, and admitting he did raise the notion of anti-Muslim sentiment in the Australian community, but only in the context of addressing it – not exploiting it.

It’s hard to forget that Scott Morrison is not a prime minister that anyone actually voted for. To some extent that’s an empty sentiment – we have a parliamentary system and don’t actually vote for our prime minister – but it still carries a certain weight. He was installed in the top gig after a particularly vicious career engineering our current border regime, following a flurry of political knifings based on little more than ambition and damaged egos. We just got to see it happen.

The Project interview, if anything, just reminded us that we have a grade-A hollow man in the nation’s top job. Every aspect of his blokey public persona is manufactured as a means of papering over the unsavoury aspects of his actual political record; actions which directly implicate him in the rank Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment which permeates our political culture. His absolute refusal to commit to preferencing the hard-right whackos of One Nation last was a reminder that for him maintaining power is always going to come first. We couldn’t even get the mildest condemnation of Peter Dutton‘s most inflammatory remarks – like his suggestion that Lebanese immigration was a mistake.

So we come to the ultimate question: what was the point of that?

Very few conservatives and right-wingers would have been watching. And those disgusted by his alleged remarks in that 2011 cabinet meeting would have seen a man who is completely unable to address a direct question, absolutely unwilling to make concrete commitments, and whose only real tactic was running down the clock with personal anecdotes and empty platitudes.

Doesn’t quite cut it, does it?